So . . . we ended up with two feet of snow from Skylar last week, and now we’re expecting another five to ten inches from the next Nor’easter, Toby, on Wednesday night into Thursday morning. (Who comes up with these names, anyway?) Fortunately, we’ve had some melting in-between.

But I’m really getting tired of this weather pattern. And I’m starting to yearn for our next travel adventure to somewhere beautiful and warm in the summer. Which brings me to the topic of traveling with scleroderma, or any other disabling disease, for that matter.

Travel is strenuous when you’re healthy. All the more so, when you have to deal with all the possible complexities of this disease. But I’m determined to keep visiting new parts of the world (new to me) and discovering other cultures and viewpoints, as long as I’m able, one way or another. The benefits of always learning and growing far outweigh the fatigue factor. So I’ve gathered a few travel resources that address some of the biggest issues for those of us living with some form of disability, below.

Many of the resources out there focus on wheelchair accessibility. Some also address the broader issues of traveling with a disability that is less visible—and therefore more readily dismissed by people who should know better. I’ve selected a range, here, to help you get started on your own travel adventure:

Lonely Planet Accessible Travel Online Resource: This free PDF includes a wealth of information, from a huge list of online resources to tips for traveling with access issues. Lonely Planet guides are a favorite of mine, and the fact that they make this one a free download is a big plus.

Rick Steves’ Tips for Travelers with Disabilities: You may know Rick Steves from his PBS travel program. This blog post list basic, common-sense tips for planning ahead, especially if you need a wheelchair accessible hotel room or wonder how to find accessible bathrooms in a foreign country.

Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH): Founded in 1976, SATH offers travel resources, information for travel agents, plus travel tips and access information for people living with a wide range of disabilities.

Travelling with SclerodermaThis PDF download from Scleroderma Australia provides a great summary of how to travel with oxygen if your lungs are compromised.

Disabled Traveler/ SmarterTravel: Another useful blogpost with a roundup of online resources.

“What We Get Right About Accessible Travel” from CNTraveler: From my favorite travel podcast, here’s an episode featuring Alysia Kezerian, founder of the Instagram account Wheelies Around the World, and Traveler contributor Julia Buckley, author of Heal Me: In Search of a Cure. Both women travel extensively; both have disabilities. Kezerian has relied on a wheelchair since a spinal cord injury in her twenties, and Buckley lives with a rare disease that causes joint dislocation. Well worth a listen, for practical advice and a lot of inspiration.

Happy trails!

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Deep Dive

I began hyperbaric oxygen therapy this week. I was nervous on Monday, but for anyone considering this treatment, I can now, based on my first adventure, assure you that it’s not as scary as it sounds.

One of my biggest worries has been figuring out how to do my finger dressings using materials that are acceptable inside the HBO chamber. Based on a meeting last week with Wound Center staff, as well as the fact that I had decided to take advantage of the earliest morning option, I realized that I needed to come up with a solution that I could do the night before. Switching my dressings takes at least an hour on the days when I don’t need to change the bandages for my grafts; on the alternate days when I deal with the grafts, it can take as long as two hours.

Unfortunately, the ointments that I have been using, as well as the bandages, are off-limits for this treatment. You have to use 100 percent cotton products and no creams, ointments or gels. The gauze that my surgeon had given me for the grafts includes a petroleum ointment, so that’s a nonstarter. I’ve also observed that this dressing is creating too dense a moisture barrier on the skin surrounding the grafts, causing some of it to turn white. Not good.

Fortunately, the Wound Center staff gave me a couple of good alternatives: a silicon gauze film that is tacky but does not adhere to the grafts — a big bonus for managing the sutures. They also gave me rolls of cotton gauze to try. Sunday night was a two hour production, but I finally figured out how to provide good coverage, with some help from Al.

Unfortunately, I did not sleep well. I was uneasy, my gut was reacting to a very rich dessert that I shouldn’t have eaten, and rain was pouring outside. Finally eked out three hours, but I was not in great shape when I woke up. Thanks to Al, I got to my appointment on time at 7:00 a.m.

Understand that I am not a morning person. But going any later in the day would mean I’d have no time to get any work done in the afternoon. (The entire dive lasts about 2 hours and 20 minutes.) The hospital was quiet, and the Wound Center was not yet bustling with activity. Indeed, other than the latest headlines on one of the overhead video screens, it was actually quite peaceful. Ruthie, my tech, got the other three experienced patients ready and into their chambers, so that she could spend more time with me doing intake.

