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Oh my goodness… so, so much has happened recently that I feel completely overwhelmed in sitting (or, rather, laying) down to tell you about it!  But I have a new image to share with you and I really wanted to post it and maybe give you guys a little gloss-over update at least, so I’m just going for it.  If I let myself think about it any longer, I’ll just get frozen with intimidation over how much I’d like to cover!

First news: health is poor.  I mean, yes, you all know my health is pretty much always poor, but it’s been even more so lately.  I feel like it’s been slowly sliding downhill over the past… year?  year and a half?  two years?  But the last six-to-nine months have been extra bad.  I think I’ve told some of you at least about the “hot flashes” I’ve been getting.  It’s actually quite a lot more complicated than calling them “hot flashes” implies, but I don’t know a better name to get the general idea across with, so we’re going to call them “hot flashes.”  What it really is, is my body suddenly seems unable to regulate its temperature properly, which sends me into sudden, drenching sweats, often while I’m shivering with cold at the same time.  Very similar to the sort of sweats you get with a fever, but it only lasts a few hours, it comes and goes quite randomly, I have absolutely no other fever symptoms and it seems to ONLY happen in the morning (because that’s when my day is busiest, I have the most appointments scheduled, etc, so it can be the most obnoxious).  This sounds like something that’s just annoying, which it is, but it’s quite a bit worse than that.  It makes me weak and lightheaded, it’s not something I can simply push through by will alone; I might have to cancel appointments or send Geoff to the grocery store on his own.  We both utterly detest grocery shopping, but I’m much too weak to do it on my own anymore, and if I at least go with Geoff, it’s company for a task no one enjoys, so I always feel bad if I have to make him do it by himself.

These were getting so bad and disruptive for a while that I saw my GP about it.  He tested my thyroid and a couple of other things in my blood, examined me, decided it wasn’t anything menopause-related (which, yes, would be QUITE young to start having them, but stranger things have happened), said it sounded hormonal and sent me on my way.  I saw my neurologist, he said it wasn’t anything neurological and I should probably see an endocrinologist; a doctor who specializes in looking at your hormones.  I also happened to see my pain specialist during this time just for my every-three-months-check-in, and mentioned it to him, and he agreed it sounded hormonal, but was outside his expertise.  So I did some research, found an endocrinologist nearby who got good reviews online and made an appointment.

The first bad sign was that the endo’s office doesn’t accept credit cards of any kind, only cash or checks, which they had not mentioned in ANY of the conversations I had with them when I set my appointment up.  Not only is that just absurdly behind the times, but I, like most people this day and age, very, very rarely carry either cash or a checkbook on me.  Before going to this doctor, I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote a check.  Thankfully, I happened to have shoved my checkbook in the bottom of my purse anyway, but I had a mini panic attack in the waiting room wondering how I was going to pay these people.

Eventually I found it though and went into my appointment, which was mostly going over my medical history with the doctor and explaining what the problem I was seeing him for was.  Obviously, my medical history is much more like something George RR Martin would write about than a quick-read paperback, but the doctor interrupted me quite a lot as I tried to tell him details which were important and extremely pertinent to the hot flashes I was seeing him for.  Obviously, I did not care for that, but it is a very common problem with doctors.  If I wrote off every doctor who interrupted me while I was explaining things, I wouldn’t have any doctors left to see.  Anyway, he ALSO agreed it sounded hormonal and said we’d run a bunch of blood tests to see what was going on.  We’d be repeating everything my GP had already run because, the endo said, his tests were more thorough.  Ok, fine.  Six vials of fasted blood later, they were sent to the lab, Geoff bought me breakfast and I waited a week’s time until I could get my results from the doctor.

In this appointment (paid for with the check book which I’d triple-checked was still in my purse after the stress of the first visit), the doctor went over each page of the bloodwork results with me, explaining what was tested and how every single thing came back normal.  My blood was normal, thus, I was “perfectly healthy!” and did not need to see him any more expect for in another six months to recheck my blood and make sure it was still all normal and I was healthy.

