Tag Archives: headaches

Rising Again: My Year Of Spinal CSF Leak Recovery

“Time is not really spent. Instead, it is invested in a future we cannot see.” – Alicia Britt Chloe

When I read this quote recently in Alicia’s book ‘Anonymous’ it resonated with my perspective on life. Our time on this earth should not simply be ‘spent’ and should certainly not be ‘wasted’. Instead, all of our time is an investment for a future we cannot yet see – whether it’s intentional ‘learning or doing’, time invested in family and relationships, or facing a set of circumstances which force us to use our time in a new or unforeseen way.

If we can see like this, then we can know that nothing needs to be wasted. Everywhere our life takes us – both the good and bad – is an opportunity to learn, grow and invest into who we are becoming. It’s also an investment into who those we parent, lead and influence are becoming.

All life’s circumstances are opportunities to invest in the future – whether it’s ours, or others around us.

That’s how I’ve had to see the last four years of my life. Most of the first three were spent battling a debilitating spinal CSF leak, and the last has been all about investing in my recovery. Which has again required great patience, raw resilience and immense endurance.

The pathway of recovery, after a long term spinal fluid leak, is often a long, arduous and immensely slow process – even after successful treatment.

The wonderful news is that – a year on from my successful 4th blind lumbar (40ml) epidural blood patch (EBP) – I am doing comparatively well. I have been upright all day every day since mid December 2017 (some days recently that is from 4am – 11pm!! If I happen to wake up early and have to get up due to ‘lying down’ headaches).

I can walk for miles, happily drive locally, get a lot done at home and look after my children (now 11 & 13). I can cook & bake for our family and others, spend quality time with people, go on holiday, and invest increasing time in my life-calling of pastoring and helping hurting people, in and through our local church. This is currently mainly through a lot of one-to-one mentoring and personal development time with others, as well as teaching in small group settings. I also do bits of admin for our church. Thankfully this is all flexible and I can do what I can, when I can, without any added pressures.

I have so very much to be abundantly grateful for. Last year I was acutely unwell and utterly debilitated – initially by the spinal fluid leak, then subsequently by severe post-treatment rebound high pressure symptoms. For four months over the summer of 2017 I had to lie down flat nearly all day, every day, and could only manage an exhausting 10-30mins upright at a time. Then after my EBP I just had a pretty much constant debilitating non-positional headache – amidst many other symptoms (as I talk about in this post) – for months. It is hard to explain how extremely unwell you are with both those conditions, and how confusing it is to work out which is which after treatment.

They are both truly awful to endure!

The road to full healing, even after successful treatment, is not an easy one at all. After a while, you can see that you are making some progress – albeit slow – in moving up the mountainside from the darkness of the valley below. But even the mountain climb of recovery is utterly exhausting in so many ways. It continues to take so much endurance, patience and resilience to scale the never ending rocky slopes.

But I am getting there….

In the light of how ill I was for so long – I am doing exceedingly well! I haven’t been this well since my accident in January 2015. In the light of how healthy and busy I was before my accident – and the onset of the leak – I am still not fully well. But I’m increasingly heading in the right direction.

How ‘well’ I am now is all a matter of perspective. I have to keep focusing on the wonder of how far I have come and the fact that I can easily be upright all day, which is a small miracle to me. So I must embrace all I can do – which is comparatively a lot – and not resent or get frustrated with what I can’t!

The slowness of my recovery can certainly feel frustrating at times – to say the least. Who doesn’t want to get back to full health and be able to embrace more of the life they once knew? And yet I’ve begun to learn and see more of the wisdom that can be found in the slowness. It’s not just my body that needs to heal physically – I (and my whole family) have needed to heal holistically, in so many different areas.

Having lived with a chronic debilitating neurological illness for years, and then experiencing the slow process of holistic recovery, I believe in some ways the whole journey through illness, healing and recovery can be viewed in a similar way to grief. It’s a journey, a passage, we walk through. It’s not something we experience one day, then ‘get over’ it the next. It lives with us as we attempt to move forward with our life. We have to wholeheartedly face, embrace, and walk through what we discover on the journey of sickness and healing – whether traumatic, painful or beautiful. We must give it the time and attention needed to move ‘through’ it, as well as we can, and find more lasting healing in every way.

My mind, emotions, memories, and soul need healing just as much as my physical body. They have needed to find increasing restoration, fresh confidence and new freedom.

You can’t ‘rush’ holistic healing!

It’s a process of working through complex and traumatic memories, emotions and thoughts. Unless you’ve walked the spinal CSF leak road, or a similar long term debilitating illness, you may not understand the trauma involved at every stage. Simply the daily holistic trauma of living with the illness itself is enough. When ‘leaking’, simply being ‘upright’ is often utterly traumatic for our bodies, brains and minds. Then add in the trauma of trying to seek medical help and support for a condition that very few doctors really understand (IF you can get diagnosed and ‘believed’ – that is). And add to that the mental and emotional trauma of being so debilitated and unable to function, anything like normally, in the short and long term. With this combination you can see that there is a lot to work through – as I write about in one of my most widely read posts, Living With a Spinal CSF Leak.

Sometimes it’s not until you start getting well that you actually realise how exceedingly unwell you truly were for so long. This is traumatic in its own way. The fear of going back there again can be overwhelmingly crippling – especially in light of how long recovery takes. This isn’t helped when, like in my own case, multiple major relapses have been your very real past experience. Moving on from the fear of relapsing again is so very difficult. True freedom from this fear can only come slowly, as your confidence builds with the longer you go without getting worse again. These fears can also leave us completely confused and unsure of what we should allow our body to do or not do.

Rising Again verse copy

On a purely physical level, I have also discovered that, after years of leaking spinal fluid from your spine, your whole nervous, and intracranial pressure, system seems to be completely messed up!! Over the months and years of leaking I have become hypersensitive to even the smallest pressure changes in my head and spine. These physical ailments added immensely to the struggle to cope with even small amounts of stress and anxiety whilst leaking and during recovery. This is due to stress and anxiety naturally affecting intracranial pressure anyway, meaning that the physical, mental and emotional become even more intrinsically linked. Even more so because any heightened emotion, especially crying and laughing (or raising your voice in excitement, passion or anger), are brutal on our already hypersensitive heads.

I found the only way to try and deal with all this was by learning to stay as calm, peaceful and quiet as possible. (I already experienced this from leaking – as can be read in this article). This means we have to avoid stressful and anxiety inducing situations when we can – whilst ‘leaking’ and especially in the early months of recovery – which is not easy when we are trying to holistically manage and recover from a debilitating illness, still have to deal with medical professionals and hospitals, and have a family and home to look after (at the very least). It would be even harder if I had had to try and go back to any of a massive spectrum of jobs and careers which do not allow an abundance of time for calm and quiet individual activity. I cannot ‘multi-task’ anything like I used to be able to. Such things are still often way too overwhelming for my current cognitive capacity – although still obviously improving. Even now I also still struggle to ‘rush about’, especially in ‘busy’ or ‘bustling’ environments (even more so if I have to talk to and interact with others as well) so I have to try and maintain more order and calm throughout my life than most people.

