PANDAS & Lyme: My Recovery and 8 Years of Misdiagnoses

Posts tagged ‘Health’

I Have No Idea What I’m Doing Anymore

I don’t know where I am or where I’m going in life anymore.

With my final semester of college on the horizon and an amazing summer internship behind me, it’s finally sinking in that it’s time to figure out what I’m doing with my life next. I’m pretty sure that anyone about to graduate from college is feeling anxious about transitioning into the “real world,” but for me, as someone recovering from PANS/Lyme, there’s a whole other layer of messiness.

Although a lot of my symptoms are minimal at this point, my depression is getting more and more out of control. It’s to the point where my psychiatrist is treating me as if I have Bipolar Disorder, though he won’t diagnose it since he thinks it might be caused by Lyme Disease. I have days where I feel like everything is wonderful, life is great, and I could do anything; I work very intensely for hours at a time and set impossible goals for myself, and when I tell people about it, they look at me like I’m nuts. Then, on other days, I sleep as long as possible, sit alone in my room all day, and can’t stop crying for no reason.

Most of the time, however, I don’t really feel anything. I’m not exactly unhappy, but nothing interests or excites me anymore. I somehow managed to do really well at my job this summer, but even though it was something I’ve dreamed about for half my life, and I was grateful to be there and did enjoy many aspects of it, so many days, all I wanted was to go home and do nothing.

Fundamentally, I’m a very driven, goal-oriented person, so this isn’t a matter of laziness. There’s still a part of me (the real me) that desperately wants to do what I thought I’ve wanted for years, but when it comes time to actually do anything, I’m miserable. To add insult to injury, I have everything in line to start a good career—the skills, the connections, the determination, and even a job interview—but some days, simply getting through the next hour feels impossible. So how will I ever do much of anything with my life? Sometimes I feel like it’s such a waste that I’m good at what I do, since I’m afraid I’ll never be able to have a career at all.

I’ve been asking myself if maybe I need to change careers and do something completely different, but when I really think into the matter, I realize that there’s nothing else that seems better. Even more confusing, when I have my manic/hypo-manic days, I find that my career dreams haven’t changed. But I also wonder if perhaps I’m just burned out—perhaps I need some time away from school and work, and then I’ll rekindle my passions.

However, there is still one thing that somewhat remotely interests me on almost any day, and that’s the idea of finally writing the PANS memoir I’ve contemplated for years—though it was difficult to even make myself write this post (hence my lack of updates for the past month). Some people have told me that it would be one of the most meaningful things I could do, so maybe they’re right. Maybe I’ll take a year off from everything and finally get the story out, and then I’ll know what to do after that.

But for now, as the start of the semester and the end of my time in college draws nearer, I have no idea what I’m doing in life anymore. Yet I do know this: I need to hurry up and get better, because eleven years of PANS, Lyme, and depression is long enough.

Minor Symptoms, Major Anxieties

I still can’t believe I went so far from home for this internship…

A few weeks ago, I took a huge leap of faith, packed up my bags, and got on a plane to the big city. As the skyline came into view, the realization of what I was doing for the next two months hit me a hundred times harder than the impact of touching down on the runway. I was about to start a prestigious internship, living in a part of the country where I’d never been and working with people whom I’d never met. What had I gotten myself into?

I’ve been doing so much better over the last couple of months or so, but I’ve noticed that there have been some small things that continue to creep in and make me feel “different” from everyone else. These minor symptoms become major anxieties because I’m still holding my breath and not seeing my health for what it is—that I’m 95% better and no one would ever know the hell I’ve been through without me telling them.

For example, I have small involuntary movements which, even in my best times of remission, have never completely gone away for more than a few days at a time. I always wonder, does everyone notice the twitches? Do people think there’s something wrong with me?

And of course, there are the food issues. There haven’t always been many “safe” foods available here, so I’m pretty sure some colleagues have noted that I seem to eat very little yet run a whole lot. (No one knows how I binge in secret, which means no weight loss.) Have people figured out I have an eating disorder? Do they think I’m vain for obsessing about food and exercise so much?

Perhaps most telling of all is that I have a mild form of “face blindness,” or prosopagnosia. Some people are born with the condition, but for everyone else, it’s caused by a brain injury—or in my case, PANS. Prosopagnosia means I have a terrible time recognizing faces, so I often get people mixed up and sometimes don’t know who people are. I rely on hairstyles, voices, and body shapes, instead of faces themselves, to tell strangers apart. Still, I’ve managed to embarrass myself a couple of times by mixing up similar-looking coworkers. Do people think I’m really inattentive—or worse, that I’m some kind of freak?

Although face blindness, involuntary movements, and food rituals certainly have a negative impact on life still, I feel like the main way that PANS affects me now is what it’s done to my confidence. I used to not care what people thought of me, but for the last three years, I’ve worried that people can sense that I’m “different” and cannot see past my symptoms to find who I really am.

When PANS was at its worst, the plethora of symptoms affected every part of my life and made me feel like nothing more than a heap of crippling psychiatric and neurological problems. With the way PANS literally steals yourself from you and takes over your mind and body, each moment can be your worst nightmare. So after living this awful dream day after day after day, for multiple years, it’s hard to open my eyes and realize that I’ve finally awoken—and even harder to not worry that the nightmare will recur.

Even though I’m more or less well now, I’m still afraid of seeming crazy, of saying nonsense, of spacing out in the middle of giving a presentation, of having uncontrollable tics, of not being able to understand what I read, and of being underestimated because of my illness; I worry about concealing imperceptible symptoms and symptoms that are no longer here, because my anxiety doesn’t know that I’m okay now.

Nevertheless, when I asked one of my new friends if she’d noticed any of my symptoms, she told me I seemed like the healthiest person in the group—that I’m “glowing” with health. Truth be told, I’m actually performing extremely well at my job, and I have a large group of friends who apparently like me a lot. Even if anyone does think I’m “different,” it hasn’t stopped them from befriending me and respecting my work.

I may still have some symptoms, but they’re not preventing me from doing anything that I want to be doing, so how can I complain? Maybe someday soon, if I stay well long enough, I’ll be able to exhale and see for myself that I’m really as well as I am.

3 Years Later… The Beginning of the End?

Celebrating 3 years of blogging and the beginning of the end of my battle?

Three years ago today, I published my first post on this blog.

At the time, I was in a downwards spiral, falling apart and losing my mind. My doctors were baffled and running out of treatment options, and I was threatening to take my life. But then, my family figured out I had PANDAS/PANS. Thus began a three-year fight to regain everything my illness had so suddenly stolen from me.

Back then, it seemed I was the only 19-year-old on the planet who was fighting for their life against this allegedly pediatric condition, PANDAS/PANS. There were no blogs written by patients—only parents. I wanted to read from someone writing about going through what I was going through; I wanted someone to show and tell me that I would be okay. Since I could find no such blogs at the time, I figured I might as well be the person to change that so that something good might come from my ordeal one day.

Today, in 2017, I can say it’s been quite a journey, but I almost dare believe I’m now 95-99% recovered. I’ve been through three high-dose IVIG treatments as well as eight low-dose IVIG infusions. I’ve endured tonsil/adenoidectomy, over a year of steroids, month after month of antibiotics, and countless therapy sessions. Although I still take medications and follow a Lyme disease antibiotic protocol, today, I’m able to live my life, and I’ve managed to accomplish things I never would’ve dared to dream when I started this blog.

So I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for reading The Dreaming PANDA and for offering your encouragement and prayers over the last three years. I’ve probably never met any of you, but your support has meant the world to me. Thank you for taking the time to read what I write, and sometimes, to reach out to me. It can be lonely to deal with a life-altering disease, but this community has kept me going—and I sincerely hope my writing has helped you in some way, too.

I’m not quite ready to stop this blog just yet—in fact, I’m not sure if or when I ever will, since I have more readers than I ever thought I would when I first started. I don’t ever want to stop raising awareness, and I have every intention of continuing to bring hope to those of us who’ve been affected by PANS and Lyme.

For this reason, I’m planning to write a memoir in the near future, and I intend to post excerpts along the way. With any luck, however, I’m now living in the final chapter of my recovery journey.

I know a lot of you are probably out there wondering if you or your kid will ever get better and live a productive life—just as I wondered when I began writing three years ago. You might feel hopeless and think that no one can get past this. It’s often been an impossibly hard journey, but you know what? Yes, I’m okay now. And you can get there, too.

My Narcolepsy Diagnosis Almost Killed Me

What happens when you’re diagnosed with narcolepsy, and every treatment fails?

Three years ago, I wanted nothing more than to be awake.

After a sore throat on my first day of college, I’d become increasingly incapacitated with sleepiness that nothing could relieve. I spent the majority of freshman year asleep, existing in a dream-like state where I never seemed to attain full consciousness. I hoped for a solution to my problem that worked as quickly as it had begun, but nothing prepared me for what my sleep neurologist said instead, on that fateful May afternoon:

“You have narcolepsy.”

My whole world shattered.

Narcolepsy is a serious autoimmune disorder in which the body destroys the brain chemical hypocretin—the neuropeptide responsible for regulating wakefulness. There is no cure.

Normally, there’s a clear line between the sleep and wakefulness cycles, but in narcolepsy, it’s as if they’re blurred together.  People can experience sleep paralysis with strong emotions while awake, known as cataplexy, and carry out routine activities while asleep (automatic behaviors). They may see terrifying hallucinations while waking up or falling asleep, and they might wake up and not be able to move. Worst of all, you can’t stay awake during the day (though you might not be able to sleep at night). Untreated, it’s utterly debilitating.

I would have narcolepsy for the rest of my life, my doctor explained, but with medication, it shouldn’t stop me from living.

On the surface, I fit the bill for narcolepsy perfectly. I had daytime sleepiness so severe that I could fall asleep standing up, in the middle of a conversation, or after sitting down for five minutes, regardless of how much I slept at night. I had the cataplexy; whenever I laughed hard, my knees buckled in a paralysis attack. I had the hallucinations and the automatic behavior. And I had Periodic Limb Movement Disorder—my legs would move hundreds of times while I slept, resulting in awakening over two-hundred times during my overnight sleep study; people with narcolepsy often have PLMD.

But there was one problem with the diagnosis: my sleep studies didn’t look like narcolepsy.  In my daytime sleep study called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test, where I took five twenty-minute naps over the course of the day, I never once entered REM sleep—and entering REM in at least two naps characterizes a narcolepsy diagnosis. So I was a “narcoleptic…” Who didn’t really have narcolepsy.

My neurologist wasn’t confident in my diagnosis, so he sent me away from the appointment with medicines to treat the PLMD, just in case it was the sole cause for my extreme sleepiness. If the medicines worked, I didn’t have narcolepsy. But the medications I tried—Neurontin, Neupro, and Requip—didn’t make me any less sleepy, and instead, I deteriorated further. Requip even landed me in the ER, with violent involuntary movements, and I lost the ability to walk.

So apparently I did have narcolepsy—and now a movement disorder and increasingly severe psychiatric problems that five other neurologists couldn’t explain or relieve.

After the Requip nightmare, I started a $5000 narcolepsy medication called Xyrem, but it too failed miserably at controlling my symptoms; before long, I reached the brink of insanity as I fell into delirium, became terrified of vomiting, and stopped eating.

“We’re so sorry, but we don’t know how to help you.”

My doctors were running out of treatment options… Or so they thought.

In a last-ditch effort to save me, my parents begged for a five-day steroid burst. If it worked, then perhaps I had that “controversial” autoimmune disorder called PANDAS/PANS.

And then I woke up.

After three days of Prednisone, I was in my right mind and awake without stimulants for the first time in months. Even after the burst ended, my “narcolepsy” was still gone. The transformation was so shocking and dramatic that my formerly PANS-skeptic doctors became PANS advocates.

A couple weeks later, a specialist confirmed my PANS diagnosis, and I received IVIG to more permanently stop my symptoms. A case of mono and a Strep infection had tricked my immune system into attacking my brain, which manifested as sleep issues and psychiatric/cognitive problems.  Although the sleepiness returned to a more mild extent two months post-IVIG, it never reached the severity of before, and after a second IVIG, it disappeared for good.

Today, three years after my narcolepsy diagnosis, though I’m still fighting PANS to a far milder extent (and now Lyme), I live a fulfilling life.  So I can’t help but think, what if I’d never found out I had PANS? If PANS hadn’t killed me through starvation or suicide, then it would’ve been a living death sentence to survive with treatment-resistant “narcolepsy” and PANS’ other torturous, disabling symptoms.

10% of those diagnosed with narcolepsy have normal levels of the brain chemical hypocretin, meaning the cause of their symptoms isn’t understood. And doctors still don’t know the cause of narcolepsy’s cousin, idiopathic hypersomnia. How many other people are out there diagnosed with hypersomnia, narcolepsy, or PLMD who, like me, actually have PANDAS/PANS?

Until more patients and doctors are aware of PANS, we’ll never know. Although I’m no longer the “Dreaming” Panda in the same sense as when I came up with the blog name in 2014, now I dream of the day when no one has to endure what I did to awaken from their nightmare. I hope people will share my story, and their stories, with the world, to turn this dream into reality.

Why I Almost Quit Lyme Treatment

I pretty much take an entire pharmacy every day

 

On Thursday morning, I woke up and immediately knew something was very wrong. My whole body ached. I had an awful headache. I was dizzy. I was too nauseous to even think about food or water. It was that familiar set of symptoms that meant one thing: I was in for a terrible Lyme herx.

The last two weeks of symptoms flashed in my mind… The severe anxiety that gave me a panic attack over leaving the house. The lack of concentration and mental energy that meant falling behind in school. The incessant partial seizures that made me nervous every time I stood up to walk. I hadn’t even been in such bad shape when I started being treated for Lyme in December.

What are these doctors doing to me? Why am I putting up with this? I realized that morning that my treatments were only making me sicker.

As I eventually got to the kitchen, I sat there and stared down my antibiotics—the perpetrators of these all-too-frequent Herxheimer reactions that seem to be slowly ruining my life.

I can’t do this anymore…

I stopped my Lyme protocol for several days, because the thought of getting any worse than I already was seemed unbearable. Last semester, my quality of life, even if I still had PANS flares, had been much better. I’ve missed so many days of class this semester, thanks to herxes that leave me too weak and sick to get out of bed. I thought if I took a break from my protocol, maybe life could go back to how it was before.

But unfortunately, my strong reactions to the treatments show that they’re killing off a lot of bacteria—in other words, my misery is proof that I need to keep going.  And last summer, Lyme disease attacked my heart and nervous system, and there are still spirochetes in my brain—who knows what they could do to me over time?

I can’t quit. Whether I like it or not, this disease is trying to take my life, and if I want to live, I have to fight back.

After a couple of days of lying around the house and feeling terrible from the herx, plus a lot of kicking and screaming, I finally accepted this battle I’ve been given. I shed more than a few tears, finally realizing that I may have another year or more of Lyme treatment before I’m cured. I felt anger and rage that I’m spending my twenties in a health crisis—after already having PANS for a decade. But I’m channeling that anger into a will to fight to get better.

I almost quit treatment because I was tired of feeling worse. I kept going because I wanted to live.

Why I’m Working through PANS

Can someone with PANS/Lyme keep up in a competitive environment?

A couple weeks ago, I was elated to find out that I’d been accepted for a summer internship!  This wasn’t just any job offer, but a highly competitive internship that I’ve worked towards and dreamed about for years. It seemed so surreal that this door had finally opened!

Unfortunately, I quickly came crashing back into reality when I remembered how ill I’ve been lately. At the moment, my anxiety is so out-of-hand that it’s not clear how I’ll finish the semester, because I can hardly even start my assignments.  On top of this, I can barely walk without a mini-seizure causing my legs to collapse, and I’m having a difficult time speaking coherently.  If I’m this dysfunctional right now, how can I possibly hold down a job in a few more weeks?

I have had some really good days lately, too, but even then, I still live with a sense that my illness is following me like the bogie man, ready to jump out and attack at any moment. To me, one of the cruelest aspects of PANS is its unpredictability. Just as I think I’m healthy and in the clear, suddenly, it can overtake me again. I live on egg shells because I never know when PANS will strike next. I fear that I’m always one cold or infection or exposure to Strep away from the brink of insanity.

Even if I improve in the next few weeks, how can I do an internship this summer if I might lose myself any day, without warning?

Nevertheless, after ten years of PANS, I’m a race horse kicking at the gates; for too long, this illness has kept me locked up as I’ve watched everyone else take off without me. Now, this internship is my chance to tear through the doors and speed down the track. I have a life to live, and I’m not about to let PANS stop me.

So I accepted the offer.

At this point, I’m more terrified than excited, but you know what? I refuse to not try just because of the bad things that might happen. I know I may have to pace myself and guard my health more than the other interns. Even so, because I’ve become accustomed to the uncertainty of never knowing how long my symptoms will be in remission, I work very hard on every day that I’m able—apparently with higher-quality results than many other healthy people. If I’m well this summer, then I believe I will not only get through the job, but I will pass everything with flying colors.

I’ve long come to terms with the inevitable uncertainty of my condition, and day-by-day, I’ve been working through the difficulties and moving towards recovery—albeit much slower than I’d like at times. But now, I’m determined to keep working through PANS this summer, as this internship leads me toward my dreams.

Why I Quit Therapy

Dissecting and discussing every meal isn’t helping

This week, I quit therapy.

Wait a minute… I was nearing hospitalization for anorexia just seven months ago, and my psychiatrist recently suggested intensive outpatient was reasonable, and now I’m not even addressing it at all?

Yes, that’s right… Sort of.

So am I giving up on recovery? Did I suddenly get better? Well, no. I’ve just had enough of therapy.

I’m sick of writing down every bite I put into my mouth. I’m sick of dissecting and talking about every meal. I’m sick of being told to eat more or to eat less. I’m sick of being told that my normal weight isn’t “healthy.” I’m sick of feeling brainwashed into accepting a body that I didn’t have before my disorder. I’m sick of everything being put under a microscope. I’m sick of wasting my time.

Dealing with Lyme and the other PANS symptoms is taxing enough, and recovering from an eating disorder takes total dedication. I’m simply trying to survive at this point, so something as demanding as intensive outpatient therapy is out of the question. As it is, getting myself to class for nine hours per week and doing the required work is hard enough. For that matter, I have days when I can barely get dressed. Do you really think I’m in any shape to drag myself to therapy for fifteen hours a week?

Now before you start telling me that recovery is the most important thing and that I need to put my health first, I want to say that I agree with that. In fact, I spent several months talking to a nutritionist and a therapist each week with regular check-ins with my psychiatrist, but truth be told, my eating is almost as disordered now as it was when I started (though in different ways). All those hours of therapy yielded few results.

I still count calories and restrict or binge, depending on the day (though I’m managing to maintain a consistent and healthy weight range). I still have rules about when and how I should eat. I still basically only eat soft foods/fruits (I think this is more of a sensory issue than an eating disorder fear, though). I still try to avoid restaurants like the plague, because I don’t know what they might be sneaking into my food. I don’t deny that I still need help, but the help I was getting wasn’t working.

I quit therapy because talking about food so much was only magnifying my obsessions. I quit because I’m healthy (or as healthy as someone can be with late-stage Lyme) and not in physical danger.  I quit because I simply don’t have the mental energy to try to break free from my rituals at the moment.

I’m not here to recommend others quit therapy—I know it helps a lot of people, and there were times when it seemed to help me. But for me right now, it was the right choice. I continue to hold out hope that, eventually, when my Lyme and PANS are under control, the thoughts and rituals will quiet down.  I’ve noticed that sometimes, when I’m not having PANS symptoms, the food obsessions are gone, too.  But if someday, I’m otherwise better and still have an eating disorder, I just might go back to therapy.

The True Meaning of “Tired”

tired-panda-small

When people ask how I’m doing these days, I never know how to answer, so I just say to everyone:

“I’m tired.”

But this isn’t a tired that can be relieved with a good night’s sleep, a break from school, or a hot cup of coffee—this is a tired that penetrates my very soul. It’s a tired that makes simple tasks take untold mental effort. It’s a tired that makes me uninterested in anything more than surviving each hour ahead. It’s a tired that makes me wish people would stop asking about my post-college plans, because I don’t even know how I’ll get through today.  This is a tired that’s sucking the very life out of me.

It’s now been about two months since I began Lyme treatment, and I’ve been herxing every two weeks; just as I recover from one reaction, I start having another a few days later. Each herx not only makes me physically tired, but the roller-coaster of symptoms leaves me mentally exhausted as well. With the last two herxes, I’ve ended up worse than before once they’re over.

Now, after three herx reactions, I feel like my life is slipping away between my fingers, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I neither recognize myself nor the nightmare unfolding before my eyes.

Lately, I’ve felt totally out-of-control; one moment, I’m almost okay, and the next, I’m repeatedly telling my mom that I want to die. One moment, I’m able to struggle through homework (albeit slowly and with great difficulty), and the next, it’s as if someone has “wiped my brain;” I suddenly become confused, disoriented, and unable to say little more than choppy words and gibberish.

To make matters worse, my eating disorder is so severe now that my psychiatrist thinks I should start intensive outpatient therapy. My mom has moved in with me, because I can no longer take care of myself. I usually can’t go to work, and I’ve had to drop some classes that I was really enjoying. But truly the worst of all of this is that I’m so depressed that I’m sometimes mad at God in the mornings simply because He let me wake up again.

I’m tired of watching myself fade away. I’m tired of getting better only to get worse later. I’m tired of PANS. I’m tired of Lyme. I’m tired of endless treatments and trips to the doctor. I’m tired of watching life go by while I stand still. Sometimes, I’m simply tired of living at all. How much longer can I keep doing this?

But you know what? The runner in me still knows that being tired doesn’t mean you have to give up. No, “tired” is a challenge and a dare to keep moving forward despite your body screaming at you to quit. Some of my best runs have been those when I was sure I couldn’t take another stride, and yet I went on for several more miles, running faster than I thought was possible.

I may be tired, but with God, I’m stronger than I’d ever dare to believe. I don’t know how many more miles I have to run like this, but one thing’s for sure: I will keep pushing forward, even if it means crawling across the finish line of this disease, tired, exhausted and gasping for breath.

In Response to Your Lyme Questions…

Ever since I announced my Lyme diagnosis, I’ve been inundated with questions from readers. While I’m not qualified to give anyone medical advice, I’ll gladly share my own personal experiences.  Given the number of messages I’ve received, I figured I should answer the most common questions in a post for all of you, so here you go:

What tests did you do?
Igenex Labs. Insurance may or may not cover these Lyme tests, but the standard CDC Lyme tests are highly inaccurate and very often give a false negative when a person actually does have Lyme. Even Igenex can give a false negative, but it misses fewer cases.

If you do get a positive Igenex result (like I did), it can make diagnosis easier.  Nevertheless, Lyme Disease is still considered a clinical diagnosis, so Lyme specialists won’t rely on tests alone to diagnose you—they’ll also consider symptoms and history.

Who ordered the tests?
In addition to my PANS specialist, I have a local GP who is easier to get in contact with, so my parents and I asked her to order Igenex. Although she doesn’t know a whole lot about Lyme or PANS, she’s been very open-minded and willing to try anything reasonable that might help me.  Basically, it was our idea, and she agreed to do it.

Why did you think to test for Lyme?
My PANS doctor told me a year and-a-half ago that it would be extremely unlikely for me to relapse ever again or to need more treatment. But guess what happened this spring? Arguably, this latest PANS exacerbation was my worst ever, which was totally unexpected at age 21, given that it’s supposed to be a pediatric condition.

We all knew this meant some major trigger must have been at work, and given how much time I spend outdoors, a tick-borne illness seemed reasonable.  Although I’d improved since my IVIG in the summer, it felt like there was a missing piece in the puzzle.  I’d heard from many readers that Lyme is common in people with PANS, so my team thought it was time to rule it in or out for sure.

Did you have a tick bite or the Lyme bull’s-eye rash? Do you remember getting sick?
Growing up playing in the woods, tick bites were a given, but I don’t remember having any over the last few years, and I never had a rash. But apparently, only about 50% of Lyme patients get the rash.  However, in the spring, I had a flu-like illness, and I was bedridden for days. Mentally and physically, I never fully recovered. Then, I had heart and nervous system issues (including POTS) that I’d never had before, followed by a descent into a horrific flare of PANS symptoms. It wasn’t the flu—it was Lyme.

Should I get tested for Lyme?
I’m not a doctor and don’t know your history, but if you’re not able to get all the way better with only PANS treatments, please talk to your doctor about Lyme.  Better yet, look into Lyme disease before you go way down the rabbit hole of autoimmune treatments.  While not everyone with PANDAS/PANS has Lyme, it’s still very common in people with PANDAS/PANS, along with its co-infections (Babesia, Bartonella, TBRF, Ehrlichea, etc). The sooner you get treatment for these infections, the better.

My Lyme specialist believes I’ve had Lyme for a decade (though I remain skeptical of this). I can’t help but wonder what my life would’ve been if I were properly tested ten years ago. Don’t make my mistake.

What are your treatments?
I take two antibiotics and seven different supplements/vitamins each day. I also follow a gluten/grain-free diet (almost Paleo) and detox with Burbur and Pinella. And of course, I still take a couple psychiatric drugs (Wellbutrin and Lamictal) to manage my symptoms in the meantime. Everyone’s treatment regimen is unique, though, so don’t be surprised if yours is quite different from mine!

What’s the prognosis?
Every person responds to Lyme disease and its treatments differently. Some people take weeks to heal, others take months, and I’ve heard of some people taking years. For me, I’m expected to be in treatment for the next year and-a-half, and then I’ll just be monitored. The doctor says someday, I’ll get completely better, and with any luck, when my Lyme is gone, my PANS will be, too.  But for now, I’m just taking it one day at a time…

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I hope this answered all of your questions!  If not, feel free to ask more in the comment section below.

Please, please, please look into Lyme disease if you have any symptoms that never seem to go away or that come and go in cycles. PANS is treatable, but sometimes, it’s complicated by Lyme. Just keep searching and hoping, and don’t give up.

For more information about Lyme, be sure to check out: http://ilads.org

Lyme Disease: A Still, Silent Battle

2 antibiotics, 3 medications, and 6 supplements: my weapons of choice against Lyme disease

2 antibiotics, 3 other meds, and 8 supplements: my weapons of choice against Lyme

“It’s Lyme disease.”

They were three words that shattered all of my expectations for recovery from PANS… Three words that I still struggle to accept… Three words that are going to change my life…

The other week, I was officially diagnosed with Lyme and some co-infections (Babesia and Relapsing Fever, in my case) at a Lyme treatment center. Apparently, it’s Lyme and the co-infections that are continuing to provoke my immune system and cause me to flare and not quite get all the way better.

While it’s great to have more answers, I found out other things I didn’t want to know…

In addition to my usual brain inflammation, the Lyme doctor discovered that my nerves are inflamed, and my spleen is enlarged from working so hard to fight off the infections. Also, I’ve almost completely lost my patellar reflex—when they took the rubber hammer to my knees, nothing moved—potentially a sign of a serious problem.  The “shin splints” that I can’t seem to heal may be bone pain from the infections.  Most frightening of all, my knee-buckling attacks (which I’ve had for two years) may be atonic seizures.

After the trip to the Lyme specialist, I was reeling for days, which is why I haven’t been able to post until now. Physically, I haven’t felt like a sick person at all—I have none of the aches and pains that so many people with Lyme experience, so realizing I was indeed quite physically ill came as a shock to me.

Moreover, I’d been hoping to be done with PANS soon, but I’m now told I’ll most likely need Lyme treatment for at least another year. And if it really takes that long to clear the infections, I don’t think I can expect to be free from PANS until they’re gone, either, can I?

So what can I do? I’m beyond tired of fighting for my life, because I’ve had PANS for ten years (untreated for eight of them), and I’ve especially been fighting hard over the last few months because of this Lyme-triggered relapse. Plus, trying to conquer an eating disorder brought on by all of this has taken its toll on me. But now, they’ve told me that I must also fight against Lyme somehow? How many battles can one person fight at once?

But one evening this week, when I was feeling particularly depressed about my situation, I came across a Bible verse that really spoke to my battle fatigue:

“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).

In reality, for now, “Fighting Lyme,” is nothing more than adding another antibiotic and a few more supplements and continuing to do my best to live a healthy life. To fight Lyme, I only have to be still and wait for these treatments to work. Fighting Lyme changes absolutely nothing about my day-to-day life—except that eventually, it will get better and easier when I beat it into submission.

