Changing Seasons …

When the seasons change, our mood often changes with it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Often times, we prefer one season over another. But when it negatively impacts our lives, week after week, it could signal a serious problem.

Depression comes in numerous forms, i.e. Seasonal Affective Disorder, Major Depression, Situational Depression, Postpartum Depression, Dysthymia (sometimes called ‘mild, Chronic Depression’), etc. Those with Chronic illnesses are vulnerable to Depression. The changes that Chronic illnesses bring are often difficult to live with, juggle, even accept. Some are worsened by the changing seasons, i.e. Rheumatic illnesses in winter. It has been estimated that approximately one-third of the patients who live with a Chronic illness also exhibit symptoms of Depression. In other words, millions of individuals. Depression itself can be chronic. And it should never be ignored, or taken lightly. This isn’t the common cold. It requires medical attention as well as patience. Healing takes time. Remission is the goal. There appears to be no magical cure.

This month, October 29th to be exact, my family will pause to remember one of our own. We lost Josh to Depression, in 2012. Even now, it just doesn’t seem real. My cousin’s son was a ruggedly handsome guy. He grew-up in a small, Southern town — surrounded by a loving family, extended family and friends. Josh enjoyed going to camp, in the summer … dreamed at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, in Huntsville … bagged groceries at the local supermarket … played video games. In many ways, he exemplified the all-American kid — a good one. He studied Engineering in college. After graduation, he landed a great job … was making good money … purchased a home. Then, the Great Recession hit. And like millions of Americans, Josh found himself unemployed. Upset. Scared. Frustrated. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a form of Depression. He was under stress. And even though he had landed a new job … had big plans ahead … he was still vulnerable. Perhaps, that’s the part that we (his family and friends) didn’t realize? Josh was smart. Talented. Handsome. Fun-loving. That’s what we remember. He was 30, when we lost him. May he rest in peace.

Depression should never be under-estimated. In many ways, it is a silent killer. If you or a loved one have experienced changes that are worsening, please seek help. It could be the symptoms of Depression. It is treatable. Despite the pain and/or emptiness that you are feeling, there is hope. Lives, like gardens, need maintenance. Some need it, daily. Some with the seasons. And others are required, when it’s least expected. But never let the weeds of life take over. There’s so much to live for (Isiah 40:29-31).

 

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Reference Links:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/managing-chronic-depression

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071593/

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/definition/con-20021047

https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/depression-types#2

https://www.onhealth.com/content/1/depression_caused_by_chronic_illnesses

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200307/when-is-depression-cured

 

 

Peace & Quiet …

Well, it’s Friday again — TGIF! I have wondered what I would write about, today. It’s basically how the last four days have ended … fall into bed with my trusty heating-pad and favorite fuzzy blanket … bury my face into my pillow … close my eyes … and drift off to sleep with ideas floating around in my head. But, last night, one just seemed perfect — stress! Let’s just say it’s been one of those weeks. And we’ll leave it at that. My garden (life) is in need of peace … quiet … blissful balance. Is yours?

Most people know that stress can throw a curve-ball into their lives. They’ve discovered it, the hard way. But stress can also damage our health. The medical community is constantly uncovering connections between stress and various illnesses, i.e. the onset of, impact on, etc. In a 2012 study, researchers found that subjects who were exposed to prolonged periods of stress were even more vulnerable to the common cold. But the power of stress to negatively affect the immune system reaches far beyond this. Stress has long been associated with weight gain as well as illnesses like sleep dysfunction, heart disease, depression, pain, etc. Research has also shown us that stress may not only trigger Rheumatic illnesses like RA, it can worsen them. This is something that I can personally attest to.

Life can and does throw a myriad of stressful things at us. However, when you are already living with a Chronic illness, your life is constantly stressed. So the unexpected events that create additional stress, i.e. loss of a loved one, loss of a job, etc., take an even greater toll on the body. Genetic factors, coping abilities and support systems vary between individuals. So, the actual impact of the stress will also vary. Thankfully, there are things that we can do to lessen the damage.

The best way to combat stress is by finding something that relaxes you. Maybe it’s a walk? An hour at the gym? A swim at the Y? Yoga? Perhaps, it’s reading a good book? Or a nap? If laughter is the best medicine …  then find something that makes you laugh. Do what comforts you. Relax. Turn off your phone. Close your laptop. Invest in a CD of relaxing sounds. Close your eyes. Listen. Go out on your porch or deck … settle into a chair … take a few deep breaths … watch the leaves fall and the squirrels scurry. It’s a beautiful time of year. Take a few moments to enjoy it. You’ll feel better, in the long run.

As for me … I’ll be wallowing in a good measure of silence today. Peace and quiet is my agenda. No television. No radio. No negative 24/7 news-feeds. I’m going to take it easy. I have earned it. Lord knows, I need it. I may even bake a batch of Butterscotch Blondies, just for the heck of it. My garden is going to be as serene as a Thomas Kinkade painting. Well, almost … but I’ll take it!