Initially, even simply doing more ‘normal’ things again – like going to shops or being in an environment with lots of people – can induce anxiety. As it would for anyone recovering from a long term, previously debilitating, medical (especially a neurological condition). However, this then perpetuates itself because we are already so hypersensitive and thus prone to such things. These environments are already ‘taxing’ on our ‘foggy’ heads because of all the overload of mental stimulation. But having to interact with people and talk a lot can also soon leave our heads even more full of pressure and thus struggling to concentrate and cognitively process what is happening and how we need to respond. So we have to be careful about how much we subject our heads to.

This unfortunately meant I often found myself ‘avoiding people’ at times – especially for the first few months of recovery. This was truly heartbreaking for me because I really do love people and like to talk to them about their lives. But talking, for even short periods of time, would simply make my head worse. Although this has very much improved overtime, my head getting worse from simply talking can still regularly be an issue.

The other key problem with our recovery is that to improve our physical conditioning we have to exercise. But exercise involves exertion, which is another trigger for the higher pressure hypersensitivity. So again it’s a vicious cycle. After the first awful couple of months post-treatment when I still couldn’t walk far at all, I subsequently found that gentle, and initially slow, walking often helped my head more than trying to rest lying down or reclined. Since early December ‘17, I decided to keep my body upright all day and quickly increased the amount I walked up to an average of 3-5 miles a day over 2-4 separate walks. The walks started off very slowly – but my pace slowly increased as my head and spine improved. Long walks – alone – also gave me, and still give me, the much needed space to calm and relax my body and mind, as well as improve any anxiety and my general conditioning. Walking is also very liberating after the many months over the past few years I couldn’t really leave the house.

I did discover that walking was much easier on my head if I walked quietly (or normally listening to something uplifting, inspiring and calming on my smartphone) on my own. Due to the increased breath use – walking and talking at the same time are more of a challenge. I can walk much further more easily on my own than with others. Similarly, I can also get more done at home when I am not required to talk at the same time. Moving about a lot and talking (especially more loudly) can be a bad combination for my head. Although this slowly gets better over time.

Rising Again copy

Other ongoing physical symptoms include varying head pressure often felt mostly in the lower forehead and especially around and behind the eyes when worse. (When particularly bad it can feel like your eyes might burst out of your head). But I can also feel pressure in the occipital region (bottom of skull/ top of spine) and down the spine (especially in the lower lumbar spine). But it’s a slightly different sensation to ‘low pressure’ (leaking) occipital/ neck ‘pulling’ headache. Although harder to differentiate in the early days of recovery.

The main difference that slowly becomes clearer (after much initial confusion) with this ‘higher pressure’ type of pain is – rather than increasingly getting worse throughout the day (or even over a short period of time being upright) – like it did when obviously leaking, it tends to instead come and go at various points in the day according to what is setting off the ‘hypersensitivity’ at that time. Even now, it can still get worse until my head feels full, my ears crackle and pop and sometimes it makes me yawn a lot and feel rather sleepy – especially due to the pressure behind and around the eyes. It can also make me feel slightly shaky, rather detached from the real world, my vision can get slightly blurry, my cognitive processing gets a bit more sluggish, I can occasionally feel a bit nauseous (in the early weeks after my EBP it could often make me physically gag) and my heart can beat noticeably faster. Hence adding to an ‘anxious’ feeling. But this normally gets better again if I spend some time staying upright but being quiet, calm, keeping my spine straighter and move about more gently and slowly. If it gets too bad – often a quiet walk or sitting quietly for a bit helps.

The other main difference to ‘low pressure headaches’ is that it doesn’t get better lying down – although lying down may still rest your body somewhat – hence the confusion. I never lie down in the day anymore because it tends to make my head worse. However, all of these kind of reactions mentioned above are slowly getting less acute or intense and much more manageable as recovery improves.

Waking up in the mornings can also still be problematic at times because of the lying down. I still often (most days) have increasing headaches around and behind my eyes and in my lower forehead, and can sometimes feel slightly nauseous soon after I wake up (this is especially prominent if I try and stay in bed too long once awake). Unlike when ‘leaking’ – I subsequently find that I must get up once I have been awake a little while – whatever time it is. I am known to get up anytime from between 3:30am-8:30am depending on the day and when I happen to wake up (unless the 6:30am alarm on school days wakes me first). Once I do get up the main headache goes away quite quickly these days – although my head and spine can remain feeling strangely ‘full’ but without obvious pain. (In the initial weeks after my blood patch, the headache wouldn’t always ease much getting up – at least at first. I think the exertion of getting up and interacting/ talking with my family would complicate it and I could often feel very unwell and often feel sick and gag from trying to ‘do things’. So then I would then try and lie down again to be still and quiet – but would end up still feeling very ill and then simply continue to physically gag from the nausea and increasing pain from lying down (which simply adds to the exertion headache – perpetuating everything). It’s tormentingly confusing and very hard to get relief in any position in the early days of recovery. Medication (initally acatezolomide, then after 2 months a switch to nortriptyline, in my case) can help some of the underlying problem or pain. But not necessarily the hypersensitive reactions to changes in intracranial pressure. Which is why it is so utterly confusing and brutal on your mental health – which adds to the anxiety we are already prone to – as I write about here in my 6 month post patch update).

Bending my neck down to read, whilst walking or to look at things (like my smartphone), or bending my spine to do things – tends to also obviously increase the pressure in my head and make my ears feel full and pop. As does carrying moderately heavy things. So I am still super careful and gentle with movements involving my spine. I just can’t be sure that it’s OK to lift and bend much still, so I still self-impose many post-EBP style restrictions and tend to always kneel first to pick things up off the floor, unload the dishwasher or put washing in, or take it out, of the machine. Over time I have gently allowed my spine to bend and lift a bit more – but only very carefully and cautiously.

During my years of leaking and my experiences of rebound high pressure (post treatment) I always found sitting down would tend to increase the pressure in my head/ spine or increase my leak symptoms when leaking. So I used to stand a lot more when upright. This has improved so much and I can sit for longer and longer, but it is often still harder for me to sit (relaxed) for longer periods of time (the sofa can be the worst place due to the softness of the seat). I actually find I am better sitting with my back very straight and legs bent directly in front, with the soles of my feet touching the floor. Slouching, leaning back too far or putting my feet up is no good, at all, for my head or spine.

I know the sitting issues have also been aggravated too by the general ongoing tension up my spine. I personally hypothesise that much of this is probably down to the higher pressure/ higher volume of spinal fluid pushing against my nerve roots. But it’s obviously also linked to the years of pain and physical tension in my head and spine and also the lack of natural movement. It’s hard to know how to combat this much whilst still restricting movement. It improves little by little and lots of walking and the general rehabilitation of doing things around the house and going shopping (limiting how much is carried) etc helps it a lot, thankfully. But I have found that this can’t really be overcome by trying to ‘force it better’. Gentle movement and gentle lifting, whilst remaining very patient with regards to ongoing ‘pressure issues’ is so important. I just have to listen to my body and head. Trying to ‘push myself’ and rush this process of less pain and tension in my head and down my spine can just lead to relapse and in hindsight has probably contributed to my own before.