Although it may seem like Lyme is a whole other terrifying monster to try to subdue, when I was done with my shock and denial, I realized that fighting Lyme isn’t actually much different from fighting PANS. “Being still” and waiting for treatments to work is exactly what I’ve been doing for PANS for the last two years, but now, I’ll be eliminating the infection that triggered this whole relapse in the first place. So really, the diagnosis is a good thing, because I have a more concrete plan for how to recover from both PANS and Lyme.

And so, readers, it looks like you’re going to get at least another year of posts out of me, thanks to this long Lyme treatment process. Two weeks in, I’ve already made leaps and bounds—I’m concentrating better and no longer have suicidal thoughts—so with any luck, 2017 will be the year that you and I all beat PANS and Lyme once and for all.

Thanks for all of your support, particularly through my 2016 relapse. Here’s to a better 2017!

The Puppy Is Alive!

Puppy

With another semester of college done, I can truly say I thrived under exceedingly difficult circumstances. Several months ago, I vowed to stop trying to live up to the expectations people had for me as a top student in my program, but instead, I ended up exceeding them with yet more awards and accolades—I got all A’s, again. Frankly, I’m not sure how I do it…

But unfortunately, instead of coming home and taking a victory lap, I staggered across the finish line of the semester and face-planted with a flare. The drive home was interrupted by my first panic attack in a year, and the moment my mom pulled into a gas station, I got out of the car and started yelling, bawling, threatening to run off, and ticking violently, surely appearing psychotic to everyone around us. Somehow, my mom eventually coaxed me back into the car, but I spent the rest of the trip completely tormented by thoughts that tried to tell me I wanted to die.

In typical PANS fashion, I’ve been falling hard and fast into a very dark place. The day I got home, I could do nothing but lie on the couch doing mindless activities on the computer to distract myself from the tormenting, looping thoughts. But at some point one evening, my concentration on an iPad game lapses, and the thoughts come rushing back.

My mom looks over and notices the tear trickling down my face. She knows what’s coming…

Indeed, I can’t hold it in any longer. I burst out into a rant about how fat I am, my latest 20-cookie binge, the shin splints keeping me from running, the torment in my brain, the dreams I’ll never achieve thanks to PANS, and the hopelessness of what seems like an endless cycle of relapse and recovery.

“I shouldn’t have come home. All I do is make you all unhappy!” I finally blurt out, upon seeing my mom join me in crying.

She tries to remind me of the joy I also bring and says her tears are because she can’t help but hurt for me. She tells me to imagine I had to watch a puppy being tortured, and that I’m that puppy to her. I mutter yet another suicidal remark before my dad interjects:

“It’s not any better if the puppy is dead.”

I know he’s right—I really do.  But sometimes, this makes me feel even more hopeless because I know I’m stuck living in a miserable condition for the time being.  However, some part of me deep down knows that permanent PANS is not my destiny, so that’s why I choose to keep enduring flares like this one and not give up.

“We’re going to see the Lyme doctor this week,” my mom reminds me, trying to give me a ray of hope that we’ll find something to get me better. But you know what? I’m sick of being a human guinea pig while doctors figure out how to treat a disease that, despite increasing research, is still poorly understood. I’m tired of enduring what sometimes feels like two years of medical experiments with no conclusive results.

But alas, this puppy is not dead. It may be tortured, but the torment will not kill it—not physically, not mentally. And historically speaking, whenever the pain comes, it soon ends with the right intervention.

Sometimes, when I’m in a place like this, I try to not think about my “real” self—the person I am when the tendrils of torment and despair are not constricting me. I don’t like to realize how many things I’m missing out on or to understand how much I’m no longer able to do. But truth be told, I somehow accomplished everything I wanted this semester, and I even ended up with more friends than ever before.  Life isn’t always as hard and painful as it is at the moment.

So it’s true: this puppy is still very much alive and fighting. And my successful semester proves that I’m determined to someday win the war with PANS.

Why I’m Finally Choosing Recovery

I'm choosing recovery... One day and one meal at a time

I’m choosing recovery… One day and one meal at a time

Anorexia nervosa: two words that hold an unspeakable amount of pain and torment; an illness that takes over your mind and ravages your body; a disease that kills 5% of its victims; a nightmare that ruins your life; a condition that might happen to other people, but not to me… Until it did.

After more than ten years of living with PANS, I can still say I never know what it has in store for me next. Just when I was sure I’d beaten it into submission last semester, PANS came back and reared its ugly head primarily as anorexia. It started so suddenly—in a single day—when I developed a flu-like illness, and then I starved myself for four months, losing twenty pounds and everything that defined me as a person along the way. Just as I was about to end up in the hospital in August, IVIG treatment calmed my PANS enough for me to push past my food fears and begin to fight my way back to health.

In the beginning, I’d hoped that after my brain inflammation was more under control, I eventually wouldn’t have to deal with the anorexia thoughts anymore—that they would go away as suddenly as they came on. Perhaps this day will come, but so far, I’ve had to fight hard for every bit of freedom that I’ve since gained.

Although my brain has healed a lot since August, and most of my other PANS symptoms are nearly gone, dealing with the eating disorder has still been a beast. I don’t think I started out with a lot of body image issues, but I managed to pick them up at some point, so each time I’ve gotten my weight near its healthy range, I’ve freaked out and returned to restricting—and then gotten sick. As if that weren’t bad enough, when my treatment team is able to talk some sense into me after I lose weight, I just binge and purge the weight back on. So I’ve now been alternating between anorexic restriction and bulimic behaviors; I’ve been hovering around a healthy weight for months, though never staying anywhere for very long.

You see, even though I’ve earnestly been trying to recover since August, I’ve been afraid of what might happen if I completely let go and fully trusted my body to settle at its healthiest weight. I’ve been afraid of following my meal plan. I’ve been afraid of losing control. I’ve been afraid of feeling like a failure. I’ve been afraid of not being perfect. So I’ve only been partially recovered this whole time: no longer in imminent physical danger, but not yet mentally well.

However, a couple weeks ago, after yet another round of binges, I realized something… There was no way embracing healing could possible be any worse than the way I’d been living in partial recovery. If gaining weight made me miserable, then I might as well be miserable and getting better, as opposed to miserable and still stuck in disordered eating. So I decided that it was time to ignore my fears, start following my meal plan, and go all-in with recovery.

Since then, I can’t say it’s felt good to gain several more pounds, but I’m clinging to the hope that I’m heading for better times. I so often long to be as I was in the days before I became ill in April—when I was healthy, virtually symptom-free, seven pounds lighter, and without an eating disorder. I can’t change the past, but I believe that if I choose recovery, I can welcome a better future, free from PANS and Anorexia.

How PANS Really Feels

PANS is an explosion inside my brain

PANS is an explosion inside my brain

“Mom, I want to die!” I burst into the living room screaming, a look of sheer terror in my eyes.

“Please… Help me!” I plead as I crumple into a heap on the sofa, wailing and yelling at the top of my lungs.

I’m being tortured—a sinus infection is causing my immune system to attack my brain, triggering sudden and severe mental illness. This is just another evening in the life of someone with PANS/PANDAS who’s having a flare…

The only way to describe the torment I feel in these moments of a severe flare is that it’s like someone has jabbed a knife into my brain, but the pain is mental instead of physical. It’s like fingernails scraping against a chalkboard, and the chalkboard is my soul being whittled away. It’s like a bomb going off inside my mind, scattering my thoughts and setting my brain on fire. I’m no longer present, but I’m aware enough to not be spared the grief of losing myself. It’s mental agony so intense that, in those hours, I’d rather die than continue to endure it indefinitely.

Shockingly, just a few days before, I wasn’t unlike any other college senior—I was happy, full of life, a bit stressed from midterms, yet looking forward to all that was in store for me. Killing myself was not something on my agenda. But then, I caught a cold, and I soon noticed myself becoming forgetful and struggling to think clearly. A few days later, I started refusing food out of fear (not from a lack of appetite). Then, I suddenly began hearing looping thoughts telling me that I wanted—and needed—to die. The most basic tasks were impossible—simply putting my shoes on was mentally overwhelming. I didn’t care about anything and was completely disengaged with life.  Every few hours, I’d suddenly become gripped with a wave of terror for no reason, and I’d start crying uncontrollably because of the severity of the mental pain.

Within a week’s time, I’d lost my mind.

My parents had come to stay with me for fall break, believing they would bring me home for the rest of the semester. The usual high-dose steroid regimen I take for flares had failed miserably—even a high-dose Solumedrol IV drip did nothing. However, one night, in a last-ditch effort to rescue me from the brink of insanity, we pulled out what was left of an old Azithromycin prescription, and I started taking it (with my doctors’ approval). Sometimes, if steroids don’t help PANS symptoms, it’s a good indication there’s an unresolved infection. I was already on penicillin, but plenty of bacteria can’t be killed by it.

With three days of Azithromycin, I felt no change—though my parents claimed I was starting to look a little less tormented. And then, one day, I started doing homework. Then I ate real meals. Before long, I felt engaged with the world again. By the fifth day, it was as if the whole incident had never happened; I was 100% back to where I was before.

People often ask me what it’s like to have PANS—to survive the mental anguish of flares and then in the good times, to live with the knowledge that it could all recur any day. But the truth is that, to me, there’s nothing like losing, and subsequently, finding your mind again to make you appreciate the goodness of all the little things in life that so many of us take for granted. When I have a bad flare like this one, PANS makes me want to die, because it turns my brain against me. On all the other days, PANS makes me want to live as fully as possible, because I know tomorrow is so uncertain, and I want to enjoy all the good things in my life while I can.

Living with PANS has never been easy—in fact, it often feels impossible, but now that this flare is over, I’m grateful to be alive and well and back in class, and I’m grateful for Azithromycin.  And of course, I’m grateful for parents and doctors who don’t give up on helping me live even when my brain tricks me into wishing that they would.

Recovery Is Possible!

Sometimes just when you think it's hopeless, you get better!

Sometimes just when you think it’s hopeless, you get better!

Okay, I’m keeping it shorter this week, because I’m doing so well that I’ve been extremely busy! As I’ve said in the past, the better I’m doing, the less I tend to post and tweet, because I’m away from the blog living my life.

Anyway, I just wanted to give some hope to those of you out there waiting for your PANS treatments to work, wondering when or if they’ll ever kick in. Everyone’s path is different, but yes, recovery from PANS is possible.

Six weeks after my third high-dose IVIG, there’s no comparing where I am now to where I was in July. I mean, I was a ghost in my own life at that point—I went through my days incapable of doing much of anything. Nothing interested me, and everything was too overwhelming. I’d lost so much weight from restricting my food that I was about to end up in the hospital. My POTS was to the point that I could almost pass out simply from standing up. Sometimes, I started hyperventilating for no apparent reason. I often said nonsense because I couldn’t remember words when I spoke.

Suffice it to say that life was beyond crappy at that point—so much so that I’d lost the ability to understand how ill I was.

But where am I today? Well, I’m living on my own, doing college part-time, working part-time, and getting back my life. I’ve regained all the weight I lost, and now I’m strong enough to exercise again—I even ran five miles last weekend! If I have POTS now, I can’t tell. I’m doing so well in every way that I’ve been socializing more than ever before, and I’m sort of seeing someone… Sort of.

Yet as great as all of this is, I’m definitely not out of the woods yet. I still struggle with some executive functions like concentration and planning, and it’s still very much a fight to not let the anorexia thoughts control me. Plus, my handwriting may be the worst ever; unless I write extremely slowly and focus intently, I often can’t write a single word without omitting or reversing letters—and then I don’t know how to fix the spelling. As for my POTS, I continue to drink four liters of water every day and take in at least 5000 mg of sodium, so for all I know, I’d get symptoms again if I reverted to “normal” hydration and salt intake.

Nevertheless, although this IVIG hasn’t fixed everything yet and may or may not have cured my POTS, I remain optimistic that I’m continuing to heal. And I’m so grateful and amazed to have come as far as I have in a few weeks. However, I’m not ready to think a whole lot about the future or make plans, because there’s always that fear that this IVIG will stop working, just as my first one did.  But you know what?  Even after that first relapse, I eventually recovered, despite the setback.

I can’t afford to dwell on my fears. If there’s anything I’ve learned from having PANS, it’s that you have to live in each moment, appreciating all of the good things as they come. Although it’s in one way a curse to know I could wake up tomorrow and lose my very self, knowing this has helped me make the most out of every day and every hour of good health. So even if I still have some challenges, I’m just going to keep enjoying all of these latest victories, keep living, and keep remembering that the hard times don’t last forever—recovery from PANS is possible.

The One Thing I Hate More Than Therapy

Some college kids stockpile liquors, I stockpile nutrition supplements!

Some college kids stockpile liquors, but I stockpile nutrition supplements!

At 93 pounds, I was so miserable and malnourished that I didn’t even know how ill I was. At the time, when I found myself sitting in an infusion chair receiving my third IVIG, I silently wondered to myself what I was doing there. How could I have PANDAS if I wasn’t “that sick”? Why was I getting such a heavy-handed treatment? But with my weight nearing the so-called “starvation” range, many of my organs weren’t working properly anymore. My psychiatrist warned that I’d be in the hospital soon.

Three weeks later, I now realize IVIG probably saved my life. Thanks to the IVIG and accompanying steroids, my food-related fears were 75% gone within the first few days after treatment, and they’ve continued to die down. Unfortunately, the damage to my body was already done. Even though I was having less mental torment related to food, I still had to repair my malnourished body and regain at least seventeen pounds. But how?

While there are standards and scientific studies on recovering from Anorexia Nervosa, there’s little in the literature on recovering from PANDAS-related anorexia, so my doctors, my family, and I have found ourselves in uncharted territory, trying to figure out how best to treat me. How much of the anorexia treatment protocol applies to someone who never had body-image issues? Should I be forbidden to know my weight while recovering? Should I, too, be prevented from exercise for six months, even though I never exercised compulsively?

At the moment, the consensus is that I not only have to do all of my usual immune-system treatments for PANS, but I have to follow many of the standard treatments for Anorexia Nervosa. For example, I see a nutritionist every week and send her lists of everything I eat. I have weekly weigh-ins without being told the number. I do therapy with the psychiatrist, who also oversees the medical aspects of recovery. And I’ll soon participate in an eating disorder support group. The hope is that if I have a PANS flare that compels me to restrict again, therapy will give me more tools to fight back while I wait for medical treatments to kick in. Plus, regardless of my mental state, my body is damaged, and I need the professional help of a nutritionist to be sure my eating is conducive to healing.

However, now that I’m feeling so much better both mentally and physically, all of this therapy seems excessive… Actually, to be honest, I hate all of my anorexia treatments, and I’ve been doing my best to convince my parents and my team that I don’t need so much help.

In many ways, this feels like a repeat of my sentiments towards my weekly Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy sessions for OCD when I was seventeen. I knew I needed to go to them, but I abhorred every minute because I felt so embarrassed discussing the obsessions I’d always kept to myself.  At home, I often got into heated arguments with my parents about why I shouldn’t have the next appointment, I kept saying I was “just fine,” and I threatened to stop attending when I turned eighteen. But I stuck with it because the one thing I hated more than therapy was how my illness had ruined my life.

Similarly, now, I despise every trip to the nutritionist, every measurement on the scale, every mention of target BMI’s, every entry in my food diary. I want to block out that whole torturous, food-obsessed chapter of my life and forget it ever happened, but therapy brings to light the havoc anorexia wreaked upon my body and my life.  I hate that my doctors apparently think I can’t even be trusted to feed myself.  I hate the regimented meal-planning that therapy brings.  I hate how much of my day I spend working on recovery.  I hate that I feel like I’m in puberty all over again, because my body is starting to look different and feel strange (and I’m waiting for my period to come, just like a preteen).

But you know what? As much as I hate being treated for anorexia, I hate how life was at 93 pounds even more—I was so tormented and hemmed in by my obsessions and compulsions about food that I couldn’t see I was no longer living. If doing therapy on top of my medical treatments for PANS means giving me the best chance at never going back to that dark place, then so be it.

When I was discharged from weekly OCD therapy three years ago, I was indescribably grateful for the support my family and therapists had given me towards regaining my life. I discovered a freedom that I never dreamed was possible, because my family had pushed me to go to therapy. In the same way, as much as I don’t like to admit it now, I think I’ll look back someday and be grateful that my parents and doctors made me get treated for anorexia.

IVIG #3: Third Time’s a Charm

Could IVIG #3 be the end of PANS for me?

Could IVIG #3 be the end of PANS for me?

Today, just two weeks after my third IVIG, I’m happy to say I’ve made tremendous progress. I’m no longer afraid of food and calories, so I’ve probably gained back about half of the weight I lost. I’ve gotten strong enough to run (slowly). My POTS symptoms are basically gone, and my parents have told me that there’s life in my eyes again. Oh, and I’ve even finished all of the summer coursework for the classes I had to take incompletes in—including a twelve-page research paper!

So am I better now? Is life perfectly peachy now that I’ve had IVIG?

Not even close.

As I’ve said in the past, IVIG is really only the beginning of recovery—not the end. I spent much of the summer trying to hold myself together long enough to make it to IVIG, but now that it’s over and I continue to struggle, I’m realizing I still have to keep holding myself together. It’s not like you get IVIG and then you’re better. No, it can be up to a year before IVIG has its full effect.

I’m no stranger to this long healing process, though—this is my third time going through it. But of course, I don’t like to think about how long it can take to get better and what it entails. I’m not going to lie to those of you out there doing this for the first time… It’s hard—but so worth it in the end.

Some days and weeks, you might do extremely well and maybe even forget PANDAS is part of your life. Others, you might be worse than you were before IVIG. But a lot of the time, you won’t be sure if IVIG has done much good at all. Yet the truth is, if it’s working (and it does fail 10-15% of the time), it’s probably working so slowly that you can’t even tell. Blogging and keeping track of symptoms has helped me in the past, because it’s given me reference points for comparison that showed me I was getting better, even if I didn’t feel like it.

Every IVIG is different, however, because it’s always a unique set of people’s antibodies, and you never know how your body will respond to them. (This is one reason it sometimes fails.)  You and I will have unique experiences with our different IVIGs.

Each time I’ve had this treatment, it’s taken a different amount of time to work. The first time, it was two months, and then it stopped working another two months later. The second time, I improved some right away, but it was nine months and a tonsillectomy later when I felt like my symptoms no longer interfered with my life. This time, I’ve also improved right away, but now I have to wait to see what happens next.

I know this might be a long and difficult journey, but I’m not afraid of it, and I’m optimistic that I’m going to beat PANS for good this time around. I’ve already made huge progress. Plus, my doctor says she’s finding IVIG to be more effective when you don’t have tonsils/adenoids like I don’t.

I can’t know what the future holds, but I’m choosing to believe that, when it comes to me and IVIG, the third time’s a charm.

Goodbye, Anorexia?

Did I really eat a restaurant without having a panic attack?

Did I really eat a restaurant without having a panic attack?

This week, I reached a turning point in recovering from my eating disorder.

Up until now, although I’ve known how destructive my restricting has been to my body and though part of me wanted to stop, anorexia had so much control over me that I wasn’t completely willing to give it up. I said a few weeks ago that I was going to start treatment for it, but honestly, I was so depressed the day of the appointment that I couldn’t get out of bed and just cancelled it.

But one day this week, I looked in the mirror and saw my ribcage awkwardly jutting out in front of what was left of my stomach. I’d now lost seventeen pounds and weighed less than I did in sixth grade. I noticed bones in places that I’d never seen before. I realized how terrible I felt all the time: I was always cold, I had headaches every day, I couldn’t fall asleep, my brain was foggy, and I was constantly forgetting things. All of my POTS symptoms were suddenly getting worse, too. Recent blood work showed anemia, and my doctor told me I’d be in the hospital soon if I didn’t start eating more. Most frightening of all, I was having constant chest pain, which could’ve be a sign that my body was starting to break down the heart muscles as it was running out of other fuel.

Indeed, I was slowly dying. Then again, anorexia had so taken me over that I wasn’t really living anymore anyway. I was terrified to think of being in the hospital with a feeding tube—but I was even more afraid to eat. How could anything change?

I wish it were as simple as just “snapping out of it” and deciding to eat more, but it’s not. The idea of eating an extra one hundred calories is enough to send me into a panic attack. My brain screams at me to restrict so loudly that I can no longer hear the voice of reason. Even when I know it could kill me eventually, anorexia has so much control over me that I will fight with everything I am to continue to restrict. I am a slave to my own torment.

Nevertheless, I found freedom this week with my third round of IVIG. I don’t understand it, but yesterday, I ate all three meals without even trying to count the calories—usually, I have to plan everything out ahead of time and be sure I’m not going to eat “too much.” I’m normally extremely anxious about going to restaurants because it’s so much harder to count the calories, but yesterday, it was fine; I enjoyed my meals like a normal person. It’s like that terrible demon called Anorexia has left me.

You see, with every IVIG infusion, I get a dose of a steroid called Solumedrol. In the past, I’ve noticed immediate relief from symptoms because of it, so if there was any doubt that my anorexia was related to brain inflammation, it’s gone now—you’re not supposed to get better from anorexia just because you had some steroids and immunoglobulins. But the real question is: will I stay better?

As I finish up this third round of IVIG today, I’m bracing myself for the post-IVIG flare that I always have two weeks later. I’ve decided to continue to see the psychiatrist every week for therapy, because I don’t want the restriction to creep back in. I’ve told my parents how they can hold me accountable, so that they can help be sure I don’t lose any more. I’m calling a nutritionist, because even if I were somehow totally “cured” of the mental aspects of anorexia, I still have to recover from the physical consequences of malnourishment.

I don’t know if or when this eating disorder will come back to enslave me again, but I do know that this time, I’m not going to listen. I reached my physical and mental breaking point this week, and I never want to go there again. Life has more to offer than starving myself and being tormented by food. I don’t like to think of what would happen if I continued with that, so I’m running as fast as I can toward recovery.

Goodbye, anorexia. Hello, life.

Why I’m Throwing Up My Hands

How much can I let PANS steal this time?

How much can I let PANS steal this time?

Until a few days ago, I was certain I wouldn’t return to college this semester. Between my crippling depression, incapacitating executive function and concentration issues, and my physical weakness from POTS, living independently in less than two months while taking senior-level classes seemed like an impossibility.

Indeed, I’ve been so depressed lately that I’ve not wanted to do anything at all—my days have consisted of unnecessary amounts of sleep, wasted time playing mindless iPhone games to use up the hours, obsessing over calories, and too much exercise. I’ve barely been able to will myself to get dressed and showered each day, so how could I possibly keep up with college, too?

But one day this week, I woke up and realized there was also no way I could keep living like that at home, away from school, for five more months. I love my family, but I want some independence. The more I thought about my friends and the opportunities I had at college last semester, the more it hurt to think of being gone for so long. It’s too painful to imagine POTS and PANS continuing to take that life from me this fall. Perhaps staying home would be easier on my physical health, but not being at school would surely crush my spirit.

Nevertheless, sometimes, you’re simply too sick to do what you want, no matter how much you want it. It doesn’t matter how unfair this is—bad things just happen sometimes. Why should I think I’m an exception? Perhaps this time, the only way to deal with the grief of losing so much to PANS is to let myself feel it, then pick up the pieces and try to move forward on a new path.

But what if this chapter has been no more than a detour?

The other day, when my parents discovered I was still restricting and losing weight, they contacted my neurologist, and she put me on a one-month steroid taper. I really didn’t think it would work. In fact, I didn’t even want it to work—I just wanted to give up.

But lo and behold, my improvement has been dramatic. The steroids have helped me regain my will to live and to fight. For the last few days, although concentrating on anything for too long has still been like paddling a canoe upstream with a spatula, my depression has gone. For the first time in weeks, I’ve been able to open my textbooks, do the readings, and write short assignments on the material. It may take five hours, whereas a similar assignment in April took one hour, but hey—I’m doing them!

So I’ve decided that, if before the fall semester, I can finish these summer courses for which I had to take Incomplete grades, then I can handle a part-time load in the fall. And I’ve decided to make it happen somehow, because I’m tired of not living, and I’m tired of watching myself slip away. Even if I can’t do everything I want, perhaps I can do some. I must regain all that PANS has stolen from me.

I’ve decided to go back to school.

There may be a time to rest and let your debilitating illness temporarily steer you away from your dreams, but then there’s a time to throw up your hands and say, “#&@% this! I’m living my life now!”

For almost ten years, I’ve suffered under PANS. I’ve lost more time, opportunities, and friendships than I’d care to remember. In the two years following my diagnosis, I fought bravely and was sure I’d finally won the war, but PANS has recently been trying to take me away again.  I’ve had enough of this disease. I’m throwing up my hands, getting back in the fight, and returning to school to live my life.

POTS & PANS: A Recipe for Disaster?

My body is cooking up trouble with POTS and PANS

My body is cooking up trouble with POTS and PANS

“You’re going to hate me when I tell you this,” my cardiologist said this week.

I braced myself to be told my heart was damaged from Rheumatic Fever—or to be told my symptoms were all in my head, as so many doctors had said over the years…

“Your heart is fine—in fact, we haven’t seen one this perfect in years.”

Relief washed over me for a moment—until I remembered how my pulse had shot up when I stood for a test a few minutes earlier. The look on my doctor’s face told me I wasn’t imagining my symptoms.  What I’d feared most was true:

“You have… Dysautonomia.”

Dysautonomia is a fancy word for when a person’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) malfunctions. It can be caused by infection, autoimmune disease, or environmental triggers. The kind I have is called POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome).

My doctor explained that whatever illness I had in April triggered a malfunction in the part of my ANS that regulates blood pressure and heart rate. So now, whenever I stand up, my heart starts beating very fast because not enough blood is returning to it; blood pools in my legs instead, so I get lightheaded and dizzy. Not surprisingly, this leaves me exhausted all the time.

“You can recover from this,” he explained. “But it’s going to take a lot of courage and time—possibly two or three years.”

I left the appointment that day with my head spinning—not from a lack of blood flow, but from the realization that my world had, once again, been turned upside down. For weeks, I’d hoped to find a simple cause to my fatigue with a simple fix. Instead, I got yet another diagnosis that doctors are only beginning to understand—another condition like PANS that could take a long time to defeat.

Although there are medications such as beta-blockers that can help POTS, for now, my treatment plan is to take in more salt (about 5000 mg of sodium each day), drink more water (2-3 liters), and slowly ease my way back into exercise. I also need to be sure I sleep enough and eat well (easier said than done while fighting an eating disorder).

To be honest, I’m still a bit in shock over this latest diagnosis and what it means for the months to follow. But at the same time, I’m really not surprised that my body once again had a strange reaction to a virus—albeit in a new way.

Frankly, I see POTS and PANS as related, because my POTS came on at the same time that my PANS symptoms started getting bad again. Indeed, my PANS doctor told me many of her patients have both POTS and PANS—a true recipe for misery and disaster.

Because of this, I wanted to make you all aware of POTS.  Symptoms include:

  • Rapid heart rate when standing or sitting up
  • Dizziness (especially when standing)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting or almost fainting
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling heaviness in your legs
  • Headaches

For most people, proper treatment can lead to significant improvement, so it’s important to get a diagnosis. You can read more about POTS and other kinds of dysautonomia here: http://www.dysautonomiainternational.org/page.php?ID=30

I’m still trying to process what happened this week, but I refuse to accept POTS as a permanent part of my life. However, the cardiologist told me if I don’t fight POTS now, it will get worse, so I’m going to keep pushing forward one day at a time—I’m determined to find a recipe to overcome both POTS and PANS.

A Ghost in My Own Life

Ghost

With this latest relapse, I’ve been living as a ghost in my own life.

In a single day, I went from eagerly and excitedly whittling away at homework for my summer classes, to crying at the thought of writing a single paragraph of a paper. I went from enjoying meals and coffees with my friends, to being terrified of any group of people and not eating lunch at all. I went from being praised at school for contributions I made in my department, to wanting absolutely nothing to do with my chosen field.

And over a couple months, I went from a healthy 110 pounds to a dangerous 96 pounds because of my eating disorder.

To put one more rotten cherry on top of the melting sundae that was my sad state, I’ve been too sick to run. Running used to be the one thing that could make me feel better no matter how depressed I was, but now, I haven’t even had that.

Because of all this, this week, my family and I once again found ourselves in the waiting room of my PANDAS neurologist. I’d hoped that my one-year follow-up would be a happy visit when we would celebrate everything I accomplished this year, but now, we were almost as desperate as our first appointment two years ago. And I was even four pounds lighter than I was in 2014.

