Throughout my life, I have always suffered inexplicable aches and pains. By age I was raising three children all under the age of 5 and had gone through two abusive marriages and subsequently two stressful divorces. During that time doctors attributed my pain and lack of sleep as merely the common "stresses of parenthood." I was routinely prescribed Prozac and Valium and hastily shoved toward the exam room exit.
By the time my 30s rolled around, things really began to heat up. I had long since been re-married for a third time and after an eight-year struggle to get pregnant, finally gave birth to my fourth child. The pregnancy was fairly uneventful, but following the birth I was plagued with serious bleeding, hair loss, and menopausal-like symptoms brought on by nursing. I did not sleep through the night for literally months on end, and my back and shoulders hurt so bad that I could barely carry my baby. I began experiencing Irritable Bowel Syndrome, dizziness, mental fog, numbing in the hands and feet, severe anxiety and depression, and the constant drug-like stupor of the chronically fatigued. Every little thing that touched my body seemed to batter and torment me, from the clothing rubbing against my skin to the shoelaces that caused agony to the tops of my feet. I tried "going for walks" as the health care people had suggested and although my husband was always willing to accompany me, he became increasingly annoyed at my constant complaining and the fact that I could not walk more than a quarter of mile before stopping to re-adjust my shoelaces. Even when I showed him the bruises on the tops of my feet and the blisters that never seemed to heal, he dismissed it as me merely "bruising easily."
During those years most doctors simply saw me a hypochondriac, and although he will deny it, I know my own husband even began to see me in that light. How could he not? On the outside I looked perfectly fine, and if the doctors said nothing was wrong, then it had to be "in my head," right? Most health care providers were not even beginning to understand, acknowledge and much less diagnose fibro back in those days, so it was completely understandable why my husband was so perplexed, distant and annoyed with my never-ending mental and physical troubles. It must have been very painful for him to mourn the "loss" of the woman he had married.
Needless to say, I had become an absolute mess. I was barely functional and by 35 suicidal. I had also gained an obscene amount of weight as the result of the trauma, depression and anxiety that I had been subjected to in my earlier years. I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia when I was about 37, and even though there was now a name to go with my long list of symptoms, it was a name that neither my husband nor I were familiar with, and we both struggled to accept and understand what was happening with my mind and body.
Now that I was finally being taken seriously by the health care system, I was prescribed several medications to treat the anxiety, depression, pain and sleeplessness. After a lot of trial and error and constant adjustment with combinations, doses, and medications, and the momentous arrival of my horse Avalon, I began to see some light at the end of the tunnel. My husband, however, was still struggling with the whole "fibro" thing. Although he never complained about my weight gain, or the fact that the house was no longer spotless or that I seldom put on makeup or did my hair anymore, he did have a very difficult time with the sad reality that I was no longer physically able to do a lot of the things that we had once enjoyed together.
However, with the arrival of my horse and the resulting increase in activity, I was able to lose quite a bit of weight and developed enough physical strength to go trail riding, and my husband and I were finally able to start a new and very enjoyable chapter in our lives. Unfortunately, I also developed a remarkably stubborn ability to simply ignore the pain in my body. I practiced mediation, yoga, visualization, and anything I could teach myself in order to learn to push the threshold of my limits higher and higher. If the pain reached unbearable levels, I would finally concede and take a small dose of narcotic pain medication. This usually dulled the pain enough for me to go right back to pushing myself even harder I felt that as long as I pushed and pushed and simply did not stop, my momentum would keep me from falling down. As admirable and useful as my tactics may have seemed, there came a point where they not only failed to serve me, but caused me great injury as well.
Shortly after a fall about three years ago, I started experiencing pain in my left ankle, especially when riding. At first it was easily evicted from my mind during activities and work, but it grew increasingly persistent and I found that it took more and more mental discipline to get through my daily chores and riding. After about two years of dealing with the pain, I got to the point that after only 15 minutes or so of riding, I would be dripping with sweat and sick to my stomach. After all the trouble of loading the horses, packing lunch and driving to the park, we would have to turn back after only a short time, and this infuriated my husband most of all. We began to have serious arguments over small and insignificant things, but they were only symptoms of a much larger issue that was not being acknowledged.
