Maybe you work with or have a friend who has it. Maybe you date or are married to a woman who has it. Maybe you have a sister, niece, or mother who has it. Maybe your granddaughter or daughter has it.
I’m talking about a health condition called fibromyalgia.
It strikes women of all colors, all walks of life, and fitness levels.
I know because I write this from experience with the condition.
I was never a party girl. I was a fitness nut, a walker, and a clean eater (in retrospect, I believe I had orthorexia, or the obsession with clean eating). I’m the epitome of a Virgo! That’s why it was so surprising when my life spiraled into a dark abyss when I was 25 and has been bleak for the past five-plus years (I turn 30 in two and a half months).
It’s an all-encompassing syndrome that mainly affects women, between the ages of 20-55, but there are cases where men, the elderly, and children get it. The pathology is unclear. Some doctors say it’s caused by sleep dysfunction, other’s say it’s a stress-related issue, some say it’s a brain pain processing issue, and others say it’s a gut and mitochondrial dysfunction.
They all agree that it’s related to some kind of physical trauma, like being deployed in the army. Or it could happen after a big fall, a car crash, a big infection, or even after giving birth. In other cases, however, it begins after a big emotional stressor or after chronic, long term emotional stress. Also, a large proportion of patients with this condition often report a poor emotional attachment to their caregivers in childhood and are usually the victims of some kind of child abuse, be it physical, sexual or emotional.
There’s also 15-20 percent of the population, called Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), who are extremely susceptible to the consequences of being raised in an environment that shuns emotion and are likely to get the condition. With their extremely sensitive nervous systems and brains, and constant stress, it’s a recipe for disaster. Not to mention being overly empathetic and taking on everyone’s problems-in essence, people-pleasers-and ignoring their own needs.
The three main symptoms of fibromyalgia, (or fibro for short) are:
-poor, unrefreshing sleep
-pain/stiffness all over
They are the three cardinal signs, but they are often accompanied by nasty comorbid symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headaches, tinnitus, vision issues, nausea, painful periods, and concentration issues. The only ‘treatment’ doctors have on hand are pharmaceuticals, antidepressants mainly, but some other medication like anticonvulsants and tranquilizers, are the most common remedies.
With that said, many patients discontinue their use after experiencing bad side effects or the effect it has on their wallets (after all, chronic illness means a lessening income and prescriptions are costly). Medication also causes more issues down the line (addictions and tolerance come to mind) and medications are one part of the whole picture.
Doctors suggest patients do low impact exercise daily (such as walking or tai chi), lower stress levels, practice good sleep habits, see a therapist (or do mindfulness, meditation, and positive thinking), and eat well. In this vein, it becomes quite frustrating in itself to do this constantly in order to get by day by day. Patients have to be employees, spouses, parents, and friends and oftentimes these roles are difficult to fulfill when they are in pain or fatigued 24/7.
This leads to social withdrawal when family, friends, co-workers, and employers disbelieve the patient. This social withdrawal then turns to anxiety (like catastrophizing) and depression. Note, depression is not related to serotonin levels, but rather long term stress depletes said levels, leaving the individual with lowered serotonin levels. Moreover,as finances decrease, this can add more pressure on the individual and their family, and in turn cause more stress.When pharmaceuticals and medical doctors don’t work, patients seek alternative care routes, like homeopathy, hydrotherapy, yoga, herbal adaptogens, cannabis and amino supplementation. However, this process can become frustrating (and costly) because the road to recovery is long and tiring, with the entire process done by trial and error. Fibro is a fickle thing, with some things not working for some people and vice versa.
Life with fibro is not pretty, nor fun, as some of you may know from having friends, co-workers, and family with this elusive condition. I’m sure it pains you to see a once active, life-loving woman become a lethargic, restless, pained one. If you care for and love any women who have this condition, they’d love it if you did the following:
♥ distract us (tell us funny stories, make jokes, etc)
*the happier we are, the less pain we’ll feel
♥ try not to ask how much pain we’re in, reminders like that don’t help
*the more we focus on pain, the more we experience it
♥ treat us to a foot rub, run us a bath, buy a favorite tabloid we read often
*little gifts can help us feel appreciated and loved, despite how much we don’t love ourselves some of the time
♥ don’t expect us to say ‘yes’ to everything
*we have a limited amount of energy, and depending on our stages in life, our jobs, our lifestyles, and if we have little beings to care for, we need to reserve as much energy for the bigger events in life. We can’t be going to every little gig you want to go to.
♥ do things on your own.
*you should not have to give up your hobbies, your friends, your interests, to be there for us. We appreciate what you do, that you’re there, but in return, realize you’re still a free person. There are too many stories out there of husbands/boyfriends breaking up with their chronically ill spouses/girlfriends because they lost their identity in the relationship. Just don’t do that. Instead, go out with the guys, go visit your brother or dad upstate, do a retreat with co-workers. I’m sure she’d appreciate the time to herself and invite the girls over for an evening or spend the weekend doing self care.
♥ Remind her to carve time out for herself when she spreads herself too thin with activities
*sometimes we can get too involved and forget we’re not running on full tanks-we need someone to say ‘sit down, you’ve done enough-for now. Do you want a flare?’.
♥ text/email/tweet/write on her wall and tell her how awesome/pretty/funny/smart she is despite everything she’s going through!
*do this every so often, just to keep the surprise factor up. These little messages can make a good day ‘awesome’ or a ‘bad’ day ‘ok’.
♥ get educated about it and help advocate her condition to unbelievers (only do this if she asks for help)
*There are hundreds to thousands of resources out there (podcasts, Youtube channels, blogs, websites, ebooks, documentaries, Facebook groups, etc). Not only do you validate her own experience, and become educated yourself, but you help enlighten others who may otherwise not believe her.
Doing all this, or a few of these things, can help the women in your life, no matter the relation or age, do better and feel better about themselves.