I knew my doctor would be concerned about my fourteen-pound weight loss, but I wasn’t prepared for her reaction to other symptoms. After I shared details about the last couple months, she looked at me and said, “I’m going to have a heart attack because you haven’t seen a cardiologist,” and immediately called the cardiology department at my local hospital to get an appointment.

Why such concern? My neurologist suspects that the flu-like illness I had three months ago was the Strep-triggered Rheumatic Fever, which often damages the heart. Indeed, I was diagnosed with post-viral pericarditis in May—an inflammation of the sack around my heart, so her suspicions are somewhat warranted. Although a recent EKG came back normal, I have yet to regain my strength. Furthermore, Rheumatic Fever can cause extreme fatigue and weight loss, which I’m experiencing.

“What about the anorexia?” my dad asked.
“She’s going to need more treatment. Some kids need three IVIG’s… Actually, this is bad enough for plasmapheresis,” my doctor told us.

I could’ve cried when I heard this. I didn’t realize how serious my eating disorder had become and that being malnourished could also possibly damage my heart. I knew I was miserable, but I didn’t know I was in bad enough shape to warrant IVIG or plasmapheresis. In that moment, I felt like surely none of this was happening to me—perhaps it was all just a nightmare. Perhaps I was only a ghost observing someone else’s life. But I was wide awake and in my own body.

So I have my third IVIG scheduled in a few weeks, and I’ll be seeing a cardiologist today (Tuesday). My doctor thinks it’s unlikely that my heart has been permanently damaged, but the possibility of Rheumatic Heart Disease is nothing to mess around with. Maybe I will at least have an answer as to why I’ve been so dizzy and exhausted and unable to run…

There is another ray of hope, too: I was switched from Azithromycin to penicillin, and so far, my mood seems to be brightening every day. I’ve even started eating an appropriate amount of food (though I still obsess and count calories in an unhealthy way), I’ve resumed my hobbies, and I’ve been able to do some homework. If the improvements continue, I won’t be getting IVIG.

It’s been an unbelievably awful few weeks, but I’m so determined to beat PANS into total submission one more time. I’m holding out hope that the penicillin will continue to work its mysterious healing and that I won’t ever need more IVIG. I’m choosing to believe that slowly, but surely, I will keep coming back to life in the flesh, never again to haunt myself like a ghost.

Why I Won’t Eat

You know it's a problem when you feel guilty about eating an apple.

You know it’s a problem when you feel guilty about eating an apple.

With this latest flare, I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder again.  Restricted food intake is one of the two major diagnostic criteria for PANS, so my new obsession is nothing unusual.  In fact, this is the third time in my life that I’ve faced an eating disorder: the first was when I was nine or ten and the second was in 2014.

This time, my eating problems began suddenly, a few days before a bad virus three months ago.  There have since been periods when I ate without guilt and felt no need to restrict, but at other times I’ve suddenly become completely tormented by food—classic PANS.  My eating disorder is, in essence, mental and physical torture.

PANS-related anorexia isn’t necessarily like typical Anorexia Nervosa, however. In my case, I’m fully aware that I’m too skinny, but I’m compelled to continue my restricting anyway. In the past, I’ve also restricted because I was convinced that virtually all food would make me throw up, so the only thing I would eat was one particular kind of fruit smoothie.  Now, I’m afraid eating will make me gain weight and lose control of myself, so I’m obsessed with consuming a certain number of calories each day.

Living with my PANDAS-triggered eating disorder is like watching myself drive towards a cliff and not being able to stop, even though I’m the one behind the wheel. I know my behavior is dangerous, but I feel compelled to continue anyway.  I know I’m losing an unsafe amount of weight, and I know it’s bad to not eat. But the anxiety caused by eating any more is so intense that I would rather continue to restrict. Even worse, there’s some part of me that derives a twisted form of pleasure from not eating.

Sometimes, I also still enjoy the taste of food, but I often feel bad about it afterwards. In my mind, no matter how little I’ve eaten, I’ve always eaten too much, so I’m always guaranteed to gain weight. I know what my doctors will say about me weighing only 96 pounds, and I know it’s dangerous to have lost 13% of my initial, healthy weight. But for some reason, I just feel like I need to keep going, and the torment surrounding this urge is too strong to resist.

All day long, I’m doing calorie math in my head, planning my meals for days. I feel guilty about what I ate, and unsatisfied with what I didn’t—PANDAS tells me I’ve never eaten too little.  I’m beyond exhausted all the time, and I fear it’s because I’m malnourished.

I never imagined I’d become so ill again. I never thought I’d take things this far. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I have a problem, because I believe so strongly that I’m still in control of my eating disorder. But part of me knows that while I thought restricting would give me control over my body, it’s instead made me lose all control I had left.

On some level, I find comfort in the “control” I think I have through restricting, but deep down, I know I can’t continue like this. Deep down, all I really want is to be able to enjoy food again without any guilt and to be strong enough to run.

I’m tired of food controlling my life, and I’m tired of feeling so bad, so I’ve decided to start outpatient treatment for my eating disorder. And of course, I’m going back to see my PANDAS doctor to address the brain inflammation that triggered it in the first place.  Finally, I’m going to have the Igenex labs run to test for Lyme and co-infections (in addition to a couple dozen other blood tests).

Although I’m scared to stop restricting, I’m so ready to be free and strong.  I’ve decided that, somehow, I’m going to eat with pleasure again. 

The Terrible 2’s?

Cake

Happy 2nd birthday to me!

This week, I celebrate my two-year blogiversary.

I started The Dreaming Panda when I was at my absolute worst—I couldn’t walk, I’d lost thirteen pounds, I could barely stay awake, and I was morbidly depressed. This means it’s been two years since that first trip to the ER when everything got so bad and precipitated a resolution to eight years of misdiagnoses.  So I’m now two years into my recovery journey.

For weeks, I’d been planning a post where I thank all of you for two years of support and tell you about how great life is now and how miraculous my recovery has been in those two years. I was going to talk about how I made all A’s and B’s last semester, which was the first time I’d been able to handle a full load of coursework since Freshman year. I was going to tell you about how I recently did my first solo road trip, while two years ago, I was unable to drive at all because of how sleepy and out-of-it I was. I was going to tell you that I’d been taking another twelve hours of classes this summer and enjoying it because it was finally possible to concentrate and think clearly. But then something happened….

I flared and started heading for a relapse.

Despite taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin, I am once again depressed and have been forced to take an “Incomplete” in two of my classes. I’ve lost all motivation and spend my days lying on the sofa now. And I’ve also lost at least eleven pounds, because my eating disorder is back. It looks like I’ve hit the terrible-two’s in my recovery journey.

Though this might all come as a shock when I’d recently been posting about how great everything is in terms of PANS symptoms, over the last few weeks, it’s become increasingly apparent that I’m physically unwell. I’ve gone from easily running seven-minute miles and half-marathons, to getting out of breath after waddling a quarter mile at a twelve-minute pace. Sometimes, I can barely climb the stairs. I have awful headaches at night, I’m often dizzy, and there are huge dark circles under my eyes despite eight or nine hours of sleep.

I have no idea what’s going on with me—we’re considering everything from Lyme and co-infections to POTS to anemia. All I know is that I’ll keep fighting until I get better again. My brain may make me feel panicked and terrified of everything right now, but I’m not afraid of what PANDAS is trying to do to me this time. I’ve beat it once, and I’m convinced I’ll do it again.

While this isn’t the celebratory two-year anniversary post I’d hoped to publish, I still wanted to thank all of you for your ongoing support. When I made the daring decision in 2014 to anonymously share my entire journey with the world, I never could’ve imagined all of the wonderful people I would meet as a result. I never imagined the love I would feel from strangers. I never imagined how much some of my writing would resonate with people, as was shown with the hundreds of shares my post for PANS Awareness Day received this year.

Your comments and emails have kept me going over the last couple of years, and for that, I’m forever grateful. Knowing that what I’m sharing through my writing has helped some of you has made me feel like my suffering might have a purpose.  Thank you for that.

Though this year feels like the terrible-two’s so far, here’s to a year that brings complete healing to me and to all of you!

“Just” My Parents?

Is it really good to go home for the summer?

Heading home for the summer!

With another year of college behind me, I recently packed up my apartment and headed home. Although I was unbelievably busy this semester and definitely overworked at times, I had a great junior year. I’ve truly put down roots in the college town where I spend the school year now, so it was with mixed emotions that I pulled into my parents’ driveway for the summer.

I love being at home, I love not having to cook or do my laundry or go to the store, and I love seeing my family. But the problem with being home is that it brings back bad memories and makes me feel like less of an adult sometimes.

Since I’m twenty-one now, I’m anxious to establish myself as an independent adult. I couldn’t ask for better parents, but my relationship with them has regressed over the last couple of years as a result of my illness. I’ve still not been able to have a steady job, so I’m financially dependent on my parents for almost everything. While I’m grateful that they’re able to support me, as a matter of pride, I wish I could balance school and a job and PANS well enough to establish some independence.

However, the main regression has not been financial, but the roles my parents have taken on as a result of PANS. When I was nineteen years old, they basically watched me all the time and didn’t let me go anywhere without them knowing, because I was suicidal. At twenty, during flares, I would scream at the top of my lungs in terror and throw myself into my mom’s lap like a five-year-old. Even in the better times, I deferred to my parents’ judgement on most matters, because I didn’t trust my inflamed brain to make rational decisions. I loved my parents and they obviously loved me, but this was nowhere near a typical relationship to have with one’s parents at my age—though it was exactly what I needed at the time.

Now that I’m well again, I think we’re all trying to create new boundaries, and sometimes, it feels a bit awkward to me. I’ve had to reestablish my ability to make my own decisions. I’ve had to learn to think of my parents as just my parents instead of as my caretakers.  We’re discovering how to have conversations where symptoms and appointments are never discussed. We’re figuring out what I should and shouldn’t be allowed to do on my own now—like the adolescence that I never had.

Every relationship, like recovery, is a process.  No one is perfect, so there will always be flaws and disagreements in a relationship.  But if you love someone, you make it work.  My parents and I are very close, even though our relationship is changing.  But I believe this change is a good thing, because I’m growing up and getting better.

And despite some awkwardness, I’m glad to be home and to be together with my family for a few months. This is the first summer that I’m actually well and not pursuing additional treatment, so I’m going to be thankful for that and try to just enjoy spending time with my loved ones.

Why Antibiotics Are Necessary for PANS

Sometimes, you have to try a few antibiotics for PANS before you find the right one.

Sometimes, you have to try a few antibiotics for PANS before you find the right one.

Since being diagnosed with PANS, I’ve been on antibiotics for twenty months straight, save for one two-week break. I’ll continue until six months after my last symptom, or at the very least, through my senior year of college.

Over these months, I’ve tried a variety of antibiotics, including Augmentin XR and Cefdinir, but it was switching to Azithromycin in October that I believe was the final blow to my illness. The few mild symptoms that remain have little effect on my life.

Yet some critics might say that my taking antibiotics for twenty months is reckless—that I’m contributing to antibiotic resistance and an inevitable super-bug apocalypse. But these are the same doctors who will give a six-year-old anti-psychotics without investigating infectious triggers. So who’s the reckless one: the doctor who loads up a kindergartener on Abilify without running diagnostic tests, or the doctor who’s prescribing a year of Azithromycin, knowing it will keep me sane and healthy? Is it reckless to properly treat the underlying cause of a debilitating and potentially life-threatening illness?

Nevertheless, some skeptics argue that antibiotics merely have a placebo effect—that people are seeing a relationship between symptoms and antibiotics that doesn’t exist. But anyone who has PANDAS or who’s lived with a PANDAS child for any length of time may have observed the pattern of improvement with antibiotics over and over again—and knows it would be unscientific to claim these observations as mere coincidence.

But what about antibiotic resistance? What about the fact that antibiotics kill off beneficial gut bacteria? What about yeast infections? If PANDAS is just “sudden-onset pediatric OCD,” why not give kids an SSRI and send them to therapy? Why not treat the tics with some anti-psychotics? Surely long-term antibiotics are unhealthy, right?

If PANS could be effectively treated with therapy and anti-psychotics and SSRI’s alone, the PANS community would settle down and crowd into the offices of mainstream doctors, the kids would get better, and the families would go on thriving. But this isn’t the case. Treating infections is the most crucial part of recovering from PANS, because the infections are what trigger the symptoms in the first place. Any ongoing infections will continually provoke the immune system to create the antibodies that attack the brain and lead to symptoms. Thus, the infections need to be dealt with for healing to occur, and they need to be prevented for it to continue.

As for antibiotic resistance, more than half the antibiotics used in America are for agriculture. We should be worried about all the livestock being given antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes—not kids with PANDAS who take amoxicillan to stop bad antibodies from attacking their brains. Some people with PANDAS are literally dying. I would argue that they need antibiotics as much as someone with life-threatening bacterial pneumonia, for which no one ever questions the use of antibiotics.

But surely after twenty months of antibiotics, my gut flora is a wreck, isn’t it? Seeing as I’ve never had a yeast infection or diarrhea or nausea during this whole time, I’d say I’m just fine. In fact, I had stomach issues before I started antibiotics that have since resolved. I’m not alone in this—I’ve heard similar reports from many other families. (All this being said, yes, I do take a probiotic everyday—with 30 billion live cultures.)

Antibiotics are a critical part in the healing process of PANS. For some, they may be the only treatment needed. For others, they’re one of many therapies that work together.

If you’re just starting on the road of antibiotic treatment, my best advice would be to realize that it can take time for PANDAS symptoms to die down. In some cases, you get worse before you get better.

Antibiotics are still drugs with risks, and using them shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, with PANDAS, the bigger risk is often to leave the trigger of the disease untreated.

One Wrong Step and…

With PANS, you never know what step might pull you into the ground...

With PANS, you never know what step might pull you into the ground…

I know I said I’d start a series on the different treatments I’ve tried, but I’m pausing to tell you why I haven’t been able to post in several weeks…

I caught some terrible virus and have been having symptoms again.  As a result, I got behind in school, so I’ve had to use all my time to get on top of things again.

As you know, when someone with PANDAS gets sick, it never just means sitting in bed and sipping on chicken soup for a few days. In the past, getting sick could literally make me lose my mind. For example, what should have been a mild case of mono during my freshman year of college turned my immune system against my brain, leaving me suicidal, anorexic, and unable to walk.

So you can imagine my fear when I woke up a couple weeks ago with my whole body in pain and a pounding headache. I was so weak that I could barely sit up. Was this the beginning of the end, all over again?

While I didn’t go crazy, I’ve certainly had a rough time as a result of this most recent illness. For a week, I had a ten-second attention span, making it take four times as long to get any of my homework done. I suddenly got it into my head that I needed to start restricting again, and I’ve lost a few pounds. When I was well enough to go back to class, I continually wrote letters out of order when taking notes and struggled to figure out how to fix my spelling errors. Things were making me cry for no reason. One night, I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that if I did, my heart might stop and then I’d die.

In the midst of this, I had a dream that I was walking on a road with a friend when out of nowhere, I dropped into a mud sinkhole and became submerged up to my shoulders. My friend had stepped in the same place and not fallen in, but what should have been a puddle nearly drowned me.

“This is what happens when I get sick,” I explained. “I need you to pull me out.”

Just as she reached out her arm, I woke up, my heart racing.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the dream, because it’s true for pretty much everyone with PANS. During times of remission, we walk around the world just like everyone else, minding our own business, but then, when the wrong virus or infection comes along, we’re swallowed up by the ground beneath our feet. Most people can emerge from a cold with nothing but a runny nose that lasts a few days, while the same virus could literally drive someone with PANS into insanity. And the worst part is that when you’re busy living your life, you know that any of your steps could be the one that sucks you into the ground.

But thankfully, this time, my friend Prednisone once again pulled me out, and now I’m not having symptoms anymore. I believe there’s a reason why, in my dream, the mud only went up to my shoulders instead of totally burying me—nowadays, my flares never completely take away who I am in the way they used to. As bad as this latest one sounds, it’s nothing compared to how my flares used to be. So while it’s been discouraging to have had a recurrence of symptoms, I’m reminding myself that the mud was unable to swallow me up to my head like it once did.

So readers, I’m fine now, and I’ve finally gotten caught up with school. Next week, I’ll actually be starting my series on treatments, beginning with a post on antibiotics, so stay tuned!

Treatment Is a Kitchen Sink?

Treating PANS can mean trying the whole kitchen sink.

Treating PANS can mean trying the whole kitchen sink.

When I was first diagnosed with PANDAS in 2014, my doctor said the treatment plan was to give me “the whole kitchen sink.” In other words, I would receive the full range of therapies, many of them all at once. It was unscientific, since this made it hard to tell which treatments turned out to be the most effective, but for a girl who could hardly walk and had lost over 10% of her body weight, this approach was necessary.

Today, I can say with confidence that the kitchen sink worked for me, because I’m back in school and thriving, with only mild difficulties.

So many of you have asked me what exactly I did that got me better—the majority of the emails I receive from readers are questions about my treatments. Because of this, I’ve decided to do a series of posts on the various treatments I’ve used, what they were like, and how I responded (or not). I probably won’t do all the posts consecutively—if something else inspires me on a given week, I’ll interrupt the series.

You see, the problem with treating PANS is that the lack of diagnostic tests makes it impossible to know which treatment will provide the most relief. What worked for me won’t work for someone else. What worked for others didn’t always work for me.

Even worse, nearly all of the treatments available take weeks, if not months, to produce results, so by the time you know something didn’t work, you have to start all over again and hope the next thing you try will do the job. Meanwhile, you’re miserable and hardly yourself because of your plethora of debilitating symptoms. I can’t even begin to express how agonizing the process can be when you’re not making progress, and you’re wondering how much longer until your treatments help you get better—or if you’ll ever get better at all.

Moreover, because of the lack of awareness and the lack of doctors with PANDAS experience, there’s no one to hold your hand through the recovery journey. The PANDAS specialists are overrun with cases and can’t speak to you often enough, and you’re fortunate if you can find a local doctor to simply refill your antibiotics—let alone to provide treatment guidance.

The fact that dozens of parents ask advice from a twenty-year-old with no formal medical training who writes a blog from her dorm room—this tells you everything you need to know about how hungry people are for information, hope, and support when dealing with PANS. On the other hand, there are many things one can learn from a patient that can never be gleaned from cold facts presented in medical journals.

All of this is to say that I’m going to be doing this series to hopefully make the treatment journey less scary for those in the middle of it. I’m not here to suggest any particular methods for others, but I hope by going into more detail about what I did, people might better understand what to expect after having made their own decisions with their doctors.

When my doctor first told me about the “kitchen sink,” I never could’ve imagined how many kinds of treatments I would try before getting completely better.  Recovering from PANS is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but all that matters is that something worked for me—or more likely, several things worked together.

So readers, I hope you’ll come gather round my kitchen sink in these next few posts, and we’ll talk about this treatment and recovery journey that we’re all on together.

Life Beyond 100%

What does it really mean to be and to feel 100% oneself?

What does it really mean to be and to feel 100% oneself?

During my first few months of treatment, whenever anyone asked me what percent of myself I felt I was, I usually said 80 or 90%. Although I believed this was accurate, I was grossly overestimating my level of wellness, because I’d forgotten what life was like at 100%. As I’ve said before, I’ve never realized how ill I’ve been until I’ve gotten better.

The nature of my illness, since it affected my brain, altered my ability to perceive if I was really myself or not. People think I must have been terrified on the day I essentially lost my mind in 2014, but by definition, I couldn’t fully understand how far gone I was. I grasped that being suicidal, raging, and in a state of confusion wasn’t like me, but intellectually knowing I wasn’t myself is entirely different from experiencing and remembering who I really was. It was only as I began to get better that I started to comprehend how far from 100% I had been.

Today, I don’t say I’m 80%, I don’t say I’m 90%, and I certainly don’t say I’m 100%. I simply say that I’m well.

I’ve realized that when you don’t remember who you were as “100% yourself,” it’s impossible to give an accurate percentage. The sense of self is impalpable and can’t be constrained to measures or percentages.

As my brain heals more and more, I’ve discovered that attempting to define my “self” in numbers, as it relates to my symptoms, is like picking up sand with a sieve. Just as I think I’ve remembered what 100% of myself means, I recover from symptoms I didn’t completely know I had. Then, all my numbers and estimations become meaningless, my perception of how much like my “self” I’ve been shifts, and I have to pick up the sand all over again.

How will I ever know if I’ve truly returned to my “self”? On the other hand, who’s to say that who I am now isn’t who I was always supposed to be? People are constantly learning and growing and changing, so perhaps one’s self is not only outer, observable behaviors and traits, but an inner, subjective sense. Who’s to say that I’m not more like myself now than ever before?

I believe that in the case of an illness that so fundamentally alters your experience of the world and your perception of who you are, recovery means being able to live the life you want without your illness stopping you or negatively affecting the way you live. By this metric, though I still have mild symptoms, I’m 100% because I’m doing everything I wish to be doing, with little interference from my disease.

However, I’ve come to accept that I can never be 100% of my old self again, because surviving PANS changed who I am. I’ve gotten stronger. I’ve matured. I’ve learned to not take my health or my life for granted. I’ve become more compassionate. I’ve even discovered a love for writing as a result of it.

Sometimes, I still mourn for who I used to be, and I grieve the time I lost. But slowly, I’m learning to embrace this new person born from many tears, treatments, and trials, and I’ve grown to see her not as a victim, but as a survivor. A warrior is who I’ve become. In this sense, I’m not just 100%—I’m beyond 100%, because I’ve emerged stronger than ever before.

100% isn’t always about a lack of symptoms—it’s about being able to live again and being completely comfortable with the inner self that you perceive you are.

PANS: Certainty of Uncertainty

To me, one of the most difficult parts of recovering from PANS is how, just when you think you’re done having symptoms, your life can change again in a day. Sometimes, I feel like with PANS, the only certainty you have is the uncertainty of the course of the illness.

Last week, I’d been doing great in every way imaginable, but on Monday, I started having tics again. At first, I didn’t think much of it because, sometimes, I have a few here or there, and then they go away. Unfortunately, this time they were the most pronounced they’d been since the summer, and I was even having vocalizations again.

By the next day, I was constantly sniffing and grunting and making all sorts of strange noises and doing repetitive movements with my head and arms. At times, I could barely finish a sentence without being interrupted by a vocal tic.

But PANS had even worse things coming to me…

The day after that, while walking home to my apartment (and sniffing all the way there), I felt my legs starting to get heavy. I tried to keep walking normally, but they would stop responding to my brain. All of a sudden, my knees were buckling every few steps, just like they used to do all the time when I was at my worst.

Over two days, I’d gone from being 100% functional to being physically disabled and having severe tics. Why was all of this happening to me? Was this the beginning of a relapse? Would I be spending this spring break getting another IVIG, just like last year?

Most of the time now, I don’t dwell on my illness or feel sorry for myself. But this week, it hit me all over again just how unfair it is to have a disease that can leave you handicapped without warning. No one deserves to live with this possibility hanging over their head all the time.

Over the last two years of recovery, I’ve often been in denial of my illness. I used to blame myself for every flare and every tic and every obsession and every treatment I needed to have. I never told anyone, but I always wondered if maybe, there was somehow a part of me that didn’t want to get better, and that this part of me was making me continue to need treatment. I felt bad for putting my family through what they went through because, somehow, it was my fault.

Deep down, I always knew that I didn’t want to be stuck with my illness, but by blaming myself anyway, I could claim some control over the disease. If I’d been responsible for preventing my recovery, then, at any point, I could’ve decided to stop having symptoms. I didn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of having no control—or with the truth that I was doing everything in my power to get better, yet I was still sick.

But there’s nothing like involuntary movements and partial paralysis attacks to prove to you that you have no control over PANS—and that even if you felt certain you were well, you can’t be certain you won’t have symptoms again.  This week, I was faced with the reality that my wishes to get better (or my false suspicions of wishing not to) had no bearing on my recovery.

After a few days of being disabled and utterly discouraged, my tics started dying away, and I was able to walk normally. I do consider this a good sign, since I improved without any treatment. However, I’ve since developed new vocal tics (though they only happen occasionally), and I’ve had a couple nights when I could barely walk again. But interestingly and fortunately, I’ve had no cognitive or psychiatric issues, so I’m counting my blessings. For now, I’m just waiting all of this out to see if it goes away.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what these reemerging symptoms may or may not mean.

Nevertheless, I’m slowly learning to accept the uncertainty of PANS—and my lack of control over it. I’m okay with not knowing what might happen next, because, through everything, I’ve always had an inexplicable conviction that everything will turn out right in the end. I struggle with my faith sometimes and am not always certain of what I believe, but this one conviction may be among the closest things I feel to certainty… Besides uncertainty.

Flare or Fluke?

How do I know whether or not my struggles are from brain inflammation?

How do I know whether or not my struggles are from brain inflammation?

Yesterday, I humiliated myself in front of the whole class.

Most days now, I feel that I have my mind back—that I can actually think without anxiety and malfunctioning cognitive processes clouding my every thought. But every once in a while, I do something really strange or stupid, and I find myself truly questioning my recovery all over again.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and anyone may occasionally forget words, get distracted, or misunderstand instructions. However, when I do any of those things, I’m immediately taken back to a time when I did them all the time and every day—a time when I had no business even living independently, let alone attempting college. I get more upset than your average person would whenever I slip up, because I never know if my cognitive blip is what a typical person might experience or if it’s a lingering symptom. Every potential symptom sends me into bad memories and fear of history repeating itself.

My embarrassment yesterday happened when I was called up in front of the whole class to demonstrate a new concept on the board (one that I knew very well from studying). I went into auto-pilot, and I made an extremely elementary mistake. Even worse, I didn’t notice until my professor said something and asked me to try again.

“Oh, wow! That was pretty silly,” I said, as the whole class snickered. “What was I thinking?”

To make matters worse, over the last week, I’ve been wondering about and bracing myself for another mild flare. My cognition hasn’t been quite right for a few days. I’ve been really anxious and borderline depressed, and I’m having trouble starting assignments due to anxiety. I’ve had problems taking handwritten notes in class, because even though I know how to spell, my hands frequently write words and letters in the wrong order, or I write the wrong letters all together. And then there’s the fact that my physics textbook was christened with my own tears over the weekend, because I was having such a hard time understanding the material.

But if this is a flare, then why am I not ticking any more than usual? Why is my OCD not getting out-of-control?

Because I’m not flaring. And I’m certainly not stupid. I’m just sleep-deprived and under a tremendous amount of stress, and I’m realizing that college is hard for everybody. Yes, I do have some added PANS difficulties still—the handwriting issues and my legs not listening to my brain after I climb stairs or walk up a hill (more on this later). But who doesn’t get frustrated by physics homework? Who doesn’t have compromised cognition after not sleeping enough? Who doesn’t get anxious when trying to get school work done while awaiting a pending internship offer?

I suppose it’s still possible that I could be about to flare, but I’m choosing to reject that idea. This time, the solution to my struggles is not a Prednisone burst or a switch in antibiotics, but simply going to bed earlier and trying not to beat myself up over what happened in class yesterday.

Over the years, I’ve had to learn how to be sick—how to appear to function, how to live as much as I could, and how to mentally get through the heartbreak of PANS when I couldn’t keep myself together at all. But now, I have to learn how to be healthy—how to deal with embarrassment and challenging classes and stress and all the ups-and-downs of a healthy person’s life.

New Year News

2016: The year I'm finally well?

2016: The year I’m finally well?

I haven’t had time to write a longer post for a few weeks, but I just wanted to assure you that I haven’t disappeared.

I’ve been away, not because I’m ill, but because I’m well. In fact, I’d say I’m the best I’ve been in the last nine years.

Contrary to what you might expect, the more often I post or tweet, the worse I’m doing. When I’m well, I get out of the house and keep very busy. When I’m ill, PANDAS takes over my life, and I can’t do much. The only thing I can do when I’m sick is write about being sick and talk to other people dealing with this disease.

I’m not sure what happened recently, but I believe I’m finally well.

Yes, that’s right.  I really did just say that: I’m well.

So what did it?  I don’t think there was any one magical treatment or supplement or diet.  It was a combination of everything I’ve done up to this point—and everything I’m still doing.

My first IVIG got me 50% back.  The second got me to 70%.  The tonsillectomy brough me to 95%, and when I switched to Azithromycin, I finally came back to myself all the way.  Prednisone and Wellbutrin made my life almost liveable while I was still less than a shadow of my former self.  Switching to paleo eating meant getting out of my body’s way while it worked with the other treatments to heal.  (I’ll elaborate on these things in a future post…)

At the moment, I don’t even think of myself as a person with PANDAS anymore—I’m a person who beat it. Sure, I still have very small involuntary movements and some tics sometimes.  And I still take medications and supplements, but I don’t feel like PANDAS has any significant effect on my quality of life.

