“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
– Mother Teresa
At the end of January I had another horrendous relapse / flare of my arachnoiditis/ mild adhesive arachnoiditis & spinal CSF leak symptoms. Although I had experienced some pre-warnings in the weeks before, on Thursday 28th January my symptoms again exploded so acutely that I knew I needed to access another 5 day IV methylprednisolone ASAP, as previously agreed with my more local neurologist if that happened. It unfortunately still took a week to arrange for me to receive it at the local day case unit, especially as I really wanted to avoid going via the ED due to Covid and hospital pressures. It was also the first time of these arrangements being actioned which meant it took a little bit more time.
So as I waited at home as we and my wonderful GP team chased the hospital and my consultant to make arrangements for me ASAP, my husband and I made the decision to film what happens to me when I flare / relapse, and how I responded to treatment – as an open education and awareness project for other patients and their family and friends, as well as any doctors who may be open to listen and learn more about arachnoiditis and spinal CSF leaks.
We mainly decided to do this because when doctors, patients and the general public do not understand these conditions it causes us sufferers so many many problems in being ‘heard’ and accessing treatment. Also – as anyone can see from the videos when I am in a flare – things deteriorate dramatically in a week. Arachnoiditis/ AA flares should be treated as a MEDICAL EMERGENCY if doctors want to stop more permeant adhesions from forming – which could ultimately lead to paralysis, partial paralysis, incontinence and irretractable pain syndrome.
So I cannot stay silent!!
Without my IV steroid treatment, steroid taper and ongoing every other day 5mg prednisolone (steroid) and 75mg diclofenac (anti-inflammatory) & 4.5ml LDN (low dose Naltrexone via private prescription), I have no doubt the adhesive arachnoiditis would have moved into more severe categories over the last two flares.
It thus felt time to branch out into videos to complement my writing in this blog.
So I have a YouTube channel now packed full of educational videos showing my flare, talking about symptoms and how I have done in recovery since. I will keep updating my channel to talk about my progress or new things I am learning about that are relevant to the condition.
Here are some of the relevant videos and links:
Here are a few other videos from each section and a link to each ‘playlist’. All the individual videos can be found on my YouTube channel.
I will now add one or two key videos from each list here:
That should be enough videos to give someone more of an introduction to my new educational and awareness project. I have learnt a lot over the past six years about my two radiologically confirmed diagnoses, even though I only knew I had had arachnoiditis all along too since July 2020. (It can now be seen on my original 2015 MRI’s 3 months after my accident and before any of my spinal procedures. I also experienced symptoms of arachnoiditis as soon as my symptoms came on after my ladder fall in January 2015).
PLEASE NOTE: ALL MY VIDEOS & WRITING ARE FULLY IN THE PUBLIC REALM AND CAN BE SHARED IN ANY CONTEXT OR PLATFORM WITH MY FULL PERMISSION. MY ONLY DESIRE IS THAT PEOPLE LEARN FROM MY CASE SO THAT OTHERS DO NOT HAVE TO SUFFER SO VERY MUCH FOR 6 YEARS TO GET RADIOLOGICALLY CONFIRMED DIAGNOSIS. SO PLEASE DO SHARE THEM WIDELY!
Thank you to everyone for all your support in this new educational project. I had 1000 views of my main case summary video in one week and I know many doctor contacts saw and shared it. If any doctors do want to know more they should feel free to get in contact with me and I can share more about the hospitals, teams, GPs and consultants I am under – IF they want to find out more because this would help their patients to get treated more quickly.
I now have two written radiologically confirmed diagnosis of arachnoiditis from two senior NHS neurologists at two Midlands NHS hospitals. I continue my medical journey under both their care.
Email me at: email@example.com
If my journey changes the outcome for just ONE patient then it is worth it all. So if you are that patient today – I do this for you and pray that the information I share may make your journey a little easier than mine.
“Let me be filled with kindness, and compassion for the one For humanity. Increase my love”
“The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”
A few months ago I re-read this Proverb and it again spoke to my heart. Afterwards I felt a deep sense that I should make a series of videos about it. Because for me these simple words tell a profound story about sickness & suffering. They also give insight into some of my own story about the reality of enduring long term sickness.
The proverb explains that the human spirit can endure a lot of things. Throughout history, many many people have had to endure long seasons of deep suffering. In fact, things probably used to be much worse. There were less medicines, less diagnosis, less surgery, less wider help & support. So people have always – throughout history – had to endure suffering, pain, and sickness. Sometimes for their whole lives. So we know that the human spirit has shown, again and again, that it can endure a lot.
HOWEVER the proverb goes on to contrast that “a crushed spirit who can bear?”. Meaning that although humans can endure a lot – there is another state of suffering of the human spirit that can feel impossible to bear.
That is why I wanted to make these videos. To discuss what it feels like and how to endure and find a way through the seasons when our spirits feel crushed.
Another translation of this proverb says:
“A cheerful spirit gives strength even during sickness. But you can’t keep going if you have a broken spirit.””
Proverbs 18:14 NIRV
So here we have another meaning for crushed, which is the word broken. The same Hebrew word is also sometimes translated wounded. Basically, this tells us that a season of a ‘crushed spirit’ is characterised by feelings of:
BROKENNESS – WOUNDEDNESS – INNER PAIN – DESPAIR
If you have ever experienced a season like this, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. For some people it may be characterised as depression or extreme anxiety. For others it may well lead them into a time of suicidal ideation/ thoughts of wanting to leave – or escape – this world & all of its pain.
It is certainly a season that is very very difficult to bear and endure.
I have been there myself. I have tasted of the darkness of a season of a crushed & broken spirit. Some might call it ‘the dark night of the soul’. It’s a time when everything feels so dark and oppressive and it’s so difficult to see any light, any joy or to see a way forward. You feel stuck or lost in such a season. It can also be extremely dangerous, especially if someone is actually also feeling suicidal because there seems ‘no way out.’
This is why I made these videos and why I am writing this blog post to introduce the series. I hope that it reaches out to people who currently feel immensely lost, dark and crushed. My prayer is that it helps to bring some hope again – even if just a flicker of a flame. So that you can find a way through. I believe you can find a way through – because I did. Despite not being able to see it at the time.
In this article, I want to introduce you to a summary of each video and the main points in each one. You will discover, as I tried to explain many times, that this content has been inspired by what I have learnt on my own journey since I first started out on my journey of long-term illness (spinal CSF leak & arachnoiditis) in January 2015. Over those six years I have been through at least three intense seasons of ‘a crushed spirit’ as I write about in Breaking Through the Darkness and A Window into a Suicidal Mind.
So these are some of the ways that I have found a way through & discovered a new way of living despite the deep ongoing challenges of living with these conditions & managing them on a daily basis.
VIDEO 1 : ACKNOWLEDGMENT & VALIDATION.
In this video I talk about the importance of being honest, opening up & talking to someone about the truth of your struggles. In my experience it is vitally important to get what is locked in the darkness of your mind out into the open. When it stays stuck on the inside the chaos takes over and the mind quickly snowballs out of control. Getting our thoughts and words out of whirring around our heads can help us to bring more order to our thoughts, help us process and understand ourselves and others better.
It then helps if you can speak to someone who will validate your struggles and help support you through them.
VIDEO 2: ACCEPTANCE & LETTING GO
In this video I talk about my next step in finding more serenity: peace & calmness. That is leaning to ‘accept the things I cannot change’ but also courageously ‘changing what I can.’ This can often include going through painful season of grieving & letting go of who you once were or your dreams for the future. I also talk about learning to live more in the present. Which doesn’t mean we don’t face, process and find healing from yesterday’s trauma. But simply means that we choose not to get stuck there. I also talk about having hope for the future whilst not getting lost in its never ending what if’s.
VIDEO 3: CALMING THE MIND
I start off by honestly talking about my experiences of my mind feeling totally out of control. I remind us that we may sometimes need professional help from doctors etc before we can move out of such an intense season. I then go on to share about these main points:
Getting what you are thinking out in the open. A mind where thoughts get trapped can quickly turn very dark. It’s important to share how we are feeling honestly with others.
Protecting your mind – being careful with what you read/ watch/ listen to/ who to talk to. Guard what you feed your mind with.
Thought replacement (not denial) filling your mind with better thoughts. For me this includes bombarding/ renewing the mind: Listening to and reading things that encourage and inspire you. Love was also something I would try and focus on and was a real anchor for me.
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
Martin Luther King, Jr
Transform suffering into a creative force for good. Our own experiences put us in the privileged position of being able to feel more empathy & connection. It also puts us in a more experienced place to provide advocacy & fight for justice for others (as well as ourselves). This can include educating others about these illnesses & raising awareness about these conditions.
I am not what I do: Establishing a new identity. This will include the grieving of letting go of who we once were so that we can learn to discover new purpose and achievement in the small things. I wrote a whole blog article about this a couple of years ago titled: What is my Purpose: Do Small Things with Great Love. In it I wrote about how I was inspired by God to find purpose by daily asking the question: “Who can I show love to today?”
Discovering a new way of living – Finding what we can do despite all of our restrictions. This can include doing small loving things. It could include spending time with others at home, calling them, writing or sending a message. We can often find more purpose in thinking about others rather than just being consumed by ourselves.
Bearing suffering as a source of achievement & setting an example to others. I read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ a few years ago about how he and others endured the desperate suffering of the concentration camp by discovering a higher purpose.
“…the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom— which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
This can also include a realisation that us finding a way through can be so significant for those coming behind us on these journeys. Some of those people could actually be your own children, your family or friends in the future.
My prayer for you is that these videos provide some inspiration to help you endure – and hopefully find a way through – your own season of ‘a crushed spirit’. Or perhaps instead they might help to educate you to learn how better to support loved ones who are going through immensely difficult seasons of suffering in many different ways.
We all at times need others to help us come through these darker & more desolate seasons. I truly believe that we are not meant to face these things alone.
“Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.”
So most of all today I want you to know that you are not alone. I have been there myself and it was the hardest and most painful thing I have ever had to face and come through. But I can tell you:
THINGS CAN GET BETTER AGAIN!
So never give up hope – clutch onto it, even if only by your fingernails – and do what you have to to make sure you can stay holding on. Because I do believe one day you will look back and be glad that you did. And maybe – just maybe – your own story of overcoming can then be a guiding light to others. To help them find their own pathway out of that crushing, broken & wounded place. Into the calmer & greener pastures of more holistic wholeness & deeper rest for your soul. Despite your challenging circumstances.
“O Lord… You know me more deeply and fully than I know myself. You love me with a greater love than I can love myself. You even offer me more than I can desire… Take my tired body, my confused mind, and my restless soul into your arms and give me rest, simple quiet rest.”
To understand more about my medical case & story please see my new summary video of my whole medical journey please see this video.
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Today I want to write about HOPE, because hope is one of the strongest forces that can guide us through immensely dark seasons. Love is always the power that truly drives all I do. But hope brings energy to keep on going even when its presence is only the flicker of a flame in the darkest of nights.
”It’s always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last.”
Today I am writing to remind you & myself that hope always lives & always remains even when everything appears hopeless. At those times we can often only see unending disaster & pain. Which can feel completely overwhelming to endure. But when we find hope we discover little rays of light that begin to glimmer & shine in the midst of the darkness.
So today I hope you will join with me and choose to HOPE again. In whatever area of life feels hopeless to you at the moment – I pray that you will find the energy to...
This is my ongoing story since that time. My real life story that reminds us that sometimes hope surprises us when we chose to stay the course. Sometimes it turns things around in ways we never imagined or expected. If we will just hold on hope can bring better days again.
Summary of My Ongoing Progress
In general, it’s been mainly good news regarding ongoing progress in my recovery since the new (but old) diagnosis of chronic arachnoiditis.There have been some great results over time from my new ongoing treatment protocol to reduce spinal canal nerve/ arachnoid inflammation & help to ease the pain of the damage already done. This includes various medications and a personal physio plan of continuing to walk a few miles a day over 2-4 separate walks and gently stretching my spine regularly.