(In hindsight, I now think that I experienced rebound high pressure symptoms at least after my second (11 months post leak onset) and third blood patches (15 months in – when I was also treated with acetazolomide) but I always got worse again many weeks to months later. I do not know if I was also still leaking a bit too after any of my patches (apart from a bit after the first perhaps) or what exactly brought on the consistent obvious major relapses. (Apart from when I fell over again badly in May 2017). I always got much better after blind lumbar high volume EBP and could spend much more time upright – often all day – over the following weeks and months – but was never symptom free. But it’s all FAR too confusing to say for sure and the confusion only gets harder the longer you have been leaking. Medical professionals in the UK normally do not understand these medical conditions enough to support you well eitherWhich makes living through it immensely hard and another challenging battle to fight, whilst you are utterly exhausted and acutely hypersensitive to stress and anxiety anyway. This all contributed to a major crisis in my own mental health (see Breaking Through the Darkness), including acute suicidal ideation, 2 months after my second EBP. This almost reoccurred again 2 months after the 4th patch that sealed me, as I try to describe in my 6 month post patch update). 

Rising Again quote copy

However, regardless of all the immense and overwhelming challenges of living with a ‘leak’ for so long and now enduring the slow recovery process…

There is still so much from the past few years to treasure!

So it’s that which I want to focus on to finish…

Beauty can become even more beautiful once you have tasted of deep pain and debilitation – a theme that I wrote about in ‘Suffering into a Deeper Spiritual Awakening’. I have certainly learnt more about what truly matters in life. I see and notice beauty even more clearly around me – throughout creation and in other people. My heart is so much more tender and compassionate. I truly FEEL others pain much more deeply than I used to. My understanding of other people’s struggles is so much more profound.

If I could go back and had the choice to have or not have the leak – of course in so many ways I wish we had never had to walk through such an awfully traumatic and exhausting season in life.

And yet…

I would never want give up the beautiful lessons learnt or the wonderful people met. I could not deny the privilege of experiencing the depth of the valley of darkness – whilst actually being able to rise and recover again, as I hopefully increasingly move up towards more heights of better health. It has changed and increased the capacity of my heart in ways that I cannot even begin to fully explain. It has stretched my limited perspective and expanded my horizons. It has changed how I see and relate to others and deepened my love – for God and all people.

So with hindsight would I choose to personally go through such a desolate season of pain and suffering – because of what can be learnt and gained?

If I could have known, in advance, what the never-ending, deeply dark, valley entailed, I could not have chosen that road for myself or my family. Nor would I choose for anyone else to go through it either. Which is why I continue to raise awareness about the realities of living with the condition. In the hope that others will not have to suffer as deeply and as long as I have.

But… I would choose the new heights of beauty discovered in and from the depths of pain. Because they have transformed me for the better. They have brought holistic growth and resilience in ways I could never have achieved without going through such a raw deep struggle. I have also been able to connect and help others going through the same hell that I had to.

I have honestly been utterly shattered and broken by the past few years – in so many different ways.

And yet…

To be ‘broken and shattered’ is not always a bad thing long term. It strips you back, shows you what is truly important and gives you a new perspective on life and love. We can then hopefully one day, perhaps one day, become even more stable, loving, humble, understanding and holistically healthy people in the end. Until we can truly see that the years of pain become an investment for a better future – all round – that we previously could not see.

So for all those still suffering immensely with these awful conditions. I honestly feel the depths of your never-ending pain with you – but please take heart! And do not give up hope! Last year I wasn’t sure I could or would ever be well. I wasn’t sure that I had the strength left to make it through another day of fighting on so many different levels. I had again reached the absolute end of myself. But my journey shows that we really do not know what tomorrow might bring. That is why I have wanted to tell you my own story. In the hope that we will keep holding on and hoping for a better future – we cannot yet see – together.

“Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” – Richard M. Nixon

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Our family on a beautiful and very blessed holiday (fully upright!!!) in Weymouth, UK, July 2018! (Which we had to cancel in 2017 due to a complete relapse of my chronic spinal CSF Leak). Our children Aimee and Beth were 7 & 10 when this nightmare began and our lives completely changed, they are now 11 & 13.

Please do comment or ask any questions below. Or alternatively you can email me at beckyhillblog@outlook.com

To read more about my story of living with and recovering from a chronic spinal CSF Leak click here.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

Here is a medical journal publication about rebound intracranial hypertension (rebound high pressure) as a complication of epidural blood patching. 

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 difficult medical journey.

Embracing Simplicity

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein

Over the past couple of years I have often felt like my life has been aggressively and almost completely stripped back. The core of my life is still much the same as it has always been. Yet I often feel like a tree that has been radically pruned. With so many of the branches of my identity and the things that I used to do being brutally chopped off and left to die. Leaving something quite exposed and bare, with many stubs where branches used to be.

When you spend most of your day lying down, and the time you can be upright is exceedingly limited by various intense and horrible neurological symptoms, you find that your life becomes extremely restricted. Everything becomes immensely simplified in many ways (even though there are also many complexities to contend with too). Life mainly consists of things you can do lying flat, or the few limited things you can do whilst upright – although still feeling very ill.

It’s been a very challenging journey to embrace a more simplistic life. 

It doesn’t help that we live in a society that often glorifies busyness!

Our Western society is full of people who often seem to wear badges of importance – based, in part, on how busy their life is. Most people are forever expressing how immensely busy they are. This makes it extra hard for those of us who are ill long term, because we have to instead embrace a new identity that can no longer be defined by our busyness. Suddenly we can feel somewhat detached from normal society – a bit of a ‘nobody’.

Everyone around us seems to be carrying on with their ‘normal lives’ whilst we feel like ours is stuck. 

We live in a never ending state of limbo, not knowing if or when it will change.


In my 2015 post Is Busyness a Choice? I spoke about an article by Scott Dannemiller called ‘Busy is a Sickness’. In it he wrote:

“… we are defined by what we do. Our careers. What we produce. It’s the first question asked (of us)  The implication is that if I am not busy doing something, I am somehow less than. Not worthy. Or at least worth less than those who are producing something.”

I really do believe that this is a massive problem for those of us who face long term debilitation. 

We not only have to take a very humbling journey of coming to terms with it ourselves; we will also often have to face others’ questions, attitudes, and sometimes prejudice – as well as naivety and ignorance – towards our disability and inability to do what we once could do.

We find that we begin to lose much of our identity, because it feels like we are not doing much anymore. Rather than being an active member of society – we feel pushed to the side lines, often misunderstood and sometimes even forgotten about.

We are suddenly not so sure who we really are any more and our condition begins to knock our confidence – until we perhaps no longer feel like we ‘fit in’ with normal society like we used to.

Over time, we realise that we have to go through a deep and painful process of grieving and letting go of who we once were. And much of what defined us. 

So that instead we can truly embrace who we are now – in this season. We actually have very little choice in the matter – if we cannot change our current circumstances ourselves then we have no option but to accept it and find a way to live the best life we can amidst all the restrictions.

I learnt over time that I had to stop torturing myself with what I could be doing IF I was well. I had to give up imagining how different life could be if I was healthy. I had to refuse to compare myself to what ‘normal’ people were doing and instead embrace the quieter and more simple life, of mainly being at home, often lying down. I had to see the opportunities that could be found here instead.

We must learn to establish a daily discipline of choosing to see the beauty and wonder in simplicity. To somehow embrace a simpler life. The more I go on that journey – the more I see that there are still so many things to be thankful for and enjoy here.

Despite the restriction, debilitation and pain. 

Really it is all a matter of perspective. As many things in life are. 

Attitude is everything! 