Whether this present health and remission is permanent, remains to be seen.  I could flare again when I’m exposed to Strep.  Who knows?

I’ll be heading back to college soon, and I’ll finally be taking a full load—including one of the most difficult classes in my major.  But to me, being able to work hard is a privilege.

So, readers, that’s all I have for now.  I just wanted to share with you that I’m doing very well for a change—and I wish the same for you.

But don’t worry… I promise this blog isn’t going anywhere—I actually have quite a few posts that are almost ready (but I haven’t had time to finish them). I’ll write more when I can.

I wish all of you a Happy New Year full of health and healing!

Why I’m Thankful

It was a paleo Thanksgiving at my house this year...

It was a paleo Thanksgiving at my house this year…

With Thanksgiving this week, as I returned home and sat around the table with my family, despite flaring recently, I couldn’t help but be thankful for the progress I’ve made over the last year-and-a-half that allowed me to be at that table—and for the family surrounding me, who helped me get there.

As awful as the latest flare was, now that I’ve switched my antibiotic to Azithromycin and am doing better, I’m all the more grateful for everything I have. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true that there’s nothing like losing something to make you understand its value…

A year-and-a-half ago, I lost myself to this terrible disease. Though I wasn’t dead, emotionally and mentally, I was gone. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t eat. I often couldn’t speak cohesively. I was constantly having involuntary movements. Most of all, I lost everything about my personality that made me myself—my joy and the spark of life in my eyes; I turned suicidal.

Because I once lost everything, I try not to take things for granted anymore. These days, when I decide to walk to class, there’s a smile on my face because I appreciate that my legs and brain now work together. When I touch a doorknob without hesitating, I’m thrilled to no longer be tormented by OCD about what germs I may be picking up.

When I can carry out a conversation without forgetting words or saying the wrong ones, I consider it a privilege. When I sit still in class without thinking about holding in tics or disguising my chorea movements, I’m grateful. When I packed my suitcase all by myself this week, I felt accomplished, because my executive function problems once made this impossible.

Living with the awareness that I lost, but have now regained, everything I now have adds a new layer of joy to my life that I never could’ve experienced otherwise. While there’s still plenty of emotional baggage as a result of my ordeal, I try to see the ability to be more thankful for life as more than a silver lining.

Although I continue to struggle in a lot of ways and have flares, I strive to be thankful for everything I do have. Embracing gratitude, no matter what time of year it is, is important because it helps you focus on the good things, even if there are a lot of bad things in your life. I see it as a way to overcome, because when you remember what you have and all that you can do rather than thinking of what you don’t have and can’t do, you can make better use of the abilities and opportunities you’re given.

So this coming week, as I head back to school into the home stretch of the semester, I’m going to do my best to be thankful that I’m well enough to be in college, struggling to get enough sleep, finish my projects, pass my exams, and make it until the end.

When Strep Attacks…

Once again, I've been taken over by a flare.

Once again, I’ve been taken over by a flare.

Last Friday, I would’ve said I was 100% symptom-free. I went the whole day with no tics or OCD symptoms or depression, and most astonishing of all, I could pay attention in class. My mind was the clearest it’d been in years.

But just as I’d put my life back together after the last flare, it suddenly fell apart.

On Sunday, I began to notice myself having mild short-term memory problems. And then I had a few tics. Monday night, my roommate got sick with an 101º fever, swollen tonsils, and white patches in her throat. Meanwhile, I was becoming more depressed by the minute. A culture of my roommate’s throat on Wednesday confirmed the unthinkable… Strep.

I couldn’t believe my luck (or hers, for that matter). She’d never had a known Strep infection, but she happened to get her first one in college while living with a PANDA who’s been known to lose her mind around the bacteria. Why did this have to happen?

I was sliding ever closer to the cliff from Monday onward, even before I found out my roommate was sick. I began crying for no reason and couldn’t concentrate. My memory was so bad that I forgot how to make a salad I’ve made every day for the last two months, and I couldn’t even remember the topic of a paper I’d been writing all semester. There was no denying that my brain was inflamed again.

I hate how PANDAS is a seemingly endless cycle of grieving the loss of who you are, then rejoicing when treatment resurrects you. When I’m alive, I never know how long I have to live. Will I be in remission for three months, or will it be three days? When I wake up tomorrow, will the infection-of-the-day take me away? I never know.

The worst of all is the sensation of losing myself when I flare; I don’t have symptoms—I no longer have myself. And it’s all the more painful because I’m always completely aware of the fact that I’m mentally dying. I’m wide awake as my heart is torn from my body.

Even so, this flare, though debilitating, has not been nearly as bad as the flares I had before my tonsillectomy. Yes, I lost myself, but I didn’t fall quite as far. I can’t explain it, but this time, the wall that shuts me into myself during a flare wasn’t as thick as it used to be.

Although I was so anxious one day that I ran out of one of my classes and couldn’t come back, I never got to a panic attack like I used to. Although I was extremely depressed to the point that I shut myself into my room for hours, curled up in a fetal position on my bed, and stopped doing my school work (despite normally being a top student), I didn’t become suicidal like I used to. And although I had some trouble walking due to loss of coordination, my legs didn’t go completely limp and paralyzed like they used to.

Objectively, I’m still better than I used to be, even if Strep made me flare. But I’m devastated to have had yet another flare just as I’d recovered from the last one. I’m devastated that my body still makes autoantibodies when exposed to Strep. I’m devastated that I still have PANS at all. How much longer can I keep living with it?

For better or worse, PANS is a part of my life, and though I’m doing everything in my power to push it out, I guess I’ll just have to keep doing Prednisone bursts and antibiotics and all my other treatments and live with it as best I can for now. What choice do I have? I’m beyond exhausted, but I somehow have to believe that life won’t always be this hard. I have to believe that somehow, something good will come out of this illness that still won’t leave me alone.

I wish no one ever got PANS, but I can only hope that what I’m going through and my ability to write about it might positively affect someone else someday—and that it does so even now.

And I have to hope I’ll never again be in such close quarters with Strep in my apartmentfor the sake of my roommate’s throat and for the sake of my own sanity.

Can Hamburgers Stop Flares?

Even in a flare, this silly hamburger label made me laugh!

Even in a flare, this silly hamburger label made me laugh!

I’ll be the first one to admit that there’s pretty much nothing good about having flares or having to take all of the antibiotics and other medications that I take. But, sometimes, in the craziness of it all, I just have to laugh at my circumstances—especially when there’s a hamburger on my bottle of Cefdinir, which I only acquired because of a flare…

After five days of an increased Prednisone dose the other week, I was starting to come out of the mud of depression and brain fog. I almost thought I was okay. My psychiatrist had me double my Wellbutrin to help what was left of the depression, and I was almost hoping that would be enough.

But then the PANDA bear grabbed me again.

When my tics start up, I feel like someone is taking control of my body. I feel like there’s some outside force enveloping me, forcing me to do the movements or make the noises. Sometimes, I can almost feel it on my skin, and that’s rather frightening.

It had been months since I’d had that sensation and since I’d ticked like I did one night this week. Clearly, I’d been exposed to something that my body was reacting to.

A couple of my doctors were highly suspicious that I’d caught Mycoplasma (walking Pneumonia), since it doesn’t respond to the Augmentin I take daily, so I got an Azithromycin Z-pack to treat it. I’d been holding off on starting it for a bit, hoping I could do without it, but when the tics came back and I wasn’t focusing again, I knew I had to do something.

I’m one of those kids who’s usually been classified as a “non-responder” to antibiotics, but given how bad my tics were and the lingering depression and anxiety, I figured it was worth a shot. Plus, I’d been having this weird shortness of breath and a cough, so it wasn’t totally crazy to suspect pneumonia.

To my astonishment, the day after my first dose of Azithromycin, something strange happened: I realized that I wasn’t ticking at all! By the second day, the cloud of despair that I get during flares was also gone. And I was even being productive!

Now that I’ve finished the Z-Pack, I’m doing umbelieveably well taking the hamburger Cefdinir instead of Augmentin XR, and Cefdinir kills Serratia marcescens. (For those of you who are new to my blog, that bacteria once infected my tonsils and probably caused a number of flares.) But since I’d been so depressed for several weeks recently, I hadn’t been cleaning my shower, and of course, there was a huge colony of Serratia growing in one of the corners. Yuck! I’m sure that didn’t help…

I'm 99% sure this was Serratia in my shower...

I’m 99% sure this pink blob in my shower was Serratia

But now, I’ve had someone else clean out the shower with Lysol (to limit my exposure), and I’ve been taking Cefdinir, and I’m doing wonderfully. In fact, I’ve had a few days of feeling 100% and completely symptom-free this week. I don’t know if it was the Azithromycin or the Cefdinir or the Serratia-free shower or all of the above, but no matter what it is, I’m glad for the relief.

Yet I never know how many good days I’m going to have before I flare, so I’m trying to savor and make the most of these good days while I can. I have a bad feeling I’m going to flare again, but I’d like to think it’s just an unfounded fear… Whatever the case, I’ll just keep living as much as I can in the middle of fighting off this crazy disease.

PANDAS is so difficult to go through, but I’ll just keep trying to laugh about the little things—like that silly hamburger—to make the journey more tolerable as I work to find the best treatments.

PANDAS, Described in 1 Word

"Sometimes I just get terrified." 17-year-old me unknowingly describing PANDAS.

“Sometimes I just get terrified,” said 17-year-old me at the beginning of this exacerbation.

To be faced with PANDAS is to have a lot of debilitating symptoms and feelings all at once that, in essence, make you lose who you are. There is much to say about what it feels like to have PANDAS, but if I had to sum up my experience in one word, I would say…

Terror.

Fear has been a reality of my existence ever since my onset at age eleven.  Sometimes, I’ve had specific fears, and other times it was general anxiety. There were times when I felt like I was afraid of everything, as I described so poignantly in a journal from 2009 when I was fourteen:

Worry Is Taking Over My Life-small

I feel like worry is taking over my life… I worry a lot about if I’ll die young. I worry about environmental toxins (like lead). I worry about hearing damage… I worry about getting sick. I worry about what other people think about me. I worry about house fires.

Over time, my fears would slowly fade away (presumably after I fought off whatever infection had caused each flare). But whenever I least expected it, the terror would come back out of nowhere.

When I was seventeen, I suddenly became convinced all over again that I’d committed an unforgivable sin. From then on, everything revolved around making sure I didn’t do something unforgivable that would send me to hell—but instead my OCD become a hell on earth.

I was a caged tiger after that night. I would pace around the house each evening, hoping that somehow it would help me escape the all-consuming terror that trapped me inside myself. The OCD told me I was about to think or say or do something unforgivable, and my mind was constantly full of intrusive blasphemous thoughts that I was sure could damn me.

In order to divert my mind from the horrible terror and despair surrounding the thoughts, I began to write for as many as twelve hours a-day, skipping meals and not leaving the room, to the point where my psychologist became concerned I was in my first manic episode.

The worst thing about PANDAS terror is that it is all in your brain, so there’s no way to make it stop, other than to get treatment or distract yourself. This disease can make you afraid of everything outside of you and afraid of the mind inside of you. It made me do anything—even things I knew made no sense—just to find some relief. Sometimes, those things were OCD compulsions. Other times, it was slamming myself into a wall or trying to jump out a window, just because I felt like I had to.

Sometimes, I used to impulsively run out of the house, because I hoped that maybe, somehow, getting out the door would get me out of the anguishing terror. It’s like having an allergic reaction and itching all over, and all you want to do is get out of your skin to make the feeling stop…  But you can’t.

The need to get out of your mind in a PANDAS flare of terror is one reason this disease can be life-threatening. This is why I used to scream things like, “I want to die!” and why I couldn’t see how life could ever get better, since I was stuck with a mind that terrified me and was no longer my own.

But trust me, it does get better. I haven’t truly experienced the fullness of terror since getting my tonsils out this summer, and I’ve heard so many other recovery stories.

These days, what I live with isn’t terror so much as a constant, mild anxiety. While the most recent Prednisone burst for my last flare quieted most of my symptoms and got me back to being functional, it didn’t get rid of that all-too-familiar feeling of worry.  Nowadays, I walk around feeling like something must be terribly wrong, but I have no idea what it is.

My anxiety is like the feeling you get when you’re lying in bed at night almost ready to sleep, and you suddenly realize that you didn’t do something important that you needed to do that day. It’s the feeling when you first realize you’ve lost your phone or your wallet, but you have no idea where it could be. It’s the feeling of dread when you’re about to go meet with the principal at school because you acted out. But unlike those situations, the only thing wrong is my PANDAS—not something external.

I’m used to the anxiety by now, and it’s no longer bad enough to make me want to run away from myself. While it’s certainly still disruptive, I’m able to go to class and get my work done anyway. I’m so accustomed to it that I almost don’t notice it, since I don’t know what life is like without being a little afraid. Besides, my non-PANDAS self knows the anxiety is brain inflammation—not based in reality.

Even so, my team of doctors and I are not satisfied with me feeling that something must be terribly wrong—not to mention the tics that have returned. We’ll be checking titers and Ig levels and possibly changing antibiotics, so I’m doing my best to look at the coming weeks with hope—not dread.

Why I Run in the Rain

My PANDAS is a rain storm that seems it will never stop...

My PANDAS is a rain storm that sometimes seems it will never stop…

It’s 8 AM on a Saturday, and rather than sleeping in as you might expect for a college student, I’m lacing up my running shoes and getting ready to bolt across town.

However, this weekend, when I opened my blinds, I almost pulled the covers back over me; I saw it was raining with no sign of stopping.

I’d never run in the rain before, and the mere idea of it caused the shivers. I had so much homework, and the only time I had to spare was in the morning.  But I love running so much.  How could I let a little bad weather keep me from it?

I realized that if I waited for perfect conditions, I would never run. If I waited until I truly felt like going, I would never run. If I waited until I was completely prepared, I would never run.

So I decided to run in the rain…

Many people have asked me why I’ve continued to go to college in spite of a mentally and physically crippling neurological illness. They wonder why I continue to chase dreams that seem outlandish even for a healthy person. Why not at least take a year off and wait until I’m totally better? Why not wait until I stop having flares? Why not wait until I can get the most out of my educational experience?

I don’t know when it will ever stop raining, so if I’m going to run, it might as well be now.

My life over the last three years has been pouring. Nothing has been the same since the day my OCD hit me like a train during my senior year of high school. It would have been perfectly reasonable to defer college. Even now, I could almost justify being at home, considering my ongoing lack of concentration and other executive functions.

Yet no matter how badly I wish it would stop raining, I have no power to clear the skies. For better or worse, my life is one of rain for now—but I can still choose to run on in spite of it.

I only have one life, and I have to make the most of the cards I’ve been dealt. If I stay indoors and wait until I’m well enough to start living and going after my dreams, I may never do anything at all. How could I know what “healthy enough” is if I’ve forgotten what that fair weather even feels like? This disease has taken so much from me already, and I don’t want it to take anything more. So I have to keep dreaming and keep pushing forward and keep living as much as I can, even if I get soaked out in the rain.

I may work three times as hard as everyone else to produce the same results. I may have to live at a much slower pace than I would like. And there may be some things my illness prevents me from doing, but I do my best to focus on what I still can do. As long as my heart keeps beating, I have to keep running, in the hopes of finding joy and purpose in the middle of the downpour.

No, it’s never been easy to try to live my life while fighting PANDAS. There are plenty of days when I find myself wanting to go home and stay inside where it’s comfortable and warm, rather than working so hard and getting drenched by the rain. And certainly, I would never run if my symptoms were a hurricane or a thunderstorm, because when the weather is bad enough, it simply becomes unsafe to run.  But this is not my situation anymore, so I have to keep going as far as possible.

I run in the rain because I know that every stride, no matter how slow or difficult, means I’m overcoming something beyond my control and that I’m doing what I can to take back everything I’ve lost.

Why PANDAS Awareness Matters

2015-awareness-basic-logo-small

As I made my way through the halls to my neurologist’s office last May, I stopped in my tracks as I saw a face I recognized. She was receiving IVIG and roaming the halls hooked up to an IV bag pole, accompanied by her mother and a nurse. She was exhausted. There was no light in her eyes. She had a sense of burden and deep sadness about her that penetrated to the depths of her soul.

Once you’ve seen the face of a child with PANDAS, you can never forget it.

Over the last year, I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories about what this illness can do. I’ve seen the look of terror in children’s faces and the grief and weariness in the parents’ eyes. I’ve watched as my own life fell apart, flare by flare, and I’ve spent what should’ve been my best years wanting nothing more than to find my lost mind.

Although PANDAS and PANS are curable, getting a diagnosis, let alone proper treatment, is far too difficult. It took me eight years to find an answer. It took me declining so much that I could longer walk, lost twelve pounds in two weeks (that I absolutely didn’t have to lose), and was psych-ward-worthy depressed and suicidal before doctors finally admitted that there could be a single cause to an alleged list of seven different syndromes and illnesses.

And I am one of the lucky ones.

My story has a happy ending. After two IVIG’s, a tonsillectomy, and a year of antibiotics and steroids, today, though I still have symptoms and take medications, I have my life back. I’m living independently, attending a prestigious university, earning straight-A’s, and making my mark in my chosen field. But without treatment, I would still be spending my days homebound, sleeping for up to twenty hours each day, unable to walk, and constantly watched by my parents so I wouldn’t hurt myself.

Sadly, my story may still be the exception—not because PANDAS is rare, but because it is common and many people may never receive a diagnosis. PANDAS/PANS is likely responsible for as much as 25% of cases of childhood OCD and Tourette’s. As many as 1 in 200 children may have this devastating condition. While some may outgrow it, for others like me, left untreated, it could lead to a lifetime of mental illness and disability.

To make matters worse, there are only a handful of doctors in the US who are considered to be experts in treating PANDAS and PANS. Their practices are overrun with cases. Waiting lists can be long. And when you finally do get an appointment and a diagnosis, treatments such as IVIG and plasmapheresis are outrageously expensive and are often not completely covered by insurance. If you’re fortunate, antibiotics might be enough to put you into remission, but sometimes, insurance won’t cover these, either.

While thousands of children and families are suffering, too many doctors are debating whether this condition even exists. Many doctors have the nerve to send families on their way, blaming debilitating symptoms on “bad parenting” or “school stress.” If we had a dime for every time we were told PANDAS is “controversial” or “not well understood,” perhaps we could pay for our IVIG treatments!

387,000 children in America (1 in 200) need treatment and shouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles just to find a doctor who won’t dismiss their symptoms. Tens of thousands still just need answers.

October 9th is PANDAS/PANS Awareness Day. Help us raise awareness. Help us tell more doctors and psychologists so that it doesn’t take so many years of suffering to get a diagnosis. Help us get more insurance companies to recognize PANS and cover more treatments so that more patients can get the care they need.

PANDAS/PANS needs awareness because that sad girl in the hallway is in every elementary school across America—yet many of her may never know why she suddenly lost her joy and personality.

I believe that if those of us who have been diagnosed keep making noise, there will be a day when it is unheard of for a doctor to deny the existence of such a devastating syndrome. I believe there will be a day when the only thing parents have to worry about when their child gets PANS is helping him get better—not finding a believing doctor, not wondering how they can bring a terrified and uncontrollable child across the country for a consultation, and not paying for treatment.

But until then, I will keep writing and raising awareness, because for so many, that day can’t come soon enough.

PANS Symptoms Pic-small

PANS/PANDAS is an autoimmune reaction triggered by Strep, Pneumonia, Lyme, Mono, Stress, etc. resulting in an acute onset of neuropsychiatric symptoms that can include: separation anxiety, OCD, tics, age regression, ADHD, sleep difficulties, personality changes, urinary feequency, irritability, rage, sensory sensitivities, deterioration in learning abilities, and anorexia.

Why I’m Better, Not Over It

I'm always cautious, waiting for the next symptom to come back...

I’m always cautious, waiting for the next symptom to come back…

This week, I woke up and cried.

99% of the time, I focus on how wonderful it is to be in remission, and I don’t allow myself to think about how awful my life used to be.  I don’t let myself feel sorry for myself.  I try to not dwell on the past.  But several nights per week, I have nightmares—most of which revolve around everything that happened to me.  And these are what break me.

I want more than anything to just get on with my life, and in many ways, I have.  These days, I feel the most like myself that I’ve felt in two or three years. My good days are up to 98% symptom-free, and my bad ones are rarely below 90%.  Although my life is still affected by PANS, it isn’t controlled by it…

Yet the nightmares still come.

This week, I realized that although I’m mostly recovered physically, I’m not recovered emotionallyI’m still not over what this disease once did to me. And I’m not over the (very small) possibility that it could return someday.

Sometimes, I feel like I live my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m always waiting for the next virus to send me back into a flare. I’m forever watching every little movement and thought, ready to fight against my next PANS assault…

My arm jerks a little bit, but I didn’t tell it to move. Was that a chorea movement? Or was that just a normal twitch? Am I going to flare?

I completely forget about a homework assignment until the last minute. Was that brain fog? Am I getting forgetful again?

I have no appetite one night and decide not to eat. Is this the return of an eating disorder?

I feel sad one day. Is this the start of depression?

When I keep myself busy during the day as I’ve been doing at college lately, I’m able to mostly stop thinking about potential symptoms.  But when the day is done, the nightmares often rush in: I have dreams of the future where I am doing worse and need more treatment; I have dreams where I see myself falling down whenever I try to walk; I see myself surrounded by confused doctors; I see myself getting IVIG. I wake up relieved for a moment that it’s just a dream, but then I realize that it isn’t—it really happened.

I wish I could only be grateful for my recovery and move on, but when my mind is stilled and the lights go out, I’m haunted by my past. I can’t undo the six-year torment of facing OCD all alone, too scared to ask for help. I can’t forget the daily despair of knowing I was losing more and more of myself with every day that went by last spring. I can’t erase the terrifying hours of descending into flares, knowing I was losing control over my body and mind.

The reality is that PANS was a traumatic experience. PANS essentially killed me, but I was incredibly fortunate to find a doctor who brought me back to life. Still, no IVIG or tonsillectomy or Prednisone burst can help me come to terms with the last nine years.  I need time and maybe some help in order to heal emotionally.

Indeed, I’ve been in and out of counseling for the last year, and I believe it’s helped me have the courage to keep moving forward as much as I have. I may need another year of it to fully heal. At some point, I will heal, but I will never get over it, because “dying” has changed the way I look at life, for better or for worse.

Someday, I will realize that I haven’t had a bad flare in years. I will realize that I’ve been living my life, and PANS hasn’t hindered it. Then, I will exhale, and PANS will only be a scar—but always an indelible mark on who I am.  I can’t “get over it,” but I can choose to keep living and fighting for all that I once lost.

ADHD: The Struggle Is Real

With ADHD, I'm forever fighting the passage of time.

With ADHD, I’m forever fighting the passage of time.

It’s 3 AM on a Saturday night, and I’m not even close to being ready to sleep. Am I out late partying like some other college students? No, I’m unwillingly sitting on the couch doing nothing and putting off going to bed for no good reason, after trying and failing to get any homework done all day long.

I am full of energy all the time. But the problem is, I can’t focus any of it, so it’s completely useless. I go from one thing to the next without finishing anything. I try to complete a task, but there’s always something that catches my attention before I even realize I’ve become distracted. My mind is always buzzing with new ideas, forming connections and taking in the world around me.

I have a big problem with all the jokes about ADHD and people saying they’re “so ADHD” or “just a little ADD today,” because for me, the condition is a daily struggle that can get in the way of everything I do. My inability to concentrate has, in the past, been completely disabling to the point that my mom used to stand outside my bathroom door to prompt me through the three-step process of getting ready for bed. If she didn’t, I could take as long as three hours.

Although I certainly had the classic, sudden-onset OCD characteristic of PANS when I was eleven, the sudden appearance of ADD was the most obvious and alarming for me and my family. I went from being a straight-A student who always got my work done easily to taking half-an-hour to read a single page of a textbook.

Overnight, it became as if I were in slow-motion. I would get “stuck” sitting on the floor of my room for hours because I lacked the willpower or mental energy to get up—even though I wanted more than anything to do so. I was so embarrassed and angry at myself for being that way, yet I felt utterly powerless to do any differently.

Over the years, after being diagnosed with ADHD Inattentive Type, I tried Concerta, Vyvanse, and even Nuvigil, and none of them ever helped my concentration—except perhaps Nuvigil, to a mild extent. I was sent to therapists to learn organizational skills and coping strategies, and none of them ever worked. How could severe ADHD suddenly develop in an eleven-year-old, and why didn’t the treatments help?

But when I was seventeen and finally figured out I’d had OCD for years, I thought maybe I’d found the missing piece in the puzzle. My psychologist told me that OCD can often be misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD, so maybe with OCD treatment, my “ADD” symptoms would disappear. Indeed, a lot of my problems with reading had stemmed from a mental compulsion of constantly cancelling out all of the intrusive thoughts that the words on the pages triggered.

But today, even though my OCD is minimal, I still have trouble finishing a task, I still get overwhelmed when starting any assignment, and I still have too much energy to focus on one thing. By any metric, I have signs of classic adult ADHD—as does my dad, who definitely doesn’t have PANS. If ADHD is genetic, is this just how my life is always going to be?

Yet I believe there is one last piece of hope… There is no such thing as late-onset ADHD, unless it’s been caused by a brain injury or another disorder (ahem, PANS!).  People don’t just suddenly develop ADHD symptoms when they’re eleven, and I had no signs of ADD or ADHD all throughout my childhood until the other PANS symptoms showed up. So maybe, just maybe, my brain is still healing, and this ADHD struggle will someday end.

But even if I’ll always have some ADHD, it somehow hasn’t prevented me from making it through two years of college (albeit with a lot of determination) and from going after my dreams.  I may struggle, but I’m not going to let it stop me…

Why I’m Glad I Got Sick

With PANS, getting sick has always been so much worse than just a runny nose...

With PANS, getting sick has always been so much worse than just a runny nose…

It was the first full week of class, and just like Freshman year, I had gotten sick. My body ached. My head pounded. I felt exhausted.

When you have PANS, getting sick is often far worse than just feeling tired and congested—in the past, a simple virus could send me into a full-blown flare of severe OCD, panic attacks, involuntary movements, and even hallucinations. So naturally, when my nose started running last week, all I could think about was how much I didn’t want to flare. I couldn’t have cared less about the cold symptoms themselves.

And so for the next few days, as I gorged myself on oranges and took copious amounts of Vitamin C and tried to rest as much as possible, I braced myself for the coming disaster. I thought about how it used to feel when I flared—that sensation that someone was taking my mind out of my head. I remembered those times when I felt like a monster was swallowing me up, and I dreaded this impending doom.

Last week, I waited for the flare to come… And waited… But it never really came.

True, I did have a slight increase in symptoms: some barely noticeable tics, a little bit of memory problems, and some OCD. The worst was one night when I was afraid that everything in my apartment was contaminated with MRSA, but I was able to mostly ignore it, go to bed, and wake up the next day with the obsession gone. So I wouldn’t consider the symptom increase a flare, because it was mild and didn’t last long, and I never felt like I was completely losing myself.

In a strange way, it was a privilege to just get sick and feel bad for a few days. This time, I didn’t have to do a Prednisone burst and have my mom stay with me while I was almost out-of-my-mind—I just needed to rest to get over the cold like anyone would have to.

You see, I haven’t gotten sick without flaring in at least two years. During Freshman year, that seemingly harmless sore throat set my whole life on fire, triggered sleep issues that led to a misdiagnosis of narcolepsy, and marked the beginning of a year-long decline. But this time, so far, whatever I caught has had no serious consequences.

For months, I’ve been saying that I’d know I was better when I could get sick without flaring, and now, it’s happened. I’m not glad to have been under the weather this week, but I’m glad that getting sick confirmed I’m no longer sick with PANS as I once was. Although in certain areas of my life I still struggle, I’d like to think that now, I’ve not just recovered from this virus—I’ve recovered from the worst of PANS.

The New Me… Maskless

Getting better is like taking off a mask...

Recovering from PANS is like taking off a mask…

A few days ago, as I strapped on my backpack and headed out the door for the first day of the school year, I couldn’t help but be excited to start my first semester as a healthy person. How wonderful it would be to do college without debilitating neurological symptoms!