Successful treatment has meant that I am now managing to be upright and do things for stretches of on average 10-12 hours at a time before I need to lie down to rest.I can then get up and do even more after 1-2 hours rest.
Which is massive progress because during the year following April 2019 (my last bad relapse/ flare) and my hospital admission after actuely relapsing in July 2020 – I could only manage a maximum of 4 hours upright in one go – normally only 2-3 hours max. I then needed at least 2 hours lying down flat before getting up for maybe 2 hours again, and that was how my whole day went! So all the very high levels pain and debilitating head pressure issues are much improved since I had the IV steroids (methlyprednisolone) in hospital and then continued under an arachnoiditis treatment protocol. My walking is also much stronger and generally good and my mental clarity much improved so I can do a lot more in the day at home & for our church as well as maintain a helpful walking routine.
Combination of Medications that Help
I continue to take 5mg prednisolone (steroid) every other day and 75mg diclofenac (anti-inflammatory that crosses the blood-brain barrier into the spinal canal) the day in between. I also take 4.5ml a day of LDN (Low Dose Naltrexone) as recommended by a US specialist & other arachnoiditis suffers. (This is not available on the NHS for arachnoiditis but prescribed & purchased privately from a registered LDN trust clinic. Although my GP & Neurologist have been informed I am taking it). I also take Omeprozole 20mg to protect my stomach and some other supplements including Pregnenalone to help nerve regeneration, Turmeric capsules for inflammation, Omega 3, calcium to protect my bones, vitamin B complex, magnesium & vitamin D.
Intracranial Pressure Headache Improvement
Interestingly, what we previously assumed were classic low pressure/ spinal CSF leak positional symptoms have greatly improved too with the treatment. Which suggests the arachnoiditis inflammation was probably more of a problem on that level than we all previously realised. Which is perhaps good news for other patients that might improve on medication and with more walking and gentle stretching too. IF they could have an arachnoiditis/ spinal canal inflammation element to their ongoing symptoms.
Much Less Debilitated
The main positive thing that has changed since the new diagnosis and treatment is that I am currently much less debilitated and do not need to lie down much at all. I can also manage a lot of the pain & symptoms better – by keeping moving, regular long walks, lying down when the pain and head pressure gets too much, being quiet for a bit… and in the meantime I can do & achieve a lot more as I said above, especially as my mental clarity is much better than it was.
Summary of Recent Improvements
So the never-ending battle continues but 2020 brought new gains that I never imagined could come without more invasive procedures. That experience this year has been something of a miracle in our lives. My husband feels that I am currently the best I have been in the whole nearly 6 years… and I would probably agree with him in many ways. Although there are elements of the lower spinal pain and stiffness that are perhaps worse than other times on my journey.
The Freedom Found in a New Perspective
I think understanding the new diagnosis helps a lot too with management and mentally/ psychologically dealing with it all.It really has been very liberating to understand some more of my strange symptoms & behaviour over the past six years better in hindsight. This is why seeking out more answers can be so helpful to patients like me. Especially those with rare conditions – because it helps you to understand yourself better & gives more explanations for why you sometimes act and respond in the ways that you do. Which is so helpful for your holistic health.
I really do believe in cases of rare illnesses that there needs to be more doctor & patient partnership in understanding new diagnosis. Doctors often do not have the time to fully research and understand more unusual conditions. But if patients and doctors can choose to more humbly learn together then that can help everyone. This is especially true in our newer age of the internet and online support groups. Patients often have the time to research, learn & explore things doctors just don’t have the time for when they meet very few patients with those conditions. This subsequently means that listening doctors can then help a patient understand it all better too, because patients often lack the wider knowledge of medical complexities that doctors are much better placed to help them understand.
In my own story I am still immensely grateful for every doctor who has had the humility to patiently listen carefully and to think outside of ‘normal boxes’ to help very unique patients like me hopefully discover more answers to unique questions about their medical conditions. Those doctors are very precious to us, especially when they help us over the long term so get to know you a bit more personally too.
Radiological Evidence of Arachnoiditis
We have at least made some progress on this level since my last blog article too.My scans have been looked at by a few different doctors now including neuroradiologists, neurologists, a neurosurgeon & an arachnoiditis specialist. The conclusions coming from all avenues is that there are various ‘suggestive features’ of arachnoiditis as well as some possible mildly Adhesive Arachnoiditis (AA) elements on my MRIs. This includes my lumbar spinal nerves being situated more towards the side and back of my spinal canal (first seen in retrospect on my first March 2015 MRIs which would support my theory that a biological predisposition as well as the fall and leak were the trigger – because those scans were done before I had had any spinal procedures). As well as some possible areas of mild clumping & nerve adhesions forming & some inflammation of the cauda equina nerve roots.
This is all actually all very in line with a diagnosis of chronic arachnoiditis. It is usually a clinical diagnosis based mainly on symptoms, but over time people will often display suggestive features of spinal nerve/ nerve root inflammation, swelling and positional shifting, which may also cause spinal cysts forming (incl. tarlov, arachnoid or similar cysts – as I have). Patients may also begin to show some suggestive, possible or probable mild nerve root clumping and adhesions evident on their MRIs etc.
Clinical Rather than Radiological Diagnosis
It has been reported to me that I have enough suggestive features of all of these elements to help support the clinical diagnosis of arachnoiditis.Although not enough to support a radiological diagnosis of adhesive arachnoiditis or cauda equina inflammatory disorder.
These findings are also in line with my own experiences of treatment. I had previously read that the steroid & anti-inflammatory meds will only really work on those in earlier stages of illness progression. So my radical response to both the IV steroids given in hospital in July/ August 2020 (500mg IV methlypredisolone a day over 5 days), the subsequent steroid taper and taking anti-inflammatories, in addition to lots of walking & some gentle stretching would support the theory that the arachnoiditis is present and potentially dangerous to me, but it has thankfully not yet advanced to a more severe permanent type of adhesive arachnoiditis.
This supports my theory that we may well have thankfully stopped a more ‘adhesive episode’ taking hold this summer. I really was extremely unwell and in unimaginable levels of pain in my lumbar & sacral spine and legs. Which without treatment could have well done more permanent damage to my spinal nerves – had we not halted its progression through aggressive treatment.
Arachnoiditis and especially AA can progress very quickly when it severely flares. This is why it’s of paramount importance that people are diagnosed & treated via a clinical diagnosis before it is so serious that it is more evident on MRIs.
Treatment will always work best BEFORE the damage has become permanent & radical enough to clearly show on scans. Specialists also tell us that scan evidence does not always correspond with symptom severity anyway. As with a lot of other conditions like spinal CSF leaks.
So the earlier it is treated the better. Ongoing treatment can also help to halt progression through flares.Which is of great value to me and other sufferers of this awful misunderstood condition. Knowing how to treat it can potentially stop devastating, irreversible damage to people’s spines and whole nervous systems.
Despite all the improvements – for which I am incredibly thankful – the reality is also that I believe I still have permanent damage to my spine from the arachnoiditis/ leak – because chronic pain is a normal significant daily part of my life. It is just much more contained than it used to be. This again would align with what is being seen on my MRIs.
CHRONIC NEURO PAIN IN MY SPINE & HEAD
It often feels like a ‘carpet burn’ sensation – like when the top layer of skin has been gashed off – but deep in my lumbar/ sacral spine and upper neck in particular. Or definite nerve pain and pressure flares in my spine & head. Sometimes that builds to more pin’s sticking into me/ stabbing pain. It also means my spine is very stiff which also leads to a lot of leg stiffness & leg pain too. Although lots of walking helps this. Also various movements such as bending, lifting, twisting, straining make all this worse.
PINS & NEEDLES
I also get regular intermittent pins and needles/ buzzing in & all over my legs and feet & sometimes in my hands and other places. I understand what people mean by saying it feels like ‘bugs crawling on you or under your skin’ (paraesthesia) but to me it’s distinctly pins & needles – but it’s like a buzzing that pulsates and moves about on the inside of my legs and all over the surface of my skin. Thankfully it has improved a lot on how it was during my last ‘flare’. These days it’s more annoying than debilitating and thankfully my feet no longer ‘burn’ like they did in the summer.
I HAVE TO KEEP MOVING: ‘RESTLESSNESS’
A key ongoing symptom feature for me (that I have heard is very typical of arachnoiditis) is that remaining sitting and standing in one position for too long exacerbates my all my symptoms, including spinal & head pain, leg stiffness, pins & needles and the feeling of pressure in the back of my head, whole head and upper neck which leads to more fogginess and sometimes even very bad nausea or hot flushes. I have often recently wondered if this is partly a CSF flow issue– as once I start moving around again or walking – it improves. The sensation is that my intracranial pressure builds in my upper neck & whole head – but it improves through gentle movement. Even lying down for a while can cause this to happen. The minute I get up my legs are all stiff and weak and my ears pop from the pressure changes.
What this means is that I can begin to feel very agitated and distracted if I have to stay in one position for a long time. This could be read by others to be an anxiety issue or simply a deep restlessness. But I now know it’s mainly simply a typical symptom of arachnoiditis, due to build up of pain and discomfort to high levels and the body’s natural reactions to that pain and discomfort in my spine, legs & head. As the video explains well.
CSF FLOW & PRESSURE ISSUES
This would tie in with various arachnoiditis specialist’s theories about CSF flow issues and high intracranial pressure problems related to arachnoiditis. On that level I have wondered if it’s possible that the small leak that has been identified in my ventral cervical (in my neck) spine by my NHS Intracranial Pressure MDT could possibly help regulate my pressure rather than distinctly making things worse and causing typical low pressure symptoms. Which I guess could tie into my cranial scans never actually showing low pressure/ SIH.
It may also explain some of my confusing symptoms that at times over the past 6 years have completely baffled neurologists as to whether it was low pressure, high pressure or another headache type or combination. I do often wake up with a headache or at least a ‘pressure filled head’- in the night or early in the morning and I especially struggle with very weak & stiff legs and a ‘full head’ if I have to get up in the night or early morning for the loo.
Although the CSF flow and pressure theories are mainly based on my own observations of my symptoms – I don’t really know the truth of it all of course. I have come to believe it’s all FAR more complex than my doctors & I perhaps previously realised regarding CSF / ICP / arachnoiditis links. Which again would make much more sense of my own medical journey over the past six years. Arachnoiditis is known to both sometimes increase intracranial pressure, but is also known to cause you to leak or seep spinal fluid too. So that again explains more about why my intracranial pressure dynamics are often all over the place & may well continue to be pretty messed up long term. Which would also tie into my general hypersensitivity to any pressure changes. Although again all these things have currently improved to less debilitating levels since treating the arachnoiditis which shows how interlinked it all is with the inflammationas well.
STRUGGLES WITH SITTING DOWN
Thankfully I can sit for much longer than I could – but only either with a very straight spine or leaning slightly forward. Although it is never a comfortable position for me and will make my head and spine pain & pins & needles worse especially after a 30mins to one hour or so. I can also feel very sleepy and nauseous after a while sitting which can makes me yawn obsessively (I again think it’s an ICP increase thing). So I again often have regular ‘getting up breaks’ when sitting alot. I will also be extremely stiff when I get up and have to get my legs moving quickly to get them working properly again.
Travelling sitting in a car is particularly bad for me too. If I travel in the car or drive I sit in a very strange position with the seat really far forward and very straight or slightly leaning forward. I have also invested in a ‘wedge cushion’ to use if a passenger – to help align my spine better in the ‘bucket’ type seats, which seems to help. Bucket seats are known to be very bad for arachnoiditis/ AA sufferers.
ONGOING PHONOPHOBIA & PHOTOPHOBIA
My head is still very sensitive bright and flashing lights, fast moving images & to the layering of sounds. I still struggle with lots of noise at the same time. Like music with a beat, or music in the background with talking, or a combination of other general noises. The music I listen to these days tends to be quiet & acoustic and I usually listen with headphones in my ears to block out some of the other sounds. But all this is much better than it has been for a long time and this Christmas I have been able to tolerate flashing lights much better than in previous years.