First, I had to change into hospital pants and a Johnny top. She gave me the “smallest” size they have — which would have fit at least two of me, if not three. Fortunately the pants had a good drawstring. Next, I got settled on the stretcher that fits into the cylindrical HBO chamber. It rides on a track; the stretcher is positioned at one end of the open chamber at the outset. Your head is slightly raised, and you can request a sheet and up to three blankets to stay warm. I decided on two blankets to start.

After taking my vital signs and reviewing the long checklist of prohibited materials (no, you cannot take your smart phone with you), Ruthie attached a small metal square to the inside of my wrist with a strap that covered it — this was a grounding device to avoid static electricity. Remember, they fill the chamber with 100 percent oxygen.

Following one last trip to the bathroom (ugh), I was ready to take my “dive.” They use this metaphor because once you’re sealed inside the chamber (glass top so you can see out and around), pressure increases as if you’re doing a deep ocean dive. This was the hardest part for me. Both my eustachian tubes are partially blocked, chronically so, and the increasing pressure was at times painful. Ruthie kept talking to me via a telephone receiver, guiding me through the process and explaining how to pinch my nostrils and blow through my nasal passages in order to ease the pain. I had an odd side effect (naturally): as the pressure increased on my ears, it made me dizzy to speak.

Finally, after maybe 20 minutes, I got through the pressure change and reached equilibrium. At this point, I was receiving 100 percent oxygen. It is very easy to breathe 100 percent oxygen. Ruthie turned on the DVD player with my CD book, a collection of linked short stories by Alice Munro. I was pretty drowsy, and the first disc was not as engaging as I’d hoped, so I dozed a bit. By the second disc, the storyline had picked up, and I was feeling more at ease, not minding the occasional vibrations of the chamber or sense of confinement.

Al stopped by a couple of times — before he started work for the day (he’s a social worker at the hospital) — and a couple of hours into the dive (he greeted me on the phone receiver with “Hello, Cookie Dough!). To my surprise, it was soon time to reverse the pressure, which took about another 15 to 20 minutes. This time, my ears didn’t hurt, although they bubbled and crackled, which is apparently quite normal.

I was relieved when Ruthie pulled my stretcher out of the chamber. “I survived!” I exclaimed. “You did!” she answered. All three of the other patients had come and gone, there were new patients in the midst of their dives, and the place was hopping. I got changed and then spent another hour in a private changing space that wasn’t in use, redoing all of my bandages with my normal silver alginate dressing, creams as appropriate and bandages. My fingers looked nice and pink. They paged Al for me, and he took a break from work to drive me home and set me up for lunch, because I was pretty tired by this point.

An hour’s nap helped, and then I found my way back to my computer to do some writing and editing. I get to do it all over again the rest of the workweek, for the next six weeks — but, I sincerely hope, with much improved sleep. Onward.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: David Talley

Sticking Point

Now that I’m starting to get back into a regular schedule, it’s a relief to be able to focus on work and other writing, and forget about my hands for a few hours. They do have a way of reminding me, however, that they need attention. As in beginning to tingle and twinge within a half-hour of time to take my pain medicine. Who needs to set a cell-phone alert? It reminds me of how our dear departed golden retriever, Ginger, used to bop my fingers off the keyboard with her nose when it was time to take a walk.

I wish it were still her, and not my fingers, calling the shots. One of the hardest aspects of this whole ordeal is simply having to accept the fact that I cannot escape it. I can’t make my fingers heal any faster than they are able. I’m certainly not going to cut them all off. And I’m not about to roll up in a ball and hibernate until it’s over. I can only sit with it, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.

I boost my spirits by celebrating small victories — the ability to make a few notes by hand, regained stamina to sit at my desk for another hour, a creative solution to cracking an egg and separating the white from the yoke without messing up my bandages.

Scleroderma is a disease that makes you feel stuck in your own skin. I remember that sensation all too well from the early years when my illness was still in a very active phase. About three decades ago, my skin had tightened halfway up my forearms, and I was beginning to have discomfort blinking. The veins were not visible on the backs of my hands. My skin felt like leather that had been wet and then dried in the sun. It was terrifying. Mercifully, treatment with D-Penicillamine, since discredited in the research literature (but I am convinced it saved me), reversed the tightening. Although my skin is not normal, it has been decades since I’ve felt so trapped within it.