As I’ve said in previous posts, I never know how ill and out-of-it I’ve been until I get better. While I’ve always known when there was something “off” about me, I’ve not always been aware of the severity of it at the time—by definition, this is partly what made me “out-of-it.” The more I’ve recovered, the more of myself I’ve realized I’d lost to PANS.

Few circumstances have revealed my losses and subsequent recovery more than going back to school this week because of the stark contrast between this year and last year. It’s been made clear to me by how much easier everything is (even though I’m swamped with homework) and by others’ reactions to the new me—or more accurately, to the real me that many of my friends have never known.

Last fall, it was terrible going back to class, sitting at my desk with obvious and constant muscle jerks that I’d developed overnight during the summer. And I knew everyone could still see a large bruise on my arm from a failed IV stick, along with a puffy moon face and the worst acne imaginable from high-dose Prednisone. I was sure that my classmates who’d seen me before must’ve been wondering what happened to me over the summer, but I was too ashamed and traumatized to explain.

Perhaps the worst part about going back to school last year was that anyone I’d known well from Freshman year could tell that I was hardly even a shadow of myself, not because I was pale, moon-faced, and too thin, but because my personality had evaporated.  The brightness in my eyes was gone. I didn’t look at people—I looked “through” them. Conversations washed over me, because I couldn’t understand or concentrate on what was being said. My friends later admitted that I seemed distressed and not completely there.

During that time, I once had a nightmare in which someone forced me to wear a terrible mask everyday, but that’s exactly how my life felt—I had been forced to wear terrible symptoms all the time that obscured who I truly was.

But now, that mask has fallen off, and I’m not ashamed of who I appear to be.

So this year, as I walked (yes, I walk just fine now) through the halls between classes and later met with my professors, I got all sorts of wonderful and interesting reactions to the face everyone can now see without the mask:

“You seem a lot calmer than last semester.”

“You seem to to be concentrating well.”

“You look so healthy!”

“You look great!”

“Have you been running a lot? I can tell you have!” (This person doesn’t know about my struggles, so running was how she accounted for the change.)

While it’s disturbing to realize how far gone I once was and to know that my illness may have been more obvious than I thought, I’m glad that everyone sees the real me now and not that wretched mask. I’m so ready to dare hope I’ve taken it off for good…

Why This Year Isn’t Last Year

Time to Pull Out the Textbooks Again...

Time to pull out the textbooks again…

This week, I’ll be starting my third year of college. While this may not seem like a big deal, to me, it feels like a miracle, considering how sick I was just a couple months ago.

I’ve been doing very well ever since my tonsillectomy. However, it’s one thing to be well while resting at home and taking it easy; it’s another to stay well while keeping up with academics and everything else that goes along with college. My remaining symptoms could interfere tremendously with school work: difficulty concentrating, reading comprehension issues, task inflexibility, and some other executive function problems. How can anyone do college with these symptoms?

Sometimes, I still feel bad about myself for having such a hard time doing the simplest things—just getting ready for bed and planning the next day can be an ordeal because of my cognitive symptoms. Sometimes, I think they’ll never go away, because they’ve been with me for the past nine years with no break. Is this always how I’m going to have to live? How long can I keep pushing past these obstacles?

As I’ve been packing and unpacking my things this week and making the journey back to school, I’ve been remembering how terribly difficult the last school year was with all of the cognitive symptoms, frequent flares, depression, panic attacks, and bad OCD.

I’ve also been remembering how exhausting my first year of college was, when I tried to function and go to class but instead spent the majority of each day trying (and failing) to stay awake…  After as much as twenty hours of sleep.

This week, I’ve been remembering all of the lonely nights during these last two years of college when I’ve crumpled into a bawling heap on my dorm room floor, wishing I hadn’t decided to stay in school while so ill.

College, so far, has been anything but what I dreamed it would be. But now, I’m beginning to hope that this year will be different.

Today, I’m much better than I was even a few months ago, so I’m choosing to believe that this year is not last year—everything won’t be miserable this time. This year, instead of putting all of my limited effort into earning straight A’s, I can start learning to thrive in all areas of my life. This year, I can finally enjoy my college experience.  This year, I can pursue the dreams my illness tried to take away.

I don’t know how I’ve made it through two years of college with PANS and a 3.96 GPA, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have to continue working around my cognitive issues, but I do know that this is a new year and a new chance. I just have to let go of the pain of the past and the anxiety of the future and hold onto the opportunities I have now as the (mostly) healthy person I am.

Am I Twenty or Twelve?

P1030195-small

A flower is mature, yet fragile and innocent… Like me

After battling PANS for the past nine years of my life, I’ve been forced to grow up too quickly while being stuck as a child. I’ve had to mature to face up to my circumstances, but I’ve had to count on my parents to take care of me more than most others my age have.

At twenty years old, I’ve never held down a consistent, weekly job. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never gone on anything beyond a day trip with my friends without an “adult” present. Over the last year, I’ve let my parents make many decisions for me, because I’ve known I couldn’t trust my own judgement. In many ways, I feel like a young teenager.

On the other hand, I aged twenty years the night that my OCD first came on. I realized that your whole world could be turned upside down in one moment. I shouldered the burden of upsetting intrusive thoughts for six years without telling anyone. I learned what it was to live in constant pain—physical and emotional—and to go on in spite of it. I figured out how to overcome tremendous obstacles in order to graduate high school and eventually get accepted to my dream college.

As a result of PANS, I’ve gained a perspective on life that some people twice my age don’t have. After fighting this utterly debilitating disease, I’ve learned to not take life and health for granted. I’ve learned that our brains and minds are fragile—but that human beings can be unbelievably resilient. Not a day goes by without me thinking about how fortunate I am to be alive and (mostly) well.

The trouble is that being both young and old at the same time makes it hard to relate to others of the same chronological age. I can’t party and go places like my peers do, because I don’t have the mental energy, and I’d prefer to get a good night’s sleep. This is preposterous to so many people. Why should a twenty-year-old have a bedtime? No matter how hard I try, even when I feel great, I can’t just be carefree anymore. I feel old, because my experiences have stirred up the waters of worry and cautiousness about every situation.

At the same time, I feel childish and somewhat inferior for my lack of stamina and independence. I sent in an application for my first real job this semester, and it got accepted, but I decided that I couldn’t count on having fifteen hours a week to spare—and this while taking a reduced course load to accommodate my lingering cognitive challenges. So will I ever become independent? Am I always going to feel like a woman-child, reliant on my parents for everything?

I wish I could just be twenty. I wish I could grow up and be an adult. I wish I could get younger and not worry about my health.

What I Wish I Knew Before IVIG

There are some things doctors don't tell you about recovery...

There are some things doctors don’t tell you about recovery…

Last week, I celebrated the one-year mark since my first IVIG. It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, yet my recovery has seemed to go so much slower than I thought it would.

There are many things that no one ever told me before my first IVIG. I was warned about the fatigue and nausea and headaches afterward and the post-IVIG flare that would come in a few weeks. I was even warned it could take a year before all my symptoms went away, but I was never told what that year might be like.

So I decided to write a letter to my pre-IVIG self. Everyone has a different recovery road. Some people heal in less time than I’ve taken, and others take longer. This is what I would’ve found helpful, but I’d love to know what my fellow PANS warriors wish they’d known before treatment, too…

Dear Me,

You’re in for a crazy ride. You’re sick right now (and don’t even realize how bad it is), but you’re going to get better. You’re going to return to yourself. There will come a day when you are tormented no more. There will come a day when you enjoy your life again. There will come a day when you can spend time with your friends. There will come a day when you are able to eat without getting nauseous and anxious. There will come a day when you don’t have involuntary movements during every waking moment.

But it’s going to be a hard journey that will require you to fight harder than you think you can fight. Along the way, you will have awful flares. You will have times when you are terrified of yourself again. You will have times when you want to give up. You will have times when you will be mad at your parents for wanting to save you. But you’re stronger than you’d ever dare to believe, and you’re going to come out of this more alive than you were before you got ill.

During those times when you seem to be getting worse or going in circles, remember that there isn’t a straight path to recovery. Sometimes, you will take two steps forward and one step back. Other times, you will take two steps back and one step forward. IVIG is the beginning of recovery—not the end. Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t happen overnight like the onset of PANS—it often happens so slowly that you won’t notice you’re getting much better.

Still, even if you know you’re moving forward and that PANS isn’t a permanent illness, there will be moments when you’ll be sure you can’t go on another day. When you feel like that, take some ibuprofen and remember how far you’ve already come. If you’ve made it this far, you can make it the rest of the way to healing.

It will be a long road, and you’re going to feel sad and angry and confused sometimes. Lean on the people who care about you, and don’t look down on yourself for fighting this disease. It isn’t your fault. Give yourself permission to take it easy, and don’t feel bad about it. You are battling a serious illness, and your body needs rest in order to heal.

There will be a lot of days when you don’t feel like yourself, but you are still in there. You are ill, but you are not broken or any less of a person for having this disease. Don’t give up. Better days ahead.

“You’re Better.”

It's a new day!

Everything is different now, like a new day

 “You’re better.”

Those are two words I never thought I’d hear from my doctor. But this week, I finally did.

As my mom and I made the trip to my doctor’s office this week, I couldn’t help but feel that things were different this time—and most of all, that I was different. I was more present. I was more aware. I was bright-eyed again. I was finally myself.

This time, unlike my last visit in May, I opened the office doors myself, grabbing the handles without flinching. I pushed the elevator buttons. I sat in the waiting room chairs without thinking about Lysoling myself when I got home. I realized that contamination OCD was finally letting me go.

As I waited and heard the beeps from the IVIG pumps of other patients in the rooms down the hall, I figured out that it was a year ago to the day that I was sitting in those same infusion chairs for the first time.

But one year, a tonsillectomy, and an additional IVIG later, I’d returned—literally and mentally.

My transformation over the last year has been nothing short of miraculous. Last summer, I could hardly walk, I couldn’t eat much, I couldn’t stay awake, and I could never be still because I constantly had involuntary movements. In those days, I would look in the mirror and be frightened, because the person staring back at me wasn’t me—it was a burdened soul whose face showed the deepest torment and despair. It was someone who only looked like me, who carried the weight of the world in a malnourished body.

But when it was my turn to see the doctor this week, after I reported on my lack of symptoms and the strange tonsil infection that was no more, and after she saw that the dark cloud that once enveloped me was gone, I received the pronouncement I’ve dreamed of for the last year:

“You’re better.”

I’ve known I was 95% symptom-free for a few weeks, but to have a doctor say so made the elation and amazement finally hit me. Better… In remission… Done with this terrible disease… How can it be for real?

As for the other 5%, I still look forward to getting it back. I’ve been having trouble with speech and word retrieval lately. Sometimes, sentences come out of my mouth as nonsense syllables with the rhythm and tone of normal speech, and the English words I do say aren’t always the right ones. Sometimes, I have a hard time comprehending what I read or what people say to me.  Sometimes, I still get tics, and once in a blue moon, I fall down when I walk from my legs giving out.

“Executive function problems and movement issues are often the last things to leave,” my neurologist said. But the fact that I have so few other symptoms and have improved so dramatically after tonsillectomy suggests that it’s only a matter of time before I get to 100%.

If all goes as planned, I won’t be going back for any more follow-ups for another year, and I’ll be continuing on antibiotics, Plaquenil (an anti-inflammatory), Wellbutrin, and the same vitamins/supplements at least through this next year. But I’m tapering off Prednisone for good now!

It’s hard to believe that I’m 95% symptom-free, in remission, and not expected to relapse. I’m shocked to think that my nine-year nightmare is finally coming to an end.  Most of all, I’m so relieved and grateful.

To anyone out there who thinks they’ll never recover from PANS… Keep fighting, and you’ll get there, no matter how hopeless it seems right now. Don’t give up. Someday, you, too, will hear those powerful words: You’re better.

Did I Lose My Mind to a… Sink?

Could a dirty sink trigger an autoimmune attack in my brain?

Could a dirty sink trigger an autoimmune attack in my brain?

Serratia marcescens… What in the world is that? An Italian dish? An exotic island town? Neither. It’s the name of a bacteria that you’ve probably never heard of—a bacteria that had taken up residence in my tonsils.

Serratia can be found anywhere, but it thrives in hospitals and in damp spaces like bathrooms. If you see a pink or orangish ring around a drain (such as mine, pictured above), it might be Serratia. Most people never have trouble living near the organism, but for some, it can cause serious problems. It can attack the heart. It can cause urinary tract infections. It can live in the gut. It can even cause bacterial meningitis. For me, having it in my tonsils was likely an ongoing trigger making my immune system attack my brain.

But I never would’ve imagined I had this bacteria in my tonsils, especially since they looked small and healthy before they were removed. Although I’ve been having fewer PANS symptoms since my tonsillectomy, I was incredibly skeptical that there would be any infection found, let alone something as strange as Serratia. For years, I’ve been accustomed to undergoing all manner of blood work and tests only to have negative results.

But the other day, as I logged into the online portal to read the pathology report on my tonsils and adenoids, I was shocked to see the words, “Serratia marcescens tonsillitis.” The bacteria were not only in both of my tonsils, but in my adenoids as well, along with white blood cells. Interestingly, there wasn’t a trace of Strep or Mycoplasma pneumoniae or MRSA or any of the other more common findings in PANDA tonsils.

After months of not knowing why I was flaring every two to three weeks, I finally had a possible explanation.

I called my GP and shared the news, and she wanted to rule out an infection in any other part of my body. This meant sticking what looked like a long Q-tip up my nose, another around my butt, having me pee in a cup, and another needle-stick in my arm for a blood culture. All of these cultures came back negative, so it turns out that I’m infection-free now!

It’s unnerving to think that I had no idea there was a terrible bacteria living in part of my body this whole time. It’s even more unsettling to realize that an occult infection was essentially making me lose my mind. This is the kind of thing that could be the premise of a Sci-fi horror movie… But it’s just real life for me.

Although having this bacteria in my tonsils could explain my very frequent flares, I will always wonder: how did I get Serratia in the first place? Maybe it was the dirty sink or my orange-stained shower curtain. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll never know. All I know is that I’m 90-95% symptom free with my tonsils and the infection gone. Whatever provoked my immune system to attack my brain and ruin my mind is gone now.

So what’s next? I’ve gone seven weeks without a flare—the longest flare-free period in the last year. If I do have another major flare again, my doctor wants me to do a three-week course of Bactrim instead of a Prednisone burst, because maybe, I’ve been flaring whenever I’m fighting off Serratia. Unfortunately, S. marcescens is resistant to many antibiotics, including penicillan-based antibiotics, so the Augmentin XR I’ve taken since October has offered no protection against it.

As for the sink… My mom has since scrubbed it out with bleach—same with the shower curtain. In order to kill this bacteria, you need to use bleach or hydrogen peroxide; it’s resistant to many other household disinfectants. I know this because, strangely, I did a long Biology report in high school about preventing S. marcescens infections.  For all I know, the whole time, the bacteria was living in my own tonsils. Oh, the irony!

Now, I’m Serratia-free, and my bathroom appears to be, too. I may not know for sure how I became infected, but one thing is certain: I’ll never again look at another pink ring in a sink in the same way!

Why Bedtime Can Be Terrifying

How can you sleep when the PANDAS bear follows you to bed?

How can you sleep when the PANDAS bear follows you to bed?

Tap, tap, tap.

It’s 2 AM, and someone is at my bedroom door. I bolt awake and hold still so they don’t know I’m in the room. I slowly reach for my phone and think about texting my parents to come help me.

But I’m all alone. No one is at the door.

I’m hallucinating again.

I try to tell myself that what I heard wasn’t real. I try to tell myself that my brain is playing tricks on me again. But no matter what I do, I’m afraid. I may be twenty years old, but sometimes, I still ask my mom to sleep in my room because falling asleep can be so frightening.

When I’ve been at my worst, my hallucinations have also happened while I was wide awake. Usually, these hallucinations were just colored blobs floating around me, but the first time it happened, I was twelve and too scared to tell anyone, so I wrote about in my journal:

Journal Entry

“I was lying in my bed… When I looked at the lower left hand corner of the bed, I saw a clearish thing with two black dots, about two inches from top to bottom. I think I saw a spirit of some kind. Be it an angel or a fallen angel or something else that I’m unaware of, I don’t know. I’m a bit freaked out right now.”

If you think seeing “spirits” around my bed or having an auditory hallucination of someone knocking on my door is terrifying, last fall, I woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a giant black bear snarling at me next to my bed. In the moment, it was completely real to me, and I screamed. But I quickly realized the only bear in my apartment that night was the PANDAS bear in my brain…

More recently, if I’ve hallucinated, they’ve been mild auditory hallucinations such as the tapping noise at my door, and they only happen while falling asleep or waking up (hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations). Now, I’ve managed to go several weeks without a nighttime hallucination, but I still worry about it happening sometimes.

Right now, what makes bedtime so difficult is that, for the first hour I’m in bed, I often go through periods of being half-asleep and then suddenly startling awake. My thoughts begin to turn into half-asleep dreams, and out-of-nowhere, a troubling (and often irrational) idea comes and disturbs me so much that I wake up:

Oh no! I say to myself. I must not believe in God anymore.

My eyes spring open, and I try to talk myself down from the troubling thought: It’s just my OCD. It’s not true. I can’t decide anything about my faith in a state like this. I need to just go back to sleep.

A few minutes later, I fall asleep, and it happens again:

Oh my gosh! What would’ve happened if I’d fallen off that cruise ship I was on five years ago?! I could’ve died.

Just as I’ve calmed my mind and gone back to sleep, I’m bothered again:

Wait a minute… Did I really pass all my classes this semester? Wasn’t there something else I needed to do?

The first week after my tonsillectomy, after a couple days when the swelling went down, I had no trouble falling asleep because of the narcotics. Now that I’m healed and off the pain killers, I’ve had less nights of startling awake with fear, but I still wake up more often than I should. Bedtime still isn’t easy, because I’m still anxious about getting in bed in the first place.

The way I see it, bad things happen in bed… My OCD onset happened when I was eleven while I was in bed. My worst panic attack ever and the start of my chorea movements happened last summer while I was in bed. I’ve seen growling bears and floating “demons” while in bed. I’ve woken up with my arms completely numb and paralyzed in bed. I’ve woken up screaming for no apparent reason while in bed.

Sometimes, I think a lot of the anxiety I experience now isn’t a symptom of my disease anymore so much as a consequence of having lived with it for so long. How could I not be anxious about a part of my day that has been so unpleasant for me for so many years? How could I not worry about frightening hallucinations happening again?

Earlier in the summer, my nighttime symptoms were so bad that my psychiatrist wanted me to take anti-psychotics before bed. But now, I think the best thing for me is to work through the anxiety and relearn to think of sleep as, not a time of torment, but a time of rest.

Tonsillectomy and… Hope?

So Many Popsicles

My breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

When I first found out that I needed a tonsillectomy, I made three appointments with three different doctors at two hospitals. While this may sound excessive, based on past experiences, I knew the first doctor or two might refuse to do the surgery as soon as I mentioned PANDAS, especially since my tonsils looked healthy on the outside.

Indeed, when my records were sent to the first doctor, my appointment was cancelled within two hours and my case passed to a different doctor in the practice.

Sadly, more often than not, telling a doctor you have PANDAS is just asking to be laughed at and dismissed. Many doctors don’t believe in PANDAS (let alone the newer term PANS) because they’re unaware of the growing research and evidence, and others don’t know enough to take it seriously.

Most doctors, if they believe PANDAS/PANS exists at all, assume it is extremely rare and only presents in a young child as an obvious, overnight onset of OCD. This is certainly the most common presentation, but according to Dr. Swedo, the idea that PANDAS only exists in prepubescent children was an arbitrary distinction for the original study. Still, in the minds of most doctors, to have me, a twenty-year-old, say I have this obscure pediatric disorder is preposterous (never mind that it started before I hit puberty).

While my case being dropped by the first doctor seemed like a bad sign, when I met with the new doctor at my appointment, he knew more about PANDAS than most and actually agreed to do the surgery after I told my story and explained the severity of my symptoms.

So that’s how I found myself last week trustingly lying in an operating room at the same hospital that had failed me so many other times over the years.

This was the hospital that discharged me from the ER last summer without a single test when I suddenly had severe chorea movements. This was the hospital whose neurologists had said PANDAS was “too poorly understood” to be considered as an explanation for my rapid decline. This was the hospital whose psychologists completely missed my severe OCD when I was twelve. Disturbingly, this was also the hospital consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation.

But last week, the hospital redeemed itself to me.

As I waited in the pre-op room, sniffing, grunting, and twitching involuntarily from my latest tics, I actually felt as though everyone not only believed me, but actually wanted to help me. I usually feel like I have to fight for every little bit of care I get, but this time, they were fighting for me. This time, I didn’t have to partially cover up my diagnosis by only saying I have Autoimmune Encephalitis (but not PANS). Everyone knew my full diagnosis, but they were all-the-more eager to help.

My operating room was crowded with residents, interns, and medical school students trying to get a look at this unusual creature—this real, live PANDA bear—because they saw that we exist outside of a “theoretical disease” briefly mentioned in their textbooks. There were whispers of my case in the halls—not because they were mocking my diagnosis as usual, but because they were fascinated. These young doctors genuinely wanted to learn about PANDAS/PANS so that someday, they could perhaps know how to treat their own patients with the disorder.

For the first time, doctors at a regular hospital were giving my illness the attention it deserves—and giving me the treatment I needed.

If there’s one word I felt to describe the day, it would be “hope.” I felt hope because more doctors finally believed in my disease. I felt hope that someday, other PANDA’s from my hometown wouldn’t have to travel to out-of-town specialists for treatment—someday our own “world-class” hospital might treat more of us. Most of all, I felt hope that I had finally found the treatment that would bring me back the rest of the way…

Ever since I came out of surgery, I haven’t had a single tic.  The day before, I’d developed two new vocal tics that got more and more disruptive as the day went on.  I know—tics usually increase with anxiety.  But why have I also found myself suddenly carrying out fewer and fewer compulsions this week—and not getting extremely anxious over not doing them?

As always, there are a lot of variables at work.  Still, I can’t deny that, aside from a sore, gnarly-looking throat and fatigue from leftover anesthesia, I’m feeling great in every other way.  (And I’m not in nearly as much pain as people tried to scare me into thinking I’d be in.)  To me, what happened this week is a good enough reason to keep hoping for continuing progress.

Goodbye, Tonsils

Dairy-free ice cream

I don’t even wanna know how many pints of this I’m about to eat…

With one day left until my surgery now, it’s been an interesting week. For the first time in eleven months, I’ve stopped antibiotics completely, so as not to influence the tonsil and adenoid cultures that will be performed. The doctors also told me to stop all supplements, so my pill cases have been extraordinarily empty these last few days (a much-welcomed sight!). Although I’ve had a slight increase in tics, trouble concentrating, and more trouble falling asleep, I haven’t noticed nearly as much of a difference as I expected.

Strangely, after the flare a couple weeks ago, I’ve been doing quite well. I still have a decent amount of OCD and significant problems with falling asleep, but I barely have any choreiform movements. I’ve been walking around the house expecting that weird, limp feeling in my legs that makes me fall down, but it just doesn’t happen anymore. I’m not even depressed, either.

Naturally, this has me wondering why I’m about to go through all this pain and hassle to get my tonsils out when I seem to be doing okay now. What if I’m actually heading for healing now? What if they culture my tonsils and find there was nothing in them? I’m twenty. I legally don’t have to do what anyone tells me. I can decide to back out of the surgery.

But what if I am about to flare again? What if my tonsils are riddled with strep or another infection?

So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I don’t really have a choice in getting my tonsils and adenoids out. I have to comply. All of my doctors—including my neurologist and my psychiatrist and obviously the otolaryngologist who is doing the surgery—agree that it needs to be done.

I’m trying to not let myself be nervous, but it’s almost impossible for someone who has existing anxiety issues. My tactic is to not think about it. I comfort myself with the knowledge that I won’t remember the surgery since I’ll be asleep. I try not to let myself think about the idea that the doctors could make a mistake. I try not to worry about having bleeding problems afterwards that send me to the ER (it apparently happens more frequently in adults).

So what about the inevitable pain afterwards?  (I’m warned that it will hurt a lot more since I’m an adult.) Well, that’s why I have narcotics. I didn’t even touch my Percocet when I had my wisdom teeth out a few years ago, though, so I like to think my pain threshold is pretty high. Besides, I’m sure that there is absolutely nothing more painful than my OCD once was. If I got through that, then no sore throat—no matter how miserable—will get me down.

My surgery won’t be until the early afternoon, which unfortunately means I have a whole morning to worry about the procedure. But because I have the whole morning, I decided that I’m going to go for a run. For me, running makes everything better. It also has the added benefit of making me not hungry for at least an hour afterwards (and I have to fast for the surgery), so if I time it right, I’ll have just enough time tomorrow morning to go for a run, get rehydrated, take a shower, gather my things, and then head to the hospital. I’m getting rid of all the extra time I could spend worrying.

Still, it might not be an easy couple of weeks. Even if I do like ice cream, it’s not going to be a fun time. But I’m going to get through it. Who knows? Maybe it will be apparent that I needed the surgery after all. Perhaps saying goodbye to my tonsils will be saying hello to complete healing.

Happy Birthday, Dreaming Panda

Cake

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my blog. To say it’s been an incredible year doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’ve come such a long way since I first started writing about this difficult journey—and so has this blog…

Last June, I’d hit rockbottom. I was in such bad shape and declining so much that I thought I’d die. Although I was otherwise dysfunctional to the point of not being able to walk, not eating, and not being able to speak coherently, I was able to write. In the countless hours my family spent researching PANDAS/PANS on the internet, they’d never found a blog written by a PANS patient. I thought maybe I could change that. I hoped that maybe by sharing my experiences, I could help someone else going through the same thing. So I started a blog.

I’ve been through so much in the last year of blogging… I finally got an official diagnosis of PANS. I had two IVIGs. I spent almost a year on Prednisone (and am still tapering off). I’ve had more horrific flares. I’ve re-started CBT/ERP therapy for my OCD. And next week, I will have a tonsillectomy and andenoidectomy. But I also ran a half-marathon and completed another year of college. Slowly, I’ve been getting my life back and shedding symptoms so gradually that I often barely notice. But yes, I’m getting better.

As I’ve shared every step of my recovery, I’ve had many amazing responses from you all. Some parents have said that what I’ve written has helped them understand what their child must be going through. Some have shared stories that make me cry—sometimes because of how much the person is struggling, other times because of an astounding recovery. Some parents have said my writing makes them cry because their family is going through the same thing. Some people have said things that helped give me the courage to keep fighting. Plus, I’ve had the opportunity to meet other teens with PANS.

The act of publishing my experiences (albeit anonymously) for the world to see has been of tremendous therapeutic value for myself, too.  Sometimes, writing has been the only thing I could make myself do, but being able to look back and see how far I’ve come has given me hope through the bad times.

The Dreaming Panda has been a humbling and unforgettable experience, especially as I’ve watched it turn into something that means something to people. Needless to say, every comment and private message has meant so much to me, because when I find out that my writing has touched someone or helped even in a small way, it helps me feel like something good can come out of this mess. While I’m never glad to hear that someone else is going through the same terrible things, I’m glad to know that maybe I’ve made just a small difference in someone’s life. So thank you for all of your responses!

As I head into this next year, I intend to keep going with The Dreaming Panda for a long time. Eventually, I plan to expand on this blog and make a book. I may be well on my way to recovery now, but sharing my journey has made me realize that there are thousands of other kids, teens, and even adults with a similar story—and some of them are far sicker than I ever was. Tragically, our illness has yet to be recognized by most doctors, hospitals, and even insurance companies. Our story needs to be told so that someday, it won’t take so many years for many of us to find the proper treatment.

So readers, I just wanted to thank all of you for the support, encouragement, and friendship you have shared with me along the way. I’m hoping that this next year brings complete healing and recovery for all of you and for me. 🙂

P.S. I’m looking for new topics to write about. I’d love to hear some ideas from you. Please share in the comments section!

Am I Nuts?

 

Nuts2-small

Recently, a new obsession has been poking my brain:

Am I nuts?

Given what my illness has put me through in the last year, it’s not an unreasonable concern. When I’ve had bad flares—which can consist of screaming out whatever disturbing thoughts are in my brain, running out of the house or throwing myself into walls, having all manner of bizarre involuntary movements, and being unable to focus my eyes—I would certainly appear “nuts” to an outside observer.