TALKING WHILST WALKING
Talking & walking is much better for me now which has been helpful when it’s one of the only ways to see people during the pandemic restrictions. But sometimes it’s still a bit of challenge especially if my head is already a bit flared. One of my worst movements whilst walking is attempting to turn my head to look at things or to talk to someone. That will immediately fill my head with pressure, make it cloudy and cause a lot of pain and pressure in my upper neck. The same thing happens moving my neck to look up or down. So my key is to walk with my head facing forward and my spine very straight.
I love to sing, especially with my husband, but singing has often been a key test of how bad my symptoms are since my accident. At their worst I cannot sing (or hardly speak) at all. Even during the first half of 2020 (pre-arachnoiditis diagnosis) my husband and I would often sing for our online church since the pandemic closed church buildings. But I would have to practice lying down then would only get up to record or live stream. But since my new treatment plan I can also sing more. A good example being our recording of Oh Holy Night for our Online Carol Service. I have not been able to properly sing this carol for the past five years especially because of how high it goes at the end. Normally singing that high would cause my head to full with pressure, make me feel drunk & cause me to need to lie down. But to our joy this year I managed to record this at home & this was actually done after a number of practices & a couple of takes – so that has been some encouraging progress.
GOING TO THE LOO
Going to the loo still a problem for my head & bladder. It still feels like either my pressure is increasing or I am quickly losing spinal fluid as I wee – as my head almost immediately feels very strange, full of pressure & my ears will often pop more showing a quick clear pressure change (like happens on a flight). It is also still often uncomfortable on my urinary tract which will still feel a bit irritated for a while before and after I have been. But it’s all much better than it has been in a while & especially in the summer. Previously I could often only go for a wee directly before lying down. Emptying my bowels also makes my head worse especially if there is any straining at all – which I avoid at all costs. Straining is not at all good for leaks or arachnoiditis.
MOVING FORWARD INTO A DIFFERENT SEASON
So it’s a mixed picture of massive gains made in the second half of this year, combined with a reality of continuing to manage many ongoing symptoms.
However, for the first time in a long time I have made much more progress & found many ways to stay busy & occupied within all my limitations. This has included helping the shift to more online church through video creating, editing and social media & website development. These are all things I can do, as and when I can, standing, sitting or lying down, either on my smart phone or for shorter bursts on the laptop. I also continue to help provide pastoral support – alongside my husband – for people in our church & connected to us. Although even a lot of this has had to shift online or over the phone this past pandemic year.
“The real work, the hardest work, is to pick up the pieces and decide how to put them back together again. The new thing that emerges may not work the way it used to, but it can bend and stretch and change us in ways we come to treasure even more.”
Suffer Strong – Katherine & Jay Wolf
That quote is precious to me because it describes my journey well. The past six years have been a marathon journey of learning to accept, adapt, stretch, bend & change according to my current abilities & limitations. My life journey since my accident has in no way been linear. Sometimes it’s been as changeable as shifting sands. Just when you get used to being able to do even more – you again simply crash, burn & relapse.
In those times of disappointment, in those moments I wasn’t sure I had the energy to start another recovery journey again, I found that I had to find ways to acknowledge the grief & pain but then allow myself to bend, change & be moulded anew. In those places I had to let go of finite disappointments & focus on…
A bigger Picture. A bigger Person. A bigger Presence.
… to carry me through.
Until, yet again I have found myself in the more peaceful place of slightly calmer waters. Having let go of who I once was and embracing the life I have been given now. Whilst choosing to allow it to be used to be a blessing & make a difference in others lives.
So that is the infinite hope that I cling fast to. A hope that is not based on the life I imagined, but is based on something far more significant. The the life I was given to live. So I must embrace all that it is – and attempt to use it for good. To make the difference in our world that only I can make. Reaching the people that I was uniquely called to love. And trying to offer hope to others overwhelmed by hopelessness.
Part of that process is continuing the task of simply telling my complicated never ending story – in the hope that it may become a ray of hope in someone else’s darkness. So today I want to tell you again to never give up. Instead choose to…
“Hope, hope to the last.”
Remembering that good can come again in our lives… IF we will only keep holding on and enduring for another day, another difficult season. However impossible that sometimes may feel.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
“Try to understand others. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other.”
Trying to understand others is a big motivating force in my life. I have learnt from experience over the years that the more we can TRY to understand others – and they TRY to understand us – the kinder we will be to one another. Ignorance about others’ lives and what they have had to deal with in the past, or what they currently face now, is often one of the reasons we misunderstand and judge others behaviour and words. Listening and more understanding, on the other hand, is often the key to treating people with more love, grace & compassion in every way.
This is one of the reasons I have tried to tell my own story over the past five years as honestly as I can. To help me to understand and process my own journey. To also help others to understand me. But probably most importantly to try and help others suffering to not feel so alone and misunderstood.
I want to use my writing abilities to be a public voice and advocate for the suffering and oppressed – to help them express and understand the inexpressible within themselves and to help those around them to also understand. Whilst also providing a window to those in the medical profession to help them understand spinal CSF leak patients better.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.”
Many doctors have no idea how much damage they can physically and mentally do to their spinal CSF leak patients due to their own misunderstandings and ignorance of the condition. As I wrote about in Dear Doctor, A Letter from your Naked Patient.
My Background Story
In January 2015 I fell off a small step ladder whilst painting and hit my head and spine hard. Although a little dazed and bruised at the time, I generally felt OK. But over the next 48 hours I started to feel more and more unwell until I was left predominately stuck in bed in a dark room (to read more about that see my original Living with a Spinal CSF Leak post or Surviving the Storm post). At first I was diagnosed with a concussion, then post-concussion syndrome. But finally after admission to hospital 8 weeks later with things not improving and in some ways worse (on my third trip to the ED) – I was diagnosed with a spinal CSF leak.
Although my cranial and spinal MRIs were deemed normal at the time, I was diagnosed after 2 weeks of observation on a NHS city hospital neurology ward where it was obvious I only ever felt well lying completely flat. I also had a diagnostic lumbar puncture which was low (7).(Although I would never recommend using LPs to diagnose because of the high risk of a new leak and the fact that about 60% of leak patients will not show low pressure anyway*). I also then had 5 much better months directly following a blind lumbar 30ml epidural blood patch before fully relapsing again that September.
I have now had 4 blind epidural blood patches – all gave me obvious consistent relief for weeks to months. Although never fully and always transient. I have also had countless MRIs, a cisternogram and a CT Myelogram. Although it is only recently that my UK CSF leak team have flagged seeing a suspected leak on my spinal MRIs.
High & Low Pressure Fluctuations
Over the past 5 years I have experienced months of being almost constantly flat in bed and months of being upright all day (following epidural blood patches). But never symptom free and always struggling with hypersensitive reactions to normal pressure changes in my skull. At times after blood patches my symptoms have also typically seemed to shift into a more high pressure pattern of getting worse lying down and better upright. Although those times were also very confusing – as they often are for many spinal CSF leak patients who experience hypersensitive pressure fluctuations. Which can be even more heightened after treatment/ healing.
I have discussed this with a number of people over the years. There is an online support group for patients experiencing symptoms consistent with Rebound High Pressure symptoms and treated for such symptoms.
We were actually recently discussing over Twitter how spinal CSF leak patients both before and after treatment/ healing become experts in ‘micro-managing their ICP (skull pressure) equilibrium’. Bending, carrying, lifting, stretching, straining, going to the loo, shouting, singing, twisting, exertion, opening stiff jars, lifting a full kettle, travelling on bumpy roads, stress & anxiety etc etc all tend to send pressure bursts/ waves into our head. Which when we are leaking, just seem to also make us leak more until it builds and we can no longer maintain a manageable pressure equilibrium in our skulls.
So to manage the condition, I have to ‘micro-manage’ my ICP.For me this means avoiding many of the things I mention above as much as possible or plan them before I lie down to rest. I also ask my family to lift/ carry/ bend for me as much as possible. I use a ‘litter picker’ stick to pick things up off the ground. I often try to delay using the loo until before I know I can lie down where possible. I also stand up most of the time I am upright because sitting makes me worse far quicker for some reason. (Perhaps due to the location of the leak and the stretching of the dura from sitting down.) Keeping my spine completely straight is my key to more upright time. And reducing the ‘pressure busts/ waves’ in my skull which build up to make me progressively worse until I cannot tolerate the symptoms any more.
How it Feels To Have a Spinal CSF leak.
Please note these symptoms are there every day without fail. This pattern is consistent each and every day.
The best way to explain it, is like an ever-increasing overwhelming dull pressure/ intensity in the head. As it gets worse (over minutes to hours depending on how acute the leak is), you feel more and more detached from the world around you. That feels a bit like being drunk/ or using ‘gas and air’ – but accompanied by a heavy, pressure pain. The pressure is in the whole head but I feel it particularly in the occipital area, in my neck and behind my eyes.At its worst it is accompanied by a ‘pulling sensation’ which leaves you feeling like your head is being pulled into your neck. Or that your neck isn’t strong enough to hold your head up. Also many of the nerves around that area hurt more and more.
It just builds and builds until your brain starts shutting down. You can no longer think straight, process well, everything feels impossible, you become disoriented and confused and you can feel very very nauseous and I sometimes even want to gag. Although never actually vomit like some people do.
I also get pain in the bottom of my spine which gets increasingly worse. So I have described to others that it often feels like I have a metal rod going through my spine with a clamp at the bottom of my skull/ top of my neck. And one at the bottom of my spine. The sensation is then like someone is tightening the clamps either end so that my spine is being tightened, shortened and my skull is being pulled into my neck.
I imagine that it’s simply the sensation of your brain ‘sinking/ slumping’ into your skull because of the intracranial hypotension. Caused by the lack of spinal fluid to keep your brain in its cushioned, buoyant place. I think then this causes me to feel tension throughout my spine hence the clamp feeling.
The overriding feeling is…
‘I CANNOT COPE.’
I cannot cope…. with this intensity in my head.
I cannot cope …. with this level of pain & trauma.
I cannot cope …. with thinking and making decisions.
I cannot cope… with attempting to formulate words to explain what is happening.
I cannot cope …. with attempting to function whilst my body and brain feels like it is shutting down.
I cannot cope …. with this impossible illness.
My husband says I become vacant, distant and increasingly slow to respond as it becomes obvious that I am in a bad way.
Those feelings just increase until you feel like…
I CANNOT COPE WITH ANYTHING!!! I MUST LIE DOWN & REST!!!!
You then think about the best quiet place that you can lie down flat in that moment….
Like a drug addict needing their fix….
…. Or a person in perpetual excruciating pain needing a morphine injection.
My ‘morphine’ or ‘drug of choice’ is to lie down.
Morphine itself doesn’t work nor do any other pain killers. ONLY lying down/ resting works. Hence the debilitation.
The Impact of Lying down To Rest
As I lie down flat I feel a wave of relief as, almost instantly, things get easier. It can take anything from seconds to minutes to begin to feel the easing of symptoms. Although if things have got too bad because I have pushed myself too long, gone out for a longer walk or if I have just been on a longer car journey, it can take up to an hour-plus for my symptoms to fully calm to more manageable levels – where I feel more fully relaxed again from the extreme tension and trauma in my brain and body.
But as it does ease, it’s like your head slowly begins to clear. The intensity gradually eases. The ‘clamps’ loosen. The pain begins to dissipate. The brain fog and confusion gets better.
I can finally think and talk more clearly again.
I feel more normal again … although never fully normal. Never how my head used to feel before the accident.
At my worst times – when I was probably leaking most acutely – after being upright too long (sometimes a matter of minutes) I would not even be able to walk or talk properly. My speech would become slurred and incomprehensible. My legs would turn to jelly and I would struggle to walk without holding onto things to pull myself back to bed. And everything would feel like a dream.
My brain would just begin to completely shut down.
Until I would HAVE to lie down, as if being saved from drowning in pain, trauma & confusion… and after 5-10 minutes of lying flat I could think and talk more normally again.
Countless doctors and nurses in hospital over my various stays observed this which helped confirm the diagnosis at that time.
