Friday, August 28, 2009

Ticked Off: Installment I of my Lyme Disease Journey

My friends know that I have been severely incapacitated by Lyme's Disease since winter of 2006. Because I have several new readers, and I've never been able to write about my illness in-depth, I'm going to do a series of posts describing my experience of the past two and a half years, culminating in a post about why I abandoned my old blog when I was able to start writing again.

Onset and Pre-Diagnosis

In December 2006 my forearms started to hurt me during and after typing. Since I was working as a journalist, I assumed I had developed carpal tunnel syndrome, so I took a week's vacation from work that December, during which I kept my personal typing to a bare minimum. When discomfort persisted, I made an appointment with the head of arm and hand orthopedic medicine at a major medical center. After a cursory exam, the doctor concluded that I had some nerve irritation and prescribed occupational and physical therapy with a hand specialist.

By February 2007, I started getting pins-and-needles sensations in my arms, similar to the ones you get when your feet fall asleep. Not comfortable! By March, when I touched a button, such as pressing a button in an elevator, an electric shock would travel from my hand and into my upper arm. At my doctor's suggestion, I took two weeks off work in March and refrained from typing while I got a crash-course of occupational therapy (OT). In spite of the rest and the therapy, my pain worsened. I took various medications and had some fancy wrist braces made, but the pain persisted. and My occupational therapy got increasingly painful, and I began to doubt the competency of my occupational/physical therapist (OT/PT; these are not the same field, but she is dually licensed). I asked the orthopedist for a referral to a new PT, whom I saw in March 2007. She was just out of school, which perhaps made her humble enough to acknowledge that something was gravely wrong with me that she couldn't fix. She asked an OT colleague of hers, whom she held in high esteem, to evaluate me.

This OT took the time to do what the orthopedist should have done but didn't: she had me perform simple tasks to assess the neurological function of my body, such as holding my arm above my head and seeing how long it took for my hand to go numb. It's supposed to take minutes, and it took my hand about 8 seconds. "This is not an orthopedic problem," she said as she shook her head. "This is a neurological problem. A big one. And you need to see a neurologist tomorrow."

This is a good time to diverge for a minute and talk about the pitfalls of what traditional, Western medicine has become. I think there was a bygone time when people were looked at as whole human beings, with interconnected parts and systems working in harmony to function, heal, and thrive. I am not knowledgeable about the history of medicine, but somewhere, somehow, we lost our way. Medicine became more and more specialized, which means our bodies got broken down into more and more "distinct" parts; so much so that now the adjective "holistic" (whole-listic) usually refers to complementary medicine, when really all medicine should be whole-listic. So when I saw the orthopedist, he only thought of my arms in the orthopedic context and neglected to do a very basic exam that would have tipped him off that I was at the wrong specialist's office. This will probably be the kernel of another post, because it needs exploring further.

Back to the sickness. Unfortunately for my close friend, she had a traumatic brain injury and was able to refer me to a neurologist who could see me quickly. He's a jerk, but he's also a brilliant diagnostician, thank God. He began the diagnostic process with neurology's favorite toy, the electromyograph (EMG), which is a nerve conduction test. Unfortunately, I knew what I was in for because I had one of these in 2004 (remember this in a few paragraphs). The exam is comprised of two parts. In the first, the surface EMG, the technician takes a little wand and administers electric shocks to your body; the patient is hooked up to electrodes, and the EMG machine transmits and captures nerve conduction data. The shocks feels like someone is taking a rubber band and repeatedly smacking it, hard, on your skin. That's the good part.

The intramuscular part of the exam involves inserting the longest needles I've ever seen into your muscles. They have to be long to get deep in your tissue. It hurts when they're inserted, but the real torture begins when the test administrator tells you to flex your muscle with the needle in it. My doctor was doing this on all my cervical vertebrae, and I ordered him to stop before he finished because I couldn't take it anymore. I was sore for two days afterwards.