Since I have battled this chronic illness I have realised more than ever that we are often fed a lie by society and the media that our life should always be lovely, fun, immensely satisfying and great. Everything should be as perfect as it can be – and it will be – IF you have enough money, health, great jobs, nice homes, loving families, expensive holidays and up to date gadgets etc. Then we will all be perpetually happy.

BUT it’s just not true!

Hence why there are so many miserable, struggling people who actually have all those things in abundance. Sometimes it’s the people I know who have the most of all those things who are the least happy. Mainly because that mindset draws you into a never ending cycle of desiring more and more – which only leaves you increasingly discontented in the end. Because there is always someone around who seems to have a better lot in life and appears to be happier than you.


I have learnt so much through my two-year journey about trying to be more grateful for the small, everyday things, whilst learning to let go of ‘the dream’ of ‘normal living.’ In doing that (which is a very raw and painful grieving process) I learnt I could find so much joy and wonder here too. And if I can find it here, then I will be so much happier – as well as more content and thankful – when I do hopefully get well. If I can learn contentment without having all the things the media tells me I need – then I will be happier for a life time regardless of whether I stay sick or get well.

It’s a lesson I have also had to embrace with regards how I parent my children. It truly is heartbreaking when sickness robs you of being the parent you always desired and planned to be. It’s a very difficult thing to face and unfortunately you can find yourself envying other healthy normal parents, which doesn’t help.

When I experienced a complete physical and mental breakdown at the end of 2015, it was the grief of letting go of being the Mum I was and wanted to be that caused some of the deepest inner pain. I am so very thankful that my girls are now that bit older and slightly more independent, which makes things so much easier for us as a family. And yet currently I can’t go out with them or do most of the fun or even necessary things we used to do.

I really am currently stuck at home, mainly lying flat, nearly 24/7. 

However, I have also learnt that sometimes my kids can learn better life lessons from us facing this as a family than they could if life was just ‘normal’ and great. I realised that if I can’t find a way to truly live here, in the midst of the disappointments, then how can I help them to know how to face their own challenges and disappointments in life? They will certainly come at some point. If as a parent I can’t come through the crisis, then what does that teach them? But if my children can learn how to endure life trials – from me and my husband – then they will hopefully be much more stable and wholehearted adults.

Adults who can weather the storms of life and stick out long term relationships much better. Meaning they may well be happier and more fulfilled adults because of this. It will also hopefully help them to grow in compassion for others, so that they learn not to ignore or avoid another’s pain, but instead look at how they can share it and help support another in and through it.

Compassion is a stunningly beautiful quality to have. 

As my body is so restricted on the outside, I actually often feel the energy of what’s within intensify. It’s like there is this ball inside me with a mixture of so many different emotions. I know I have to redirect the ones that want to pull me into a dark place and allow the positive ones to become increasingly dominant. So I am trying to focus my own pain on connecting and helping others in theirs.

I have decided that I must find a way to live like this – so that I can help another walk through their own deep darkness of facing this condition or similar debilitation.

It’s allowing the love, grace and compassion that is within me to break out to help someone else. It’s channelling my hurt into feeling another’s pain with them so that I can then say, “How can I help you today? What advice can I give you from the lessons I have – sometimes painfully – learnt over the years.” 

These are some of the simple things in life that I can still embrace and still do. And it’s when I am focused on things such as these that I am drawn less into only seeing the negatives of my current predicament. It is then that I often find the beauty that is found in simplicity. And it reminds me that even if my body remains debilitated, on the inside I can still feel fully alive.

So let me embrace the wonders hidden in the simplicity of my current circumstances. Because if I can do that – in this place – I will hopefully discover a deeper contentment and satisfaction that may well last a lifetime as well. So that IF one day I can leave this whole immensely difficult season behind for good, I will at least have learnt more lessons and disciplines through it that will become the firm foundations of my life tomorrow.

So that although I have had to experience a major pruning and cutting back that has left me looking exposed and bare today, perhaps in the end it will simply leave room for growth that will allow new shoots to form tomorrow. Producing a stronger tree in the future that is happier, healthier and bears good fruit in the right season.

None of us know what tomorrow will bring. 

But if we can all learn and grow enough today, so that we can somehow find the inner strength to face whatever might be thrown at us tomorrow, we will be able to take our stand in the crisis and allow this cry to rise up from within us to say:

 “However bad this gets and however long it goes on for… I am determined to find the best life that can be lived here – in all its gloriously redefined simplicity.”


To read more about my story of living with a chronic spinal CSF Leak click here.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

Grappling with the Shame of Having a Rare Invisible illness

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G Jung

In 2016, over a period of a few months, I came to realise how much shame I was carrying because I was still unwell, over 20 months, after a ladder fall left me with a debilitating spinal fluid (CSF) leak, somewhere in my spine. I write more about that journey of learning about shame and the devastation it can bring in this post ‘The Shame of Chronic Illness and Pain.

It was a journey of realisation and revelation following researching and contemplating what SHAME actually is and how damaging it can be in our lives. I was inspired to think about shame following reading Brene Brown’s book ”Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.’ The book encourages us to find the courage to be honest and vulnerable about who we REALLY are. It also talks a lot about shame and how destructive it can be in our lives and relationships.

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable…. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to whither.” – Brene Brown

Reading the above words inspired me to write publicly about my realisation that I was carrying a lot of shame about the fact I was STILL very unwell. This had been made so much worse by the many battles to get properly diagnosed and then treated. Which many who have rare illnesses/ diseases can face. That includes many of us suffering from CSF leaks whether caused by an accident, purely spontaneous, from a labour epidural, C-Section spinal, a lumbar puncture or other medical procedures such as spinal surgery.

Many of us have faced doctors who have disbelieved us, or at least, disbelieved how bad our symptoms and pain are. We have been on a journey of misdiagnosis and seeing various different medical professionals, until finally finding doctors who understand and can help us. (When you do finally find those doctors they are valued, appreciated and loved more than they will ever know.)

And it’s simply because many doctors do not know much about CSF leaks. In the end, when we do get diagnosed, we are often told how ‘RARE’ we are. Although recently, it is becoming clearer that we are not actually as rare as people once thought – just commonly misdiagnosed, or even ignored, in the past.

Fighting to be heard when you are so very unwell is utterly exhausting and often completely overwhelming. Fighting your case when you are healthy is hard enough. But fighting when you are sick can be an utterly demoralising, shame filled, journey that can leave you with a potentially deeply dark despair. Especially when you are no longer confident that ANY Doctor will really listen and learn, what they need to, to help you.

Shame is that feeling of ‘I am not enough’ or ‘I am not good enough’. You can feel like a failure – not necessarily because of something you have done wrong, but because of who you are, or because of the circumstances you find yourself in, often due to no fault of your own. Sometimes simply because you have a medical condition, or something in your life, that most people just do not, or even refuse, to understand. You feel embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated and can then wonder if there is something really wrong with you as a WHOLE person. You think ‘perhaps I am just not ‘good enough’ or ‘strong enough‘ to do this, why can’t I ‘be and do better’ than I am doing… why do they not understand and listen?’

…. and SHAME begins to relentlessly and often unknowingly eat away at you!