Now, I feel stuck in a different way — stuck in what feels like an endless cycle of doctors appointments, dressing changes, pills upon pills, and the sheer inability to do what I want to do the way I want to do it. That, plus the discomfort and pain that is just what I have to live with for who knows how long. It is very frustrating. Meditation and good, healthy distractions, like getting back to my creative writing, are among the best solutions. Hugs from Al help a great deal, too.

When I dip into the news, a practice I am trying to limit to reading reliable sources and listening to thoughtful podcasts in order to keep my sanity, I feel a different intensity of stuck-ness. How is it possible that we are actually seriously discussing the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea? What can any of us do to stop it? I can still remember Cold War air raid drills when I was in grammar school, kneeling between classmates in the school hallway with one hand under my forehead and the other on the back of my head. As if that was really going to save any of us from the A-bomb. The fact that reckless, macho-on-steroids quips and put-downs are defining this path we are on, rather than serious diplomacy, boggles the mind.

In a very strange way, my hand saga provides a welcome distraction of stuck-ness from all of this. How ironic. At least, when it comes to my own health, I have some degree of control over the outcome. God willing, the adults will take charge and walk us all back from the brink of an unthinkable fate.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Nick Abrams

Clued In

All day long, I think about words. For a writer, they are my lifeblood. Sometimes, my head feels so full of words that I need to do something, anything, nonverbal. Walking helps. So does weaving or sewing—making something with my hands, however challenging that may be.

But one of my favorite ways to relax is to immerse myself in words and more words—doing The New York Times crossword puzzle. I used to limit myself to the Sunday crossword because we have a print subscription to the big, hefty weekend edition. Then came the 2016 presidential election. I decided I needed to support a free press more actively and bought a digital subscription to the Times (as well as The Washington Post).

My Times subscription came with an added bonus—a reduced digital subscription to the crossword app. Why not? I thought. I need a break from all the bad headlines.

Doing the daily crossword has now become something of an addiction. There’s the Monday crossword, an easy start to the week that I can finish in about ten minutes. Tuesday is usually a snap, too. The puzzles get harder by midweek and can be a real challenge by Friday. Saturday’s puzzle is almost always a stumper. Sunday is a crapshoot. Sometimes I get the theme right away; others can take a few days to finish.

Aside from being a welcome distraction from upsetting news (which I certainly understand better, now that I’m reading more comprehensive coverage, but wish this weren’t such a disheartening civic responsibility), the crossword’s digital version has an added bonus: It’s so much easier to complete with a stroke of my laptop keys than to write in with pencil. My hands don’t get as tired. I don’t have to struggle with a smudgy eraser (no, I’m not one of those pen-wielding crossword purists).

This is especially true for the Sunday puzzle. A few years ago, the Times switched format to a semigloss paper stock, which I find incredibly difficult to write on. It requires far too much finger pressure to inscribe anything legible on it, and the light reflection off the paper makes it hard to see what you’ve written. Fine for magazine photos, not for Number Two pencils and bifocals.

The downside of the digital version: It’s much more tempting to cheat and look up answers on the Internet.

To avoid that downfall, I’ve invited Al, my crossword ninja, to do the puzzles with me. He has an uncanny ability to decipher clues. And it’s a fun way to relax together in the evening.

Who knew that “fake news” wars could have such a delightful side-effect?

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.


I’m finding it difficult to write about anything other than the chaos in the world, in our country, in my heart. So what I’m sharing today may seem odd. But we chose to immerse ourselves in art and floral arrangements at the Worcester Art Museum’s annual Flora in Winter exhibit this weekend. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to do so. It is, indeed, a privilege.

Inspiration, courage, solutions, just finding the next step can become clearer when you give yourself the chance to find beauty in the world. I share these with you, Dear Reader, in hopes that you will find inspiration, too.

“The Blue Bowl” by Roger Fry

Hand-drawn mock-ups of Ed Emberley’s “Drawing Book of Animals”

“Selma to Montgomery March, 1965” by James Karales

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Mouse Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back

It’s been a month since we first confronted a mice invasion in our home—during a bright full moon. Well, the moon is full again, and the problem we thought we’d solved weeks ago turns out to be a lot more intransigent than I had hoped.