Obviously, I am not healthy.  Even if you discount my mountain of other ME-related issues, the fact that I was presenting with extremely hormonal-sounding problems should indicate that something is amiss.  This doctor had absolutely no interest in finding out what this life-interrupting issue was though.  The impression he gave me was that he thought I was an overly worried, mildly hypochondriac girl getting her pigtails in a twist over nothing and that showing me that my bloodwork said there was nothing wrong would make the problem go away, because it was  probably something I’d dredged up on my own through pure will.  But the most offensive part of all… he did not check one single motherfucking hormone.  Not ONE.  On a case where three other doctors all had said the issue sounded hormonal, I told him I was concerned it was hormonal, he didn’t bother to check anything.

I’ve since been told by other people who have to see endos regularly that you usually have to specifically ask them to check your hormones, if that’s something you want.  WHY???  You don’t have to do this with ANY OTHER medical specialty.  I don’t have to tell my neurologist to check my brain, I haven’t had to tell my gynecologist to examine my lady parts.  How is this something that is not only allowed, but is COMMON in this one niche???

At the time he was going over the bloodwork with me in the room, I was trying to control being wildly disappointed over having yet another problem come back testing as “normal” and being shunted off again, again being treated as if I was making this all up, again being patronizingly patted and being told to not worry my pretty little head about it.  Look, I’m sorry that my disease isn’t something they teach a lot about in medical school, I really am.  I’m sorry that most doctors feel threatened when confronted with something they can’t simply write a prescription for and it’s solved.  I’m sorry that it makes them feel insecure, as if they don’t know what they’re doing because I don’t have an easy fix.  I am far, far sorrier about that than any doctor who’s treated me like a hot potato could ever be.  But I do not go around to doctors’ offices for fun to mock them for their lack of knowledge.  I go in with an open mind every time, despite years of consistent disappointment, hoping that, just maybe, this will be the time when I get an answer.  Not even THE answer, just a part of it.  But to not test any hormones for a presenting issue that, to every lay-person and doctor I’ve spoken to, sounds extremely hormonal is inexcusable.  I spent a lot of money in copays, I spent six vials of blood my body could have used, I spent a lot of time gearing up for appointments and recovering from them, I spent incredibly precious energy getting to my appointments, getting tests done, and sobbing after my last appointment as my hopes were again dashed and I realized it had all been wasted.  The absolute least the doctor could have done was run the tests I wanted done but didn’t know that I had to ask for specifically by name, because that’s how endocrinologists are.

Each time I have one of these horrible experiences with medical professionals, it makes it so, so much harder to even fathom trying again.  Why should I if most of them are going to just call me crazy and kick me out of their offices as quickly as possible?  And of course I know that I have to keep trying because giving up isn’t an option, but for fuck’s sake, can’t they at least try and meet me in the middle somewhere?

After that edifying experience, I couldn’t even bear the thought of looking for another endo and starting the process over again, even knowing now that you have to ask for your hormones to be tested.  The wound was just too raw.  What I did have was an appointment set up with Celestine Grace, my very favorite medium, who’s helped me a lot in the time we’ve been working together.  I asked her what would help my body and she told me to take rose hip supplements, which I knew are very high in vitamin C.  They’re cheap and easily available from Amazon, so I got a bottle and started taking them.  And you know what?  Within a couple weeks, my hot flashes had gone down considerably.  They still popped up now and then, but the difference was huge.  I ran out of them and it took a few days before I could get my replacement bottle in, and while I was off them, my hot flashes spiked again.  I’m back on them now and they’re going back down, but it might take a couple weeks, like it did the first time.

I am so, so grateful to Celestine for that bit of advice and for helping to turn around a very bad situation (and also all the other help and advice she’s given me over the year or so we’ve known each other) but it’s so incredibly ironic to me that four conventional doctors couldn’t or wouldn’t help me, but my medium did.  It goes to show the strength of her talent while underscoring how little conventional Western medicine has to offer me.  Thank you, Celestine, I can’t tell you how much those rose hips have helped me!