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Reference Links:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-the-mind-heals-the-body/201411/how-stress-affects-the-immune-system

http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/comorbidities/depression-and-arthritis/stress-rheumatoid-arthritis.php

http://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2014/stress-and-disease.html

The Fragile Blooms: Teens & Chronic Illness

Every Spring, gardeners and farmers hold their breath … hoping … praying … that a freeze doesn’t come their way. Mother Nature blindsided South Carolina’s peach growers, in 2017 — about 90% of the crop was destroyed. I remember that blast of frigid air. Aside from the effects it had on me, physically, I stood at my window … looking at my beautiful, ruby-red azaleas … and I felt utterly helpless. I knew they were vulnerable. It was just a question of how bad the damage would be. In the wake of that freeze, my azaleas looked burned. Shriveled. Brown. It was heart-breaking. Still, the bushes had survived. So, all was not lost.  Children, especially teens, who live with Chronic illnesses are vulnerable too. They are the fragile blooms of the garden … trying to grow and thrive … struggling with an illness that creates additional problems in an already challenging phase of life.

I was diagnosed with my first Chronic illness, at the age of 13, by doctors at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN. During a time when I just wanted to make friends and fit in, I had to hear that I didn’t fit in at all. At least, that’s what the diagnosis felt like and sounded like to me. How many teens do you know with a Chronic illness? I didn’t know one. Suddenly, I had to remember to take my medications every day. I had to go to bed at 10 o’clock, every evening. If I got to watch SNL, on a Saturday night, I felt like I had partied hard. Activities that I once enjoyed were now closely monitored. I was an only child. My parents, God bless them, had lost twins nearly a decade before I came along. In other words, my diagnosis made my mother over-protective to a fault. Poor Dad was stuck in the middle — trying to maintain some balance. Every teen probably thinks, at some point, that their life is Hell. I was convinced that my life was Hell and even the Devil wanted no part of it!

When I reflect back on those years, I remember the usual angst of being a teenager. And I remember the frustrations of living with an illness that I didn’t want, or ask for. I remember a straight-A student becoming a B-student, no matter how much studying was involved. I was actually held back, in Eighth grade, because I had been hospitalized for more days than the state allowed a student to miss during one school-year. It seemed brutally unfair. In a way, it was. Boys were skittish. Dating is one thing. Dating a girl with a health issue was akin to a death-wish. Girls who I thought were my friends alienated me. A few cruel tricks were even played on me. The guilty know who they are. And I hope, for their sake, they have atoned since. Instead of punishing them, I was told by my school and society to toughen-up. Endure the illness. Endure the pain. Endure the pranks. Swallow the setbacks. Basically, I learned perseverance the hard way. If it were not for my faith, the love of my parents and a few sweet friends, I do not know if I’d be here.

Chronically-ill teens today are walking the same difficult path that I did, over four decades ago. Unfortunately, some things never change. Statistics tell us that their Chronic illness makes them even more vulnerable than their peers. They are three times more likely to commit suicide than a healthy teen. Depression is an obvious factor.  Many are prone to high-risk behaviors, i.e. sexual activity, substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Others face developmental difficulties that detract from their academic readiness. Some are the targets of bullying.

As a happy and tenacious adult, I want to plant a few seeds of advice. To any child or teen who is living with Chronic illness, you CAN do this! Your life IS worthwhile! God doesn’t make junk. He never has. Society and the environment can decay His work, but you are wonderful just the way you are. Never lose sight of that. Those who cannot see it, male or female, are not worth your time or your tears. Set goals, despite your illness. Tomorrows, like gardens, need planning and nurturing to grow. Take care of your health. Take your medications, as directed. Make smart choices. Rest. Love yourself. You’ll never truly be able to love another, until you do. Last, but not least, start noticing others. It’s sort of therapeutic and allows you to keep a positive perspective. Everybody HAS an issue of some kind. Your Chronic illness doesn’t make you an oddity. You are one of millions. Life has handed you a lemon, at a young age. Show the world what you can do with it — make lemonade (Matthew 5:16)!

For parents, be patient … understanding … and encouraging. Protectiveness does have its limits. Your teen, despite their illness, needs to live — not exist. Help them achieve that. Keep the lines of communication open. I had to actually become a parent to have an inkling of what my diagnosis must have been like, for my own parents. Now, I understand the over-protectiveness that my mother wielded like a sword. I marvel at how well they did, with me. There is no easy way to raise a child. Each brings joy and sorrow. Keep that in mind. None arrive with instruction manuals. Focus on your child and his/her needs — not what your BFF is doing with theirs. Your child didn’t ask for a Chronic illness. You didn’t wish it for them. But, together, you can overcome every challenge that it brings. And the harvest that you reap will make it all worthwhile!

