Posts Tagged ‘personal’

What Else Can I Say About ME?

Here we are at May 12th again.  Another Invisible Illness Day come to bring awareness to all the illnesses and diseases which are impolite enough to leave their sufferers still appearing to be well.  Of course, anyone more than casually acquainted with someone who has fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, complex regional pain disorder, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, Lyme, lupus and many, many more illnesses can attest to how debilitating they can be.  The facade of health they leave intact feels like salt in the wound; a confusion for those untouched by their cruel hand, a silent undermining force with us at every doctor’s appointment, a declaration that we are lying or greatly exaggerating our illness.

What else can I say about ME?  About all the other forgotten, ignored diseases swept under the rug of modern medicine?  Illnesses which embarrass our doctors with their constant reminder that we remain unhealed.  Sicknesses with confusing, confounding symptoms which can morph and change like the whim of a butterfly’s flight.  Maddening maladies which suck away our vitality, our joys, our passions, our lives as completely as any vampire.

I’ve written about ME extensively as it’s been an enormous part of my life for the last eight years.  How I have not had a single day since late May of 2008 that was free of pain or its constant, overwhelming exhaustion.  How it has progressively gotten worse each year.  How the government would like to pretend we invisibly ill don’t exist.  How grotesquely underfunded our research is, giving us the same amount of money for research as hayfever gets and less than 1/4 of what male pattern baldness receives.  You have heard me spout the facts and statistics.  You’ve heard me talk about my personal story and fight with ME.  What else can I say?

I can say this: I am not beaten.  I have not given up.

I am determined to get better.  I am committing myself to be well, even if I have it about through sheer mental will.  I will not give in to ME’s gloomy, hopeless future forecast of progressively worsening every year.  I am not accepting a future of the living death that is ME.

I don’t know exactly how I will get better, but I am going to.  As a sign of my determination, I changed my blog’s tagline for the first time since I started this blog years ago.  “Art, photography, life and why I always feel like shit,” felt perfectly appropriate at the time.  “Art, photography, life and how those are really all the same thing,” is much more appropriate now.  My identity is not Sarah-who-has-ME.  I am just Sarah.

As I wrote about in my last entry, my life has been pleasantly consumed recently by my spirituality.  I have strongly felt how focusing on fighting ME has been feeding it.  So now, I will ignore it as much as possible.  I do not mean that I will forget my body’s current limits, or not honor them.  Listening to my body and what it’s able to do is vital for my current and future wellbeing.  But I’ve realized that I can live within the confines of my case of ME while still not letting it reign in every area of my life, and that feel incredibly freeing.  This is the path I will pursue.

This also does not mean that I will not advocate for ME sufferers.  I still feel very strongly that the only way we will bring about change is by demanding it.  And we can only demand it if we know that it exists in the first place.  But I can also advocate without allowing ME to rule every part of my soul.

As May 12th approached, I wanted to create a new image for my Enchanted Sleep series, which is all about living with ME.  I asked Katie Johnson, frequent model and collaborator as well as dear friend, if she would help me bring some concepts to life and she gladly agreed to help.  Through a variety of factors, I wasn’t able to shoot these images until very recently, which meant I had a very short window to edit one up and release it for Invisible Illness Day, but I got it done!  Ideally, I would be releasing the whole short series we shot, but I am content with having just one to show you and help illustrate life with ME.  With that, please let me present my latest image to you, Living With The Tombstones.

Living With The Tombstones

Living With The Tombstones – © Sarah Allegra. Model: Katie Johnson. An image to help raise awareness about ME/CFS and other “invisible illnesses.”

I probably don’t have to explain the symbolism behind shooting this image in a graveyard.  ME (and many other invisible illnesses) truly can be a living, nightmarish death.  Even if you’re not one of the unfortunate souls cursed with severe ME, where any touch, light or sound cannot be tolerated, you die every day to the dreams and hopes you had when you were healthy.  You might discover new passions to pursue within ME’s confines, but do you ever truly forget what’s been taken from you?  If you do, I am not there yet.