The EMG showed some significant nerve damage, so my doctor ordered a battery of laboratory tests, and sent me for an MRI of my cervical spine. At this time, because of the excruciating pain in my arms and neck, I could not: drive a car, chop vegetables, push a grocery cart, open a jar, turn on the computer, open the door to an office building, use my fingers to hit an elevator button, write, type, or wash my own hair because I couldn't lift my hands above my shoulders. David, bless his heart, washed my hair for two months. I was so tired that I slept all day, which I guess is good since I couldn't do anything other than watch TV. I couldn't read laying down because my arms weren't strong enough to hold anything in the air. Simultaneously, I was bedeviled by random pins-and-needles feelings and the sensation of my arms being electrocuted. It was torture.

The only thing worse than the pain was not knowing what was causing it.

Stay tuned for the next installment about my diagnosis and beginning treatment.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Like I Needed Another Reason to hate PETA?

I can think of few institutions that I abhor more than PETA, which ostensibly stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But don't let them fool you; PETA is much more interested in perpetrating cruelty to humans. I'm embarrassed to say that I used to be a dues-paying member of PETA in high school. I was a vegetarian and regularly spent my weekends protesting the local department store that sold fur. I don't know if PETA was a reputable, beneficial organization back then, or if I just thought so in my youthful naivete.

I adamantly believe now that PETA not only doesn't help animals in any meaningful way, but that they actually harm both animals and people. Let's start with the billboard that is the inspiration for this post. It's just plain cruel, mean and nasty. It reeks of PETA's sense of humor, which tends to be either vicious or sexually explicit (I hesitate to link to this Bad Cats commercial, but if you haven't seen it, it's very funny. If only PETA stuck to such unambiguous animal rights issues!)

My second issue with the billboard is that it's totally false and misleading. Here's the bottom line: you can be fit or unfit regardless of whether you eat animal products. I was a vegetarian for 4 years in high school, and again after college for a few more years. I was also very very fat. It is possible to be a thin vegetarian, of course, but many of them aren't. An old friend I recently reconnected with has to weigh between 350-400 pounds, and brags that he hasn't eaten meat since he was 13. I would even argue that it's easier to lose weight or stay trim if you're not a vegetarian, because they have to rely on many carbohydrate-heavy foods like beans for protein. But what about high-protein meat substitutes or tofu, you may ask?

Those veggie burgers and fake meat products are full of soy, a phytoestrogen. Estrogens have profounds effects on the human body, many of which are not well understood. It would not surprise me if our ridiculously high rates of female-related cancers are partly because we take in far too many estrogens beyond what our bodies naturally produce, such as through oral contraceptives and hormones, and even eating large quantities of non-organic dairy products. All of the vegetarian and vegan propaganda stating that cancer rates are so much rarer in Asia, where soy foods are very common, completely omit the important disclaimer that in Asia soy is used as a condiment! They eat a few pieces of tofu on top of a dish, not soy-products for main courses for two or three meals a day. Most of their protein comes from fish. As for tofu, it's decent quality protein, but not nearly of the same quality as meat. For example, I get four protein exchanges at dinner per my food plan, which delivers seven grams of protein per serving. Four exchanges means I get 4 oz of beef, chicken, or fish, but I have to eat 16 oz of tofu to get the same protein value!

I'm saying this merely to shed some light on vegetarian propaganda. I'll reiterate that I think you can have a perfectly healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight anywhere along the spectrum from vegan to omnivore.

But, back to hating on PETA. PETA certainly does not act in the interest of animals; PETA members routinely adopt dogs under the auspices of the group and then euthanize the animals themselves. I remember when this happened in my area. In 2005, PETA arranged to adopt dogs that would have been humanely euthanized in Virginia animal shelters; they told the shelters that they would find homes for the animals and arrange for the unadoptable ones to be euthanized. Instead, PETA employees who were not trained in animal medicine took 100 dogs to the backwoods of Virginia and killed them. PETA continues to euthanize animals and openly defends this on its Web site.

PETA also has a history of theatrical, dramatic, and offensive "advocacy" campaigns. Remember the "holocaust on your plate" exhibit which juxtaposed images from Nazi death camps with photos of factory farming? Let's not forget PETA's President Ingrid Newkirk's quote, "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy." I think that quote accurately captures PETA's position, which makes it very scary.