Shame really messes with your mind and emotions and brings a whole spectrum of reactions from – hiding away from other people and getting lost in your own failures and problems – at one end – to getting angry, blaming others and lashing out, for the feelings you have – at the other. And often then trying to cover up your shame by pretending and putting up a front – in between it all. Sometimes we deflect the shame by blaming someone else. But often the fact is, whether or not someone else has directly or indirectly added to or even caused your shame, the soul destroying emotion of shame is still owned by us and we are the ONLY ones who can truly face it and deal with it.

Whilst we simply blame others for it, we won’t be able to get free.

Shame quote 2

I really do believe many chronically ill people, particularly those with a rare condition or invisible illness, can carry a lot of SHAME from their difficult journey to be heard, supported and helped.

Shame…… that we are ill in the first place and can’t ‘overcome it’. Like other people can with ‘normal’ or less severe illness, and sometimes even more severe cases that can be more easily fixed or treated.

Shame…… when you know the doctors AND even sometimes members of your own family and friends are wondering if it’s ALL or at least PARTIALLY ‘in your head’. When the reality is your body is not actually functioning anything like how it should.

Shame….. that however much you try to engage with life, and ‘push through the pain’, you are still so exhausted by it. It daily feels like you are running a marathon after being whacked round the back of your head with a baseball bat. But you are also very conscious that you do not want to keep sounding like you are complaining and being negative. So you try to smile and chat ….so in reality many people often do not know or really understand how unwell you actually are. Until you have to leave and retreat due to the immense pain and inability to cope with the trauma in your head and body, so as to HAVE to get back to relief of lying flat again.

Shame…. that even when you ‘look well’ in reality nothing has really changed since last month when you ‘looked well’ for those couple of hours, or so, you managed to be ‘upright’ and out, or with others at home (even though in reality most of that time your body was actually screaming at you to get flat again so your brain could get back into its right position in your skull).

Shame….. when tests and scans come back negative and do not correspond with how severe your symptoms are. So you lack the clear, non subjective, medical evidence you need to ‘PROVE’ to others how unwell you are. (Although even having evidence does not necessarily always help and does not always correspond with how bad your symptoms are anyway).

Shame.… when someone asks you how the ‘headache’ is and you really want to scream at them “it’s not just a headache!!! Please stop just calling it ‘a headache’!! It’s a complex and debilitating set of neurological symptoms, pain and a feeling of trauma throughout your whole body which gets increasingly worse when I am upright until I cannot cope anymore.”…. But you instead calmly reply ‘yes, it’s still there!!’ (And has been for over two years …. every day…. most of the day…..when I am actually able to be upright).

Shame.… for the daily feeling that your life is currently so ‘small and insignificant’ because you can’t DO very much anymore. So you no longer feel like a fully functioning member of society. And can’t even fathom what a day with no pain and symptoms feels like any more.

Shame…. that you have to spend so much time in bed, because with spinal CSF leaks the only time you feel fully well is lying FLAT IN BED. (But it’s out of necessity – NOT a relaxing lie in… at times my bed can feel more like a prison than a retreat).

And the shame can pile up….

….shame….
upon shame.….
upon shame …… upon shame!!!

After every new appointment, after seeing ANOTHER doctor who doesn’t understand, after every test that comes back clear, after every social event you have to miss, after every month you can no longer work.

…and after…

Every person you have to tell every day, every week, every month, every year that you are STILL not well and there is still no clear end in sight!

Shame quote copy

I found so much freedom from that shame over the last year. But sometimes something new brings it back to the surface. It creeps back up on me again and attempts to sink it’s toxic claws into my thinking and emotions. I then realise I still have some underlying shame there …. or at least it’s destructive sticky residue is lingering and refusing to leave.

So as Brene Brown advises, I am again choosing to speak it out in this new post. And to say to others – “I feel your shame too, I feel the exhaustion of the fight, I feel the anguish that the nightmare seems to never end and the chaos it’s brought in your family and relationships.”

Every time I read about another suffering soul facing ANOTHER exhausting battle to be heard – I feel that despair with you!! I have been there, I have walked, and still walk, that never ending road of endurance. An endurance you are not always sure you will still have the strength for tomorrow.

A road I did not choose myself, but wake up to every morning – with no other option than to get up and face another unbelievably exhausting day of trying to LIVE LIFE with relentless debilitating  neurological pain and stiffness (head and spine), brain fog, mental and cognitive fatigue and impairment, body and limb weakness, vision issues, tremor, shaking and much much more. And have to dig deep daily to CHOOSE calmness, kindness, thankfulness, love and hope DESPITE it all!

Which is not easy!! 

I have also known the darkest of nights when you convince yourself that escaping life itself must be better than living it like this…. and then ALSO then felt the shame of being the one who ‘couldn’t cope anymore’ and was now mentally unwell too. The one who couldn’t endure how she hoped she might. The one who fell apart when she reached the end of herself after a year of health battles and disappointments.

And that is why I know, although I am only one voice, I am one voice speaking for many!! Speaking up is ONE of the things I can still do. So I hope as I say it this way – we can also become many voices united as one.

To remind people (especially doubting medical professionals and doubting family and friends) that until you have walked our path and we have walked yours – we have no REAL idea how hard the other person’s journey has really been and is.

So please don’t assume you know! And we will try our best to do the same for you!

Just because my case is ‘unusual’ and you don’t understand it. Just because my physical condition pushed me over the edge mentally. It doesn’t mean that it is mainly psychological and that I do not have a complex medical condition that leaves my body utterly debilitated. If you lived in MY body for a day – you would soon find that I do not have a simple ‘headache’ like the headaches you have probably known that go away with a couple of pills or a good nights sleep!! 

We just ask that you PLEASE listen and allow your mind to be opened, rather than try and force us into the boxes of your limited understanding and experience. I do not expect you to know what you don’t know. But I would appreciate it, if you could just listen and try to understand, and humbly realise that you perhaps do not know as much as you think you do about what is wrong with MY body.

Because….

Until you have watched your health being ruthlessly stolen from you overnight – with no clear assurance of getting it back any time soon. Until you have known the agony of mis-diagnosis and constant questioning from medical professionals unsure of what to do with you, in part, due to a lack of knowledge about your ‘rare’ invisible condition and subjective pain scales. Or worse – until you yourself have faced being ‘interrogated’ by disbelieving, and defensive, medical professionals who think they know – what in reality they obviously don’t. (We are so very very grateful to those who acknowledge what they don’t know and do choose to listen and learn with true humility regardless.)

You do not really know what it is like!

But when you do ‘get it’ or at least try to, then you are welcomed into a new family of others who do KNOW! Who have lived through the devastation of a rare debilitating invisible illness and walked a similar path either personally or alongside their loved ones, close friends or with many of their patients.

When your eyes, ears and hearts are opened and you meet others who have faced a similar pain and carried a similar shame – you know you are not alone! It gives you more fuel for the fight because the battle is no longer JUST YOURS. You are ALSO fighting on behalf of the MANY. Those walking with you AND those coming behind you.

So today I again choose to throw off my shame by SPEAKING IT OUT – so that I can take another’s hand. And say…. “yes this journey is so very tough…. yes the battle often seems relentless….yes we can’t be sure what the future will bring… and yes you will often wonder how you will ever endure the never ending storm.”

But we can fight TOGETHER!!

Some days I struggle to find the strength to fight for just ‘me’! But it’s then I must remember – it’s not just me I fight for!! I fight for you, your family member or loved one. I fight for the person, family member and loved one who will come behind me.