4 muisjes op kaasI hate the idea of killing mice. It’s not in my nature. We never had an issue while our dear old Golden Retriever, Ginger, was alive. But Ginger died just over a year ago, and it seems that the mice are having a veritable field day somewhere inside the walls or under the floorboards of our house.

This all started when we were careless enough to leave a bag of birdseed unattended in our garage. Mice discovered it and took it as an invitation to settle in. When I finally sealed off the bag in a plastic bin, they sought refuge inside our warm and cozy home. Under a full moon, they began zipping all over our first floor.

Given that I have scleroderma and am very susceptible to infection, we decided to set traps and stop the invasion. We caught a half dozen mice. Things settled down, and I thought the mice had moved on.

No such luck. When the temperatures dropped a couple of weekends ago to -19º F, all of a sudden we discovered that we were not alone. A mouse popped up in Emily’s room while she was home visiting, to her alarm. We set a trap. No takers.

I set a couple more traps. Nothing. But the mice were leaving their calling cards all over the place—behind the kitchen garbage can, in back of a pile of books near Al’s armchair, in the upstairs bathroom, you name it. One recent morning, Al found a foil-covered peppermint patty that had been dragged from the kitchen table to the floor, the wrapper nibbled to shreds and part of the chocolate chomped away. I’ve got to hand it to them—they know the meaning of teamwork.

Last Friday I went to the hardware store and bought some bait traps. But I didn’t have the heart to set them. Maybe the mice would go away! Maybe they’d realize there really wasn’t any food lying around (no more peppermint patties, for certain) and it was time to move on!

Then I walked into the kitchen Saturday night and saw a mouse darting from the top of the computer cable box (no doubt warming itself). On Sunday, I was working at the kitchen table, too absorbed in writing my novel to get up and check out the slight rustling noise in the dining room. Later, we found a couple of calling cards on the dining room table. Ugh.

So, Monday morning I finally called the pest control professionals. Here’s what I learned: The reason we didn’t catch any more mice had nothing to do with how many mice were left. Mice are smart and they’d figured out that the traps were deadly. And the fact that we’ve found mouse droppings upstairs and down means we have a big problem on our hands.

A mouse expert is coming first thing Friday morning to do an inspection, set the bait and close off any small mouse holes. I wish we didn’t have to go this route, but from the research I’ve done, there really isn’t an alternative when it gets to this point. A mouse’s gestation period is about 20 days. We’ve gone through a few cycles, easily, since all this started, for who knows how many females.

Mice have been on this planet as long as humans. They will probably outlast us, in the end. They make cute pets. They have helped scientists discover much about animal and human behavior. They are entertaining characters in children’s books and cartoons. But they are not welcome to colonize our home.

Here’s hoping, next full moon, I’ll have nothing more to report. May the Force be with us.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: ChIandra4U

Mouse Wars

When my daughters were very young, one of their favorite bedtime storybooks was the lovely classic, Goodnight Moon. We had to find the little mouse hiding in each illustration. It didn’t matter how many times we’d read the book. Finding that mouse was the best part.

full-moon-1506114-640x480A little gray mouse in a picture book is fun to find. A real gray mouse is not. Especially when there are a handful and they are running around your kitchen. And living room. And office.

With this week’s bitter cold and stormy weather, mice have decided our home is a nice place to hang out. They like it warm. We have that much in common. I believe they’ve actually been with us for a while, but had kept to our garage, where we made the huge mistake of leaving a big bag of birdseed unattended for more weeks than I want to admit, after it was clear that some critter had chewed a hole through the plastic.

A couple of times last week, I noticed a chubby black mouse racing away from the bag when I went to my car. High time to clean up the mess, so I bought a plastic bin with a tight lid, put on a pair of work gloves to protect my hands, swept away all the dropped seed and tossed it in the back yard for the birds, and sealed up the rest.

Of course, this meant that the chubby mouse was now deprived of its meals. Which drove it into the kitchen. Midweek, I was sitting in the living room and thought I saw something dart across the kitchen floor. I looked again. Nothing there. I dismissed it as a floater in my eye.

But I was right the first time. All of a sudden, in the midst of the weekend’s storm (only three inches here, nothing compared to all the snow farther south), mice started running through our house. I saw two black ones Saturday night as the snow began to accumulate.

What to do? I hated the idea of killing them. I looked up alternatives online. According to the American Humane Society, house mice don’t do well if you release them to the wild. Plus the idea of live-trapping mice and then transporting them to a snowy field somewhere, in bitter cold, seemed a pretty cruel fate (let alone quite time consuming). Mice can carry viruses, bacteria and fleas. I have an autoimmune disease. We decided to go with traps that did the job quickly.