I took the name “invisible illness” and interpreted it quite literally, editing out any part of Katie’s body which showed outside her long, princess-like dress.  And the mirrored mask felt like the perfect touch.  When people look at us, they rarely see us; they see their projections of who we are.  Often what they see says far more about them than us.  Some will look at me and, because I can occasionally manage to put on clothes, have Geoff drive and go with him to the grocery store, refuse to believe there could be anything physically wrong with me.  They don’t see the toll that those short, simple trips take on me.  They don’t know that grocery shopping is my ENTIRE plan for that day, probably several days.  How the lights and noise and bustle inside the stores give me migraines, panic attacks and leave me in bed for the rest of the weekend.  They don’t see the weight of my illness on Geoff and my family.  How if I see friends, they always have to come to me.  I so often feel like a dead-weight wife, daughter and friend.  The times I’m overwhelmed by the ME and can’t decide between crying and being too tired to cry.  How many pills I take every day to try and make it to the next day and not be consumed by the constant pain I’m in.  They just see a fairly normal-looking girl.

I can’t blame other people for not knowing that I’m sick.  I don’t display the characteristic signals of someone who is unwell, so of course people assume I’m healthy.  But we need to get to a place where I could tell a stranger that I have ME and they might know what I’m talking about.  That if someone else said they have MS or Crohn’s or fibro, that stranger would have heard of those illnesses.  That the stranger would have at least a basic idea of our struggle and the dire need for change, for research, for treatments, cures and basic respect.

We can get there.  We will.  One May 12th at a time.

Want to do more?  I can help you with that!

I’d like to thank everyone in my life, online and off, who has supported me during these trying past eight years.  Especially Geoff, who I’d only been dating for a month when I became ill.  Lesser men would have run from what he had to face, but he’s stuck with me, no matter how bad things get.  And I’d also like to thank everyone for the extremely warm and receptive response you all had to my previous blog post.  Your kind words and love and support are greatly appreciated, now and always! ❤

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***Want to win a free print of my latest image, The Blue Ribbon?  Read on to find out how you can enter!!***

As ME Awareness Week continues, I feel it’s time to share my personal history with this disease.  Catch up on the story with the first and second posts!

Most of you will have heard my own story about ME.  To briefly recap for anyone new to the blog, on May 27th 2008, I came down with what I thought was food poisoning.  It wasn’t fun, but I thought it would surely pass quickly.  It did not.  Everything got worse.  Looking bad, I can see signs of ME showing up as early as my teens, but it was May 27th when it really exploded.

I have not been the same since; I have not had a pain-free day in all that time.  I had three brief, beautiful days at the beginning of 2011.  I was on steroids for an infected cat bite and for those three days, I wasn’t constantly dragged down by the muddy, boggy, wet-wool, bone-deep exhaustion of ME, which I commemorated with a self portrait.  Outside of that, there has been no relief.

3 Good Days

3 Good Days – a self portrait

Though there is much controversy over the subject, and I make no claims to be any kind of expert (except about my own experiences) I believe that ME, CFS and fibro are really all the same thing.  Or, at the very least, they’re all branches of a “mother disease” which we have yet to identify.  Either way, they all seem intrinsically connected.  However, the United State’s intentionally wishy-washy definitions of CFS and fibro have led me to setting their names aside and using ME as much as possible.

ME has excellent, testable, finite guideline, though getting your doctor to agree to those tests is another matter.  ME has the most scientifically sound definition, and it’s the one I connect with most of all, since it is so specificHowever, since almost no one in the United States has heard of ME, including all of my doctors, I tend to use the names interchangeably depending on whom I’m talking to, to make it easiest for them to understand.

The hallmarks of ME include unreasonable fatigue that is disproportionate to how much you’ve exerted yourself.  For instance, I might go to the grocery store and come home feeling like a healthy person would after running a marathon.  You experience post-exertional malaise, typically worst 24 to 48 hours after said exertion.  Muscle pain is key.  Headaches and migraines common.  Neurological symptoms begin, often in the form of tripping, falling, sudden “brain fog” where it seems like your brain has turned into oatmeal, the inability to remember words, or even your own name.  Light, sound, scent, noise and touch are all heavily amplified; it’s like the volume in our brains in constantly set to 11.  Every now and then this proves useful, like when I could smell the very faint gas leak at my neighbor’s house that no one else could.  Usually it just means there are more things to avoid which would trigger pain and migraines.  My husband Geoff and I joke that I can smell things only dogs and I can detect, but there’s a truth behind the laughter.