The whole thing got me thinking that I may just need a whole different approach to my health, so I began to look into different specialists and alternative treatments.  I mean, that’s something I’m continually on the lookout for, but I was searching with a new urgency this time.  Giving vitamin C intravenously has been a growing trend… since my body had responded well to the rose hips, maybe it would like a more concentrated dose even more!  I have found a naturopath who is nearby, returned my phone call herself to discuss if we would be a good fit for each other and offers IV vitamin C along with a ton of other therapies I’ve been interested in but haven’t been pushed far enough to try yet, since most are expensive and not covered by insurance.  I have an appointment with that doctor next Monday morning, which will just be a consultation between one to two hours where we just go over my history, what changes I’d like to see and what treatments might be good for me.  They also test hormones.  🙂  As hard as it is for me to allow myself to be hopeful that maybe this time it will work, I can feel hope trying to quietly creep in.  I’ll let you guys know how that appointment goes.

As my body has gotten more and more painful and uncomfortable to inhabit, I’ve been turning to my own form of spirituality for strength and comfort.  It works for me.  It helps significantly, so much so that Geoff has noticed its effect.  It’s a bit too much to get into it all now, but it’s based in meditation and finding my own path up the mountain toward god/source.  A lot of it might sound like new age woo-woo, but I stick with what works, and this does.  My variety of spirit guides have been a big part of keeping me from utterly falling apart as things have gotten more and more difficult all around… just thinking about them makes me feel more peaceful.

I frequently mourn the health I once had, the life I once had, everything ME has taken away from me.  I mourn for those who I wish I could have gotten to know in this life and not just in the next.  I still mourn the loss of our previous home with our incredible neighbors, even though this place is finally feeling more like home and we have great new neighbors here.  Mourning is a universal human experience; I’m sure every one of you can think of things you mourn.

My new city has a lovely, tiny, serene, old little cemetery within what would be walking distance for most people from my home.  I wanted to shoot there when I had the excellent Teri Wyble over (quite a while ago now, I’m terribly behind on editing).  I didn’t know exactly why I wanted to shoot there, or what I was trying to say at the time.  This sometimes happens.  I’ve learned by now to just go with it, that its reason will become clear to me later.  That was the case with this image.  I asked Teri to imagine this was the grave of someone she loved and missed horribly; someone whose loss she still mourned.  I don’t know if she was tapping into a loss in her own life or if she’s just very good at imagining, but she portrayed exactly what I wanted:

Loss.  An inability to move on from the blow of death.

But I didn’t want it to be completely bleak.  The birds swooping in to comfort her speaks to me of the healing that comes after we let ourselves grieve.  Yes, you have to pass through the darkness first, but there is eventually light.  Sometimes it comes to you on feathered wings when you least expect it.

Whether the viewer has recently experienced this themselves or not, it’s such a common part of just being human, I wanted to create this.  Not to wallow in the mud of despair, but to remind myself that the heaviness will someday lift.  The pain will ease.  The grief will lessen.  Maybe even, a treatment will eventually work.

Thank you so very much, Teri, for your beautiful, emotive modeling!  You are a wonderful human being and model.  🙂

Enjoy, my friends!  If this speaks to you, I’d love to hear what it brings up if you’d like to share that in the comments!

Mourning Dove

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Shades Of Sleep: Invisible Illness Day

Sometimes I get a little daunted when May 12th rolls around each year, wondering what new I can say about the subject.  If you didn’t know, May 12th is Invisible Illness Day; a day to bring attention and awareness to illnesses and diseases which don’t manifest obvious outward symptoms for the world to see.  If someone has the measles or is in a wheelchair, you can hopefully tell that just by looking at them.  Diseases like fibromyalgia*, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome*, Crohn’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, mental health problems, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome7, Celiac Disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme disease and the one I have, myalgic encephalomyelitis* (ME for short) are considered invisible illnesses.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a few examples.