Al caught one mouse in an old fashioned wood trap Sunday morning. No way I could reset it with my hands. He left it set with more cheese before he went out. I settled down to work on writing my novel at the kitchen table. When I looked again, the cheese was gone. No mouse.

Al had to work all day at the hospital. I tried to concentrate, but I kept hearing scrabbling noises, then nothing, from the kitchen. By mid afternoon, at least half a dozen—maybe some were the same mouse, maybe not—had skittered around the first floor of our home. They were making me crazy.

One darted out of my office just as I was talking to my younger daughter on the phone about the invasion. It ran behind Al’s armchair, under the bookcase, into the dining room and disappeared. Another scooted around the kitchen and into a closet. A little mouse poked out from under the fridge and ran away. But then it or another mouse proceeded to squeak and squeal from somewhere behind the fridge. I actually opened the door to make sure it wasn’t somehow trapped inside.

I’d had enough. I went to the hardware store and bought three quick-kill traps that I thought I could manipulate. I came home and set them up with cheese—not before snapping my finger at least once. Not good. Mouse’s revenge, I suppose.

I set them out and went for a walk. The idea of sitting and listening for the traps to snap was making me very uneasy. But no caught mice when I returned. Instead, as I sat in the living room, trying to distract myself with the Sunday New York Times crossword, a gray-and-white mouse suddenly darted from under the bookcase, skirted a nearby trap without so much as a how-dee-doo, and ran through the dining room before exiting somewhere under the counters. Twice, one of the traps in the kitchen went off without catching anything. And there was more squeaking behind the fridge.

Finally I gave up and called Al at work. He was getting ready to come home soon. By the time the Patriots lost to the Broncos, the little mouse was dead. One down. We went out to dinner because I didn’t want to cook in the kitchen. How many more to go? For all I know, we have an entire extended family in our walls and beneath the floorboards. If the traps don’t do the trick, it will be time to call the environmentally responsible critter control experts and pay the price.

Oh, and by the way, there was a bright, full moon this weekend. 

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Brandon Blinkenberg

Rash Conclusions

When I was maybe three years old, I had a penchant for caterpillars. I loved to let them crawl all over my hands (even though they caused my skin to peel) and would fill mayonnaise jars with sticks and grass, load them with my insect friends and, with my mom’s help, punch holes in the top so they could breathe. Within a day or two, they always died. So much for the budding entomologist.

photoBut my old fascination with the insect world was rekindled this past Sunday, when Em and I went to a botanical garden to see a display of live caterpillars. These were astonishing creatures, some as tiny and well camouflaged as a slender twig, others as thick as my fingers, bedecked in jewel tones. They crawled over docents’ outstretched hands or munched methodically on their favorite leaves. Said one visitor, “I feel like I’m watching someone eating corn on the cob.”

I went home marveling at the beauty of some of Nature’s humblest creations—until later that night, when I was getting ready for bed and noticed an odd series of red spots on my shins. The night before, I’d found a set of four on my right leg. This time, I saw a series of spots on the left. They didn’t itch. But they looked eerily like the connect-the-dots, after-dinner trail of a far more menacing insect—a bedbug.

Worried, given all the traveling we’ve done of late, I forced up the corner of our mattress to check the box spring. There, in a crevice, were two shed exoskeletons of some kind of small bug. I ran and got a piece of tape to extract them and tried to examine them under a magnifying glass. Even with that assist and bifocals, I’m just too farsighted to be able to see clearly. But I was convinced it was proof that I had brought bedbugs home with me from Chicago a few weeks ago.

Al could not dissuade me from my conclusion. He gave me a hug and went to sleep in our bed, and I went downstairs to try to sleep on the couch, too uneasy about getting more bites. I then proceeded to spend half the night agonizing. I looked up heat treatments for bedbugs and fretted over how we could cover the four-figure expense. I did Internet searches for the best contractors. I found way too much information about all the work you have to do to prepare for bedbug extermination. Finally, around four in the morning, I had worn myself down enough to fall asleep. I woke up at six, as Al prepared to go to work.