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Reference Links:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170817110905.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10869964

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2016/04/11/peds.2015-2475

 

It Is What It Is …

There are a lot of things that we gladly accept, in life. Nice little surprises. There are times that we accept situations, because there is an escape — a quick fix — to them. I’m not saying surgery is a stroll on the beach. But once you have it done, you usually recuperate and life moves on. Problem solved. Accepting the diagnosis of a Chronic illness is a completely different issue. It’s like a weed that you cannot get rid of. You wonder how it found its way into your garden. You are frustrated and annoyed with it and your body. You may even want another medical opinion, or even a third. Most people will actually go through emotional stages of grief, i.e. associated with death. Why? Because the healthy life you had is literally slipping away from you. Still, it is what it is. And, at some point, you have to embrace it.

There is no right or wrong way to journey down this path. Just as grief after the death of a loved one varies among those mourning, patients with a Chronic illness will cope differently too. They will all need a support system. And they will also need their space. Much of this journey is personal — accepting it certainly is. It’s not as simple as a few days, or even a couple of weeks. For many, it will take months to accept. For some, it will take years to adjust and fully embrace. As the disease changes, there will be setbacks. With each one comes new fears and frustrations. Sometimes, it means another trip through the Grief Stages.

Personally, I have found that a blend of reactive and pro-active approaches is the most empowering. Few people, if any, expect to be diagnosed with a Chronic illness. But once it happens, man your battle station. Educate yourself. The more you know about your Chronic illness, the better prepared you can be. Talk to your doctor. Ask questions. Expect answers. Make life-style changes, if necessary. Stay ahead of the illness, pro-actively. It will help to minimize, or avoid, many setbacks. In other words, form a plan that works for you. Find balance. Learn to manage your illness, instead of allowing it to manage you.

I once did 5-10 miles every morning, on an exercise bike. That was followed by sets of crunches. Oh, to be 37 again (and 75 lbs. thinner). Pilates, swimming and walking are my exercise options now. And some days, I don’t do them very well. But there was a time, when I couldn’t do them at all. I played golf, for many years. I was on a golf team. And I had a drive to die for. Now, a round of mini golf is my speed. But that’s okay. I’m not going to beat myself up about it, or feel guilty. That’s life with a Chronic illness. Adding negativity will not help me, physically or emotionally.

There will be times when all of your energy will be focused on just getting through the day, i.e. chemotherapy. Cultivate patience. Pace yourself. Set feasible goals. There will be times when you feel like doing more. Times when you physically can do more (just don’t over-do it). Savor those moments. Thank God for them. You really never appreciate smelling roses, until you cannot walk across the garden to the bush.

Chronic illness is going to change your life. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Our lives have changed, before — yours and mine. Things changed, when we started high school … got that first job. College was a very big change. Marriage. Parenthood. Military Service. The list is endless. Each change brought good and bad times. Each change was scary and exhausting. Yet, each was also a positive growth experience. This one can be, too. Remember, Chronic illness is what it is … but it’s still your life to make the most of!

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Reference link:

https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/

 

The Reflection Pool: 9/11

Every garden seems to have a reflection pool or place. So it seems only fitting on this September 11, 2017, that the Garden of Optimism has one too. If you were alive in 2001 and not wearing a diaper, then you can probably recall that day vividly. It was a gorgeous, September day. The sky was a pristine blue. The sun was shining brightly. And, in an instant, the unthinkable happened.

When we mourn those who died in the attacks 16 years ago, let’s also take a moment to remember the casualties that have rippled from that tragic day. The victims, many of whom were First Responders at Ground Zero, developed chronic illnesses as a result of exposure to the toxic air and contaminants at the site. The North Tower alone was believed to contain as much as 400 tons of asbestos. But there was also the release of lead, mercury, organic elements, etc. It took a devastating toll on the health — the overall lives — of thousands.

Approximately 50,000 people have been diagnosed with illnesses believed to have been caused as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Over 1,100 have died. When you add those numbers to that of the victims lost on that dreadful day (2,977), you realize just how deadly 9/11 was. Unlike the image a Day of Remembrance suggests, the attack is ongoing. We are still losing lives. We are still suffering. We are literally diagnosing additional victims, every day.

To the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, to the families of First Responders who were lost as a result of WTC illnesses, to all of those still struggling and those who live in a silent fear for their health, may God bless each and every one of you. America still remembers the pain, tragedy and courage of that day. Our hearts and prayers are with you.