Shades Trio

According to Wikipedia and the 2002 US Census Bureau, 96% of chronic illnesses are invisible.  This adds in an enormous extra challenge in obtaining proper medical care and treatment as well as being misunderstood by the population in general.  If people don’t know that there are quiet, private, hellish wars being fought every day by millions of people all over the world, how can we ever expect our treatment to improve, let alone find cures?

That’s why May 12th is so important.  We, the sick, need people to understand, to care, to help us advocate when our treacherous bodies won’t allow us to.  Awareness is the critical first step in any change happening.

Why is it so important that we treat ME?  What makes our disease so special?

It can be fatal.  People die from this.  If not from the disease ravaging our bodies for years and decades, then it often comes by our own hands as we can no longer endure the daily torment.

No one should have to live like this.  As someone who has what’s considered only a “moderate” case of ME, I can tell you it’s a living hell.  Pain is nearly constant, sometimes to the point where I’m in tears and desperately wishing to die.  It takes away the plans you had for a normal, fulfilling life.  Careers, hobbies and passions are taken from you.  You either simply cannot expend the energy on anything non-essential, you lack the basic funds to sustain most pursuits because most of us can’t work, or your brain is compromised by what we call “brain fog” and you’re unable to focus on and accomplish anything.  (More on brain fog later.)

We deserve to live happy, fulfilling lives, just like everyone else.  When you’re constantly in pain, always exhausted and unable to think clearly, this doesn’t leave much room for whatever kind of life you wanted for yourself.  And when I say exhausted, I don’t mean that we’re tired because we didn’t sleep well the night before.  On a good day for me, it’s like how other people when they have the flu.  A constant, crushing weight that makes the slightest exertion a Herculean effort.  On bad days all I can do is lay in bed and drag myself to the bathroom periodically.  Sometimes even feeding myself is a challenge.  I might have to choose between feeding my animals or myself, because I don’t have the energy for both.  And of course the animals always win; they’re my responsibility.

I am mostly house-bound and I require help with the sort of tasks I used to take for granted.  Forgot something at the store?  No problem, just go back tomorrow!  Nope, not with ME.  Any time I take a trip outside my home, I have to plan at least one full day of recovering at home from it.  If it’s something late at night, very noisy and extra stimulating, plan on 2-3 days at least.  (But frankly, late night, noisy, stimulating activities happen EXTREMELY rarely because of the damage they cause later.)  When I do gather my strength to photograph models, that is my exertion for the entire week at least.

ME is extremely isolating.  You can’t just go hang out with friends.  You can rarely make it to family functions.  Last year, I had to miss a surprise party thrown for my own mother, something which still upsets me today.  I was just too exhausted to go, and I knew that if I REALLY pushed myself and forced myself to go, I would pay for it for a very long time.

ME is vengeful god.  If you violate any of its insane decrees, you WILL be punished.  Probably for a long time; sometimes forever.  There have been cases where someone with ME did just a little too much one day, they spent the next day in bed… and then they were never able to leave it.  At the same time though, if you try and do as little as possible, your energy supply will shrink and you’ll be worse off too.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Right now ME received approximately 5 million dollars a year in funding from the US government.  To put that in perspective, that’s about the same amount given to researching hayfever.  Male pattern baldness gets at least four times as much.  HIV/AIDS, which is comparable in both frequency in the population and severity of illness, gets about 600 times that amount.  I’m not saying that HIV/AIDS patients shouldn’t receive that much; I think they should!  What I’m saying is that ME needs to be recognized at all levels of society and government as the deadly, hellish disease that it is and get proper funding as well.

This year I decided to do something that was a big stretch for me physically.  I planned a set of self portraits (all shot at the same time) with a rather complicated makeup look for my Enchanted Sleep series on living with ME.  Doing that much makeup on myself normally would have been enough exertion for one day for me, but that plus shooting the images, even with Geoff’s generous help, put me in bed for days afterward with migraines pounding my head.  But I’m not sorry.  It was worth it.