I love animals, and not just because they're tasty! I love my dog. I slow the car way down to avoid hitting squirrels. I take spiders outside instead of killing them. I go out of my way to try and buy body products that weren't tested on animals or that don't have animal ingredients. I spend three times as much money on the eggs from cage-free hens, and one day hope to have it together enough to get in on the kosher, grass-fed, organic beef that is now being sold in the D.C. area to groups who arrange to purchase the meat from the cow. I'm actually quite a reluctant omnivore, but I feel so much better when I eat animal protein, especially beef. I wish there were a way to have widespread better treatment of food animals; factory farming disturbs me, but I maintain a cognitive dissonance around it so I can eat food that nourishes and sustains me without feeling superbly guilty.

So, I love animals, but I can't stand PETA equating humans with other animals. "It's not that they bring animals up to the level of people; it's that they bring people down to the level of animals," my husband wisely says. I am truly sad that animals (especially primates) need to die for medical research, but I view it as a necessary evil. PETA unequivocally believes that there is no difference between a laboratory animal dying for research and a human dying from untreated diseases. I can't get behind that. I think we have a moral imperative to treat those research animals as humanely as their circumstances allow.

This brings me to my conclusion that the real heroes, the real animal rights advocates are the Temple Grandins of the world, who dedicate their careers to making animal lives as good as possible given the reality of our world. Grandin is a doctor of animal science who consults with the food industry to create humane animal livestock "best practices." On a smaller scale, I think the volunteers walking the dogs at the Humane Society make more of a contribution to animal welfare than PETA does. Some organizations have outlived their usefulness, and should just go away. Like PETA.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

V Is For Vampire

I think about vampires a lot. Not as much as men think about sex in a given day, but probably more than most women think about sex in a day. I think about how vampires, if they were real, would function in society. For example, would they need to go to the dentist? Would enterprising dentists start offering night hours to treat vampire patients? I think about whether they'd want human companionship other than for food. The title of this post comes from the fact that I spontaneously started singing "V is for Vampire" to the tune of "C is for Cookie." Vampire, vampire, vampire starts with 'V.'

These thoughts come out of my mouth at weird times, to my husband's amusement. The other night, when he walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth, I spit out my toothpaste and said, "It would be really hard to go back to human sex once you've had sex with a vampire." I wasn't trying to be funny or cute; it's just what came out. Its been a long time since I heard David laugh as loud as he did when I asked last night if we could go to ComicCon next year if there was going to be another True Blood panel. David takes all of this in stride, playfully biting my neck, trying to imitate the sound of fangs extending, and inventing the vampire smiley for texting :[. He's used to my obsessions and tolerates the harmless ones with good cheer.

Before you write me off as a poseur, I will write in my defense that although I never jumped on the Dracula bandwagon, I voraciously read Anne Rice's books in high school and probably watched "The Lost Boys" about 100 times. I am new to Twilight, True Blood, and Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels, which True Blood is based on.

One of the things I think about is why vampires hold so much mystique in our culture. Vampire myths have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We never tire of vampire media, though its popularity certainly ebbs and flows. What is it that holds our interest through centuries? One possibility is that vampires usually mingle sex and death, which have always been inextricably twined. All the TV shows and films showing grieving people losing themselves in sex to numb out? It's real. Heck, look no further than the phrase "la petite mort," the little death, as a euphemism for orgasm. Sex and death are linked. I so wish I could take credit for the following, but my friend MB gets the glory. When I shared my sex-and-death theory of vampire persistence, she said, "And food! It mixes sex, death, and food." That's a pretty good summary of our id, right? Of course, since vampires are practically immortal, their lore also touches on humans' deepest fear and greatest weakness: death. If you combine this with the fact that it's hard to resist a scary tale (notice our persevering interests in zombies, werewolves, etc.), I think it's pretty clear why humans heart vampires.

Stay tuned for a follow-up post about why I love True Blood, and why Bill and Eric totally kick Edward's whiny ass.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Obephobia: The Last Acceptable Bigotry

Megan McArdle has written a couple of intriguing blog posts arguing that obesity wrongly has become the new boogie man for everyone to get worked up about in the name of public health and lowering the costs of health care. She and the author she interviews assert that all of the "data" warning about obesity's dire health consequences and the impact on health care's bottom line are bloated, false charges.