When I flare, I feel totally nuts myself, because so far, I’ve always maintained some sense that my behaviors are unreasonable (yet I cannot fully control them). I know that my unusual behaviors and obsessions are due to brain inflammation, but I’m concerned that others misunderstand me and secretly think I’m crazy. Even in flares, deep down, I still know who I am, but I worry that others can’t see me through the symptoms. I somehow also worry that everyone will think I’m nuts when I’m not in a flare.

If you were me, wouldn’t you sometimes wonder if you were, in fact, crazy—that it couldn’t possibly just be an autoimmune disease? If you daily lived with the knowledge that you could descend into frightening and bizarre symptoms at any moment, wouldn’t you feel you were some form of madwoman? I sometimes worry that my PANS isn’t real after all—that it really is “all in my mind” like I was told for eight years before my diagnosis.

One of the main symptoms of my illness is severe OCD and anxiety, so I naturally have a tendency to get stuck worrying about things that don’t even make sense to worry about. The fact that I worry so much only farther feeds my growing concerns for my sanity, since some of my anxieties and obsessions are quite irrational.

So I’m forever asking my parents, and sometimes my close friends, if they think I’m crazy. The answer is always no, but no matter what anyone tells me, I still worry. Being afraid of being crazy and constantly asking for reassurance on the subject can be a relatively common symptom of OCD, whether or not one has PANDAS/PANS. OCD is never satisfied and is never fully convinced. I want to be completely sure, with irrefutable proof, that I’m not nuts; such evidence doesn’t exist.

Like most of my obsessions, there’s always some small amount of truth in them—just enough to make me pay attention and worry about them. It is true that I act pretty strange during flares. However, I’m quite normal on most days. Besides, the fact that I’m concerned about my sanity proves that I’m not crazy at all.

Given that it’s my brain that was attacked by my antibodies, it’s understandable that I might question even my most basic assumptions about how I perceive the world. I don’t expect my anxiety about my sanity to relent any time soon, considering how frequently I still flare. But for now, I’ll do my best to ignore my OCD thoughts and believe that I’m not nuts—I’m a rational and intelligent person whose brain is irritated by bad antibodies. Most days, my illness isn’t obvious on the outside, so no one would have any reason to think I’m nuts.

PANS is a crazy disease; it’s a crazy reality that an infection or virus can trigger mental illness and behaviors that make one appear “nuts.” But people with PANS are not crazy—we are survivors, doing our best to get through each day and behaving rationally given the inflammation in our brains.

Another Flare, Another Decision

With PANDAS, it’s astonishing how much can change in one day. Last June, I developed a tic disorder and became unable to walk in just a few hours. I’ve spent the year that followed fighting to get my life back. One day this week, I flared again, and it’s already had astonishing repercussions…

After a week on Wellbutrin, I was starting to feel the closest to normal that I’ve felt in two years. It was like the summer before I went off to college—I had some OCD and anxiety but was mostly functional and otherwise healthy. Unfortunately, after five days of feeling great last week, I slowly fell back into depression. Then, I got a sore throat, a headache, and a cough.

Getting sick never just means being under-the-weather for a few days...

Getting sick never just means being under-the-weather for a few days…

A few days later, I lost it.

That night, I sat down in a recliner and cried for no apparent reason. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I ended up in the kitchen. I looked at the door to the street and thought to myself, I need to run.

I was too exhausted to actually leave, so instead, I slammed myself into a wall on purpose.

I didn’t actually want to hurt myself—I just felt like I needed to do it but didn’t know why. I think when a lot of PANDAs have flares, we’re not in control of anything we think or do anymore. It’s like an outside force comes and takes over. It’s my theory that our fight-or-flight instinct (controlled by the basal ganglia that’s irritated by our bad antibodies) goes totally haywire, telling us that we have to “fight” by doing strange actions.

During flares, I feel I either have to slam myself into a wall or run out of the house; this is my messed up version of “fight-or-flight,” but the only real danger is the malfunctioning instinct itself.

Thankfully, I realized what was happening, and I made myself go to the basement to tell my parents. At this point, I was sobbing and feeling utterly hopeless. A few minutes later, I began jerking violently. My movements were suddenly the worst they’d been in months.

The next morning, we spoke to my neurologist, and that’s when I got the news:

You need to get your tonsils and adenoids removed. There might be strep or another infection hiding in there.”

It’s not typical for someone whose had two IVIGs to continue to flare every two or three weeks like I do. I’ve been tested for all kinds of viruses and infections, and they’ve all been negative. Apparently, you can have something hiding in your tonsils and not have it show up in blood work. If I do have strep or another infection or virus in my tonsils, it makes sense that I’m having flares so regularly. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if the tonsils are the problem is to remove them.

At this point, I don’t much care what it takes to stop this disease. If surgery will do it, then fine. I’ve been warned that it could be very painful to have a tonsillectomy as a twenty-year-old, but you know what? I’ve been through so much worse. I’m not afraid of the pain.

But sadly, having surgery this summer means I might not graduate college on-time. I was counting on taking online classes from home to make up for the reduced load I took last year. How could I do research and write twenty-page papers on narcotics?

I thought about forgoing the surgery and continuing to force myself through my four-year plan, but I don’t want to anymore. Although I’ve made straight-A’s and won scholarships for outstanding work in the midst of everything, I’ve been miserable in the process. I want to thrive, not just academically, but as a whole person. I decided that it’s better to give myself a shot at getting better by having surgery and taking an extra semester to finish college.

Yet again, so much has changed in just one day, because taking an extra semester means delaying graduate school by an entire year—that’s a whole year I’ll have to figure out what to do with myself at home (maybe that’s when I’ll write my book!). It’s a lot to process, and I’d be lying if I said I was completely okay with it right now. But still, if taking my time with school and getting my tonsils out is what it takes to get me better, it’s a fair trade…

Let It Roll: OCD & Mountain Biking

Woods

Recently, I’ve taken up mountain biking, and strangely, there are a lot of parallels between becoming a mountain biker and overcoming OCD…

Ever since last summer, I’ve been apprehensive about getting on a bike, considering that my legs used to give out on me frequently when I walked. If one of these attacks happened as I rode a bike at 20 mph down a road, I could get seriously hurt.

But this week, I got back on my bike anyway and rolled into the woods, following a friend of mine who’s an avid mountain biker.

At first, the trail was smooth and wide, and I felt great. But then, to my horror, a patch of roots and rocks showed up right in front of me.  I braked hard and skidded to a stop.

“How can anyone ride over that?” I said.

“Just let it roll. Don’t think about it too much.”

Being a beginner, every little rock in the trail seemed like something to worry about. Surely my little bike tires couldn’t handle all that, right? But soon, I began to discover that things that seemed like a big deal really didn’t matter.

This is how the intrusive thoughts of OCD are. I have all kinds of crazy and upsetting thoughts popping into my head like the little bumps in the trail. My instinct is to put on the brakes and try to “go around” the thoughts by carrying out compulsions. But if I just let myself roll through them without being afraid they’ll send me over the handlebars, I end up having far less trouble. No matter how scary the thoughts seem, they’re only thoughts—they can’t hurt you if you just keep rolling.

As the day went on, I got more and more confident in my abilities. Before long, I was barreling down the trail over much larger roots and rocks. True, I was sometimes afraid of what I saw approaching, but I chose to ride over those things anyway. It wasn’t so much that I’d become a more skilled biker in a couple hours—it was that I’d simply begun to believe I could make it through the obstacles.

Similarly, the first time I went through CBT, learning to not carry out my compulsions initially seemed impossible. How could I possibly roll through the intrusive thoughts without canceling them? How could I get through my exposures? Over time, I began to learn that I could survive the anxiety that came with not doing my compulsions or following my rules. Before long, I was rolling through all kinds of terrible thoughts without doing any compulsions—and nothing bad ever happened. Once I’d tackled the smaller rocky thoughts, I could later learn to ignore the bigger, more challenging ones.

After several miles of biking through wooded, rocky, twisty trails, we rode back to the car, exhausted but high on endorphins. I was muddy and had a few scrapes from occasionally riding too close to thorn bushes, but guess what? I’d made it, even though I wasn’t sure I could. I never crashed once and had somehow had a blast.

“You know, I think you’re a natural at this,” my friend told me.

“Thanks! It must be my running legs,” I said.

But I know that it wasn’t just my fitness. It was because I’d had plenty of practice learning to push past fear and anxiety thanks to eight months of OCD therapy. Who knows? Maybe it can work the other way around, too. Maybe mountain biking will make me more confident about facing my fears in this summer’s CBT sessions…

The Day I Outran My Illness

Medal-small

There are some moments in life that you can never forget—moments when your whole world is turned upside, for better or worse. Living with PANS, a disease that sets in overnight and flares up in the same way, I’ve had more than my fair share of those life-changing moments.

However, another such moment (albeit a more positive one) happened on Saturday when I finished my first half-marathon: 13.1 slow, arduous miles.

That morning, as I squeezed my way through the crowd of 20,000 people and into my assigned corral at the start line, it was hard to believe that the time had finally come—the time to show that, in spite of my illness, I had earned my way into the throngs of runners who had also trained for this race relentlessly for months upon months.

I’ll never forget the feeling at the ten-second countdown as I stood at the front of my corral, staring down what seemed to be an endless stretch of asphalt. I’ll never forget the sinking realization that I had to depend only on my own body—one whose immune system once betrayed me in the worst way—to carry me through 13.1 miles of road.

Usually, before racing a half-marathon, one would’ve probably tried to run thirteen or more miles in training. I only got up to twelve because of an injury. Before the race, I hadn’t run more than eight miles at a time in over two months, so I felt extremely unprepared to run 13.1…

But the problem is that, once you’re there at the starting line, there’s no turning back. It’s a done deal. You have to at least try.

And the gun went off.

For the first two miles, I held my own at an easy pace. But although I was running steadily with a pace team, suddenly, it didn’t feel so easy anymore. I began to wheeze. My throat tightened up. I started to black out.

I watched helplessly as everyone left me crawling behind. There goes my two-hour goal, I thought to myself (before it occurred to me that I should probably find a medic or at least walk for a bit).

Only once in my life have I ever had an asthma attack, and it happened years ago—never during all of my difficult training runs for this race. To have something so unexpected happen precisely when I needed it not to happen was infuriating.

Being the stubborn and persistent person that I was, though, I kept running (well, more like waddling) for another mile, hoping it would pass. And of course it didn’t.

“I’m done. I can’t do this anymore!” I sobbed out-loud at mile three. “There’s no way I can possibly run ten more miles like this. Look at me! I can’t even breathe.”

But then, I began to think about how difficult the last nine years of my life have been. I thought about all the days I’d been sure I couldn’t possibly go on—yet I’d made it this far.  I thought about all the other kids out there with PANS and PANDAS and how I wanted to show that our disease doesn’t get to win.

I couldn’t quit. With tears streaming down my face and onto the road, I slowed down, hydrated, caught my breath, then kept going for ten miles more.

The race began to get smoother after that, but it was never easy.

I wanted to stop when I hit a large hill at mile six and was already exhausted before beginning the climb.

I wanted to quit when I had a second asthma attack at mile nine.

I wanted to give up when my legs burned with lactic acid at mile eleven.

I wanted to go home when I reached mile twelve and my entire back was screaming at me for being subjected to the impact for so many miles.

Nevertheless, after two hours and thirty-two minutes, I crossed the finish line—and won.  I may have run slowly, and I may have missed my time goal by more than half-an-hour, but that day, I outran PANS.

I won because I didn’t let my illness stop me.

I won because I overcame the paralysis attacks that plagued me last summer—and became a runner.

I won because I didn’t give up.

I won because I crossed a finish line that no one believed I’d cross.

My finish time no longer mattered—I won my own race.

I am still shocked that I pulled off a half-marathon, but I also know that I didn’t do it on my own. I surely never would’ve done it without the doctors and the treatments I’ve received. I wouldn’t have finished without the thousands of people who donated the plasma used in my IVIG infusions. I wouldn’t have finished without the physical therapists who fixed my knee when I injured it in training. I wouldn’t have finished without my family, friends, supporters, blog readers, and the thousands of people cheering on all the runners that morning.

So to all of you out there… Thank you!

I Don’t Know Anymore

Well, after dreading it and hoping and praying it wouldn’t happen again, I’ve just had another bad flare.

On my way to class last week, I overheard someone say she had Strep throat.

No. I can’t flare again, I thought to myself. It’s not going to happen. I’m still on antibiotics. I’ve had two IVIGs. I should have plenty of good antibodies if I’m exposed. I’ll be fine…

But then, when I got to class and saw one of my lab mates who hadn’t been around in a few days, I asked where he’d been—and immediately wished I hadn’t:

“Oh, I had strep throat. It was a really bad one!”

There was no way I hadn’t been exposed. My school seems to have a problem with Strep outbreaks, and even though I’m on antibiotics, I can still flare. My doctor explained to me that it’s like being “allergic” to Strep—just being around it, even if I don’t get a full-blown infection—could send my immune system into a tailspin.

I tried to convince myself that maybe this time would be different, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t right that it had taken me five hours to write a one-page paper the night before. I knew I suddenly had no concentration again. I knew I’d been ticking a little bit more. It all made perfect sense now.

Just as I was beginning to hope this was the extent of the flare, I finally fell off the cliff. The world began to slip away—it was that feeling of being stuck in a fog that separated me from everything else. I heard someone make a “bad” noise, and I became so anxious that I had to run into the gym to do a 9 mph sprint on the treadmill (in spite of the pain from my knee injury). The next day, I just started crying uncontrollably for no apparent reason. The depression came back.

“You know what this all means, don’t you?” I sobbed to my mom when I could finally call her.

“That you’re likely to need plasmapheresis. Yes, I know… Have you taken more Prednisone yet?”

“No! I’m sick of %$&^%$ Prednisone! I’m done with this ^%$&^% disease!”

I could hear my mom on the other end beginning to cry, too. Most days, my family and I can all hold it together and think about everything I’ve accomplished in spite of this illness. We can pretend that I’m mostly fine most of the time, but it’s moments like these that tear our hearts apart—moments when we are confronted with the worst of it and the realization of how helpless we are to fix it.

On top of not feeling like myself at all, I now had the added burden of worrying that my IVIG hadn’t worked. I knew I’d have to come home for the summer after all. I knew my neurologist might be suggesting plasmapheresis or Rituximab or another IVIG at my upcoming follow-up. I knew I couldn’t continue my Prednisone taper for the rest of the semester. I knew I really wasn’t okay yet, and I was devastated.

I ended up complying with my parents’ wishes and doing a 5-day burst of higher-dose Prednisone. As much as I hate the stuff, I hate the way I feel when I flare even more. I’m doing a lot better, but I’m still having tics and having trouble finding words and speaking in coherent sentences. But I’m more okay than I was.

I don’t know what my future holds anymore. Maybe I won’t have a flare this bad again—or maybe I really have stopped getting better. Maybe this IVIG will start to work soon—or maybe I’ll get off Prednisone this summer and discover that I’m still bordering on insanity without it. I don’t know. Only time will tell…

My First “Normal” Summer?

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This week, I have wonderful news… Instead of moving home for the summer like I’d planned, I’ve decided to remain at school to take classes and work.

While this may sound like a “normal” summer for an almost-20-year-old, for me, it’s a huge victory. Not too long ago, I hated everything and wanted nothing more than to go home and spend my summer lying on the couch or in bed (just like last summer). But now, I want to keep pursuing my dreams in this city—dreams that I’d pushed to the back burner for far too long because of my illness.

When I called my parents yesterday to inform them of my decision, I didn’t know how they’d react. I thought they might try to make me change my mind, but instead, they said my plans were, “the best news ever.”

“I feel great,” I said on the phone. “Really great.”

“How’s your OCD?” my mom asked.

And there was a long pause…

Recently, I’ve been having a hard time with sensory sensitivities.  If I feel certain sensations or see certain textures or hear certain sounds, I’m thrown into a flurry of compulsions and tics to try to get rid of the physical discomfort.

For example, I can’t stand it when my feet rub across the floor or the ground in a certain way. If it happens, I have to go “undo” it by stepping on the same spot again or rubbing something else in a “good” way.  Just thinking about the noise and the sensation makes me very anxious. When it gets really severe, sometimes I won’t move until I can convince myself that it wouldn’t be “that bad” if I accidentally made the sound happen.

“Well, mom,” I said, “It’s gotten to the point where I’ve considered putting rubber mats on top of all the carpet in the apartment…” (For some reason, sliding on rubber or plastic doesn’t bother me nearly as much.)

“That’s not good.”

“Yeah, I know. And then I had a couple of days when I could hardly eat… And I’m sleeping terribly and can’t stay awake without Provigil… And then there’s the ADD…”

“Well, what’s so great about how you’re feeling now?”

It’s very hard for me to identify what it is, much more to explain it, but I feel a night-and-day improvement compared to where I was before my most recent IVIG. I’ve previously written about how my perception of the world and my awareness has improved, but to put it another way:

I may still have symptoms, but my symptoms don’t have me.

I’m not completely consumed by this disease anymore. I have a life that isn’t just about fighting PANDAS. I’m doing everything I want to be doing—even if it takes me longer than most people, and even if it takes more effort. Yes, having PANS causes significant difficulties, but I’ve learned how to work around them somewhat, and I’ve come to accept my life for what it is right now.

Certainly, I’d prefer to not have any of the challenges that I have. I want this IVIG to take care of everything that’s left. I don’t want to be tossed into the throws of partial insanity when I finish my Prednisone taper next month (I’m down to 8mg now!). I want to stay at school over the summer like I’ve planned—and not in isolation at home after a plasmapheresis hospital stay.

But I suppose if push comes to shove, I still want to be cured more than anything else, so I’d go home for treatment this summer if I needed it…

For now, though, I’m going to keep living as if I’ll get to have a “normal” summer, because I like looking forward to something normal—even though I know there’s a possibility that I’ll have no choice but to go home…

What’s It Like to Survive a Flare?

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This week, I finally hit the post-IVIG flare that we were all dreading.  Thanks to a six-day burst of high-dose Prednisone, I’ve come out of it now, but I hope I don’t have to go through that ever again.  Unfortunately, I probably will.

Until my most recent IVIG, my flares were getting worse and worse.  One night a few weeks ago, I found myself spacing out at the kitchen table for about two hours, unable to make myself get up, because I had too many OCD compulsions. When I realized I’d been doing nothing for two hours and thought about how hard it would be to do anything with the burden of OCD, I just lost it—I spent twenty minutes walking around my apartment screaming and hitting the walls.

On another night, I similarly started screaming, but then ran outside and sprinted for half a mile in the rain at 1:30 in the morning. Shapes were rising out of the bushes during the run—shadows were everywhere… I realized I was hallucinating.

This week’s flare wasn’t nearly as bad—my latest IVIG seems to be damping things down.  This time around, my flare consisted of depression, feeling detached from everything and being “out-of-it,” some of the worst tics and choreiform movements since the summer, bad memory problems, and crying about everything for no reason.  The flare wasn’t pleasant, but at least I wasn’t hallucinating.

At this point, I’ve become a master of knowing when I’m about to flare. It’s true that all my flares happen very suddenly, but there are a few warning signs…

The first clue for me is that I start to have a hard time making myself do anything in the hours leading up to the flare. I lose interest in things. If I’ve made plans, I cancel them if at all possible. It’s almost like my body knows it needs to conserve energy to brace for the coming battle—before I consciously know it’s coming.

The second clue is that my physical pain suddenly gets worse. As a result of another condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, I’m almost always in some amount of pain, but this is different. I start to get this strange, dull ache all across the backs of my arms and sometimes in my legs, too.  Before this week’s flare, I went to bed and had that pain in my arms and thought a flare would be coming. The next morning, I had no other signs of flaring, but sure enough, that afternoon, I fell off the cliff.

Another sign of a coming flare is that my cognitive issues suddenly get worse—especially the word-finding problems.  I don’t know the names of everyday objects.  I try to articulate myself, but I say things in the wrong order and get the tenses of my verbs wrong. Sometimes I know how I want to say something, but it doesn’t come out of my mouth that way.  I find that increased word-finding difficulties might happen only a few minutes before the worst of the flare.

But what’s it like to experience a flare?  The tics and other movements are obvious. You can see the “look of terror” I get with my widened eyes. You can watch me having a panic attack. You can hear me yelling at my parents. You can notice me doing more compulsions than usual. If you could read my mind, you’d know that the looping, intrusive thoughts start happening much more often. But it’s more than all of that—flaring feels like losing yourself.  It’s like something outside of yourself takes control and snatches who you are away.

When I flare, it feels like someone is taking things out of my mind and hiding them—and refusing to tell me how to get anything back.  I look for the words to speak, but this monster has set them up in a high place I cannot reach. I try to remember what happened the week before, who that familiar face is that I’ve seen hundreds of times, or even what I was in the middle of doing, but it has all been stolen out of my mind, and I don’t know where the monster has put any of it—I just know it’s all gone.

When I flare, it feels like I’m living in another world, unable to traverse the chasm that is my mind in order to be with everyone else.  I know I can’t think clearly about anything, but I cannot specifically tell you what about me is “off.”  I may try to go about my day as usual, but the world doesn’t quite make sense, and I feel like I’m somewhere else. The scary thing is that I never know how far away I’ve been until I come back out of the flare—and then it’s like I have been away for a long time am rediscovering all the wonderful things about the world and the people around me.

Coming out of a flare is like getting the proper prescription at the eye doctor—you didn’t know what you had been missing until you saw clearly again. You knew things weren’t quite in focus, but you never could’ve imagined all the details you once missed—but now, everything seems even more beautiful since you can fully see it.

I often wonder how many more times I’ll have to go through these flares. I’m not myself at all when I flare, so I feel as though I’m living between the flares, hoping to have as full of a life as possible.  I go to college like everyone else. I have friends. I even make straight-A’s.  But I live with the constant reality that I could flare at any moment.

I try to live the life I want to live between the flares because when you never know when you’ll lose yourself next, you have to make the most of every moment and cherish each day that you get. I lose my perspective on everything when I flare, but if I can look at all I accomplish in the better times, I can maybe know on some level that I am still me—no matter how much each flare makes me feel otherwise.

IVIG #2: I’m Finally Aware

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I just finished my second, and hopefully last, IVIG treatment!

Recently, I’d been feeling like I’d made no progress with any of my symptoms after my first IVIG.  But strangely, it was the process of going back for another IVIG that showed me this was simply untrue.

When I had the first IVIG in August, if I got out of the chair to stand up and stretch my legs, I started doing a wild choreiform movement dance. I couldn’t even look at my doctor to talk to her because I was moving so much. I had to hold onto the IV bag pole to keep from falling down when I tried to walk down the hall to the bathroom.

This time, I hardly had any movements, and the ones I did have were barely noticeable to anyone besides me—except for when I took one spill in the hallway…

While my movement disorders have improved significantly, I’d say the main difference between last week and my August IVIG has been that, before my first IVIG, I don’t think I fully understood how serious this disease could be.

In August, I didn’t realize that, if it weren’t for the Prednisone burst that had brought me back a few weeks beforehand, I could’ve starved myself. It didn’t occur to me that if we hadn’t figured out I had PANS, I would’ve been locked up in a psych ward with constant monitoring so I wouldn’t hurt myself. I didn’t grasp that I needed IVIG to avoid a lifetime of mental illness, disability, and unimaginable suffering.

But now I get it.  Sometimes, it’s too much to process.  I simply cannot bear to think about what would’ve happened to me without treatment.  I nearly lost everything…

During the IVIG treatment this week, I was also well enough to understand how bad things still are—although it’s a good sign that I’m able to recognize this. I know that my general and social anxiety and OCD have been incapacitating, all of my executive functioning abilities are very poor, and everyday tasks are sometimes impossible.

But even if some of these symptoms aren’t much better than they were in August, my perception is much improved. It’s like someone has finally given me a pair of glasses for my mind, and I can finally see what I’ve been missing for so long. While it’s painful to know there’s so much I couldn’t see, it’s comforting to know I’m coming back in some ways.

Unfortunately, being more aware means I’m also able to worry more.  I worry because, if this IVIG doesn’t bring me back to 100%, I’ll be spending a month of my summer in isolation following a five-day plasmapheresis treatment in the hospital. If that fails, I’ll be going through Rituximab infusions—a form of chemotherapy.

I had big plans to take summer classes and get a job, but how can I plan anything when I have no idea whether I’ll be able to leave my house or not this summer? All I want is to not suffer so much—especially since I’m so conscious of my suffering now. I just want to be allowed to be myself.

Sometimes, I cannot sleep at night because I’m afraid I’ll never get back to who I am. Or even worse, I worry that I won’t know that I’m not completely better, and then I won’t get the treatment I need, and then I’ll slip into a relapse just as I’ve finally returned to a good life—and then I’ll go through this whole thing all over again.

But I don’t want to worry—I want to enjoy the improvements I’ve already seen after this second IVIG: my OCD almost completely disappeared overnight, my memory is much better, I’ve been able to contribute to discussions in my classes this week, and I’m even enjoying things again. This is wonderful, almost miraculous, news. Oh, that this trend would continue…

The Blame Game

After eight years of searching for a diagnosis and then finally discovering I had PANDAS, it wasn’t enough for my family and I to simply know what my illness was. We wanted to know what caused it and who or what could be responsible:

Why did I get sick? What could’ve been done so that this never would’ve happened?

We blamed the doctors for brushing me off for eight years. We blamed them for not being willing to consider thinking outside the box. We blamed them for giving me more and more diagnoses while never stepping back to consider a single cause for all of them—while we insisted there had to be one.

We blamed the psychologists for completely missing my severe OCD at my evaluation in 2008. We blamed them for telling my parents I simply had “social problems,” when in reality, my OCD symptoms were preventing me from expressing myself to the evaluators. We blamed them for not considering OCD avoidance behavior as an explanation when they knew my brother and much of my dad’s family had OCD.

I blamed myself for not talking to anyone about my obsessions for six years.  I blamed myself for unknowingly concealing the one condition (OCD) that eventually led to a PANDAS diagnosis.  I blamed myself for not trying harder to get better after I first got sick. I blamed myself for catching the mono that led to this terrible flare last year. I blamed myself for not believing I would get better after my first IVIG, and somehow, causing it to fail.

My parents blamed themselves for not knowing I had OCD for six years. They blamed themselves for not trying harder to find an answer. They blamed themselves for “letting” this happen. They blamed themselves for passing on the autoimmune disease genes/rheumatic fever history that may have contributed to my illness.

Yes, it’s true that some of the doctors and therapists I saw over the years made mistakes and didn’t try hard to find an answer. It’s true that we would’ve found out I’d had PANDAS sooner if I’d been able to talk about my OCD. And yes, it’s true that I’ve probably inherited my parents’ bad genes.

But in the end, no one can truly be blamed for my illness.

Why do people try to find something or someone to blame for the bad things that happen?  Why does there have to be an answer?

The moment I admit that my disease is no one’s fault is the moment I admit that I have no control over it.  It means admitting that bad things can and do happen for no apparent reason.  This idea—this realization—is terrifying.

At the same time, I find freedom and hope in it.  I’m not mad at the doctors anymore, and I’ve come to understand that my family and I have done nothing but the best that we could for all these years, given the information we had at the time.

The hardest thing has been to realize that none of this was ever my own fault. It’s taken two years for me to be able to forgive myself for concealing my OCD for over a third of my life, but I’m slowly learning to extend the same compassion I have for others to myself.  I call it the Reverse Golden Rule:

“Give yourself the same grace you give to others. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Yes, even after my brain has healed completely, it will take a long time for my family and I to truly release ourselves of feeling responsible, in some illogical way, for what happened.  But I’m ready to stop playing the blame game. As hard as it is, it’s time to let go and focus on the hope I have of complete recovery…

Losing My Mind… Halfway

Lately, I’ve been having a harder and harder time with cognitive problems. I make stupid mistakes in school now that I’d never make in the past. I say the wrong words without knowing it. I mix up left and right as if I were six years old. I’m very forgetful. I do a lot of small but silly things everyday—little things that anyone might do once in a while but the fact that I do them so frequently makes me feel as if I’m losing my mind.

I can manage as long as I make a plan or if everything goes exactly the way I expect, but the moment something comes up that doesn’t fit into my notions, I’m thrown for a loop and don’t know how to proceed.

The other day, I was filling up my car at the gas station, and after scanning my credit card, the pump told me to go pay inside. I didn’t understand. I had no idea what to do, but I did go inside to the cashier.

“Hey, my pump isn’t accepting my credit card and told me to come inside.”

“What pump are you on?”