Oh yes, brain fog.  (Which I’ve got a bit of as I’m writing this.)  It’s like when you have a fever and can’t concentrate or think clearly.  Sometimes it reaches new heights where people suddenly can’t spell, remember their names or understand their native language.  Most days it’s more like mentally wading through a bog, at least for me.  I decided I wanted to portray this visually in the images I created since it’s such an annoyance at best and terrifying at its worst.  I think it will be obvious how I incorporated that element into the images.

I have the video I took of me applying the makeup as well as the finished photos to show you, but I want to issue a challenge as well!  I want you: you, who are reading this right now, to #GoBlue4ME!  Why blue?  Because that’s our disease’s awareness ribbon color.  What does “going blue” mean?  There are any number of things you could do to go blue.  I created a couple images that you could use as your profile photos for May 12th, or even this whole week (or more!).  You are more than welcome to download them and use them however you’d like!  You could dress all in blue and post a photo of yourself with the #GoBlue4ME hashtag on any of your social media accounts.  You could get a bunch of blue balloons, take a photo of them and use the hashtag on them too; anything blue works!

For makeup artists, I’m issuing a special challenge.  As you’ll see in my video applying my makeup, I used ONLY blue shades for this entire look.  Foundation, concealer, eyeshadows, blush, mascara, EVERYTHING.  I challenge you all to do the same and post your looks using the #GoBlue4ME hashtag!  If you’re on YouTube and create makeup tutorial videos, this would be perfect for you.  There are so many fun makeup challenges going around YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites; let’s make this the next big trend!  You’ll not only be stretching yourself, you’ll be contributing to a wonderful cause and helping us raise awareness for the whole world!

I did allow myself to use shades of teal, green and purple in my look because they’re offshoots of blue and I really thought it would make for a better overall look, so feel free to do the same.  And you don’t have to make the blue tie into your foundation color as well, but bonus points to you if you do. 🙂  Let’s have some fun, create gorgeous looks and help a community in need of a lot of support by coming together!

Ready to see the video and my images?  Here you go!  I’ll be releasing the images individually over the course of the week leading up to May 12th, but you can always find them all here.

And please, pass these around!  Share the links, video and images with anyone and everyone!  We have to make a lot of noise to get the change we so desperately need.  You have my full permission to share far and wide!

And please, if you take up the #GoBlue4ME challenge, let me know!  Of course, I can search the hashtag and see what you guys have been up to, but I’m very excited to see what you come up with!

One last note, your going blue does NOT need to happen on or before May 12th.  Keep doing it as long as you’d like to!  The longer we can keep the word spreading, the better.

Thank you to absolutely everyone who has and will participate in this!  You are helping so many more people than you know.  I thank you from the deepest wells of my heart.

Download these images and make them your profile photos for a day!

ME avatar 1

ME avatar 2

Shades of Sleep

Shades of Sleep, © Sarah Allegra.  A self portrait about brain fog and living with myalgic encephalomyelitis.

Shaed of Dreams

Shades of Dreams, © Sarah Allegra.  A self portrait about brain fog and living with myalgic encephalomyelitis.

Shades of Blur

Shades of Blur, © Sarah Allegra.  A self portrait about brain fog and living with myalgic encephalomyelitis.

*[There are various theories and arguments about weather ME, CFS and fibromyalgia are all the same disease or separate.  You’ll find as many different opinions as there are sufferers.  It is my personal belief that they’re probably all the same thing, or at least all very closely related.  Some people are extremely militant about using the “correct” name; I find it more important to help people understand by using the name they’re most familiar with.  I tend to use them all interchangeably depending on the situation and who I’m talking to, but if I had my druthers, I’d simply call it ME and be done with it.]