I believe the turning point came for my husband when, during pre-op for surgery to reconstruct the tendon in my left elbow (the right arm had been re-built a year earlier; I had torn it lifting an 80lb brick), I asked the surgeon to put some cortisone into my left ankle. Of course he said no, he would have to do an MRI to see what was wrong. At my six-week checkup after the elbow surgery, he informed me that I had a torn tendon in my left ankle. I asked him if this injury could cause severe pain and he stated that it "most definitely could be extremely painful." My husband was very quiet and did not say much on the way home, but from that point on I honestly believe the reality of the situation came crashing down on him and he finally realized that I was not just whining; rather I was actually minimizing to a great degree the daily pain I had to endure just to pretend to him that everything was "normal." I continued to ride and hike on the injured ankle, even doing a 5-mile hike with friends and family, but my husband no longer complained when I needed to turn back to the trailer on our trail rides. He finally got it!
Last October I finally had surgery on the ankle, and my surgeon had to work for over two hours to fix the tendon; it was so badly mangled and torn. I also developed a blood clot in my calf after the surgery, which broke off and went to my right lower lung, resulting in a pulmonary embolism. I was hospitalized for five days and am still, to this day, on blood thinning medication. My rather unceremonious brush with almost kicking the bucket really had an impact on the poor man I married. He took off from work for almost five weeks, catering to me the entire time. Since my elbows were not working well and it was very difficult to push myself all over the house with the wheelchair the hospital gave me, he purchased a very useful and fast little power scooter for me to get around on. He never said a word as I ran into corner after corner, chipping the walls off, but he finally did say something when I crashed into our bedroom door and ripped it off the hinges. I always have and always will have my controls set on "fast!"
My ankle surgeon also explained to both of us why I always had so much pain in the top part of my feet; I have unusually high insteps and a protruding bone on the top part of my foot. Even though he said nothing at the time, I know my husband's thoughts immediately went back to the years of his impatience with my constant foot issues, and I also know that he felt truly remorseful for his lack of patience and consideration. When we finally found a brand of Western boot that fit my feet without pain, he purchased my first pair as an anniversary gift, and proceeded to buy me eight more pairs, all in different colors and styles. Even the company sent me a free pair ($140 value!) when I wrote them, thanking them for such a fine product.
After over 20 years, my husband and I have finally learned the close and intricate steps that are a requirement for a unique partnership such as ours. Like two ballroom dancers, we dip and spin within the circles of our own little world, each giving at just the right time and taking at just the right time. When one stumbles, the other quickly moves to compensate for the fumbling steps, and so we have learned that together we can avoid a lot more falls than either of us alone could. Neither gives 50 percent at all times, but whenever one can only give 20 percent, the other kicks in with 80, and so it all evens out at the end. We give and we take. We respect each other's weaknesses, and support each other's strengths. Both of us have made great strides on the paths that have been set before us, and I am very proud of how we are now able to truly call ourselves a team.
However, things were not always as they are today, and it took both of us a long time and a lot of effort to come to grips with the cards we had both been dealt. We endured many bumps along the way, and although everything will never be smooth sailing for a couple with the challenges that we face, we have developed strategies for keeping fibromyagia from robbing us of the time we have together and the love that we share.
While no one thing will work for everyone, following are some of the issues that I have personally learned are important to focus on when it comes to my attitude towards both my condition and my spouse:
Each couple is unique, and each will have to figure out what works well for them as individuals as well as together. One thing is certain, however. With love, trust, compassion, commitment and a heck of a lot of teamwork, your relationship will acquire the strength it needs to get both of you through the challenges that life with fibro inevitably brings.