Those were more my classic spinal CSF leak symptoms. My problems with doctors came when those times were extended to hours or even most of the day of being upright. Especially after epidural blood patches. That is when many spinal CSF leak patients fall through the ‘text book diagnosis’ cracks. Into the ‘chronic migraines’ or ‘NDPH’ (New daily persistent headache) or chronic fatigue boxes.
And yet I know hundreds of patients in the UK/ world wide who can be upright most, or even all of the day, with spinal CSF leaks still evidenced on their scans or found in exploratory surgery – proving that it is possible, and actually more common than once thought (as any up-to-date research on the subject will tell you). Some patients with all the symptoms but no scan evidence turn out in exploratory surgery to have a thin membrane covering the leak which stops them fully healing but provides enough covering to not show on scans and give them more upright time. Some of these patients started off leaking through a simple lumbar puncture, but were previously told by doctors that they definitely could not be leaking still, and suggestions made that they ‘spend too much time on Google’ or it is simply ‘all in their head.’ Which regularly pushes very unwell patients into deep despair.
This is part of what makes this condition very difficult to endure.
The fact is that lying down not only helps much of the intense, traumatic pain. But it also helps my focus and ability to concentrate so much. This means that I often opt to lie down to write messages or emails to people, or talk on the phone for extended periods – simply because I can ‘think straight’ lying down – much better than I can upright. Especially if I have been upright for a while.
I normally write most of these blog posts lying down too.
I currently find I have about 1-4 hours upright AT A TIME. Generally more first thing in the morning and if I am well rested. Before things get too unmanageable and I have to lie down again for 1-2 hours to recover. I am then up for a while then down again throughout the day. I have also learnt to generally try and pre-empt when I really need to ‘get flat again’ so it doesn’t get too bad. Otherwise I can’t cope and it takes me longer to recover. Some days – like today – I am more up and down like a yo-yo for shorter time’s to try and avoid longer periods flat and do more writing or things on my phone lying down.
This has actually all been much easier for me in COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ because being at home all day means I can plan my lying down breaks much more easily. It’s extended periods upright outside of the house which are hardest for me.
However, as much as lying down is my ‘painkiller’ of choice. I must tell you that it doesn’t always ‘make all the pain go away’.
We Do Get Pain Lying Down Too
I live with a constant underlying dull head pressure and pain to varying degrees. Since my accident I have never had a fully clear head without any pressure, fogginess or pain at all.
Not one day, not even for one hour.
I imagine that everything is so messed up, inflamed and damaged in my head and spine these days and with my ICP equilibrium. That the pain and feelings of pressure (to differing levels) never really fully leaves. And often if I ‘over do it’ either upright or trying to do too much lying down. (A lot of typing, reading or talking). I can get a different type of headache on top of my normal one. A very painful more frontal headache, combined with a feeling of pressure and nausea. That can really stop me in my tracks for a bit. I actually feel it a bit now as I write this on my iphone whilst lying flat. I imagine it’s partly the exertion of holding my phone, and typing a lot on it. Whilst also concentrating to write. Sometimes normal painkillers can help this additional headache a bit but not always.
That kind of headache makes me feel very sleepy and I yawn a lot to try and release the pressure. If I then get up I often feel my ears popping as if my pressure is trying to equalise again. I still obviously have a lot of problems regulating my skull pressure.
I must also add here that I can also get those ‘pressure bursts’ I mention about being upright – lying down too. If I stretch, move or turn over too quickly, speak too loudly or even ‘pass wind’ (funnily enough – that’s how sensitive my head is!!!) I get a tangible wave of dull pressure and pain into my head. That can also make me feel rather light headed for a few minutes. But it normally eases again lying down if I am still and quiet for a bit – but not always.
The Vicious Cycle of Stress and ICP Regulation
Stress is also a MAJOR problem for spinal CSF leak patients. Due to the natural increases in ICP stress and anxiety brings – it is one of our worst enemies. Which is a major problem when our symptoms and the resulting debilitation are SO stressful, and at times traumatic, to deal with. I fully believe that the 2-3 major mental health crisis’ I have experienced were in seasons of major stress caused by the trauma and exhaustion of dealing with the illness and trying to get medical help long term. As well as experiencing relapses and pressure swings post treatment.
That is when I go from manageable head pain (if I have consistent lying flat breaks). To unmanageable, perpetual, excruciating, persistent head pain.
At that point I had relapsed again and was desperately unwell physically AND mentally. I saw my neurologist in May 2019 and we were rather confused as to whether my symptoms could be high or low pressure related. Due to some features that looked more like high pressure linked to terrible symptoms on a recent flight to Italy on holiday and previously head pressure and pain lying down and in the night/ early morning. Although after an ‘acetazolomide trial’ (a drug used to reduce ICP) made my symptoms doubly worse until I could hardly move, walk or talk upright at all. It became clearer that it was probably another low pressure relapse. And after a few weeks following the full relapse my symptoms fell into a clearer low pressure pattern anyway of symptoms being greatly reduced lying down. (Especially once my sleep was restored & extra Neuro pain helped by medication from the GP – Mirtazapine, Zopiclone & Nortriptiline which was approved my my neurologist.)
These confusions about pressure are very very common as there are so many symptom overlaps between high and low pressure and their differences are often not clear cut. ** They can also have paradoxical symptoms which can confuse many. I know people with low pressure sounding symptoms that turned out to have IIH. It is also possible to have high ICP/ OP readings from intracranial monitoring or LP AND a spinal CSF leak. (I know of many people who have had normal or high pressure readings (one with an OP of 45 and I have heard with someone with over 50) WITH an evidenced spinal CSF leak. So it’s never a simple process to know what is going on.)
Also Rebound Intracranial Hypertension symptoms following treatment – although increasingly documented are often sneered at or laughed at by most neurologists. I was onced asked by a neurology consultant secretary after none of the neurologists in the office had heard of it… “did you see it on google Mrs Hill?” in a sarcastic tone. It’s this kind of experience that just leaves you feeling stupid about the complexity and debilitation of your symptoms. I replied, “Yes you can find it on google – can I send all the links so someone can actually consider it.”
Holistic Calmness to Manage Symptoms
So, regarding all this, and as I have previously written about – holistic calmness is often the key to managing a chronic spinal CSF leak. But calmness is not easy to come by when you deal with the stress of everything I have described above. Calmness for me has to go so much deeper than for the average person to try to maintain enough balance to keep my symptoms under control.
I tried to explain this once to a friend of mine who is also a doctor. My ‘normal ups and downs’ are so exaggerated by this condition that I imagine what to ‘normal people’s’ body and mind might feel like small changes in equilibrium – to me is felt so much more acutely. Hence some doctors will perhaps purely attach such issues to a patients lack of mental and emotional stability, rather than recognising the underlying physical medical problem creating these ‘mental and emotional’ swings and issues.
Mental Health & CSF Leaks
As I have explained again and again to both patients and doctors – You cannot separate the physical and psychological in any medical condition… But especially in this condition. I like to call the combination of the physical and mental in spinal CSF leak patients and during recovery as ‘a big ball of mess!!’ Where it is impossible to know where the physical ends and psychological begins.
You just cannot separate them.
Especially due to the way this condition effects our ICP (head/ skull pressure) and how that then both responds to stress & triggers stress.
When I say: ‘I CAN’T COPE!’ It’s not normally because I cannot cope in my mental health – per se. It’s mainly that I cannot function physically in that moment so then cannot cope any more mentally with the physical trauma of those symptoms either.
Once I lie down for a bit “I CAN COPE” much more.
But anyone will tell you when you are in a lot of pain or feel really really ill physically – you also struggle to cope mentally too. So the more I try and push my body to do what it struggles to do physically, the more pressure that puts on me mentally and emotionally. Causing this vicious circle where the physical and mental simply feed off one another and you can end up in dangerous places psychologically too. This is why many spinal CSF leak patients can have both underlying depression & anxiety AND be prone to major mental heath crisis’ when their body and mind pack in after trying to ‘push through’ for too long. I believe we are massively more at risk of complete physical and mental breakdowns than the normal population.
I never had any mental health issues at all before my accident. All my problems have always been directly linked to my medical condition – as confirmed by both psychiatrists and the counsellor I have seen since.
Why I Share My Story Publicly
So there is more of my current story of battling a spinal fluid leak (and at times more recovery) for 5 1/2 years. This condition is still so often so unrecognised, under-diagnosed and so misunderstood that it causes many patients untold amounts of extra pain and distress.
This is seen again and again and again when you hear the hundreds of stories in the private Facebook UK and International Spinal CSF leaks and recovery support groups. Most patients have a MAJOR battle to be heard and it causes them untold trauma physically & mentally that can effect them well into the future. Even if they can and do more fully recover in the end.
That is one of the reasons I continue to share my story. To be a voice for others struggling – as much as for myself. To try to reach some who are suffering so deeply and feeling so alone and misunderstood. And to help their family, friends and maybe even their doctors understand this condition better.
In my own case – I am still working with my UK NHS specialist neurologist and his intracranial pressure team to try and find a way forward to help me. At the moment this includes considering Digital Subtraction or Dynamic CT Myelograms to try and locate the actual leak site (which is often very complex and hindered by the fact that my last CTM caused me to seizure) or trying a fifth blind epidural blood patch as these have helped a lot in the past.
Although the current pandemic had delayed all that somewhat. And our NHS – although wonderfully free at point of access – is also often very very slow. Particularly for patients needing multiple scans and procedures to help them with long term conditions such and this.
So mostly I have had to learn how to live with this awful condition and find the best life I can within all of the pain and restrictions. And this is where I am immensely thankful that with the help of my amazing husband, family, church family, many friends and the spiritual support from my faith. As well as some wonderfully supportive doctors I have discovered on my journey. I have found a way to live and enjoy life – amidst all of its pain. With God’s help I have found purpose, meaning and hope even amidst so much personal destruction.
So I want to encourage all those reading this today. That even if your life will never return to what it once was. There is still more beauty, joy and meaning to be discovered here and now. It will take a lot of grieving, support and wrestling through the journey. But to find more meaning within it perhaps you could reach out to support someone else, help educate others about CSF leaks, volunteer for one of the CSF Leak charities or find new creative ways to use your skills & expertise to make a difference in our world.
Your Life May Never Look Like How You Once Imagined It
This post is a continuation of my Living With a Spinal CSF Leak post that I wrote 3 years ago. To read more about my spinal csf leak journey then please see the Spinal CSF leak tab in the top menu.
*Please see this new May 2018 medical paper about the 10 most common myths and misperceptions about spinal CSF leaks. It is by some of the top world experts in treating this condition. I was told so many of these myths by various neurologists, anaesthetists, radiologists and many other doctors during my lengthy and traumatic over 5 year battle with a spinal CSF leak. This kind of misinformation caused many delays, misunderstanding and great distress on my already immensely long winded and difficult medical journey.
**Please also see this other in depth 2018 medical paper about both low and high intracranial pressure syndromes and their similar and different symptoms. It also mentions cross overs with other headache types. When a patient suffers with a spinal CSF leak long term it can cause massive fluctuations in their whole pressure system both whilst suffering from a spinal CSF leak and following treatment. This is why lumbar puncture pressure readings and ICP pressure monitoring can prove an inaccurate diagnostic tool for SIH as this paper refers to as does the 10 myths paper. My initial LP reading was a 7 which was considered ‘evidence’ of low pressure by some doctors and normal by others.
Everything is so strange. In one moment our whole world has changed. A surreal season which we are struggling to understand. To catch up with or comprehend.
And as time goes on…
We all know people deeply affected by this world-wide tragedy. Those who got sick and recovered. Those who never did recover and so sadly lost their lives. NHS & care staff working on the frontlines dealing with new levels of stress, pressure and anxiety that those of us stuck at home can hardly fathom. Our day to day lives so completely transformed.
Will we ever return to the normalitywhich was once known?
Can we truly find peace in this uncontrollable storm?
Our chaotic unpredictable universe is reminding us of how out of control our lives often seem. We have again recently all had to face our own mortality and brutally realise how fragile we truly are.