The A-rated local pest control company didn’t open until eight. At three minutes past, I called and described the situation. They asked me to text an image of what I found. I did my best to take a picture with my iPad, but with my clumsy, tired hands, could not focus it crisply enough for them to be able to ID the bug. So I got dressed and drove my taped sample over to their office.

After a few false starts with an uncooperative computer, their bug ID specialist successfully booted up and got a close look under her electronic maginifier. Lo and behold—it was not a bedbug, after all, but the shed larval “exuvia” of a carpet beetle. Ironically, their larvae resemble tiny caterpillars. In fact, they have hairlike protrusions that have earned them the nickname of “wooly bears”—not, however, to be confused with the same insect as those cute, fuzzy, brown-and-orange caterpillars that are supposed to predict the length of winter.

We don’t have carpeting. But carpet beetles aren’t all that particular. A common household pest, they don’t bite. They just munch on organic matter other than people. Much like all those caterpillars chomping away at leaves like corn on the cob. This larva may have shed its outer skin years ago, for all we know. If we had an infestation, the bug ID specialist told me, we’d know, because they’d be all over the place.

I was greatly relieved. And exhausted. I concluded that this whole episode was a major kick in the pants for us to finally declutter our bedroom and the rest of the house, and deprive any lingering carpet beetles of their smorgasbord of stray fiber delicacies.

As for those spots on my leg, I have no clue what they are. If they get worse, I’ll have to see a dermatologist and get some answers. For now, they don’t itch, which is a good thing. One more chapter in the book of strange skin changes. Whatever the cause, if I ever find out, I’m just grateful I can sleep in my bed, again.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

The Stress Factor

I come from a long line of worriers. Both of my parents and their parents and, I suspect, their parents’ parents, all the way up the family tree, made an art form of anxiety.

Some of this angst was well-earned. My mother and her parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1936, but other family members were not so fortunate or foresighted to get out when it was still possible. Their Holocaust legacy always hovered in the background, somewhere out of reach and unspoken, throughout my childhood in the 1950s and ’60s.

Some of it is hard-wired. I have a writer’s vivid imagination, which serves me well but also can keep me up at night, ruminating, when I’m fretting about family or finances or how I’m going to get all my work done or the fact that I’m not sleeping and my blood pressure feels higher or my arythmea kicks up, which, of course, only exacerbates my angst.

To be fair, anxiety has its place. It can be a great motivator, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. My coping style includes thinking through every possible outcome of a particular issue that’s worrying me and how I would handle it. This drives Al crazy, because, as he rightly points out, most of that stuff never happens. But for me, it helps, up to a point, to be proactive.

However, I’ve learned from hard experience that if I go into overdrive mode, I can make myself sick. In fact, though there is no way to know how and why I developed scleroderma, stress—and how I responded—was definitely a contributing factor. I can’t prove this, but I know in my gut that it’s true.

I first began to develop symptoms of scleroderma—odd swelling of my fingers, migrating joint pain (as in, I’d have pain in my shoulder for an hour and then it would shift to my knee, without rhyme or reason) and fatigue, plus intensified Raynaud’s (I’d always had cold hands, but not red, white and blue ones)—in my late twenties.

I had just extricated myself from a very unhappy marriage and was living on my own, struggling to make ends meet after being laid off from my job as news director at a local public radio station, thanks to budget cuts by the Reagan Administration. How could this be? Here I was, with two master’s degrees, coming from a family of long-lived marriages, no divorces. I felt like a total failure.

My response was to shift into fifth gear. I found two part-time jobs and teamed up with a public radio station manager to write a grant to create a statewide news service for all the stations that were cutting news staff due to the same budget cuts. We got funding, and I was off and running.

Run, I did. I drove all over Massachusetts doing interviews. I worked long hours writing and producing stories. I pushed myself very hard. It was great work, but I got run down, physically and emotionally.

In the midst of all this, I began having problems sleeping. I struggled with self-confidence. The idea of dating terrified me. I obsessed about my work and relationships. I was scared any time I got sick. I began to have trouble with digestion and lost weight.

My doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with me, so I just felt ridiculous to be worrying about it all, but worry, I did. I sought help in therapy, which enabled me to clarify some of my issues. I formed new, valued friendships by joining a synagogue. I prayed a lot.

But I continued to worry. Some of this angst translated into panic attacks, particularly when I went out to eat in restaurants. There were nights when I would lie in bed, awash in adrenaline.