I fight with, and for, all those who know the relentless exhaustion of battling a rare or chronic invisible illness and pain.

WE also fight with, and for those of you, facing any challenge in life that feels beyond you at the moment. Because WE know what it is to have to choose to keep on going, and keep on living, when some days WE just really want to give up and escape it all.

So will you join our fight of many TOGETHER?

Because it’s then… That I find I can dig EVEN deeper. Deeper than I have ever gone before. To find the strength to endure OUR storm TOGETHER!

Because this life shouldn’t just be ALL about ME and MY struggles and pain. It’s about US finding a way to navigate through and endure the ups and downs of life together – as equal broken specimens of humanity. So that on the days I feel like I am falling back into a pit of despair, when EVERY part of my debilitated body screams at me to give up the fight. I know there is someone else who can reach down and grab my hand as I start to fall – offering empathy, love, compassion and strength – whilst also helping to pull me back up to face another day. Then tomorrow it might be my day to reach down to you, as you fall, and help pull you back up to face another day too.

And that way we will break away from the shame that tries to chain us up! AND dig deep to ENDURE the tough times TOGETHER!

Life is ALWAYS better when we face it TOGETHER!

“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. ….. A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” – The Bible (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,12)


Do you feel that shame? We all carry shame in some form. Please do comment below – if we can speak it out then perhaps TOGETHER we can beat it!

For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

Being Real Whilst Staying Positive

Authenticity is really important to me. I have learnt that it is where true freedom lies. It’s when you have realised that you do not have to maintain a certain image or pretend your life is better than it is.

It’s liberating to just be you.
The real you!
With your strengths AND weaknesses.
Your failures AND victories.
Your achievements AND embarrassments.

When you have nothing to hide, you do not need to fear others finding out about who you really are. There is no need to ‘impress’ anyone.

Pretending is just far too exhausting anyway!

“When people have integrity, their words and deeds match up. They are who they are, no matter where they are or who they’re with. People with integrity are not divided (that’s duplicity) or merely pretending (that’s hypocrisy). They are ‘whole’, and their lives are ‘put together’. People with integrity have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. Their lives are open books.” John Maxwell

However,

I sometimes wonder – How can we be ‘real’ without wearing our heart on our sleeves the whole time? Shouldn’t there be limits to our transparency? How honest should we be with people on a wider scale?

Is it better to sometimes stay silent?

Of course it sometimes is!

There are many occasions where it would not be helpful or wise to divulge EVERY little detail about our thoughts, feelings and lives. Personally, professionally and socially.

However, I believe we can stay authentic and yet still hold back, but it’s an attitude of the heart. We can keep information to ourselves and those close to us, without hiding or pretending. It’s all linked to having a humble heart. It’s all about our motive for sharing information or keeping it hidden. Having wisdom to be aware of the context we are in, and judging how appropriate our words might be.

“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

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For me having a chronic illness means every day is a battle of sorts. It is the daily battle of positional (upright) unbearable headaches and other nasty neurological symptoms caused by a 2 year persistent spinal CSF Leak that we cannot yet find.

Most days I see people at my daughters school, in the street, at the shops or at church. And they often ask that daily question – “How are you?”

And every day I struggle to answer!

How can I be ‘real’ without launching into a long narrative about all the daily battles and challenges? How do I respond to the ‘how are you’s’ without sounding moany and negative?

And to be honest – do you really want to know anyway? Or should I just respond with the classic ‘fine thank you,’ because maybe I am actually ‘fine’ in a ‘but still battling a chronic illness’ way that day and maybe I don’t have the energy for a long conversation anyway.

But my desire to be authentic means I don’t want to lie either, I don’t want to cover over the reality. That is no good to anyone, because then I will just end up staying quiet and pretending and no one will realise how unwell I still am. (Which has happened before).

So I have had to find new responses ‘well at least I can be here today.’ Or these days I sometimes don’t say much and just smile at people with a ‘hmmm’ or I will say ‘I am not sure what to say – I am still not well, still waiting for new scans to try and find the leak, but I am very thankful that I am not stuck in bed as much as I used to be.’

Perhaps I should give out little cards that say…

“I feel unwell a lot of every day, but for now, I have had to accept it and live with it as best I can. I am better than I have been in the past. I have better moments and worse moments. I have days where I feel more positive and days that feel like more of an endurance test – than the normal daily endurance test of living with chronic illness and pain! But I also have so very much to be thankful for. Each day I have to learn how to live here and do the best I can to love others and help those around me.”

Abstract background

I don’t want to moan.
I don’t want to only communicate the negatives.
I want to stay positive.
I need to stay thankful.

But I also do want to be ‘real’.

So for now I will try my best to be as authentic as I can. Without sounding like a broken record (because most people have heard all about it before). I will try not to hide so that people understand me and the condition better.

But how about instead of me telling you all about me – AGAIN. Please tell me about the real you too. Your victories AND your failures. Your celebrations AND your struggles. So that I am reminded that we are ALL human and all face our own unique daily battles. Yours might look very different to mine. But I am sure there is something that you are finding hard too.

Because if we always just tell each other we are fine. Then we will stay stuck with our own limited and potentially self focused perspective. Never really knowing what battles other people around us might be fighting too.

And that would be a shame, because then we will miss out on the beauty of true human connection. Connection that goes so much deeper, because we can be honest about our ‘whole’ selves. So we can listen and learn more understanding from one another too.

In the hope that it will help us to become better, kinder and more compassionate humans together.


To read more about my story of living with a chronic spinal CSF Leak click here.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

Living With a Spinal CSF Leak.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou

I started this blog at the start of January 2015. For a while I had wanted to write. But in all honesty I was scared.

“What if I write and nobody wants to read it?”

I soon learnt that writing isn’t just dependent on others reading it. It’s a great form of self expression in its own right. It’s the attempt the find the right words to tell our own stories about our lives.

One of the first momentous, yet deeply personal stories that I shared was the first anniversary of my Mums death in a post called ‘A Journey Through Grief and What I Have Learnt.’ I had felt that in telling my own unique story, people might just connect and maybe they could relate as they struggled through their own story of grief.

Little did I know that the same week I started this blog and wrote the above piece, would be another life altering week for me.

That was the week that I sustained a brain/ spinal injury I am still battling now –

21 months later.

That day I was painting and needed to reach high up near the ceiling. So I used a relatively small step ladder to stand on, but it was resting in a place that wasn’t completely stable. I had already used it that way for hours and felt confident it was ‘stable enough.’

But my confidence was misplaced.

I took a seemingly small risk, the type that we all take everyday. But on this particular day my risk taking didn’t pay off. It was that day I had an accident. It was that moment where it felt like so much went wrong.

I have been living with the consequences of that decision ever since.

In one horrible moment the whole ladder had toppled over and took my feet from under me with it. I fell onto my back and hit the back of my head….

But,
It’s OK!
I am fine!
A bit dazed!
A bit bruised!
No real damage done!

Or so I thought!!

So I finished that painting. Exhausted & aching all over, but obviously to be expected after painting all day and having a few bruises from the fall. But within 48 hours it became obvious,

I WAS DEFINITELY NOT OK!!!

Two days later I was diagnosed with a concussion.

“You should be better by next week.” they told me.  But I wasn’t….It got WORSE!!
So we went down to A&E.