Is anything certain any more? What does the future hold for any of us?
It feels stormy out there for so many. But it also often feels stormy in here too – right? Within us, in our chaotic minds. In our homes, families, relationships and lives.
Chaos is not at its worst outside of us. It’s actually most dangerous when it takes over within us.
How can we find stillness in chaos? Is it even possible without escaping from, or numbing away, our anxious thoughts? Or in trying to escape or distract ourselves from the reality of the current major struggle in our world?
These are important questions. Ones that I have had to dig so much deeper into and wrestle with a lot over the past five years since I fell off a ladder in January 2015 and sustained a debilitating brain/ spinal injury that I still have today.
In that one moment my life suddenly rocketed out of my control. One day I shifted onto a new life path I was never meant to take. A place I had not planned for or envisioned to live or endure.
These current restrictions due to the Coronavirus lockdown are actually not so strange for me, because the past five years have kept me predominately at home anyway. And for many hours a day lying down to control debilitating brain and spinal pain and other symptoms which means I still spend an awful lot of time in bed or on the sofa.
So many times my life felt devastated, as the restrictions and debilitation overwhelmed me. I watched so many around me continue on with their ‘normal’ lives whilst mine remained somewhat ‘on hold’ and out of control.
…. until ‘one day’ I would hopefully get fully well.
Then things could return to ‘normal’ I could again shift back onto the path I should be on.
But I never did get well… I never got to take back control… My old ‘normality’ never came…
So I have had to learn how to live here. To find a haven of peace even when the storm rages. To let go of my need to try and take control of my, or others, destinies. To climb out of the box of ‘normal living’ to embrace new spaces found in the ‘abnormal’ reality here.
It’s not an easy journey.
I know that so well.
It’s painful! It’s full of grief.
But it’s full of wonder and profound new discoveries too.
The letting go of control. Of embracing a new way of living. Allowing old dreams to fade. So that new ones can arise.
I have had to adapt, I have had to change so much so as to find a new way of life that can be lived in this place. To discover new hopes and dreams within all of the restrictions. Rather than constantly grieving the life I hoped to be living right now.
I have had to dig deeper. To find peace and stillness – even when life doesn’t look like how I imagined it before.
Through all of my wrestlings I have discovered a deeper peace that I know is always there to be found. If I will continue to ‘let go of the old’ and ‘embrace the new’. Settling in my heart that change must come and that life can still be lived in the midst of all the restrictions and pain.
I must look for the firm foundation amidst all of this shifting sand.
Where is this unchanging peace found?
In my experience there is only ONE true and reliable avenue to discovering lasting peace. A peace that is described and experienced as ‘passing all understanding’. It’s unfathomable because it is not based on your circumstances going well. It’s not reliant on a peaceful place being found. It’s not even discovered only when everything is quiet & still.
Because for me… true peace is not the ABSENCE of something. It’s not a place where there is no longer struggle, pain or discomfort. Instead my experience of peace is the PRESENCE of something far more beautiful.
To be exact – my peace is the PRESENCE of SOMEONE!
A person who is always there and will never leave me, because He forever lives with me. He constantly dwells within me. He is all around me and will never forsake me.
My peace is a person… yet He is also a supernatural force.
My peace is so gentle … and yet He is also known to roar.
My peace is abundantly loving… and yet He challenges me each day.
My peace upholds me… even when I can no longer feel Him there.
My peace is Jesus Christ.
The tangible stillness that guides my life’s ship through the storm.
A place where He is fully in control even when everything within me feels like a storm.
An indescribable presence, so still, so restful, so easy. Where the heavy burdens I have been carrying are lifted. And His gentle yoke of unconditional love and undeserved grace is left in its place.
He is the ONE who has won my heart with the beauty of His unending Love.
He is my ultimate calm.
So many people misunderstand my Saviour. But it doesn’t mean that He is not there. He is always standing patiently, glimmering in the shadows of our lives. Knocking at the door of our hearts. Willing us to let Him in. Desiring us to allow His Light to radiate into our dark places and shine through our broken pieces into our hurting world.
So that we can experience the supernatural power of His peaceful presence. An unimaginable Love that takes you over as He enters in. Awakening you by the grace that He plants within.
In His peaceful presence there is a realignment of His Spirit and your soul. You find that you become restored back to who you were always meant to be. You discover the purpose for which you were created. You finally discover what it really means to truly be ‘me’.
In His presence the striving will cease as His supernatural rest takes over as He does His own work in you. His peace descends as you cease resisting who He made you and who you were designed to be.
I wonder – do you know that peace yet? Have you experienced its stillness?
Do you feel it now?
I feel that peace. The deep calm of knowing Him and Him fully knowing me. It emanates through and from His Spirit who came to live within me the moment I fully surrendered. The time that I was born again into His family. The occasion that I was made fully new.
He is my peace. My love, my life, my all.
Do you desire to feel deep peace today? Has anxiety taken you over and you long for even just a taste of peace again? For normality to be restored? To discover the joys of how life used to be. To go away somewhere, to retreat back to your favourite places of beauty & joy. To return to a life that was more ordered and controlled, when your plans were not put on indefinite hold.
Well He is here for you – if you will call out His name.
His name is Jesus.
Call to Him today.
He is always waiting, always willing and always longing for your call.
Jesus said, “”I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.””
– John 16:33 The Bible
We will have trouble in this life. Our broken world is full of it. If we can avoid it today – it will somehow reach us tomorrow. But Jesus transcends the trouble in our world. And with your permission that presence of peace can enter into your own personal chaos.
You simply have to… Let go. Surrender, And dare to let Him in.
You cannot earn peace. You cannot muster up enough positivity to win it as your reward. You can only surrender to Him and allow Him to do His deep work within you. Until peace begins to take control of all that you say and do.
I assure you – once you start to taste and experience the glorious fruit of His peaceful presence, you will be ruined for anything else.
Because peace is not a place. It is not an absence. It is not even an escape.
Peace is a person.
Peace is a presence.
His name is Jesus.
And you can experience Him now.
IF you will surrender and let Him in!
“Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you. Deep peace of the gentle night to you. Moon and stars pour their healing light on you. Deep peace of Christ, of Christ the Light of the world to you. Deep peace of Christ to you.”
Yesterday was a hard day. A day where the horrible constant pain and nausea nagged and taunted me the whole day. A day where grief again came as waves that wouldn’t stop washing over me.
Reminders of loss, of restriction, of the shackles of chronic illness.
Grief doesn’t just come when people die. (Although that is one of the worst kinds.) Grief comes wherever there is loss in our lives of things that were important to us.
There is often a lot of things lost with chronic illness.
Grief brings an anxiety that attacks you. An inner pain that can take your breath away. A deep sense of loss and forced change. A feeling of being somewhat out of control. Not knowing what the future will look like. Unsure that you will always find the strength you need to hold on.
The grief is real–yet unwelcome.
Grief is the uninvited visitor who barges into your life, to brutally remind you of everything that has gone. You don’t want it there – you fight, resist it and want to chase those thoughts and feelings away.
Sometimes you can: You find a way to refocus. To remember all the good things still left to enjoy. But some days the battle rages: You spend all day exhaustingly trying to dodge and jump wave after wave…
Until in one moment – it catches you unawares – and crashes over you again. You want to scream, cry and shout out all your pain. All the heartache. The weariness of the constant battles. You want the world to know that you don’t want to be like this. You don’t want to live like this. This is not how it was meant to be. You don’t have the energy to keep facing these levels of pain and suffering.
But there is absolutely nothing you can do but try to flow with it. To try and wade through the turbulent waves. In the fight to find that deeper peace again.
Sometimes you just have to grieve. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to lament as David did in the Bible Psalms. Sometimes you must take a moment to face the reality of the struggle. To say how much it all hurts. To acknowledge how unfair it feels.
To speak the REALITY, that these days you perhaps rarely share.
I honestly get so tired sometimes of the relentless battles I have no choice but to fight.
“Confessing weakness is the doorway to hope. It marks the end of self-reliance and the beginning of letting grace do in you what you could never do for yourself.”
Grief is such a painful word. It’s even more of a painful feeling. It takes you over from the pit of your stomach. As you remember how things used to be. How you hoped they would remain. The person you thought you were and would be. The life you always had in mind.
Which no longer exists… Like it did before.
A significant part of my life died five years ago. My health was shattered after one fall. I have honestly forgotten what good health feels like. I don’t remember how it feels to have a body and brain that works normally. To not have this constant pressure and pain in my head and spine. It’s constant screaming for my attention. Pulling me to distraction.
I want to be present… Here with you in this moment… With others. Focusing fully on the things I need to do. Focusing fully on this time with you. But this illness, the never-ending pain keeps pulling at me. Taunting me. Shouting at me. Demanding my attention. Trying to take over my thoughts. The relentless noise in the background of everything I do.
Sometimes I just need to speak it out. To get it outside of my own mind.
To tell you how it feels. To let someone else struggling know that I go through it all too.
And in this moment I feel it with you. You are not alone. I am present with you in this distressing place. I am here with you in…
But that is not enough is it? To acknowledge such a terrible thing and then to leave it there with no hope. With no way forward. Because that place is too hard to stay long term. That place leads to darker and more deadly places where despair takes hold until all life is squeezed out from you.
We can’t deny it. But we must find a way through it.
Otherwise we might drown.
“Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Then wash your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have.”
Some days the battle is harder. Some days it is a little easier.
But when those horrible waves of grief do come, I am learning to let them BE for a moment. To acknowledge them – to voice them.Denial never helps – it only builds then bursts you open one day to levels that are unbearable. So I must learn the patient endurance again as today I attempt to rest as much as I can, and wait for the waves to still a little more. Returning to a more steady place I can again find the strength again;
To re-frame. To refocus. To SEE with new eyes the beauty that is still here.
It’s in the facing and accepting of grief that we find a new way forward. A journey of many wrestlings where we MUST learn how to accept the things we cannot change, whilst having the wisdom and courage to change the things we can.
Neither living in denial nor getting pulled into the pit of despair.
Gratitude helps that. To see, remember and focus on all the wonder still around me. My loving husband, family, a beautiful home, food on the table, amazing friends. The opportunity to write, to see others, to encourage and teach different people through church, to make a small difference in someone else’s life. To remember all the things I can do amidst all the restrictions…
… To continue to love and to be loved.
To see beyond my own pain and allow it to produce a deeper sensitivity to others pain –physical, mental and emotional. To know that learning how to deal with my own personal battles – gives me new wisdom to help others deal with theirs. The goal that in overcoming each day – I can help someone else overcome too. To stay and fight to see the wonder still around us, the hope that can still be found.
I have to again remember that my life has purpose and meaning within all its restrictions and despite its debilitation.
This is not always as easy as it sounds. The theory is good, the practice can be so hard. Because when grief comes – it not only reminds you of what is lost, it also tries to steal everything you have left. It can paralyse you as it attacks your confidence, your peace, your mental stability, your ability to know you still have purpose and worth.
“Suffering is never abstract, theoretical, or impersonal. Suffering is real, tangible, personal, and specific.”
But we have to both accept it – whilst also finding a way through it. We know we can’t stay here. Without it pulling us into dark places that are full of despair.
We have to choose to wrestle our way back into brighter places. Where we can see and be thankful for what we do have. Where hope for the future can return – despite what that actually looks like. A place where we can again see that our life matters, it has purpose and can lead to new adventures, to new places.
However, to embrace the new we must first let go of the old.
That is why we grieve.
It’s in the letting go.
It’s in the feelings of loss.
But it’s also in the letting go that we discover more freedom. In accepting what has now gone – we become more open to discovering a different way of life that is still worth living. It may not look how we imagined it. It will probably still be full of a multitude of challenges. It doesn’t mean the pain will all go.
But as we again let go of the reigns, as we stop trying to stay in control. End trying to compare our lives to an idealistic fantasy that doesn’t actually exist. Whilst we learn to accept that life can be full of things that seem to go wrong. We can also learn to ‘let go’ and discover a glorious deeper surrender in the here and now. Surrendering to a new way, a new plan and new purpose that is ordered by One who is greater than we are – if we will seek Him. A way forward in hope – even in midst of the brokenness of our world and our fragile humanity.