“Umm… I have no idea… Let’s see… Well—hey, can’t you just fix it in here maybe? And then I can go pay outside?”

I was stuck on the idea that I always pay outside at the pump and couldn’t wrap my mind around paying inside—even though I used to always pre-pay at the cashier when I lived in another town.

“I don’t know what pump you’re on.”

“Okay…” I looked out the window. “I think I’m at number three. Could you please reset it from here so I can go pay for it?  How is this supposed to work?”

At this point, the cashier was slightly amused that I was so confused by the idea of paying inside. She tried to explain that I could do the same thing inside, but in the end, I still don’t understand what happened. I gave up on understanding and just handed her my school ID to pay for the gas–and then everyone in line really started looking at me like I was crazy.

I quickly pulled out my credit card instead and apparently paid, because I eventually got some gas in my tank. But the whole incident made me feel like a total idiot and like someone could’ve taken advantage of me.

The worst part of my cognitive issues is the fact that, by definition, I’m not always aware of when I’m struggling. I always have this sense that something is “off” about me, but I can rarely point out to you what’s wrong.   How can I trust myself at all like this?

At the same time, I’m functioning at a very high level and have no problems doing certain complicated tasks. Still, I know my mind isn’t what it used to be, and it’s frustrating and heartbreaking to be aware of this and to not know what I’m doing wrong.

Knowing that I’m not 100% mentally means I’m only losing my mind halfway…  Sometimes, I wish I’d go ahead and lose my mind completely so I wouldn’t feel the grief of knowing I was losing it.

But don’t you see? I’m not crazy. I’m not stupid. I’m just living with brain inflammation that’s temporarily masking who I am and what I’m capable of. Someday, when I’ve been cured, I know that I’ll get everything back, and people around me will finally see what I still see in myself somewhere—the same intelligent and rational person I’ve always been.

Struck by Lightening… Twice

Not only is my brain messed up—so is my spine.

Not only is my brain messed up—so is my spine.

Having PANDAS/PANS by itself is a nightmare.  The ongoing concentration problems, falling when I walk, extreme sleepiness, and depression are more than anyone should have to deal with at once. But guess what? I’m living with another awful condition on top of all of that: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

What is TOS? Like PANDAS, it’s another condition that is under-diagnosed and often involves multiple misdiagnoses first. Basically, TOS means there isn’t enough room for the nerves and/or blood vessels that pass between the collar bone and first rib. Those of us with TOS experience numbness and poor circulation to our hands in addition to severe pain in the shoulders, neck, and back. It really sucks.

I’m told my PANS didn’t cause my TOS, but I’ve noticed that when the PANS symptoms flare, so does the TOS pain.  I think the anxiety causes all my muscles to subconsciously tighten up, thus increasing the pain (it’s just my guess).

I’ve been in constant pain from TOS for the past six years.  I was told from the beginning that I would have it for the rest of my life.  After being diagnosed, I felt like my life was over, and I sometimes wished I’d never been born.  Thank God my worst PANDAS flare happened before I developed TOS—otherwise, I’m sure I wouldn’t have survived…

Eventually, I simultaneously began to live in denial of how bad the pain was while accepting that I would never get better—just like I did with the intrusive thoughts until I was seventeen.

But no matter how normal numbness in my hands and constant pain have become, every once in a while, something stirs in me to fight back, kicking and screaming with all my might.  A few days ago, I got to that point again. I realized that I’m nearly twenty years old, and my pain only keeps getting worse.  If I don’t do something, I’ll surely live the rest of my life like this—and I don’t want to accept that anymore.

So I decided to confront my TOS head-on and try something new: I called a chiropractor. Considering how bad my social anxiety has been, the fact that I could even make that phone call is amazing—or maybe it shows how desperate I was.  I like to think it’s a sign of progress with PANDAS symptoms…

Whenever I’ve mentioned to doctors that I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, they either give me the “wow-that’s-terrible-I’m-so-sorry” look or they tell me TOS is very rare, not well understood, and possibly non-existant—funny, because those are the same responses I get about PANDAS. But not so with this chiropractor:

“When I put your arm to the side like this, your pulse is instantly gone in your arms.”

This alarmed me, of course. “What?!  Are you sure?  How is that possible?”

“You definitely have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.  But don’t worry… I can fix it.  I’ve never had a case of it I couldn’t fix.”

The evaluation and diagnosis reminded me too much of seeing the PANDAS specialist this summer who said I “definitely” had PANDAS and continues to tell me that I’ll get better. The fact that I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome isn’t news to me, but somehow being told again that I have it is a shock that forces me to confront it—just like I was 95% sure I had PANS before I got to the specialist this summer but still cried at the diagnosis.

I’ll be spending the next couple months going to the chiropractor three times a week and doing rehab—while still trying to get over PANDAS and worrying about and expecting another IVIG or plasmapheresis. (My sleep issues, depression, and ataxic walking are completely out-of-hand.)  Why is it that I have to fight two devastating conditions at once?  How much suffering can one person take?  I feel like I’ve been struck by lightening twice.

With both my TOS and PANDAS, I’m afraid to believe that I’ll actually get better, because I’ve been disappointed so many times. But I’m sure going to try…

Falling Off

This bulletin board represents my life

Even though I love to decorate my room, when I moved into my apartment in August, I could only muster the willpower to put just a handful of small pictures on my bulletin board. During my Freshman year, I’d made my room look like “an Athenian palace,” as one friend put it—at least when I didn’t leave my trash strewn all over the floor (thanks, hoarding OCD).

My lack of decor last semester was an analog of my life. When I finally turned a corner in November, I covered most of my bulletin board with posters, postcards, pictures, and swag from my first 5k race. The better I’m doing, the more things are on the bulletin board.

A few weeks ago, pictures and papers started falling off, one-by-one. I didn’t put them back.

On some level, I knew I wasn’t feeling completely like myself, although I kept trying to pretend I was okay. But more pictures kept falling…

I began to struggle through each day more and more, feeling increasingly detached from everything around me while the ever-emptier bulletin board subconsciously reminded me I wasn’t myself. Then one night, I finally fell off a cliff.

I realized I’d come down with a virus. The virus itself was hardly noticeable, but the PANS symptoms that it caused to flare were debilitating. That night, I lost it. I was agitated for no reason. I kicked at the wall and made more papers fall off the board by accident.

While lying in bed, I thought to myself, I should go run around outside. I had no purpose or destination. I just felt strongly that I needed to do it—never mind that I was in my pajamas and it was extremely cold. But then the rational part of my mind kicked back in a little, I guess I should grab my keys. It never occurred to me how little sense it made and that if I was running around outside in my pajamas at 1:00 in the morning, campus police would probably think I was intoxicated—or take me to the psych ward.

The fatigue from the virus kept me in bed, but then the intrusive thoughts started up again and were very disturbing. I was severely depressed. Sometimes I actually believed the thoughts. Sometimes I wondered if I actually wanted them to be true. I didn’t know what thoughts were mine anymore. I didn’t realize how irrational I was thinking and behaving.

During one moment of insight, I finally reached for my phone and called my parents: “Mom, I need you to come right now. I’m losing it, and the thoughts are getting scarier and scarier.”

I ended up going back on a higher dose of Prednisone again. Amazingly, after a few days, it mostly brought me back to where I was when I was at my best in November.

This week, I’ve put everything back up on the bulletin board—and I even added some new things. I’m not depressed at all now, I’m ticking less, and I’ve had no trouble with remembering words. I feel connected to the world again.

I didn’t realize how far gone I was in that flare until I came out of it. I wasn’t too frightened at the time, but now I’m terrified that a cold made me lose my mind. What a horrible idea to live with!

I could worry about it happening again. I could back into a corner and scream, “Why me?” I could stay in my room and not come out so that I couldn’t catch another virus. Or I could just enjoy all the good days I’m having right now. I can keep living and doing the things I want to do.

I’ve decided to keep putting the pictures back even if they fall off sometimes. When they fall, they’re not gone forever—they’re only displaced. It’s hard to feel like you lose huge pieces of yourself sometimes, but I know they will always come back eventually…

Why Kids with PANDAS Are Brave

Recently, I had the chance to meet with a family who had two kids with PANS. We had some great conversations, and I’ll probably write a whole other post about our meeting another time. But there was one exchange between me and the seven-year-old that I can’t stop thinking about:

Me: “You’re very brave.”
Little PANDA: “Why?”

He was clearly surprised by my statement. I could tell that this idea was completely novel to him and that no one had told him this before. I didn’t expect a seven-year-old to have spent a great deal of time cogitating on the way he’s handling a disease, but I still found it curious that he had no concept that he was brave for continuing to fight it. I’ve thought about his reaction for awhile, though, and now it makes perfect sense…

You see, when you’re a kid with PANDAS or PANS, you live in a world of fear and anxiety. One day, you were fine, and the next, everything became scary. You don’t understand the things you do anymore, and sometimes, you’re even afraid of yourself because you don’t know when you’ll lose control next. You feel like a coward for being worried about things you know don’t make any sense—things that no one else around you fears. You feel crazy. You feel trapped. You feel anything but brave.

If you’re a seven-year-old living in that kind of world, of course you’d never think about how brave you are. But you can have courage and not even know it…

“You’re brave because you’re fighting against PANDAS,” I told him. “That’s a hard thing, but you’re doing it.”
Little PANDA: “Is my sister brave, too?”
Me: “Yes, she’s brave, too.”

PANDAs are not cowardly for having severe anxiety. They are not weak for losing control of their emotions. They are not crazy for carrying out compulsions. They are not freaks for having tics and other involuntary movements. No, they are children doing their best at fighting a devastating disease that’s attacking their brains—a disease they cannot control. None of us ever wanted to do odd behaviors and angrily lash out at our parents—when we do it, most of us only feel worse about ourselves afterwards. We hate all these symptoms, but we are doing the best we can to get through each day—and that takes courage.

Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Brave is going on in spite of the fear—and this is what all PANDAs are doing every day, whether they realize it or not. I hope more and more parents will start to understand this and remind their children that having irrational fears and continuing to fight them is brave.

Am I Better Yet?

Ever since I started treatment this summer, I’ve found myself constantly asking, “Am I better yet?”

When I got IVIG, I’d hoped maybe I would start getting better within a few weeks. Whenever I had a good day, I started to think I was getting better. But then the symptoms would come back, and I’d be disappointed. I’d been told it could take me up to a year to get back to 100%, but I hoped it would be sooner. Wouldn’t you?

Six months later, I’m still playing the am-I-better-yet game, and the answer is still no. Certainly, I’m “better” than I was in a lot of ways, but I’m nowhere near where I want to be. I was doing really well, but now that I’m finding out where I am with less of the anti-inflammatory and immunosuppresent qualities of the steroids, I really don’t like what I’m seeing.

At 10 mg, I went back to not being able to walk normally. I ticked a lot. I couldn’t remember simple words and often had to pantomime things to get my point across. I kept seeing everyday things that had a “bad” texture, and looking at them made me sick to my stomach. If I took Nuvigil to keep me awake, the symptoms I was left with were close to the level of impairment I lived with for the three or four good years I had since getting sick—better than I was this summer.

At 5 mg now, things aren’t looking so good. I’m having bouts of depression where I hate doing the things I usually love. I sometimes start shivering all over when I’m not cold—a symptom I hadn’t had since September. Some days, I’ve had as many as ten or twenty falls because I can’t walk normally now. As I’m riding my kick scooter across campus, my fingers involuntarily lift off the handle bars for a couple seconds (my thumb doesn’t, so I’m not going to fall off), and it looks like I’m giving passersby some weird sort of wave—but this is just a new choreiform movement.  Having this one new choreiform movement is better than that constant full-body dance I did a few months ago.

Worst of all, my cognitive symptoms are becoming more severe and obvious. Instead of forgetting words, now I just say the wrong word and don’t even realize it until after I’ve done it—if I realize it at all. I’ve had a lot of people ask me to repeat things I say lately, which makes me think I’m messing up my words even more often than I realize. Sometimes, I say something and watch people think about what I’ve said and then ask me, “Oh, do you mean…?”

Sometimes, it can be as simple as me calling a bagel a doughnut, but other times, it’s much more disruptive. Someone asked me for directions recently, and I meant to tell them to make a left turn, but I ended up saying “right turn.” I tried to set up a time to hang out with someone else and tell them Thursday didn’t work but Friday was good, and instead I said, “We should get together on Thursday.” I don’t speak up in class anymore because I’m sure I’ll say something stupid.

My concentration is possibly at its all-time worst. I was trying to pay attention to a lecture the other day, but instead, I completely checked out without realizing it. Ten minutes later, I came out of it and had absolutely no idea what was being discussed. I tried to get back into focus, but it was impossible, so I just sat there in another world for the rest of the class. And then during my choir’s rehearsal this week, I lost my place in the music every few measures and had to rely on the girl next to me to repeatedly show me where we were. I had to call my mom and have her read aloud an assigned reading and help me parse the meaning of the text. And while writing this post, I’ve been noticing an unusual amount of typos and grammar errors.

As bad as some of my symptoms are, I’m happy to say that I barely have OCD anymore—if I have it at all. I’m also having more days when I hardly tic. I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack since October. I’m running more and more and have even joined a local running club (you don’t really have to talk when you’re running). I was so ill and exhausted from being malnourished this summer that I could barely run a 12-minute mile, but now I can run eight miles non-stop at a 9:40/mile pace.

As I continue to ask myself if I’m better and over-analyze each symptom, I’m going to try to remember how much I have improved—and I’ll keep hoping that someday, I’ll ask myself, “Am I better yet?” and the answer will be an indisputable yes.

What I Learned from Losing My Wallet

Recently, I had the misfortune of losing my wallet. Anyone would be upset and worried about losing something that contained your credit and ATM cards, driver’s license, school ID, cash, car keys, and apartment keys. But I had another concern: as soon as you open my wallet, you can see a medical information card that gives away all kinds of personal health information.

If I were ever in an accident or had another emergency, it’s a good thing that this information is so easily accessible. But in this case, I couldn’t help but wonder who was going to read it. There’s no way whoever found my wallet wouldn’t see it. I had managed to keep my illness a complete secret from everyone but my close friends and professors, because I didn’t want to be treated differently. Would this be the day that everyone found out?

As soon as I got back to my apartment, reached for my keys, and realized my wallet wasn’t in its usual place, I set out on a trek across campus to retrace everywhere I had been that morning. I went to campus security and told them my plight. Nothing had been turned in. I went back to the classrooms I’d been in earlier in case it had fallen out when I sat at my seat. No luck.

Finally, I went to the front desk of one of the buildings where I’d had class. Without a word, the secretary handed me my wallet with a little smile. Nothing was even missing. Some kind, honest human being had turned it in.

What you need to understand is that, a few weeks prior, this secretary had given me a really hard time about being late to order some course materials. The school was trying to make only one order, but whenever stragglers like me missed the deadline, they had to place another one which cost more money. In all fairness, I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute, but when it was all I could do to just get out of bed in the morning and fight through crippling depression and extreme sleepiness all day long, ordering textbooks wasn’t really a top priority.

“You should have done this five weeks ago,” she said angrily that day. “Oh, you don’t have a checkbook with you? Go to the bank right now and get some cash.”

I wanted to cry. Do you have any idea what I’m going through right now? I thought to myself. If only you realized that I truly am doing the best I can. I never wanted to cause anyone any trouble. I wasn’t just being lazy and inconsiderate by waiting this long.

But ever since I lost my wallet, this woman seems to be treating me a bit more gently. I’m sure that she looked in my wallet and read my card. Now she does know what I’m going through.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if I carried that card on the outside for everyone to read. What if we all were more open about what we’re up against? I have frequently longed to just come out and tell everyone, “Hey, I have this awful disease. It sucks. Please give me some extra love.” But I haven’t. Maybe it’s time to rethink that…

When you live with an illness with such a profound impact on your life, there’s always a struggle between telling people what you’re dealing with so that they can understand you better and not telling people so that you can maintain a sense of privacy and maybe even forget that there’s anything wrong with you on the good days. I still haven’t figured it out.

While I certainly wish I had never gotten PANS, the one good thing it has done is make me a more compassionate person. I’ve come to realize that everyone has a card—struggles, difficulties, and bad circumstances that, if we knew about them, would explain some of the seemingly annoying or inconveniencing things people do. You rarely get to read someone else’s card, but I’ve learned to try to give people some grace, because I have so often wished for others to do the same for me.

My 6-Mile Run… To the Pharmacy

Managing my medications is a big production. If I didn’t have a pill case, there’s no way I could possibly remember to take all eleven things each day.  Every week, I sit down and fill the case for the week. It takes half-an-hour. It used to take longer when my OCD was worse and I had to check and re-check everything a ridiculous number of times. I only check it once now.

Just a few of my daily meds

Just a few of my daily meds

As you can imagine, I am over at the pharmacy a lot between the Prednisone, Nuvigil, Augmentin XR, and all the over-the-counter medicines and supplements I take. You know it might be a little out-of-hand when you walk up to the counter and the pharmacist says, “Oh, it’s you again.” True story.

A few days ago, as I was lining up all the bottles and getting ready to put everything in my case, I got to the Augmentin XR and realized I only had a few days left. I needed to go back to the pharmacy… Again. The problem is, the pharmacy is a mile away from where I live. If I drove there, I would lose my good parking spot. Walking would take too long.

So I did the only logical thing: I decided to turn my trip to the pharmacy into the destination for my first ever 10 km run.

Do you realize the irony here? I was about to run six miles to go pick up the medicine I need to take because I’m sick. Hmm… How sick can I really be?

I put on my running gear, grabbed my pepper spray and medical ID, and headed out across town. When I had run one mile, I was hardly tired at all. By the second mile, I was barely sore. By the time I reached mile three, my joints were complaining a little bit, but I thought to myself, “I’ve only gone three miles. I feel great!”

Only three miles. Just a few months ago, I could hardly run one mile. The fact that I’m now thinking of three miles as a short run is incredible.

At mile five, I took a wrong turn, and I realized I was lost. But hey, I had 1.2 more miles to get to the 10 km goal, so I kept running. Unfortunately, when I finished, I ended up 1.5 miles away from the pharmacy. I felt like I could have kept running to get the rest of the way there, but I didn’t want to push it. Besides, I had done it—I ran 10 km (about 6.2 miles).

When I got sick in 2006, I had been training to work my way up to running a 10k race. And then PANS hit me like a train, and I had to stop running altogether before I got past running four miles. But I had done it now, albeit eight years later. Take that!

As happy as I was for this victory, I also realized that I was in quite a predicament. I didn’t know the area I had ended up in, it was getting dark and cold, and the pharmacy was 1.5 miles away. Should I wait at the bus stop? Should I call a friend to pick me up? Should I get a cab? I decided to walk and use the time to call my parents.

The amazing thing is that the worry that I physically wouldn’t be able to walk 1.5 miles because of my falls never even crossed my mind at the time. I just started walking, and the whole way there, I didn’t even have the slightest knee-dip or feeling of paralysis. I was just a normal, tired runner walking home (and stopping at the pharmacy on the way there).

On my good days, I often start to think, “Hey, maybe I’m better now!” But then I look at my pill case and realize that it takes 24 pills each day to feel the way I do—and I’m still not 100%.

Still, even if I’m walking around carrying the pills, at least I’m walking at all. For now, I can dream about the day when I’ve left all the bottles behind and don’t even realize it—just like I didn’t realize how amazing it was that I walked 1.5 miles…

How Do I Stay Positive?

When I look back at the last few months and think about everything I’ve been through, I’m often surprised by my own resilience. What keeps me going? Why do I not give up? And I think to myself, “How in the world do I stay so positive?”

The answer? I don’t.

In our society, there’s a faulty idea that being strong and tough means holding in all emotions except the pleasant ones. We salute the people who go through terrible things and still smile and look on the bright side at the end of it all. We are forever being told that as long as we can be optimistic about life and stay positive, we’ll get through whatever comes our way. Although no one ever says so, to me it often seems like crying and grieving and expressing pain is frowned upon. Everything will be okay. Just be positive!

But sometimes, there really is nothing to be positive about. Do you want to tell me that it was a good thing I became suicidal and anorexic this summer? Would you dare say that there was any benefit to suddenly not being able to walk? Can you explain to me why there was anything nice about being trapped by OCD for six years?

For a long time, I bought into the lie of optimism. I tried to tell myself things were never “that bad.” If I started to get upset, I would quickly squash down any negative feelings I had.

Certainly, there where times when I had to do this to survive. Some circumstances are too traumatic to let yourself feel the pain all at once. But in my case, I often just denied how bad my situation was because I thought doing so was what it meant to be strong. But then, I learned something…

The bravest thing is not pretending the bad things didn’t happen—it’s diving into them headfirst by admitting that something terrible has happened. It’s letting yourself feel the pain. It’s mourning what you’ve lost. It’s coming to terms with the fact that things are not okay anymore. How can you move on unless you acknowledge the tragedy that’s holding you back?

This summer, although I was mostly numb about all the bad things that had happened to me, intellectually, I recognized how traumatic everything was. I made the conscious decision to let myself feel whatever I needed to feel going forward.

Since then, there have been days when I’ve cursed out my circumstances with a tirade of f-bombs (and I’m the kind of person who never swears). There have been days when I’ve wept aloud for several hours. There have been days when I feel nothing at all. I think that letting myself feel these things is what gives me the ability to be positive the rest of the time and to keep going when things aren’t good.

This week, I’ve had a major relapse of depression because I’m tapering off Prednisone and have been fighting a couple viruses.  Every time I try to do my work, as soon as I see my assignment, I get overwhelmed with sadness and start crying for no reason.  I love what I do, but my brain won’t let me do it.  I fear for the next few weeks if this flare doesn’t stop.

There are some positive things right now, though. My OCD is almost non-existent. I haven’t fallen down in close to a week. I’m not ticking much. I’m able to stay awake on only 125mg of Nuvigil again…. But thinking about these good things does nothing to make the debilitating depression go away. Even with all the positive things, living with PANDAS is still awful right now.  Why should I pretend the improvements make this setback less miserable?

I can’t fight against the sadness right now, but feeling it doesn’t mean I’m weak.  No, it means I’m strong enough to admit my pain.  And I’ll keep moving forward as best I can.

IVIG: Four-Month Update!

It’s been over four months since I had IVIG—and six months since the abrupt onset of my tics and other movement problems. On the whole, I’d say I’m much better.  I’ve even started tapering off the steroids.  The way I put it with my family is that I finally feel like a person again.  I’m almost back to where I was before I started flaring two years ago—with the addition of tics, some walking issues, and hypersomnia.  It’s not all forward progress, though.  It’s really more of a two-steps-forward-one-step back process.

The movement problems have gotten slightly worse again, although they’re still nothing like the crazy chorea dance I was constantly doing this summer. The hypersomnia is by far the worst symptom now. I’m completely dysfunctional if I don’t take the wakefulness med Nuvigil. I fall asleep after sitting down anywhere for more than ten minutes. When I do happen to be “awake,” I’m loopy and can’t concentrate. At least I have Nuvigil… My doctor just started me on another anti-inflammatory called Plaquenil, so I’m hoping maybe it will help some of this.

When you’re sleep is messed up, everything is messed up.  I still have trouble with concentration and processing written information. The less steroids I take, the more I often I have trouble coming up with words for everyday objects, which only makes my social anxiety worse.  But I’m not depressed anymore. I still have quite a bit of general and social anxiety, but I was able to have a small party at my apartment at the end of the semester—even though the idea of having five friends over at once had me shaking all over earlier that day. A couple months ago, I know I wouldn’t have even considered inviting friends over.

Perhaps the most mind-blowing improvement is with my OCD. I’m slowly not carrying out compulsions anymore without having to go through months of CBT/ERP like I did in the past. There are times when I find myself touching something I wouldn’t have dared handle a couple months ago, and I only realize what I’ve done afterwards. I’m not sweating through anxiety when I don’t do my compulsions—I’m just not doing them without thinking about it. It’s amazing. As someone who has been through CBT before (and had success at the time), it’s very strange to see your brain rewiring itself without you having to consciously work so hard at it.

At my latest follow-up, my doctor told me I looked “less tormented.”  And that’s how it feels.   However, she was quite concerned about the sleep issues—especially that they had come back after being completely gone and that they didn’t go away on a Prednisone burst this time.

“At this point, we can talk about doing another IVIG,” She said. “But we need to wait at least six months to be sure you need it.”

I wasn’t surprised. But now I just have to keep waiting… again.

Nevertheless, on the whole, I’m doing so much better, and I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made. But do you want to know a secret? Getting better is frightening because the better I get, the more I realize how far gone I was this summer.  In June, I was hardly upset that I had stopped eating and couldn’t walk and suddenly had uncontrollable movements everywhere. I was apparently in a bit of a daze, and I had no idea how much I’d really lost my personality. Now that I’m back, I get it, and I’m even more grateful for my continuing recovery.

 

I’ve had this blog for over six months, and the responses and support I’ve received so far have been incredible. Thank you. I would love to get some feedback from all you amazing readers about what you want to read about next. I’m planning to continue posting regularly at least until I get 100% better and then for a few months afterwards.  That’s probably another year or two of writing.  (And then I want to turn it all into a book, but that’s another story…)

What topics would you most like to read about? Do you have any questions for me, as an eight-year survivor of OCD and PANS? Please comment with your ideas and thoughts!

I Run 5 Miles, but I Can’t Walk 50 Feet

Suddenly losing the ability to walk at nineteen years old is terrifying and heartbreaking. I never thought it would happen to me, but this summer, it did. In a matter of twenty-four hours, I became unable to walk across a room without falling down multiple times.

How do you get around a college campus when you can't always walk?  You ride a kick scooter, of course!

How do you get around a college campus when you can’t always walk? You ride a kick scooter, of course!

While this symptom has greatly improved to the point that I’m only falling maybe two or three times a day (as opposed to fifty or more), it’s still unnerving. Every time I have to get up and walk somewhere, I’m constantly wondering if I’m going to go down. I’m waiting for that feeling I get in my head that tells me it’s coming. I’m watching for my legs to start getting weak and unresponsive before I collapse.

What would you do if you were me? Confine yourself to a wheelchair, or at least decide to use a cane? That wouldn’t be unreasonable. I have done both when it was worse. Would you lock yourself in your room and cry, wondering why this had to happen to you? This, too, would be understandable.

Sometimes, I do get really mad about all of this. But I’ve decided that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’m going to get up and do something.

My brain still won’t let me walk more than 100 yards without at least a little knee dip—or sometimes, a full-blown fall. But somehow, I’ve managed to get back into running again with no trouble. Can someone please explain to me why I can run five miles, but I can hardly walk from my bedroom to my kitchen? This is truly a bizarre disease.

A few weeks ago, my depression got really bad—almost as bad as it was in June when I was nearly institutionalized. The SSRI’s weren’t working. I hated doing everything. I felt like I was “gone.” But somewhere inside of me, I wanted to get better. I was desperate to find something that would pull me out of the pit. So I decided to start running and working out, because I had heard this could help depression.

Now, I run once a week and do weights and cardio intervals two more times a week. At first, there were a lot of days when I really didn’t want to go to the gym. I hated it just like I hated everything else. But whenever I finished a workout, my mood was better for at least a few hours. After two or three weeks, my mood was better all the time. Today, I have no sign of depression at all, and I’m not taking any antidepressants, either. I really feel great.

I don’t think it would be fair to attribute my progress only to exercise.  I’m sure I wasn’t well enough to be working out this much just a few months ago.  I have just now reached the four-month post-IVIG milestone—the time when a lot of people start to see big improvement. I also know that working out doesn’t stop PANDAS or PANS. If it did, I never would have gotten sick in the first place. I was on my way to becoming an elite athlete at eleven years old—and PANS stopped me.

As good as I feel now, I’m all-too-aware that my fight is far from over. My sleepiness has gotten worse again, to the point that I need 3/4 of a 250mg Nuvigil tablet to stay awake. I had gone three months without the drug, and 125mg was enough until this week. A few days ago, I apparently got a cold or something, and my tics and chorea went crazy again. This seems to suggest that my body still hasn’t unlearned its old habit of attacking my basal ganglia instead of viruses.

But I try not to think about the bad things that are still going on. I try to think about the awesome new job I just got—in spite of ticking during the interview. I try to think about the fact that I’m going to finish this semester with straight-A’s (well, there might be one B). I try to focus on the fact that I didn’t let PANDAS stop me from running a 5k race in 27 minutes—the fastest I’ve run in eight years. Or I think about the fact that I can now run five miles—farther than I ever ran even before I got sick.