“I am sorry Mrs Hill you have Post Concussion Syndrome. You are looking at about an 8 week recovery time.” they said.

No surely, not me.
Give it four weeks.
It can’t be that bad.
That is such a long time!!! (I confidently, yet naively thought!)
I’m sure I can bounce back like any other time I have been ill for a few days.

Eight weeks later of being pretty much bed bound, in a dark and quiet room, and things still getting worse.

We head down to A&E for the third time since my fall.

I was finally admitted that time because I was so unwell, in severe pain and vomiting after being given morphine which didn’t touch the pain, only made me feel even more ill. I was finally seen by a Neurologist the next day and she moved me to their ward to look for evidence to support their initial diagnosis of low pressure headaches caused by a spinal CSF leak.

I am not going to list all my symptoms because I have done that all before. But what I will say here is that I am so very, very grateful to a handful of people who in the midst of their own pain and struggles decided to help others like me.

I have to tell you about the wonderful team at www.csfleak.info who helped me to understand more about my injury and helped me to realise that the fact I ONLY ever felt remotely well LYING FLAT IN BED for those two months, was not due to post-concussion syndrome after all,

It was probably due to a  SPINAL CSF (Cerebrospinal Fluid) LEAK!

This meant that somehow the accident had caused a small tear in the membrane in the centre of my spine (the dura) that holds in your spinal fluid. This means that my spinal fluid leaks out and is absorbed my body.

So when I am upright sitting or standing, due to gravity, my brain drops in my skull, because it lacks enough fluid to hold it in place.

Twenty One months after my fall.

I am still not better!

I have had some ups and downs along the way. Bad months in 2015 of being almost fully bed-bound. And other months after epidural blood patches (I have had 3) of being mostly upright.

But since that fall I have never had one single day of being…

Fully
Symptom
Free.

Such is the journey to full healing with this unusual and often under-diagnosed condition. Many people do get diagnosed, receive treatment, get well quickly, and never look back.

But many others face constant battles, discouragements, set backs and difficulties throughout their journey of being diagnosed and treated. Often a lack of knowledge by the medical profession makes getting fully better hard for many.

stone wallRecently, I have become so acutely aware how little many doctors, and the general public, know about spinal CSF leaks. I have heard so many stories of people struggling to get a diagnosis and, even when they do, facing many barriers to treatment.

There are many hospitals that really don’t know what to do with ‘these rare patients’ and this often makes delays in treatment an unfortunate reality for many.

I am so grateful for an amazingly supportive and well informed group of CSF leak sufferers who form an online community through the ingenious invention of Facebook groups. Many of us cannot imagine how we would have faced this journey without one another and I honestly think that some people in those UK and US based groups would not be alive today without that wonderful resource. Despair and suicidal thoughts are very prevalent within this group of patients.

Having someone tell you “I get it” whilst you both spend yet another day staring at the ceiling, flat in bed, can mean everything to someone really struggling. Even when that other person is half way across the country or even the world.

We face the daily struggles together!

It can be a lonely and difficult road battling a chronic illness. That road sometimes feels impossible when you slowly begin to realise how little knowledge a lot of doctors have about your condition.

I recently watched a very moving video, that is on the wonderful US spinal CSF leaks charity website. www.spinalcsfleak.org/resources/patient-stories/ About a lady who got a spinal fluid leak from a very badly placed epidural for the birth of her second child. She got two dural tears from the needle which caused spinal fluid to leak from her spine.

It took her 2 1/2 years to recover (she had a new born and 4 year old at that time) and she had to have 11 epidural blood patches (where they inject your own blood into the epidural space in your spine) and two surgeries to get better.

But what struck me the most was that even though everyone knew the area of her spine the leak would have been in (which is half the battle with traumatic (or spontaneous) leaks like mine) time and time again doctors refused to listen and often implied that there is no way she could be leaking CSF, and perhaps it was instead, ‘all in her head’ or something she would ‘just have to live with’.

I cried so much watching it because myself and many other leakers have faced similar battles to hers.

I find it heart breaking when people are suffering and needing help and support. And yet due to a lack of knowledge and understanding by the medical profession AND the general public, people are often told things like;

‘We have got nothing left to offer you,’
‘Try your best to get on with your life’
‘Perhaps you should try and get out more.’

Which is just a slap in the face when you are literally stuck lying flat in bed!

And yet, it doesn’t need to be that way!

There has been so much research done about spinal CSF leaks already. There IS knowledge out there. There are specialists who are leading the way, publishing medical papers and providing hope that many people CAN fully recover and perhaps don’t have to just learn to live with it after all.

Peoples minds need to be opened.

Medical professionals need to know that there is more information out there than they might realise. That there are a whole range of diverse symptoms. That people can still be leaking and debilitated, yet still function (well sort of) upright most of day. That there are many different kinds of treatments available and things that can be done to help.

  • Recently I have been thinking; how I can spread awareness?
  • How can I do my bit to help make the way clearer for those patients coming after me?
  • What skills can I offer the cause that might make a difference for both me and others?

One thing I have chosen to do is write. I can use my words to draw attention to this condition. I can tell my story in the hope it eventually reaches the people who need to hear it.

“Well, everybody’s got a story to tell and everybody’s got a wound to be healed.” Plumb

So today that’s what I want to do. I want to welcome you in to my world. I want to share with you a snap shot of what it is like living with a chronic CSF leak. So that you might have some more understanding yourself.

These days I am so very thankful that I get more hours upright than I used to. It really does make it that much easier to deal with. It helps me to feel more a part of the world around me and connect better with my kids. But it is still very very hard and debilitating to live like this.

stone wallHere is a typical start to my day….

I got up about 7:30am this morning. Lying in bed in the mornings I can actually feel pretty normal. But that feeling never lasts for long!

I get up, shower, get dressed and have breakfast, including a cup of tea and 2 pro plus caffeine tablets (because I can’t stand coffee!!)  – which can help to give me a bit more up time (although I often find it can be an artificial type boost feeling). During this time I already feel the neck stiffness and occipital (bottom back of the head) pain beginning to build up, but it’s manageable and relatively mild.

I drive part way and then walk my youngest to school. Chat to the other parents/ carers, go back to the car. Then this morning I decided I would pop to the shops.

My head is getting worse bit by bit, the pressure is building, the pain in my neck/ occipital region is increasing and my head is beginning to feel more full and a little cloudy.

I go into the supermarket – only to get a few things so it’s not too heavy. I don’t use trolleys, I don’t use a basket. I don’t take a handbag – only my purse – so that I can get as many things as possible and carry them without making my symptoms much worse.

So depending on what I have that might be 4-8 lightish items that I can hold in my hands/ arms without dropping them. If I do drop one of them (like the other day), I have to leave it or ask a shop keeper to pick it up for me. (Because bending down might make my leak, and will certainly make my symptoms, worse. At home I use a grabbing stick like the one below).

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The nausea is setting in.

I pay for them on the self service check-out which is at an awkward angle so you have to bend a little to put them on the counter once scanned.

This increases my symptoms.

I bag them up and pay and by this point – just carrying the weight of those few things is making the nausea worse, so I start gagging in the lift to the car park, feeling like I want to vomit (although I don’t think I am ever fully sick).

Thankfully there is no one else in the lift with me!