A way that is full of love and life. Despite the pain and restrictions.
But to embrace the new we must grieve and lay down the old. Otherwise we will never see the beauty in this season. We will never witness new birth coming from dead things. The new shoots of spring, of new life, coming from the death and desolation of the winter.
So sometimes we just have to let the waves of grief come. I have to simply allow them to break over me. And even though sometimes I may rawly feel their brutality. I hope that I can keep holding on through them to discover the beautiful horizons, that although perhaps currently hidden, still remain to be explored and discovered on their other side.
“I know it’s all you’ve got to just be strong. And it’s a fight just to keep it together, together. I know you think, that you are too far gone. But hope is never lost. Hope is never lost. Hold on, don’t let go. Just take, one step, closer. Put one foot in front of the other. You’ll, get through this. Just follow the light in the darkness.”
I fell from a small step ladder. Five years ago this week – my life took a dramatically different turn. Five years ago this week – I got sick and have never fully recovered.
Five whole years…
Of enduring Of fighting Of grieving Of accepting
But also five whole years…
Of learning Of growing Of loving Of living
One fall. One injury.
Changed so much.
My girls were just 7 & 10 the day I fell. They were there watching me paint. They saw it all happen.
The getting up again. The dusting myself down. The continuing to paint.
The next 48 hours where their mum got more and more ill. The constant medical, GP, A&E visits, followed by multiple hospital stays. Seasons of me being stuck lying down flat for months on end. Followed by the seasons (post epidural blood patches) of being upright all, or most of, the day.
They have seen it all!
The turmoil and struggle. The wrestlings and pain. Their mum so different. Our lives forever changed.
Never to return to who she once was.
Lives dictated by multiple restrictions. The never ending storm of tragic depictions. We have had to learn how to ‘live here’ to ‘find life’ amidst all the challenges. To find a way to live in, and through, the never-ending seasons of chaotic pain.
Sometimes life doesn’t look like we imagined it to…
We always believed I would get well!
In days…then weeks…then months…then years…
Surely I would get well again? Surely I wasn’t such a bad case? Surely ‘normality’ could and would be restored? Surely the longed-for redemption would come? Surely this, or that, treatment would work? Surely time would bring the full healing that I need?
But ‘normality’ never came. It remained elusive. At times tantalisingly near. But always on shifting horizons. Never to fully appear.
The start of last year was another journey towards that goal. Following a year of healing with a good trajectory. Feeling better, things improving.
Until that haunting plateau returned.
I again stubbornly kicked and pushed against it. Determined – this time – to fully overcome. As I tried to win the never ending bid for freedom… I brutally whacked right into that figurative brick wall. Running at full speed. Determined to this time to make it fall.
It didn’t fall.
Shocked and dazed I crumpled into the mud – yet again…
Completely spent Totally wrecked Utterly broken
I dramatically relapsed in the Spring – physically and mentally. I shouted and screamed internally – again. I fell into the pitch blackness of total despair. And I grieved like never before.
‘How am I supposed to keep living like this? I cannot do this any more!’
Four and a half years of pain and struggle had taken their toll. Four and a half years of fighting to be heard, and get well, had left its open wounds.
I had nothing left to fight with.
It was tough to come back from that figurative fall.
But we did find a way again. In God we discovered a resilience that can only be found in Him. His Words provided a way forward – an indescribable peace within.
There is always a way forward if we don’t give in. There is always beauty to be found – even amongst the mess. Always a light shining somewhere – even in dark places. Always a deeper love to be discovered – even amidst intense pain.
IF we can keep following the light. IF we can keep focusing on its radiating beauty. IF we can allow ourselves to be guided into new horizons.
New mindsets. Hidden joys. Intense loves.
IF we choose to never give up…
Can we find a new life. Can we find a new depth of love. Can we find new purpose. Can we find pathways to new adventures.
If we will simply stay the course. Who knows what tomorrow might bring? Five years ago this week…
I fell off a small step ladder whilst painting. Five years ago this week I tasted of the devastating debilitation of a spinal CSF leak.
I wouldn’t want to relive these past five years. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience those depths of struggle. So I will fight and keep speaking out until our stories are heard.
Until change comes.
But I also know…
That I wouldn’t want to go back to who I was before that week either. I am changed forever. But the change is not all bad.
There has been something deeply beautiful about this impossible journey.
A profound way where excruciating pain teaches you what ‘living’ truly means. A hard and winding path that brought many wonderful and inspiring people – whom I never would have known. A wandering that has at times felt aimless – but has also led to glorious discoveries. A stormy voyage that has shown me stunning new spiritual landscapes and revelations previously uncovered.
Five years ago this week I fell from a ladder. Five years ago this week I got a life-destroying spinal fluid leak. Five years have passed of leaking (& at times somewhat recovering).
But never getting fully well.
But regardless of the pain, the suffering, the seeming wrecking of so many many dreams.
I have lived. I have loved. I have learnt. I have grown. I have spoken out. I have used my writing.
In the hope that one day things will be different. Perhaps other families will be saved our pain. Maybe one day someone’s similar journey will be easier.
I ran the relentless marathon first. Refused to give up. And told my never-ending story – despite all of it’s indescribable pain.
“I abandon my addiction to the certainty of life And my need to know everything This illusion cannot speak, it cannot walk with me at night As I taste life’s fragility… I can’t pretend to know The beginning from the end But there’s beauty in the life that’s given We may bless or we may curse Every twist and every turn Will we learn to know the joy of living?”
Please see this May 2018 medical paper about the 10 most common myths and misperceptions about spinal CSF leaks. It is by some of the top world experts in treating this condition. I was told so many of these myths by various neurologists, anaesthetists, radiologists and many other doctors during my lengthy and traumatic 5 year battle with a spinal CSF leak. This kind of misinformation caused many delays, misunderstanding and great distress on my already immensely long winded and difficult medical journey.
A few months ago, I was again immersed in the intense and dark storm of a traumatic spinal CSF leak symptom relapse – which also triggered the major mental health crisis I wrote about here. Part of my turmoil included the sense of feeling completely worthless.
Being perpetually stuck in bed with very distressing neurological symptoms often means you feel like your life has so little worth, value or purpose. Especially when you see most other people around you getting on with their seemingly important, full and valuable lives.
Feeling ‘purposeless’ amidst suffering and chronic pain really negatively impacts your mental health. Because when you feel like your life has no purpose, you simply feel burdensome to those having to care for you, and to the world in general.
In that crushing darkness I was immersed in, I just couldn’t see how my life could bless and help others. I just felt like I was, and would always be, a negative influence and drain on others. I even felt like deleting this whole blog, and my all of my public writing, because I decided that stories without happy endings are just depressing. If I cannot offer hope to those suffering then my writing may just discourage those already unwell and spread negativity rather than positivity. I thought to myself: what’s the point of me telling my sad story when the world is just full of sad stories?
In the end, I compromised and managed to just privatise this blog for a few weeks – until my perspective began to get a bit more healthy and balanced again.
However, as time went on – and the sun slowly began to break through the dark clouds – I realised that my mind had again got lost in the LIE often peddled in this world that ….
What you DO is far more important than who you ARE!
The lie that subtly tells us each day that if I can’t actually DO anything then my life is surely worthless?! I am just a chronically (and at times mentally ill) ‘insignificant nobody’ who is struggling to find the energy to live and breath, let alone have the energy or capacity to make a difference in the lives of my immediate loved ones – or the world in general.
“Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you. Don’t waste your pain; use it to help others.”
Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
Why do we so often fall for that ageless deception – that we only truly ARE what we DO?!
“What do you do?” everyone asks you when you first meet. “What do you do?” the doctors ask when they first see you – as if knowing such things means that they can now interpret your ‘medical story’ through the bias of what title the world has given you.
Those few ‘what do you do’ words often unknowingly heap shame on those of us in Western society now unable to DO as we used to.
The fact that we don’t, or can no longer, wear societies ‘badges of honour’ (its job and career titles) – perhaps because of immensely difficult seasons of debilitating illness or disability or other challenging seasons in our life – suddenly means that we become insignificant second rate citizens of the world.
When I get lost in such lies, it cripples me. Shame consumes me. I lose track of my identity. I feel completely lost and not sure where to anchor myself so as to move forward.
But as my perspective begins to improve one of the first things I begin to SEE is that I have again got deceived into believing a lie.
Slowly I can SEE again that I instead need to connect with the deeper truth of this universe, that is…
I am not what I DO!
I am still Becky Hill – whether I can be busy DOing a certain job or task, or if I can only lie in bed and look for ways to find purpose in the midst of all my pain and restrictions.
It was at that time and in that place of deep wrestling that one day I was sharing what I like to describe as a ‘Psalms type prayer of lament’ to God. I was crying out to Him, overwhelmed by the feeling that I didn’t have a purpose anymore. I was just so restricted by my physical condition that I was questioning what the point of me being alive was. If my life is simply about existing and enduring the pain, then is it really worth living??
And in that moment I felt God reply to me so clearly through the peaceful gentle whisper of His Spirit to mine…
“Precious child – your purpose is to daily ask yourself, “who can I show LOVE to today?”
It immediately EXPLODED in my heart!
It was so simple – yet the revelation so profound…
God wanted me to get the focus off of me and ask Him for creative ideas to show love to others – DESPITE my pain and limitations. He was telling me that even though, at that point, I was stuck in bed most of the day … I could still choose to love others from that place.
Those words from God that day resonated with and reminded me more deeply of the truth I already knew and lived by – that LOVE is only love when it is given and offered sacrificially. In the same way Jesus gave His life to love mankind by dying for our brokenness, we also need to be inspired by his example – by daily looking for ways to love others sacrificially too.
However, the key thing God continued to show me in that moment which has powerfully stayed with me ever since… is that the acts of love didn’t have to be BIG things. I just had to love as much as I could through the small things I could do. It was at this point the sign in the photo that we have hanging in our hall became a deeper revelation which has become my fundamental purpose for living…
DO SMALL THINGS WITH GREAT LOVE!
It’s so very simple and yet so deeply profound.
DO ORDINARY THINGS WITH EXTRAORDINARY LOVE!
It doesn’t matter how small or how ordinary what you have to offer is.
What matters is the amount of love you offer it with.
It doesn’t actually really matter how BIG or extraordinary your job title is! What matters is how much love you do all the small and ordinary things in that job and the rest of your life with.
In that way the standard is equalised for all.
Our purpose is always the same.
No one has a more significant purpose than others.
So if today I can only hang some washing on the line, send a couple of empathetic messages to other people struggling and order some shopping for my family online – I can do it all with as much love as I can. I can serve others with a sacrificial heart. Which means the pain invested in the small things causes the love shown to be even greater.
So those words “who can I show love to today” have become the habitual daily question of my heart. Those few words – “do small things with great love” – have helped me immensely in walking through what seemed like an impossible time I couldn’t endure.
When I would wake up in the morning on those days and the dark reality of the struggle ahead would hit me like a ton of bricks, I would try toacceptwhere I was – grievemy limitations – and then change my focus to ask God – ‘please show me who I can love with small acts of love and kindness today.’ In that place I tried to be mindful of others who were finding life challenging and think of how I could encourage them. I would look for very small jobs that I could do at home and try and pour my love for my family out through them. If I was shopping online – or later could go to the shops – I would try and think of who I could buy a special gift or card for.
And slowly…but surely…that sense of PURPOSE – EVEN AMIDST PAIN – was restored to me.
Because I again discovered that being alive meant that someone else could be loved, served, encouraged and blessed today.
It took the focus off me and my problems…
And shifted my gaze and contemplation onto His sacrificial LOVE flowing through me.
And the more I loved.
The more I felt His love.
So the more love I then had to give.
“The greatest thing about helping other people is for the moment you forget about yourself.”
I again discovered that the giving and receiving of true love is probably one of the best medicines to help sooth the pain. It is certainly the highest and most significant calling of our lives.