Even if I’m often sitting on the stationary bike at the gym, repeatedly tilting my head and sticking my tongue out involuntarily from the tics and losing my grip on the handlebars with “piano-playing” fingers from the chorea, at least I am well enough to be sitting on that bike.  Even if I have to lock my legs and walk on my toes in order to not fall as I go from the bike to the weights at the gym, my gosh, at least I’m walking at all.  And hey, I’m just going to take a moment to admire my newly toned running legs in that mirror while I lift those weights, and I’ll appreciate that I don’t look sick anymore.  And I’ll tell myself that someday, my brain will learn to work with those legs again so I can walk…

What I Wish I’d Told My Parents

This time of the year is always difficult for me. Seven years ago at this time, I had the worst PANDAS flare of my life and descended into a terrifying world of OCD, odd behavior, insomnia, and depression. For a time, my symptoms completely tore apart my family.

I’ll never forget when I first made my parents cry. I was twelve years old, and we didn’t even know I had OCD, let alone PANS.  Had we known, things never would have gotten so bad.  My parents were almost as terrified as I was at the change they had seen in me.

I thought I was going crazy. I had to speak a certain way. I had to walk “just right.” I needed to be sure I chewed my food in a particular manner. And God-forbid if I breathed the wrong way… I also felt like I needed to jump out of the second-story window of my room. Why? I didn’t know. It just seemed like something I should do—it wasn’t because I was trying to hurt myself. I would impulsively taste things that shouldn’t be tasted—like shower gels and wet rocks I found in the woods. Again, I didn’t know why I did those things, but I just felt like I had to.

I refused to do my schoolwork. I looked at the words on the page of my textbooks, and they become horrible blasphemous thoughts in my mind. The thoughts never left me alone. Every moment of every day, no matter what I did, there they were to torment me. Everything I did was used against me to become something terribly immoral that showed I was a wicked child. To me, having the thoughts come was just as bad as saying them out-loud and meaning them—damning and perhaps unforgivable.

During school, I would sit and stare at the blank lines of my notebook paper, unable to explain that I was terrified of what the words I was supposed to write could become in my mind. My mom (who homeschooled me at the time), eventually would become exasperated, and I would run out of the room both because I couldn’t handle the OCD thoughts and because I couldn’t stand to make her so upset. But I couldn’t even tell her that I never wanted it to be that way. I didn’t want to not work. I didn’t want to make her cry. I just wanted the thoughts to not be there.

“Why are you doing this to your mother?” my dad asked one night, as the three of us sat around the kitchen table. “She is sacrificing her time to teach you, and you aren’t even trying to work with her.”

I will forever remember that lonely tear that streamed down my mom’s face at that moment. My best friend, teacher, and care-taker had now become someone I had deeply wounded by unintentionally fighting against her.

I never meant it. I wished I could tell my parents that I wasn’t trying to upset them. I longed to break my silence and explain my inner battle, but telling anyone the horrible thoughts I was having would show them how terrible of a person I really was. So I sat there in silence that night, unable to respond with even one word, because whatever I said would be turned into another obscene thought in my mind. I couldn’t let that happen, because it might get me thrown into Hell forever.

“Why won’t you answer me?” my dad said.

“I—I…” I couldn’t get the words out. Another thought had come into my mind, and I had to be sure I canceled it properly before going on. “I—just… I don’t know. I am—I can’t.” The thoughts were overwhelming my mind again, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to know I had cancelled them properly if I said anything else.

I couldn’t handle seeing my parents so upset anymore. I ran upstairs and slammed the door to my room and cried. Why was this happening to me? How could I have let my mind become so out of control? I knew I had no control over the thoughts, yet I was somehow convinced they were all my fault.

If there is one thing I would have told my parents back then if I could have (besides telling them that I actually had an autoimmune disorder causing all my OCD and strange behaviors), I would tell them that I hated what I had become and what I was doing to them. I would tell them that I didn’t want to be doing any of it—I was simply scared out of my mind, by my own mind.  I wished I could have told them that all the pain I caused them was wounding me even more.

I longed for my parents to understand the constant terror that I lived in and the feeling of utter hopelessness so that they could see I wasn’t just being a brat. I wanted to not feel like I was so alone. But I was afraid that talking about the thoughts would end up proving to me and everyone else that I really was a reprobate. As painful as it was, it seemed like the only thing I could do was to keep pretending that my silence and school-refusal was just me being a rebellious preteen.

After three months in a perpetual state of OCD fear and bizarre and even dangerous behaviors, I finally began to come out of the flare. Looking back, I had been having joint pain, fatigue, and consistent low-grade fevers throughout the entire episode—symptoms of another strep-related illness called Rheumatic Fever. When these began to disappear, so did all my psychiatric symptoms. (Of course, my pediatrician at the time never even thought to do a strep culture and wrote it all off as “depression” and “isolation from homeschooling.”)

It took five years of time passing and me eventually being able to name my intrusive thoughts and compulsions as OCD before I would even let my parents bring up anything about what happened in 2007. When I came out of the flare sometime in early 2008, I apologized profusely for the wounds I unwillingly made in my relationship with them. But those wounds did heal, and my brain is healing, too. Today, my parents and I have a great relationship, and of course, now they understand what I was dealing with—and they remind me it was never my fault.

I wish I could have told my parents in 2007 where things would be today.  I wish they could have seen me now, in my right mind, going to college.  I wish I could have told my parents that, even though I was going to have another terrible flare at nineteen that led to a misdiagnosis of narcolepsy, made me temporarily lose the ability to walk, and caused a tic disorder to appear overnight, we would finally find the answer to all of my strange symptoms.  I wish I could have told my parents that even though my case was extreme, I was going to get 100% better.

Most of all, I would tell my parents “thank-you” for persevering through my strange behavior in 2007, for not giving up on finding a diagnosis, and for sticking by me as I continue to recover today.

Steroids Turned Me into a 12-Year-Old Boy

It’s been more than three months since I’ve been on Prednisone. I hate the steroid, but I love it, too, because I know it’s the reason I’m able to live a somewhat normal life right now. I would never want to take Prednisone unless I absolutely had to, though, because the side effects are pretty awful: weight gain, increased appetite, insomnia, moon face, acne, decreased bone density, increased susceptibility to infections, etc… But I have to take it to keep the inflammation down and help stop the autoantibodies from attacking my brain’s basal ganglia.

Every time I’ve tried to taper off the steroid since starting it in July, the depression, anxiety, OCD, tics, movement problems, and inability to eat have come back. I don’t have a choice but to keep dealing with these terrible side effects, because living with PANDAS is far more terrible than dealing with Prednisone—even though the steroid has essentially turned me into a preteen boy.  I can explain…

Because of Prednisone, I now have horrendous acne all over my face… I just started growing a beard. I shaved my face for the first time yesterday, and now I have razor burn all over it because I have no clue what I’m doing… I think about food all the time because I’m always hungry—even after eating excessive amounts of food… Yes, steroids have turned a tiny nineteen-year-old girl into a starving, moon-faced twelve-year old boy.

Because my sleepiness had gotten so out-of-hand again, I increased my dose last week. The first time I did a 5-day burst of 50mg this summer, my sleep issues disappeared. I was hoping for the same results this time around. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that. I’m still just as sleepy with just as much brain fog as I had last week. In addition to more steroids, I’m also back on Nuvigil for now to keep me awake—with success.  I did have a cold a couple weeks ago, so I’m hoping and praying that this flare will calm down after I get over it.

I’m not going to lie—I’m pretty discouraged that the sleep problems have come back. It really scares me that Prednisone isn’t enough to stop them anymore. Is the IVIG not working? Am I going to need plasmapheresis after all? What if I actually have brain damage that’s causing the sleep disorder now?

But there is a bright side to it all…

While I may have a moon face, and I may have terrible acne, and I may not be sleeping right still, my depression is gone. Just gone, because apparently, it’s related to the inflammation in my brain (hence it disappearing with more steroids).

I’m feeling like myself for the first time in at least six months. I’ve actually been able to enjoy my hobbies. I look at my full calendar, and instead of dreading ever last thing on it, I’m happy to see all the events (and even school assignments) penciled in on each day. I actually like my life and have stopped hearing the intrusive thought, I hate my life… I hate my life…. I hate my life… over and over again.

While I’m sad to have to be sleeping so much again, I am overjoyed at the fact that I feel like myself in other ways. Sometimes, the trauma of the last few months comes and hits me like a train, and I just cry. But lately, the realization that I’m “back” also makes me cry—with tears of joy. When an illness tries to take everything from you, the moment you get any part of you back, you will appreciate it so much more than you ever could have before.

And I believe and hope that someday, I’ll know what it’s like to feel like myself and to feel awake…

3 Months Post-IVIG: A Wild Ride

Today is the three month anniversary of my IVIG treatment. It’s hard to believe it’s already been that long, but at the same time, it seems like an eternity ago because the last three months have been such a wild and difficult ride.

So far, the main improvement I’ve seen is with the chorea and tics. I’m starting to have a lot of days where they’re barely noticeable. The chorea is usually just a slight arm or leg jerk here or there—I don’t look like I’m constantly dancing anymore. I can actually sit still!

I've ditched the cane!

I’ve ditched the cane!

As for the walking issues/muscle weakness, that has improved significantly. In June, I could barely walk across the room without my legs giving out on me. I would be trying to walk normally, and suddenly my legs would become momentarily paralyzed so that my knees gave out and I fell to the floor.

Now, I often only have a couple minor knee-buckling episodes each day, and I’m usually able to catch myself before I go all the way down. These days, it just looks like a slight “hiccup” in my step when it happens.  I’m so glad I no longer have to walk around wearing knee pads while trying to stop the falls with a cane…

So has it been steady progress since my infusion? Absolutely not—especially when it comes to the mental symptoms. I have yet to see much improvement in my OCD or social anxiety. They’re both almost to the point of being out-of-hand.

As far as depression goes, I’m having some very good days when I’m hardly depressed at all, but I’ve also had some horrible days where I hate my life and just want to do nothing but lie in my room by myself and sleep.  Sometimes, everything just makes me cry for no reason. (Well, it is for a reason: brain inflammation.)

But that’s not even the worst of it. I’m having a relapse of my sleep disorder.  I cannot stay awake during the day, no matter how many hours I sleep at night.  If I sit down anywhere for ten minutes, I’ll fall asleep. The other day, I even fell asleep while standing up in a lab and nearly fell onto some expensive equipment on the lab bench. Oops…

So unfortunately, I’m still living up to my name: the Dreaming Panda.

I’m trying to stay positive about everything. I’m trying to think about how great it is to be able to walk again and to be able to sit completely still during class. But it’s hard. It’s really hard sometimes—especially when you’re so sleepy that you’re living in a dream world where everything seems unreal and a bit far away.  And let’s not forget how OCD and anxiety can confuse your world, too… (I have an entire future post dedicated to discussing this).  How do you see through the chaos of a brain that isn’t quite working normally yet?

But still, three months later, even though it’s been frustratingly slow, my progress towards recovery is becoming undeniable.  As hard as these months have been, I’m told that three to four months post-IVIG is usually the beginning of major improvements in PANS/PANDAS symptoms.  So yes, this eight-year nightmare must finally be coming to an end…

What I Have to Believe…

In the last two years, nothing has gone as planned.  I was supposed to go off to college and start my life again. I was supposed to leave behind the pain of the OCD I had seemingly conquered last year just before my freshman year. I was supposed to move away to let my career take off.  But instead, I’m sitting here about to take another nap because no matter what I do, I can’t keep my eyes open.  I never could’ve imagined that this is where I would be right now…

If I have to pick one thing that is the worst part about having PANDAS, I think it’s the fact that it makes me feel like I’m not myself anymore. I feel like I’m only a shadow of who I used to be—even of who I was a year ago. I don’t even enjoy my favorite things. I used to be the kind of person who loved to go out and do things and have adventures, but now I’d rather just sit at home by myself or sleep. I can’t even make music sometimes now, and for me, that is heartbreaking.

Most days, I manage to make myself get through things, and I’ve even managed to keep good grades. But there’s no joy or time for friends. I’m surviving—not thriving like I had planned to be. I’ve been cheated out of a normal college experience so far.  For that matter, haven’t I been cheated out of a normal adolescence, since I’ve had some degree of PANDAS since I was eleven?

But I can’t think like that. No matter how badly I want my life to be different, this is the way it is right now, and being bitter about it won’t do me any good. No, I have to just keep thinking about the fact that I’m one of the fortunate ones who figured out I had PANDAS. I have to remind myself that it isn’t permanent and that I will get better.

Still, sometimes, I get really mad about where I am in life. I had everything going for me until this summer—I was on the fast track in my career. But it seems to all be slipping through my hands now. I feel like this disease is just such a waste of my time, talent, and personality. Why did this have to happen?

I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer. But at least I have a cure; my doctor has repeatedly told me that I’m going to get 100% better—even though it could take a year. At my recent follow-up, I told her about my continued depression and OCD and sleep issues, and she said it meant my brain chemistry is still “messed up.” Also, It hasn’t even been three months since the IVIG, so the fact that my chorea has improved as much as it has is a great sign. I have to hang onto that…

My doctor has treated hundreds of cases of this, many of which were worse than mine, so most of the time, I believe her when she tells me I’m going to get better.

But of course, living with anxiety makes it difficult to believe sometimes. Every time a symptom comes back, so does the what-if monster: What if it doesn’t go away this time? What if it keeps getting worse? What if I don’t actually have PANDAS? What if it really is “all in my mind” like so many doctors have told me? What if I really am crazy?

I’ve been in a wrestling match with that monster this week, but it can’t win—and it won’t, because I’m just going to keep dragging myself through each day until I get better.  I just have to believe that I will…

 
So, readers… What is your what-if monster? How do you fight it?

Signs of Hope

For the first time in four months, one night, suddenly, I realized my choreiform movements were gone. When I woke up the next morning, my body felt completely different. That night, I felt a tingling session in my head and legs, as if my brain were healing itself. The next morning, I had a sense of the disease departing from me, and people were even telling me that my “energy” was different. For the first time in several months, I was enjoying my life again.

Since those wonderful two days last week, I have had some mentally rough days, although the chorea and tics continue to be quite mild. Could the IVIG actually be starting to work? I think I’m daring to hope that it is.

So far, this whole healing process has been a lot of ups and downs—perhaps mostly downs for the first month. But every once in a while, I get a really good day or two, and it seems like the good days keep getting better. I’m just hoping that the bad days keep getting less bad until, eventually, a bad day is only what a normal person would think of as a bad day—maybe just feeling a bit tired because I didn’t sleep enough, or something like that.

I just passed the two-month mark since my IVIG treatment in August. I was told it could take as much as 3-6 months before major improvement, so this is a good sign. I still haven’t been able to come off the steroids, but I’m still better off now than I was two months ago on a higher dose. Even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, I think I’m finally starting to get better. I have hope now that I really am going to beat PANDAS.

A Day in the Life of Recovery

The strange thing about my condition is how suddenly it changed everything about me and my daily experience. Four months ago, though I was sick, you wouldn’t have known it—unless you happened to notice me nodding off in class, day after day, after consistent eight or nine-hour nights of sleep—or if you noticed the ever-increasing amount of dents in my car from suddenly not being able to tell where the edges of my car were. But now, with one look at me trying to walk across a room, it’s extremely obvious that something is going in my brain that I have no control over. Welcome to my new world of PANDAS.

One of the hardest things about recovery is learning to be honest with yourself by being willing to admit how hard everything still is. It’s often difficult for me to explain to my friends and family just how challenging each day can be, so I decided that instead of explaining, I would tell you about what it takes to get through a typical day…

Every morning when I wake up, I have a few seconds of blissful forgetfulness before I remember that anything is wrong with me. But then there’s always that “Oh crap” moment when I suddenly realize all over again how sick I am. And I remember how many pills I have to take that day and the fact that things are bad enough that I need an IVIG in a week. For the rest of the day, I think of little besides my illness because it effects all that I do.

Everything is exhausting. I want to get out of bed, but first I must lie there for a few minutes to gather up my willpower. The first few minutes out of bed are nerve-wracking, because I’m anxious to see if my ability to control my body has improved at all. Will I fall down? Can I actually stand still while I brush my teeth? I have a few tics and arm jerks and decide that my symptoms are only slightly improved from the day before. Baby steps, I tell myself…

By the time I’ve gotten dressed and ready, I’m already worn out. But I have to go downstairs and find some kind of food I can force myself to eat so that I can take my antibiotic and steroid. My appetite is completely off, but if I don’t eat something, the meds will be too hard on my stomach, and I’ll lose even more weight (I’ve already lost a dangerous amount this summer).

As I stand at the counter preparing breakfast, it’s becoming more obvious to me that my brain is sill out-of-control. I keep involuntarily leaning forward and bending down, nearly smacking my head on the countertop multiple times. While walking across the room to grab a spoon, my knees buckle underneath me, and I fall to the floor. The frustration never seems to end…

I wish I could forget about it all. I wish it would go away, but it won’t—at least not for a few months. My recovery is going to take time, patience, and lots of courage. The trick is learning to be okay with that—and learning that the bravest thing of all is giving yourself permission to do whatever it takes to get better. No, this does not mean slowing down. To me, doing less means I’m fighting even harder.

I Officially Have PANDAS!

So I went to see a PANDAS specialist this week, and I’ve finally been diagnosed with PANDAS.  My doctor was wonderful and finally took my symptoms seriously.  She even said my mysterious illness from 2006-2007 may have been Rheumatic Fever. And unfortunately, she told me I’m not just having tics, but also chorea, which could explain my strange falls when I walk.  The best words my doctor said were, “You’re going to get better.”

She has put me back on Prednisone for six weeks along with a different antibiotic called Cefdinir.  I am in such a bad flare right now that she wants me to do IVIG as soon as possible. She was very troubled by everything I had been through and decided that eight years was long enough and we should just knock out the disease with the stronger method of IVIG treatment.  Plus, my movements have not improved at all with antibiotics.

I don’t even know what I feel right now.  I’ve waited so long for someone to tell me for sure what my illness was, and now someone did.  I still can’t believe it.  I’m ecstatic and terrified all at the same time…

I’m grateful, because most people with this condition never get a proper diagnosis. They estimate 160,000 people in America have my disorder, but it was only discovered in the late ’90’s, and only several thousand people have received a diagnosis. Many people suffer through years of treating the symptoms, only to have treatments fail. Now, I don’t have to do that for another single day.

I’m shocked, because having a diagnosis means there’s no way for me to deny to myself that things aren’t as bad as they really are. For months, I’ve coped by trying to tell myself that I don’t feel “that bad,” and I still haven’t fully processed what has happened to me. I’m still surprised every time I wake up in the morning, fall down, and realize again that I can’t fully control my movements. When a neurologist gives you a name for your condition, it’s like a Mack truck running you over with shock, because you realize that this is your reality right now.

I’m so, so happy, because I’ve been told I’m going to get better. For eight years, I thought I was stuck with all these crazy symptoms. I believed it was all just going to always be part of my existence. But now, I’ve been told it doesn’t have to be, and it’s an incredible feeling.

I’m worried, because I have to have IVIG in another week, and for 10-15%, it doesn’t work.

I’m scared, because they still know so little about this disorder. How do we really know I won’t relapse in a decade or so? Or even in another few months?

I’m sad, because now that someone has told me what has been wrong with me, I know that I’ve lost eight years of my life to a disease that could have been treated if it had been diagnosed sooner. Even after I’m better, I think I’m going to have to go to counseling to avoid PTSD…

I’m angry, because I can’t understand why any of it had to happen to me. Seriously, why me? And why does this happen to anyone? I am filled with grief when I consider how much pain it has caused me and when I realize there are thousands of others like me. It’s just too much. This has been a major struggle in my Christian faith lately. I’ve read the book of Job a lot, and I’ve just decided that there is no answer for now—there’s only trust in spite of my lack of understanding. That’s why it’s faith—because you don’t see signs or answers—not because you do perceive it with your eyes.

Most of all, I’m relieved, because I finally have an answer and a productive way forward. I’m in good hands with this new doctor, and even though it could take up to a year for me to recover completely, I truly believe that I will get better. Oh, and my doctor said that, given my response to steroids and antibiotics, there’s no way I have narcolepsy.  Phew.  Yes, my PANDAS diagnosis is wonderful news!

Is Looking at My Medical Records Really Too Much to Ask?

This week, I’m going to be seeing three neurologists including one PANDAS specialist. As you can imagine, I’m very nervous but also excited about the possibility of figuring out what has gone on with me for the past eight years. In order to prepare for the appointments, I’ve been trying to get my hands on my own medical records for awhile—with little success.  Forgive me, because I need to vent…

I don’t understand why it has to be so hard for me to look at some pieces of paper—pieces of paper with my personal information on them. The laws say that I have a right to do so. And as far as I’m concerned, they belong to me. Unfortunately, the administrators I’ve had to get in contact with have disagreed. One even had the nerve to tell me after I had explained my situation: “The records belong to us.”

These people were horrible. They hardly wanted to lift a finger to help me. All they cared about was how long they could get away with taking—as if what they’re dealing with was just another office job—nevermind that a person’s health is at stake.

I was eventually able to get the records from two of the three practices. Unfortunately, the third one has fourteen years of my records that include the time of my symptom onset, and they have been the worst to deal with by far. I’m considering taking an attorney with me when I go back, because some of what they told me sounds illegal. To give you an idea of how little they care, this is how the conversation went:

“I’ve been trying for awhile to get my medical records which were transferred to another practice a few years ago. They were very unhelpful and didn’t tell me they couldn’t release the ones from your practice along with theirs. I’m in a predicament because I have a specialist appointment out-of-town next week, and I need my records by Wednesday…”

“Legally, we have two weeks to get them to you.”

Are you kidding me? This is your response to someone who has just explained the nightmare they’ve been through at another practice? This is what you say to someone who’s just told you that they’re sick enough to need to go out-of-town for a specialist?

That’s wrong and unacceptable,” I said, trying to stay calm. “I’m sick, and I need them next week. Look, you have them sitting right there. Can I not copy them for you and take the copy?”

“No, we can’t do that.”

“I’m very ill, and I need my charts to get a proper diagnosis. Is there any way to expedite the process? I’ll pay extra.”

“No, by law we have up to two weeks to get you your records.”

“I don’t have two weeks. You have two weeks by law, but morally, why won’t you even try to help me get them sooner? Is there nothing you can do?”

“We have up to two weeks to get them to you.”

In a perfect world, I know there wouldn’t be such a rush to get my records, but that’s not how life worked out.  It would be one thing if that administrator had shown even a little bit of concern for my situation and told me she couldn’t do anything, but instead, she was a total jerk.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been dealt with in this way. I pity every soul that’s stuck dealing with that woman on a regular basis because they see one of the doctors at that practice.  Who knows?  Maybe she’s crazy enough to surprise me by getting me my records before my appointment on Friday…

Takin’ Roids

I’m no doctor, but recent developments have shown I almost certainly have PANDAS or PANS.

A standard way to see if symptoms are autoimmune-related is to do a steroid burst for five days. The theory is that if inflammation is the culprit, the symptoms will improve with the steroids. It doesn’t work for some true PANDAS/PANS patients if there is still an active infection like Lyme or mycoplasma causing an exacerbation.

But it worked for me. I just finished a five-day burst of Prednisone with incredible results. By the third day, I did not need any Nuvigil to stay awake, and my concentration was so good that I was able to sit down and write a paper and take a test in a timely fashion with no brain fog. My tics and walking problems also significantly lessened, though didn’t completely go away. My depression vanished. It was amazing to feel normal again!

Dare I hope that I’m not actually narcoleptic? I don’t think people with narcolepsy can suddenly stop feeling sleepy during the day. Narcolepsy is an autoimmune condition caused by the destruction of a brain chemical called hypocretin. Once the chemical is destroyed, it can’t be regenerated. Hypocretin regulates wakefulness, so if the loss of it (narcolepsy) was what was causing my sleepiness, I should not suddenly feel this awake with no stimulants. I’ll see my sleep doctor next week, and he’s going to be shocked. I wonder what he’ll say about this…

The next step is treatment with an antibiotic called Augmentin. My doctor prescribed a high dose of it for thirty days, but I’m curious to see what the PANDAS specialists will say. In the next couple weeks, I’ll be seeing an immunologist and a neurologist that specialize in treating it. I should have seen them eight years ago, but how could we have known? I’m hoping and praying that I do not have permanent brain damage from unknowingly delaying treatment for so long. But these last five days of steroids give me hope that I will soon feel normal again….

“You’re Just Tired”

So I tried Xyrem for a week, and I did sleep like a baby. It was actually wonderful—I would wake up in the morning feeling completely rested and not feeling like I needed twenty more hours of sleep. I hadn’t felt that way for eight years. But it upset my stomach so badly that I lost even more weight because I was unable to eat anything. I’m down to a hundred pounds. I was around 111 before this summer…

My doctor is just plain flummoxed by my strange reactions to meds, so he made me stop everything over the weekend—even my anti-depressant. As would be expected, I felt horrible in every way. But one of the worst parts was what someone said to me about how I would be off my meds:

“You’re just going to feel tired…”

I know that she meant no harm by what she said, and for most people, those words may have sounded like a nice sentiment. But for someone who is sick, it was a slap in the face.  I wish I knew what it felt like to get tired. Shoot, I wish I could feel tired in the sense that you think of being tired, because your definition of tired is probably my idea of a good day.  When I say I’m tired, it’s worse than if a normal person went three days without sleep.  My tired is not your tired. Your tired is as similar to mine as being able to swim one lap is to being Michael Phelps.

I’ve been sick for awhile, and often, when I’ve told people I’m tired and sleepy and how hard it is, I get a cold, “Yeah, I’m tired, too.”  Usually, people mean well and might even think they’re being sympathetic by saying they relate.  But that’s the problem—there’s no way you can even imagine my tiredness unless you’ve lived with a chronic illness.

By saying you’re also tired and sleepy like I am, you’re telling me what I’m dealing with is normal and trivial—that it’s just what everyone goes through sometimes. You’re telling me I should just suck it up and deal with it and get some sleep, because that’s what you do when you’re “tired.”  But that’s the difference—your tiredness goes away, but mine does not.

So please, never even imply that a narcoleptic “just feels tired.” That’s like saying the Pacific Ocean contains “a few gallons of water.” No, the ocean is water, and in fact, it’s the most water you’ll ever see and is bigger than you could possibly imagine until you are thrown overboard and left bobbing around by yourself in the middle of it. When you are there, you can realize what an ocean really is. I have the privilege of being stuck swimming alone in an ocean of “tired.” Don’t tell me you know how it feels to be stranded here, because I don’t see you swimming around next to me.

It’s time for all of us to stop telling people that we know how they feel, because we don’t. It’s time to stop responding to others’ pain with insensitive comments. Why can’t we just believe people when they say they hurt? Why do we tell people how they should feel? It’s not that hard to just take a moment to sit down next to someone and acknowledge that what they’re telling you must be as hard as they say it is. That’s all I’m asking—to just listen and not try to tell me what I’m facing isn’t that bad.

De(pressed)ad Again…

I don’t even know where to start since I last wrote.  I seriously think I’m going crazy.

The other night, I got in a really bad way.  During the day, I would just sit down and stare into space, because that was all I could do. I had no concentration whatsoever. Whenever I tried to do homework, I found myself just staring, thinking about nothing. I tried to make myself focus, but then I’d just start staring again before I realized I was doing it.

(more…)

Why I Can’t Stand All These Meds

So, my Xyrem finally came.

For my non-narcoleptic readers, Xyrem is one of the meds used to treat narcolepsy and cataplexy, but it’s a controlled substance with only one pharmacy in the US that makes it. After getting a prescription from the doctor, I had to go through two weeks of phone calls from nurses and pharmacists at that pharmacy. The best part of one conversation went like this:

Nurse: Do you have cataplexy in addition to narcolepsy?
Me: *falls to the ground…*

(more…)

My 8 Year Journey Into the Wormhole of Rare Diseases

Hello world!  Welcome to my recovery blog.

I’m a teenager that has Narcolepsy with Cataplexy, OCD, and another undiagnosed illness that is suspected to be PANS (Pediatric Acute Neuropsychiatric Syndrome) or PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus).

I’m writing this blog to raise awareness for my conditions and hopefully, to inspire others to not give up.  There may or may not be a cure for my illness, but I’m on a journey to take back my life, and this blog is for recording that journey.

Once upon a time, I was completely healthy and fit.  But in the summer of 2006, I came down with a mystery illness that tore apart everything I knew.  (more…)

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