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Reference links:

https://www.cdc.gov/wtc/coveredcancers.html

http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp068287#t=article

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4686342/

http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/16/9-11-death-toll-rising-496214.html

http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/27/us/september-11-anniversary-fast-facts/index.html

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2105581-deaths-from-911-related-illness-are-set-to-exceed-initial-toll/

 

I Can Feel The Rain Coming

With Hurricane Harvey still an issue for thousands, we have Hurricane Irma now on the horizon. When I see its malevolent image on radar, I am reminded of that old saying, “When it rains, it pours.” Often times, life hands us a lot more than we bargained for. This is so true for individuals who are battling Chronic illnesses. And, as strange as it may sound, Mother Nature shows them no mercy. The weather can actually worsen many of these illnesses.

When rain or cold weather moves in, those with rheumatic diseases, i.e. Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc., literally feel it coming. The falling barometric pressure increases pain, within their joints. Some theorize that it creates swelling of the joints. As a result, they have more pain and less mobility. In fact, according to a study conducted by Tufts University (2007) just a 10-degree drop in the temperature can increase pain. This pain and stiffness will begin, long before the rain or cold actually arrives.

Hot and humid weather also takes its toll on those with Chronic illnesses, i.e. heart disease, mental illness, asthma, obesity, etc. Many take medications that can worsen the effects of the heat. Excessive temperatures are believed to trigger seizures, in some with Epilepsy. When you take such things into consideration, it adds a whole new degree of difficulty to many forecasts — especially one of a pending storm.

Millions are potentially in the path of Hurricane Irma. No doubt, a large percentage of this population suffers from one or more Chronic illnesses. If you have a friend, loved one, or neighbor among them, please take a moment to offer some assistance. They are moving slower. Many may already be feeling an increase in pain. They have property to protect and suitcases to pack. They need to remember their medications, medical equipment if their condition warrants, along with the usual insurance documents, cell phone, charger, etc. And added stress, such as a this hurricane, tends to worsen their symptoms too. In other words, they can use a hand whether they ask for it or not. Dare to care.

 

Reference Links:

http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/tools-resources/weather/

https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/medical.html

https://dph.georgia.gov/blog/2015-01-26/dph-explores-connection-between-joint-pain-and-cold-weather

Heat Is Not Our Friend

https://www.lung.ca/news/expert-opinions/pollution/heat-and-humidity

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15633634

 

The Garden of Optimism: What is this place?

Did you ever find yourself in an awkward moment? Wondering how life managed to lead, or drag, you down a certain path? Well, such is my case. When we find ourselves in a predicament, we usually know how we got there. But sometimes we aren’t too eager to admit it. Still, there are times when life leads us into the middle of what appears to be uncharted territory. Our reaction depends upon the circumstances, our perception of them and our willingness to take on the challenge. For me, personally, I am humbled and flabbergasted.

Throughout my entire life, I have always felt a strong sense of service — volunteering with various organizations, my church and within the community. But no one would have predicted that I’d become a blogger — including me. I’m not the most tech savvy person on Earth. I freely admit that. Still, God did provide me with a gift for words. One that I’m abundantly grateful for, even though I haven’t used it in a few years. And He molded me with a very tenacious spirit. So, why now? Why bother? In all honesty, I have felt a calling. Divine, as from the Lord, but not in the pastoral sense. Persistent. Urging me. Whispering to my conscience. Telling me, of all people, that I need to reach out and do this (Matthew 5:16 NIV). I need to serve (1 Peter 4:10 NIV) others. I need to become their voice. So, here I am — a Patient Advocate.

I’m not a medical professional, though I’ve seen more than my share of them. I hold no degree in Divinity. My credentials are from personal experience. And, unfortunately, this is subject-matter that I know all too well. I have lived it, for decades.

By now, if you’re still with me, you may be wondering where all of this is going. Patience, Sweet pea. I’m a Southern gal. We sometimes ramble like ivy on an arbor, but we eventually get to the point …

Mine is that our lives are like gardens. For a moment, consider that metaphor. There are beautiful, bountiful years. And there are meager harvests. There are all the usual things that make growing difficult. The rocks & lousy soil, of the daily grind. Too much heat, or stress, is harsh on a garden. Too much rain, falling in the form of drops or tears, washes away our plants … our plans … our dreams … even our deepest desires. Then, there are the things that come when we least suspect. The ones that we never wanted. The ones that, we so often told ourselves, only happened to other people. And our gardens are never the same …

This blog is a place of refuge and support. It is devoted to those who are living with chronic illnesses and their loved ones. I understand what you are feeling. Your garden and mine are one in the same. This is about accepting that no garden is perfect, but all have beauty and purpose. It’s about realizing the potential of your garden — finding it. This is about living, each and every day to the fullest in His light (1 John 1:5 NIV). It’s about enjoying the sun on our face and the blooms that we find. It’s about allowing our bodies and souls to dance. Yes, dance — even in the rain. Come … sit a spell (as we say down South) … browse the pages of this site (there’s more than one). Let’s talk. You aren’t alone.

 

Blessings,

Julia