So today I decided to share my story with you again – to tell you with great love to never forget…
That despite your chronic pain, despite all of the debilitation, despite your current disabilities and limitations, despite all of the restrictions you seem to be facing…
There is still a much greater purpose for you.
Please don’t lose sight of that like I did. The truth is – there is still so much to live for. There are things that only you can do. There are words and tasks that only you will be able to see need doing, or saying, that may be able to connect with and encourage someone else really struggling.
So choose to love daily.
Choose love as the highest purpose of your life.
And whoever you are – whatever worldly title you do or don’t have – whether you feel important or insignificant – try to simply do…
Small things with great love.
That way, the world will shine a little bit brighter because you are still in it. Which is so important to both us, and others, who seem to be constantly stuck in a cycle of – at times – overwhelming darkness, brokenness and pain.
As I write these words today and try to infuse them with as much love as I can, I hope that you will today truly SEE how extraordinary you can be – IF you will just do and say ordinary things with extraordinary love.
Whilst knowing how much greater that love is – when it is given with the deep sacrifice of your ongoing pain.
“I was broken so that I may understand the broken, so that I may reach out to the hurting, and comfort the wounded. I have the capacity to bring hope and love and healing. A once fractured mirror finding new purpose, because I am no longer reflecting myself, I’m reflecting Him. This is my reason for living. This is why I was created.”
This timeless quote has certainly been my experience over the past four years or so of having – and then recovering from – a long term spinal CSF leak. Although, to be honest, at times it did feel like I was being ‘destroyed’ through the process. My journey has taken me to immensely dark places of wrestling and torment on so many levels.
It often felt like so much of who I was – at the deepest level – was simply being destroyed.
However, as I slowly recover physically, mentally and spiritually from the trauma of the last four years, I can see more and more how even what felt like ‘destruction’ has actually ultimately made me a more rounded, secure, loving and compassionate person. I have found that some things, and attitudes in my life, needed to be ‘destroyed’ or at least ‘shaken’, so that I could become the person I am now.
I am stronger on so many levels – but the strength comes from a more authentic place.
The strength comes from a deeper acceptance and acknowledgement of my human frailty and weakness. I no longer feel the need to have to ‘muster up’ an outward – or even ‘inner’ – show of strength to look like I ‘have it all together’. Instead, I can rest in my weakness and rely on God’s strength to carry me through the ongoing challenges of life in a more REAL way.
And there are ongoing challenges…
Eighteen months since my fourth high volume (40ml) lumbar epidural blood patch seemingly sealed my leak, I am still not back to where I was before my accident in January 2015.
My head, spine and nervous system still do not operate as they once did.
Month by month I see more of the new ‘old me’ being restored.
Slowly… gently… patiently… Becky Hill is returning to a ‘fuller and deeper strength’.
But did you notice that I said the ‘NEW ‘old me’?
I had to add in that extra ‘new’ …. because the ‘old me’doesn’t actually exist anymore in many ways!! And in fact I wouldn’t want to return fully to who I was before my accident anyway. Because there is a ‘new me’ that has emerged from the ‘wilderness cocoon’ I was catapulted into for those years. It is the ‘new me’ that will walk into the future and face whatever comes my way.
It is the ‘new me’ that is better in many ways than the ‘old’…
However, the reason I am writing this article is to get into the nitty gritty of my experience of spinal CSF leak recovery. I want to continue to tell my story in the hope that it connects with and helps you, or someone you know, on their own seemingly impossible journey. I want to tell you the REAL tale of what it’s like to walk along such a difficult and desolate road, whilst attempting to keep focusing on the beautiful horizon of hope and redemption.
A new horizon that thankfully, for me, is growing ever closer.
So let’s get back to basics.
What is my life currently like day-to-day, eighteen months into recovery from a nearly three-year spinal fluid leak?
Corrie ten Boom said:
‘Worry does not empty tomorrow of sorrow; but it empties today of strength.’
That has had to be my ongoing ‘mantra’ throughout my illness and recovery. At first, fears for the future and fears of relapse consumed and crippled me. Unsurprisingly, of course, because – until this last blood patch – that had been my very real experience. These fears have reduced so much through a combination of learning to stay focused and thankful on the present, whilst accepting what IS today’s reality, and also seeing the progress that I continued to make day by day. I had to ‘throw myself’ into God’s arms of grace to find the strength to keep moving forward and keep trusting that things would keep improving.
As they currently do!
If you try and fight the slow process of recovery to ‘speed things up’, I found it simply makes you worse! Your body can’t handle the stress of the striving to do more than it can do. You instead have to ‘fight’ from an inner place of strength, peace and acceptance of the way things currently are, whilst being gentle with your body and mind as you trust for better days in the future.
The reality is, my head, spine and nervous system still struggles with hypersensitive reactions to changes in ICP (Intracranial (head/ spinal fluid) pressure). I still seem to have some ‘pressure’ issues in my head and spine(as I talk comprehensively about in my year of recovery update). The same old movements and actions still bring a clear reaction. My head, neck and spine fills with pressure, my ears pop and crackle, my cognition (mental processing) gets a little more sluggish, everything feels harder, and I often have to just take some ‘quiet time’ alone to still my head.
This might mean being silent for a bit, sitting down quietly or going for a quiet walk.
But I have to say that this becomes more and more manageable and less and less of a major problem. The adjustments needed are not so dramatic anymore. They are still there, but more subtle. And they thankfully keep improving. Over time you realise you are less aware of symptoms – they are still there but less and less prominent. They seem to impact things that little bit less week by week, month by month.
That’s when you feel like you are recovering more of the ‘old healthier’ you.
Here are some of my personal ongoing symptoms and the way that I approach managing them.They may not be the same for others, but I share this to help educate other sufferers, their family and friends, and any medical professionals that may be reading this blog. This way, we can all show more understanding and compassion to one another and ourselves.
My head can still get very overwhelmed with a lot of things happening at once. It’s the ‘layering’ of things, one on top of another, that causes the biggest issue. Noise especially. My family and I are all natural singers so we love to have music on, and their default can be to sing along (singing can still be more of a challenge for my head). But I really struggle with both the music and others singing simultaneously – especially if there are other noises around too. It becomes a ‘mental overload’ for me, as does trying to think, listen, talk and cook at the same time. I often just can’t ‘compute’ it all as well as I used to. But this is also all improving over time.
Multi-tasking is slowly getting a little easier but is still a lot harder than it was before the accident. It’s again a ‘layering’ issue.
I can’t rush about, which although frustrating has actually taught me to ‘flow’ through life more calmly, and to be even more organised. I have to keep moving around gently without rushing about. My head and spine can’t take the twists and turns that rushing often brings. Also, moving around and talking a lot at the same time is still very hard. I can focus better if I stay still whilst talking.
Speaking for a long time can be hard still, especially if my head is already feeling more hypersensitive, or if I’m walking or moving about at the same time. I can talk for noticeably longer than I used to be able to though, which helps me with relationships in general, as well as with the mentoring and pastoral visits and teaching groups I do with church. I do find once I have talked for a while I often need some ‘quiet time’. My family know to let me be quiet, and I often put my headphones in and go for a walk, or focus on being quiet to still my head.
I still spend quite a lot of time being quiet at home doing the housework I can do, looking after my family and cooking. We love having people around for food, or to stay, so we are really enjoying re-discovering this joy of ours. I just have to plan everything well in advance to avoid any last minute stresses. I also love to cook for others who are struggling for any number of reasons (as people did for us when I was at my worst) so I often take food with me on visits to suffering people. I have been able to increase my ‘pastoral visits’ and the church admin that I do from home. I also continue to teach and speak in smaller groups and do a lot of ‘one-to-one’ personal development work with people. I am so very thankful to be able to take on what I can, when I can through our church, and this it fits in with our home life and me keeping on top of that.
Bending, lifting and turning my spine and neck still makes my head worse. I usually get a burst of pressure into my head that can take a little while of being calm and quiet to clear. Generally, the straighter I keep my spine the better. However, it does mean that I remain very careful with movement and what I carry. We still have a cleaner (who we employed when I was leaking) who comes for a couple of hours every two weeks to do hoovering, mopping and bathrooms, since this would involve at a lot of bending or lifting for me, and I avoid it where possible.
I am still very careful to always go on my knees or crouch instead of bending my back to get things from low down. This action is better for my head and also protects my spine (although it’s not as good for my poor knees. However, the garden kneeler I bought does help a bit with that in the kitchen and outside!!). But I’ve found that it’s just not worth pushing my spine and head. It’s too uncomfortable (sends pressure into my head) AND too much risk for me to see how much I can ‘push’ things safely. There are too many unknowns to take the risk, too many memories of multiple relapses. And treatment and recovery takes such a long time, if I was to relapse again. So I keep movement and general rehabilitation gentle and safe. I want to give my spine the best chance of full and lasting healing.
I can carry much heavier things than I used to (with clear self-imposed limits) but I avoid lifting them from low down and I always – by default – tend to carry things against my chest with both arms i.e. one ‘heavier’ shopping bag at a time. This seems to put less strain on my spine and so is better for my head and I guess protects my spine more too.
Bending my head to look down (i.e. to read, write or use my phone) is still uncomfortable and can send more of a ‘pressure rush’ into my head. But again, this is improving, and I am aware of it less than I used to be.
Sitting down for a while in one position can leave my spine and head full and my body very stiff, possibly linked to my spinal nerves and the pressure changes throughout my spine. So I still have to regularly get up and have a walk about.
If I sit down I am still better sitting on a harder surface with a very straight spine. Sitting on the sofa is especially bad for my head. If I’m watching a film or something of length, after about 30-45 mins my head can often feel fuller and cause me to yawn. I can feel very sleepy and my ears start to pop. I often have to get up and move around slowly to ease it a little. I can’t relax back on the sofa or lie down on it either – it’s too uncomfortable for my spine and head.
Going to the loo can still affect my head, I have to be very careful not to strain in any way. Even normal slight straining (just going for a wee) can still affect my head, especially first thing in the morning or if I’m trying to clear my bladder last thing at night.
When the pressure increases in my head, the tension and pressure in my neck, spine (particularly the bottom of the spine) tangibly increases as well. I feel it as a full pressure-like pain which is uncomfortable, but not unbearable.
In the mornings (especially but not exclusively) the feeling of pressure increasing in relation to action or movement can still occasionally make me want to cough, sneeze or even gag. It’s a bit like the sensation of having a ‘head cold’. This is especially true if I end up talking too excitedly OR too frustratedly (normally with difficult children :-)). It can also happen when I am getting ready and using more exertion to put on clothes and things like socks (even though I rest my foot on the end of the bed to avoid bending to do it). But it will normally subside reasonably quickly with some quiet and still time. It has also improved a lot recently.
The weather being rainy and stormy can make the above a bit worse (probably due to atmospheric pressure changes), as can having my monthly period.
I still have some light and noise sensitivity. Particularly to flashing lights, fast moving images (both of which can still feel overwhelming and make me feel nauseous) and listening to heavier music with a lot of drums and beats.
The worst times for my head result from increased stress, rushing or a lot, or talking a lot whilst doing things. I had an occasion a couple of weeks ago when I had to get ready for a church group that meets at our house weekly. Matt was away with work and one of my daughters was being persistently ‘difficult’ and talking frustratedly at me a lot. It completely overwhelmed my head, which quickly filled with pressure, and everything just felt so difficult to do until I could hardly think straight, or concentrate on anything, and simply felt tearful. In these situations I just know that I have to be completely silent to get what I need to done, then try and be as still and silent as I can until people arrive. But sometimes convincing my kids that I cannot deal with talking to them any more when they are already frustrated is the challenge. It took a little while of being very quiet but, by the time people arrived, my head could handle a bit more and I could lead the meeting OK. (Thankfully we began by listening to a recorded group Bible meditation for 10 minutes, so I got to be quiet – which helped settle my ‘full’ head too).
Sometimes a lot of talking, stress or attempting to rush can build the pressure and leave me feeling a bit sick and nauseous – like the above occasion did at first.