The Fog Rolls In - a self portrait about "brain fog"

The Fog Rolls In – a self portrait about “brain fog”

And, ah yes, pain.  Pain blends into your existence like spilled ink, no matter how you try to resist.  The areas of pain vary from patient to patient, and even from day to day for each patient.  I have a mystery flank pain with no identifiable cause for which I receive nerve-blocking injections a few times a year, including the latest round just this morning.  The recovery period from them is usually brutal, but it’s better than not being able to have it done.  If I clean the toilet too vigorously, my arm and shoulder might ache for a month.  Sometimes longer.  I am also extremely susceptible to every bug that comes around; I cannot get through a cold and flu season unscathed.

There is currently no cure for ME, nor many good ways to even manage the symptoms.  Nor is there a clear idea of what the cause is.  There are good arguments to be made for it having a neurological cause, or it could be an auto-immune disease, something viral, something bacterial, something sent by the gods to people who were very naughty as children in previous lives… it’s all up for debate.

Unjust - model, Aly Darling

Unjust – model: Aly Darling

Back to my image, The Blue Ribbon. It’s the latest in my photographic series called Enchanted Sleep, which visually portrays what living with ME is like.

Most illnesses and many causes have their own color ribbons these days; pink for breast cancer, fibro is purple, red for AIDS, etc.  (And yes, certain colors are shared by numerous diseases and causes; purple is also used for lupus and Alzheimer’s along with quite a few others.)  ME’s ribbon is blue.  I photographed this image several months ago during an underwater shoot with Katie.  It took me longer to get to editing it than I had planned, and by the time it was done, it was so close to May 12th, I decided to just wait to release it now.

Katie is my honorary ME-er; she’s quite the opposite of someone with ME, being full of energy and vitality all the time.  But she’s been around me and other friends who do have similar illnesses that she seems to understand our struggle as much as anyone could.  I have great trust in her modeling instincts, so when we shot this, I gave her a long strip of blue ribbon and just told her to do something with it.  What she came up with so clearly encapsulated the physical fight you’re forced to be in every day, I knew it was the perfect visual metaphor.  Thank you, Katie, for taking on our cause and helping me portray it in my images!!

The Blue Ribbon - detail

The Blue Ribbon – detail

To do my part, for the month of May, I am donating 50 percent of profits from all my sales to The Microbe Discovery Project, a group working to solve the mystery of ME and find a cure for those afflicted.  And what do I sell?  Well, what do you want?  Because my images come from the frameable to the wearable and in every price range.
museum-quality, fine art prints
iPad/iPhone/iPod covers
blank greeting cards
post cards
shirts and hoodies
wearable art
throw pillows
INTROSPECTIVE: my eight-week, on-line, course of self-discovery through photography

Also, in honor of this day of raising awareness, I’m holding a contest to win a beautiful, 10″ x 15″, museum-quality print of my latest image, The Blue Ribbon; an underwater representation of the struggle that living with ME can be.  Your print will come on beautiful, shimmering, pearlized, archival paper.  And all you have to do is tweet!

The Blue Ribbon

The Blue Ribbon, model: Katie Johnson – enter the giveaway to win a print of this image!

Ready to tweet?  Use any of the following!

Curing baldness gets 4x more funding than ME/CFS, but no one ever died of baldness    


ME/CFS knows no social or economic boundaries; it affects all equally w/out mercy.    
ME/CFS in not in our heads & cannot be cured with exercise & a better attitude.    
ME/CFS is not a “female” disease; 20% of sufferers are male.    
ME/CFS isn’t just about being “tired,” it ravages every single part of the body.    

ME/CFS can be just as deadly as MS, HIV and AIDS, yet it is largely ignored.    


More exercise and a better attitude will not cure ME/CFS.    


We’re not chronically fatigued, @CDCgov. We have myalgic encephalomyelitis.    

Tweeting multiple statements will count as extra entries, so enter as many times as you like.  However, tweeting the same statement multiple times will not count.  And that will probably just annoy the people reading your feed, so don’t do it. 😉  I will choose a random winner from all entries on May 20th and announce the winner here!

Catch up on the story with the first and second posts this week about ME, and keep an eye out tomorrow for more about this glass mountain!

Thank you to everyone for reading and participating!  If you have had your own experiences with ME, CFS, fibro or any other chronic illness and you’d like to share your story, please leave it in a comment!

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