With time, I gained more confidence, found success in my journalistic pursuits and learned to take better care of myself. My rabbi introduced me to Al, and within a few months of our first date, we were engaged. Life felt much brighter.

But the damage to my metabolism from all that intense anxiety, all the adrenaline rushes, over the prior three years on my own, was done. A few weeks after Al and I returned from our honeymoon, I saw a rheumatologist, due to abnormal blood tests, and learned I had some form of auto-immune disease—either rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or scleroderma.

This is not to say that I brought this disease upon myself. There was no way to know I had whatever genetic predisposition or was subjected to whatever environmental triggers that are responsible for this illness. But I am convinced that all that adrenaline somehow played a significant role in weakening my immune system. Plenty of research connects the two.

In conversations with other scleroderma patients, I’m always struck by similar stories about disease onset—some kind of major personal loss or trauma, followed by a deep struggle to cope and a lot of angst. I can’t say this is true for all of us, but there seems to be a common thread. Recent research points in that direction.

Would it have made a difference if I’d had a more effective coping style? I don’t know if I could have actually prevented the disease, but I certainly would have felt significantly better if I’d been able to shortcut the adrenaline rush. To this day, I still have to check myself, meditate, walk or do something to shift gears and redirect my brain when I go into overdrive.

Which reminds me. Al just sent me an email that we have meditation group tonight. No excuses, this week.

Image Credit: “Ague and Fever,” Wellcome Library, London. Thanks to publicdomainreview.org.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com

Coyotes of the Mind

Friday night, as Al and I were walking home from synagogue under a brilliant full moon, a creature darted across the street ahead of us. Ghostly white, scrawny, doggish, with pointed ears and a long, thin tail, it disappeared into a neighbor’s backyard and the trees beyond.

Coyote. Had to be. Though our Central Massachusetts neighborhood is not overly forested, there are enough woods in-between lots for a coyote to lace through in search of food. And there have been occasional sitings in our area.

I shivered. Often during the past few hot summer months and on recent days when I’ve been too busy to take an afternoon break, I’ve walked our 15-year-old golden, Ginger, after dark. She loves nocturnal smells, and the stars have been stunning. No more. It’s colder, anyway, now that fall is here, and I don’t want to chance it with a coyote on the loose.

But I don’t want to give up those evening strolls, either. As long as I bundle up, I love staring up at Orion and Cygnus while Ginger pauses to snuffle each and every fallen leaf by the curb. Risks abound. If all I do is focus on the bad things that could happen, I’ll imprison myself. And her.

According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, you should yell, blow a whistle, bang pots and pans or shine a flashlight to scare off a coyote. Not my preferred mode for a relaxing walk around the block. Maybe I’ll just wait a week or so before we venture out late again, as long as it’s not too cold.

Much as I have no desire to face down a live coyote, there’s another kind that I’m much more accustomed to confronting: those hungry coyotes of the mind—anxieties about health, money, security, family, the future.

These I fight often. Scleroderma, as any chronic illness, births a band of them, trotting across my subconscious, wily, ghostlike. They appear without warning, gobble up energy and optimism, and howl loudest on those nights when I have trouble sleeping.

What if I end up in a hospital some day and get one of those super infections in my ulcers? What if I gag on my food because my swallowing is sometimes uncoordinated and there’s no one here to help? What if I fall and mess up my hands even more? What if something happens to Al’s job and we lose our health insurance?  On and on.

But shouting at those feelings to go away, lecturing myself to silence the angst doesn’t work. It only seems to make those coyotes of the mind even stronger and more voracious.

No, especially if the anxieties have a basis in reality. Disease is disease. When your body doesn’t work right, it’s damn scary. As you gain experience coping, managing your meds and your symptoms and your docs, the anxiety dampens a bit. But the sense of vulnerability never goes away.

Better to shine a light on it, name what’s most frightening, acknowledge the storyline. Separating fiction from fact is the first step toward coming to terms with both the anxiety and the reality.

Power that light with compassion for your trembling, I try to remind myself when I find myself in the grip of wild fears. The more self-compassion, the longer you can be still and see clearly what it is you’re actually contending with—and discover the courage to be present and move beyond coping to living fully. Hard to do, but I keep trying.

Coyotes have adapted to suburban sprawl, say the wildlife experts here. Nearly all Massachusetts residents now live near them.

My inner coyotes roam at random. Lest they get too cozy, I’ll keep my flashlight handy.

Photo Credit: matt knoth via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.