My general biological ‘coping mechanisms’ are still not what they once were.My body and head still cannot physically – and subsequently mentally – cope with and manage stress very well. I was always pretty good at coping with stress and pressured environments before my leak, but now I have to very carefully manage stress and anxiety because of the natural impact it has on ICP. (As I talk more about in my year of recovery update post). As with everything else though, this is thankfully improving slowly but surely.
The acute headaches I got post-blood patch whilst lying in bed – especially when I woke (that I mentioned in my year update) have improved a lot in the past two to three months. So I can thankfully generally stay in bed, even if I wake in the middle of the night or early morning, rather than having to get up at crazy hours. But I still often feel uncomfortable and have a milder headache, or my head will especially feel strangely ‘full’ (sometimes it’s still a bit worse and I just have to get up). So I don’t really do ‘lie ins’ and I still NEVER lie down in the daytime. My sleep can fluctuate a bit too, although I tend to have really good times followed by more wakeful times. But that is normal for many people anyway.
I am now medication free! About 3 months ago I finished weaning myself fully off the last of my Nortriptyline prescribed for neurological pain. I believe taking it somewhat helped some of the higher pressure symptoms from a couple of months after the last blood patch in September 2017, but more recently I wasn’t sure it was doing much, and I was tired of the constant dry mouth. Coming off it slowly didn’t seem make any significant difference to my symptoms, apart from I no longer have to drink as much in the night or early morning, or chew gum constantly to deal with the dry mouth. Interestingly, though, when my head pressure increases, the dryness in my mouth can return too.
My heart finally seems to beat pretty normally again these days. This took a long while to settle from the constant mis-beats and irregularities that a previous ECG confirmed (but were considered annoying but not concerning medically) when I was leaking badly during the summer of 2017. My leak definitely seemed to affect my heart, and then the increasingly poor conditioning probably made the issues worse. Even after successful treatment, this took a long time to gradually get better. All the strange beating patterns made lying down and relaxing harder at first, as they were more prominent when lying down. And this all added to the anxious feelings at the time. So life is more restful not having this problem anymore.
I have had to learn to live and ‘flow’ from more of a place of ‘inner peace and rest’. I am learning a whole new, more peaceful and less chaotic and busy ‘way of life’. I have embraced the lessons learnt from this over the past years and vow to maintain a more restful balance in my life moving forward. I want to resist falling back into a more ‘busy or chaotic life’ in the future, even when I can cope with those pressures more. Living from a place of ‘spiritual peace and rest’ is the best way to live long term.
I still find long, gentle walking helps my body, head and mind – as well as my connection to God. So I still generally take two approx. 20-50mins walks a day, when I can. I appreciate the surrounding countryside so much more since my years of debilitation. My pace has also picked up a lot in the past year, but I still cannot rush.
Filling my mind with positive, calming, spiritual thoughts is so important to enable me to live from a place of increasing peace, rest and love. I am enjoying using this new peaceful Christian meditation app to help with this (mainly whilst walking or quietly doing housework) www.soultime.com. It’s a great resource to bring more peace, rest, calmness, love and spiritual connection into my day. I also love more peaceful contemporary Christian worship music but generally have to avoid louder heavier music.
So that is a summary of some aspects of my day to day life and the ongoing challenges of recovering from such a life-changing injury.
People often ask me these days …
‘Do you think you will ever get back to feeling ‘normal’ like you did before all this?’
I have learnt to answer honestly…
‘I simply don’t know’.
Perhaps only time will tell!
But my hope and faith rests in God alone and in the fact that I do see so many ongoing improvements all the time. Yes, they are slow, often so very gradual, and sometimes frustratingly subtle in the short term. And yet, as we look back we can see the MASSIVE changes in the past year, and even in what I can do and cope with over the past six, or even the past three, months. That is the hope of continual improvement we hold onto.
When you can keep seeing change it does encourage you to never give up believing for better times ahead.
When I was obviously leaking, we would, at times, also see very slow, gradual improvements. But any improvement would ALWAYS seem to plateau in the end. I would always reach a kind of ‘lid’ that I couldn’t break through. And even if things remained a bit better for a while (especially after treatment) in the end they would always regress or I would fully relapse again weeks or months later due to clear or unclear triggers.
So, seemingly having no ‘lid’ to my ongoing improvement brings us so much encouragement for the future.
So again I want to share my hope with you all.
It’s a clear hope for the future but mixed with realism about the journey. My journey has been made somewhat easier in that my family never relied on me bringing in an income of my own. Thankfully my husband’s salary covers our family’s living expenses. My ‘church work’ is voluntary – which has actually been beautifully freeing because I can balance it all with the general demands and pressures of family life.
Had I had to try and get back to a demanding career, or had we been reliant on me getting back to earning a wage, we know that it would have made my recovery and our family’s lives unbearably chaotic and perhaps impossible. The reality is, even now I know I couldn’t function working full or even part time in a busy and intense job or career. It’s important that people are aware of this as a potential longer term consequence of living with a spinal fluid leak followed by walking the slow and complex road to recovery.
It is not as simple as ‘being fixed’ then quickly ‘getting your life back’!!
Life may now look very different to what it did before – long term.
And yet, we are all different…
Our stories and experiences will be different.Each of us has to learn to work it all through as best we can with the lives we currently live. Some people may find that they can give more time and energy to re-discovering a job or career, especially if they don’t have so much responsibility around the home and family, and if they have a very understanding employer that is aware of their limitations and their need for a quieter work environment. It’s a balancing act and will take much wisdom to find creative ways to embrace what you can do, whilst being very aware of the limitations and sometimes unknowable risks of what you can’t.
This all takes a certain level of acceptance in finding true peace about your ongoing limitations.
So my deepest prayer for all of us is this…
That we may all receive more of God’s grace and strength to find the way through the unique storms, and sometimes living nightmares, that this broken world throws at us.Your story might have some parallels with mine – or it might be completely different! However, despite the differences, ALL of our stories are powerful. So please consider who your own story might help – today, or tomorrow.
And please don’t suffer in silence!
Speak up, get the help and support you need, and then maybe you can BE help and support for someone else.
Because you never quite know what a difference your seemingly ‘boring’ tale of suffering and pain might have in the life of another desperate, struggling and often lonely soul. You never know what your REAL tale of living in and rising from the ruins of destruction might mean to someone else who currently feels so trapped and destroyed by their seemingly never-ending struggle.
As I was reminded recently in these profound words;
“Your story is the key that can unlock someone else’s prison.”
Please do comment or ask any questions below. Or alternatively you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a medical journal publication about rebound intracranial hypertension (rebound high pressure) as a short or long term complication following epidural blood patching – as I seemingly experienced at least after my last three blood patches.
Please see this new May 2018 medical paper about the 10 most common myths and misperceptions about spinal CSF leaks. It is by some of the top world experts in treating this condition. I was told so many of these myths by various neurologists, anaesthetists, radiologists and many other doctors during my lengthy and traumatic nearly 3 year battle with a spinal CSF leak. This kind of misinformation caused many delays, misunderstandings and great distress on my already immensely long winded and very difficult medical journey.
This other in depth 2018 medical paper is about both low and high intracranial pressure syndromes and their similar and different symptoms. It also mentions cross overs with other headache types. When a patient suffers with a spinal CSF leak long term it can cause massive fluctuations in their whole pressure system both whilst suffering from a spinal CSF leak and following treatment. This is why lumbar puncture pressure readings and ICP pressure monitoring can prove an inaccurate diagnostic tool for SIH (low pressure) and RIH (rebound high pressure) as this paper refers to as does the 10 myths paper. My initial LP in February 2015 reading was a 7 which was considered ‘evidence’ of low pressure by some doctors and normal by others.
Recently I have thought a lot about our shared humanity. The fact that we are ALL equal humans.
One is not above the other. We are all the same.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, we all have hurts and joys, we are all somewhat fragile – never fully knowing what our tomorrow will look like or what the years to come might bring.
We are all the same. And yet we are all utterly unique.
There is only one of you and there is only one of me. And yet, however different we are, we also share so much that is similar. Wherever we go in the world – there are people who are similar to us. In that we share a common humanity.
One of the great joys of my life is getting to know people from backgrounds and cultures that are very different from my own. I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet and become friends with such a wide and varied spectrum of people from all over the world. And ironically the more diverse the people I meet – the more I see the common threads of our humanity. I love to celebrate and learn from the differences. But most of all I love to see how much we are all the same underneath.
Over the past few years I have especially discovered how brokenness and weakness has the potential to help us to see our equal humanity. Experiencing more of our own human inadequacy can bring much more humility – which helps to crush any sense of superiority. Superiority and judgement are probably the biggest barriers to us connecting with others and embracing our shared humanity.
“Humility is about coming to grips with our humanity… Pride is a determination to be seen as bigger than we are. When we are humble, we are down to earth. No energy is wasted on pretension. A humble man can be taken at face value.”– Erwin McManus
However, it’s not just superiority that’s the problem – often both a sense of superiority AND inferiority can bring a feeling of ‘separateness’ and ‘individuality’. Both feeling above and beneath people separates us from others because both cause us to focus on ourselves more and how much better or worse we are than other people. Which can stop us truly SEEING others and can cause us to miss what is going on in their lives.
As I have so vividly learnt over recent years, it is often suffering that is the equaliser. In my own experience suffering tends to somewhat level the playing field. When we are hit – face on – with our human vulnerability and fragility we soon start to see how we and humanity as a whole is prone to such brokenness. It doesn’t matter how well you are educated, how many letters you have after your name, what titles you have collected or how much money you have.
As humans we will all face times of suffering. And those seasons of suffering tend to remind us of who we are…
Fragile humans trying our best to live this life full of unknowns the best we can.
“Suffering invites us to be radically human with one another, perhaps doing nothing more than reaching across the table, clasping hands, and weeping together. We are afforded the chance to create a safe place for someone else to mourn…” – Jen Hatmaker
It is true, in my own life experience and observations, that it is often suffering that ‘invites us to be radically human with one another.’ It strips us of all our titles, labels and achievements and touches the heart. The rich get sick and die and the poor get sick and die. One might have the money to make that journey of suffering a bit less painful. But both the rich and poor still have to walk the painful journey that suffering brings.
It is thus, often through suffering, that we discover a potential for more authentic connection with others. Suffering can strip us of our ability to ‘hide’ from others. Especially when our suffering is obvious and effects our everyday life. Suffering can expose us – but if we can embrace the vulnerability that the exposure brings, then we have the potential to discover more human connection in that place.
IF we are willing to live in the discomfort of being more fully known.
“The strongest relationships are formed in heat of difficulty and the confession of weakness…. sometimes we feel like we have to present a perfect image to the world that everything is OK because we have faith. But in reality honesty breads more honesty… it’s about sharing our common humanity”– Patrick Regan
It is true that honesty breads more honesty. When I talk openly to others about my many physical and mental health battles over the past few years since falling off a ladder in 2015 and experiencing a long term debilitating spinal/ brain injury, I find that others are more willing to open up about their own physical and mental health battles. When you are honest about your own battles with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts – others will often open up to you about their’s as well. Sometimes people who you never even knew struggled with such things, will reveal more of the dark depths of their own similar wrestling’s. Sometimes they have never really told anyone before. It brings more common understanding and empathy. And it is in that safe place of empathy that you discover more connection.
Human connection is most beautifully seen and experienced when we open up our lives and become increasingly REAL and honest with others. When we allow ourselves to be more fully known.
So I would like to invite us all today to choose to be more ‘fully seen’ to remember that we are ‘all the same’. We are neither superior or inferior to others. Your background, titles, labels, achievements, failures or weaknesses do not make you any more or any less human than the next.
Equal humans trying to find our way through our crazy lives. So as the saying goes…
‘Be kind. Because everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about’.
Everyone experiences suffering – if it’s not you today – then it might be you tomorrow. So let’s embrace our common humanity. And we might just be able to help to make our broken world a better place for us all to live. Regardless of what comes our way.
The Bible*- 2 Corinthians 4:7a
Writing to explore what life is about. Amidst its captivating beauty and deepest pain. In the hope that we can learn, grow and be inspired together.