I drive the short distance home – put the things away. Talk to my husband while he’s making a cup of tea (he is working from home today). During our conversation my head and neck is getting worse (I feel like someone has whacked me round the back of my head with a baseball bat!!) and I start gagging again uncontrollably – but thankfully I don’t actually vomit.

So my husband says, “you’d better go and lie down.”

I walk up the stairs and can feel my legs beginning to get very weak, I have to think about the steps I am taking, willing my legs to keep moving. The cloud in my head thickens. That feeling of not being able to cope with the intensity in my head floods over me! 

It’s 9:30am – I have been up two hours and can no longer function upright!!

I am now lying down flat in bed – feeling a lot better and writing this. I will stay here for probably an hour or two before getting up again to do some more jobs at home for maybe half an hour to an hour before the same thing happens and I have to lie down flat again.

That’s how it goes throughout the day every day although later on in the day the up times are often less and the down times can get longer.

If you saw me at the school at 8:30am, even though I had symptoms, you would think I looked fine, chatting to people (which is great because some days I don’t get to see many people).

So this is me on a good day – last year during my worst times the above would all happen with my symptoms within about 10mins of being upright.

I couldn’t even have a shower.

I would have a shallow bath once a week which I would have to lie completely flat in. As soon as I got out I would have lie on the bed with a towel round me, with my wet hair on a towel. It would take at least 1/2 hour to 1 hour before I might manage to be upright enough to put some clothes on and dry my hair a bit with the hairdryer. Or often my husband would help try and dry it whilst I lay flat.

When I was in hospital, a year ago, waiting and battling for more treatment (a second epidural blood patch) – I was in a bad way. I would spend all day lying in a head tilted down bed to alleviate symptoms and keep my brain in the place it should be. I could only manage about 5-10 mins upright at a time which makes things very hard.

We were facing lots of barriers and delays at that time (which I write about here), because the anaesthetists didn’t want to blood patch me a second time (after 5 much better months following the first) they instead wanted me to try an occipital nerve block done by the pain management team. (I did have the nerve block, it didn’t work at all, but it did leave my head, neck and hair covered in the sterile cleaning stuff.) Following that it took me two whole days to find the strength to get my husband to take me into the shower in the hospital bathroom so that he could help me wash all the chemicals from my hair and neck and help me get changed. He then dried it with a hair dryer whilst I lay flat again. (That would pretty much do me in for the whole day!!)

It’s an utterly debilitating condition. It’s not good for anyone’s physical and mental health to have to lie flat in bed all day. And yet some people are left that way, long term, because doctors don’t know what to do with them. They don’t understand how to treat them.

They do not seem to realise how impossible it is to live like that!

People are just not aware that many spinal CSF leak patients end up feeling suicidal (as I did at Christmas and write about here) because of the physical and psychological toll of the condition. Which is often exacerbated by the battles to find doctors who understand the condition, show compassion and actually do their best to help you.

There can still be an ‘old school’ mentality at large in the medical profession, even following correct diagnosis, of trying one epidural blood patch (and sometimes not even one) but if it fails to fully get you well, then they recommend that they should just try to help you manage the pain.

‘Manage the pain?’

I don’t have a sore leg, or a mild headache that goes away with some pills or a even a worse headache and stiff neck that is solved through a nerve block.

My brain drops in my skull when I am upright, wreaking all sorts of havoc in my head and body until I literally can’t physically or mentally cope. You can’t just ‘manage’ that kind of pain. And actually I wouldn’t always describe it as ‘pain’ it doesn’t do it justice. It is an intensity that can actually only be described as a sensation that is ‘beyond pain.’

(And just to add here that no painkiller I have had (Including IV morphine) has ever touched it)!

IT’S REAL!
IT’S HORRIBLE!
IT’S DEBILITATING!
BUT – IT IS TREATABLE!

Things ARE changing, patients are speaking out and coming together as a force to challenge conventional thinking about CSF leaks. And thankfully, little by little there are more wonderful doctors who are meeting enough well informed leak patients to see how great their suffering is and are slowly beginning to offer them new opportunities for diagnosis and treatment.

When someone with a leak meets a doctor who understands, or at least tries to understand, it’s truly a beautiful thing. It honestly means so very much to us.

Those doctors will never be forgotten.

We don’t expect miracle workers. We know we may not be easily fixable. But to meet someone with a willingness to try, an ear to listen, a humility to learn and a compassionate heart can make all the difference to someone on such a difficult road.

stone wall

In February this year (2016) a video was posted on You Tube that is doing so much to help change people’s minds and hearts about spinal CSF leaks. In the video Professor Ian Carroll from Stanford University Hospital in the U.S. gives a passionate lecture in which he is trying to enlist the help of doctors and medical professionals to help find and treat those suffering from spinal CSF leaks.

Through this video Dr Carroll has become our spokesperson, bravely, boldly & passionately challenging conventional thinking in the medical profession at large. And joining others in the quest to change current practice and stop people suffering unnecessarily from a mainly treatable condition.

I know for me, and many other longer term suffers, Dr Carroll’s video on YouTube is a breath of fresh air that reminds us that we are not going completely mad. So many patients have taken great hope through the impact it, and other recent information, is slowly having on awareness, diagnosis & treatment of spinal CSF leaks.

I am so very grateful for this wonderful resource from a doctor who is wanting to reach both doctors AND patients. I have gratefully been able to share this resource with some of the many doctors who have cared for me over the last 21 months. Some who have gone to great lengths to understand the condition more and do their best to support and treat me.

It is always a special moment when you meet a doctor who does watch the video or reads though the websites. People’s hearts and minds CAN be changed and it is wonderful when you see that happening.

Change does not often happen instantly. We are not all going to wake up tomorrow in a world where every person with a spinal fluid leak is going to get properly diagnosed, treated and fully recover. These conditions are complex and it takes time for understanding, research and practice to filter through.

But we can all play our part!

So today I want to ask sufferers and their families to think about;

  • How could you speak up and tell your story?
  • How can you be part of raising awareness too?

We might not all be able to write blogs, create websites, volunteer for the charities, fund raise or spread the word on the street. But perhaps we could post on social media, share a link, wear a t-shirt, or tell something of our own story.

Or perhaps you could respectfully share with a medical professional a medical paper on leaks, tell them about the UK and US CSF leak charity websites, or send them a link to Dr Carroll’s video.

You never know, they might just take a look especially if you approach it well.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”  – Mother Teresa

Change will only come;
little by little,
step by step,
patient by patient,
doctor by doctor,
hospital by hospital.

By individuals and groups choosing to raise awareness and helping to challenge and transform conventional perspectives and opinions.

Perhaps we can all work together to enable patient and doctor to compassionately help one another to understand this debilitating yet treatable condition. So that even if we have had a tough and difficult journey ourselves, we can seek to build bridges with others that can open lines of communication. That might just change people’s hearts and minds for the future.

That way, we are building a legacy for the future. We are making the road that bit clearer for those following behind.

Mindful of the fact that they may never fully know the difficulty, struggles, sacrifices and battles of those who went before.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.

Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.

For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.

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, misunderstanding and great distress on my already immensely long winded and difficult medical journey.

Here is the link again to Dr Carroll’s video.

Click here to read more about my spinal CSF leak recovery following my 4th blind lumbar 40ml epidural blood patch in September 2017 and subsequent ‘rebound into higher CSF pressure/ hypersensitivity to higher pressure’ following that treatment.