Some day I might write about McArdle's posts, but now I want to approach this from the perspective of being a formerly morbidly obese person living in a world of obephobes: people who dislike, fear, and/or discriminate against fat people.

As of today, I have lost 92.9 pounds. When a reporter asked the first Survivor winner Richard Hatch why he lost so much weight, he allegedly said, "because being fat sucks." Having weighed nearly 250 pounds at 5'1, I can attest that indeed, it very much does.

I am nowhere close to thin, but if I never lost another pound, I'd be happy in my current body after inhabiting the morbidly obese one for so many years. I went from truly standing out in a crowd and barely being able to buckle my seat belt on an airplane to being just another average, overweight American. The difference in how I was treated at 250 pounds and how I am treated at my current size is pretty stunning.

"Fat" in this culture is synonymous with or represents lack of self-control, gluttony, and laziness. No one speaks up when fat people are humiliated for their weight. In a Washington Post review of Fox's new reality show More To Love, which is simply a super-sized version of The Bachelor, the reviewer refers to the plus-sized contestants as "porkers." This astounds me.

Frankly, the existence of the show astounds me, and further proves my point: when we're not busy ridiculing fat people, we're busy gawking at them. Note the 15 or so rotating shows on Discovery and TLC that offers you an hour's glimpse at the super-obese. These shows do nothing to educate or help either the subjects or the viewers; they exist merely as a kind of gross cultural pornography.

Obephobia is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination in this country. In fact, Washington, D.C., is the only province in the U.S.A. with laws to protect employees from being wrongly discriminated against because of their weight. People routinely denigrate and shame overweight people with no social consequences. It reminds me of my mom's stories of growing up in Memphis at the height of Jim Crow. Please do not tell me that black people are born black but "fatties" choose to be fat; I'll decimate that argument in another blog post. This one is already too long.

I could write for hours about the embarrassment that I endured because of my previous size, but I want to point out a select few:

1. Calling a restaurant that advertised the need for a hostess. On the phone they were enthusiastic and interested, and when I showed up for the interview about an hour later, the boss looked at me from head to toe and told me the position already was filled.

2. There are all these scam charities in D.C. where canvassers approach you on the street asking for a donation to "help save the children from violence." They get cagey and defensive when you point out that they have no non-profit status or address. Once when I was approached downtown, I said, "I'm sorry, I don't give money to this type of charity." The canvasser replied, "You need to be spending your money on Metabolife."

Sometimes obe-phobia is blatant, like the examples above, but I think the more socially acceptable form is the kind McArdle writes about; people justifying ludicrous behaviors that punish obese people in the name of public health. A junk food tax? Please. Under its Customers of Size policy, Southwest Airlines, which I still haven't forgiven for this, began requiring obese people to pay a discounted rate for another half seat if they're large. I just sat on hold for 11 minutes to verify that this policy is enforced. See what I do for my readers? I asked the rep at SWA how they'd handle it if you did not book the extra seat for whatever reason, and she told me that if you were really in the way of another customer they would require you to buy the extra seat on the spot if you wanted to complete your flight. The Rep tried to stress that it's not really an obephobic policy; she said her brother is a professional body builder with huge shoulders that creep into the neighboring passenger's body space, and he has to buy the second seat. I actually see the rationale here, but those types of policies really devastate fat people; I just wish the airlines could deal with this more delicately. One of my husband's super-obese relatives hasn't flown in decades because she's afraid of navigating the airlines at her size. I haven't been on a full flight in years; is it that hard to rearrange people, so maybe a fat person ends up with an empty seat next to him? Reading SWA's forums on this topic, people seem to have no compunction referring to overweight folks as "hippos." If this doesn't remind you of racists referring to black people as "monkeys" or "water buffalo," it should.

I want to close with a quote attributed to Plato, James Barrie, and a dozen others: "Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." This is so true. Obese people know they're obese. They are embarrassed. They know they're taking up too much room on the train, plane, or stadium seating. They have probably spent thousands of dollars on dozens of diets trying in vain to lose weight and feel hopeless. A warm smile from you goes a long way.