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Rapeseed's Harvest

This was one of those self portraits that I just HAD to shoot RIGHT THEN or I was going to explode.  It’s actually been a pretty rough couple of months; I’m fighting my way out of another bout of depression that came on for seemingly no reason.  This does happen periodically, so I tried to just give it time and let it pass, it always will eventually… but it’s been clinging like it hasn’t in a long, long time.

As depression progresses, it gets worse, not just additionally, but exponentially.  You can very quickly move from, “Ok, I don’t like this, but I’ll get through it soon,” to “Oh my god, this is going to be the rest of my life, I will never feel joy again ever; what’s even the point of living??” in shockingly short time.

For me, one of the best tools I have against depression and slowly losing my will to live is creating art, especially art that expresses how I’m feeling at the time.  It’s incredibly cathartic.  Working on this self portrait has been a huge help in keeping me sane lately, but the pessimistic side of me wonders if I’ll just be left right where I was before I started it, once I’m totally finished creating it.  I suppose that even if it does, I’ll at least still have a new image in my roster.  It hasn’t helped my depression to know that it’s been so long since I released any new images (there are far too many reasons to get into right now, but it’s been incredibly difficult to find and make time for art lately).

I was thinking about what I would say to accompany this image, which (probably obviously, belongs to both my DreamWorld and Eternal Storms series) and pondering how to explain what long-term clinical depression feels like to those who haven’t experienced it.  It’s not the same as just being sad or upset, it’s a stain on your soul which you can’t ever blot out.  Out, out, damn spot.  A stain which not only looks ugly, but spreads like a cancer and does you actual harm, emotionally, physically and mentally.

Depression, especially when it gets really bad, feels like your brain is beating and gang-raping your soul every day while the rest of the world goes about their business, either not noticing, or at best stopping to take cell phone videos of your torment, but offering no help.  And much like the unjustified stigma and shame victims of abuse feel, people who have trouble with depression and who don’t feel excited about being alive are often subject to the same kinds of judgements.  We must enjoy wallowing in our own emotional filth, or else we’d just get up, dust ourselves off and go be happy, right?  Or, ok, maybe it’s really a chemical imbalance thing; so just take an anti-depressant and let’s all get on with our lives, all right?  And she was wearing a short skirt, so she was asking for it.

I wish it worked like that; I wish it was that easy.  I can’t recall how many medications I’ve tried, not to mention the far, far greater number of alternative healing treatments, supplements, and anything else I could think of.  Some help more than others, but so far nothing has completely cured me.

For anyone wondering, no, I do not believe this bout of depression is really related to the ME.  The ME has been about the same as it has been since my injections kicked in, so there haven’t been any recent changes on that front.  It definitely doesn’t help anything, but I don’t believe it’s the cause.

Depression lays a gray film over your life.  Everything appears bleak and hopeless.  There’s no point to trying, no point to doing anything.  And there’s also the honest, nothing-to-do-with-depression frustration of having to be your own guinea pig as you try different treatments, often with horrible, horrible side effects, which may or may not stop after you discontinue the medication.  It’s been recommended that I add a psychiatrist to my team of doctors (I have a wonderful therapist, but she’s a psychologist, so she can’t prescribe medication) which I’m not looking forward to.  My depressive mind doesn’t want to go through the bother of more appointments, more co-pays, more explaining my symptoms and feeling judged, more trying new medications will probably make everything worse before it even might get better.  My rational mind says I should try it anyway, but I’m not looking forward to it.

So, back to talking about this image.  I chose the title even knowing it might ruffle some feathers, because I honestly don’t feel like there’s a better way to explain it to those who have been fortunate enough to never be so depressed that they feel they can’t go on another day.  It is your mind raping your soul, verbally abusing you, telling you you’re worthless, a horrible person, undeserving of love or bothering another person by asking them for help.  It’s a prison only you can see and feel; a prison you both hate and are afraid to leave, because it’s all you’ve known for so long.  (My first memories of what was clearly depression are from my early teens, but I wonder if the terrible anxiety and nightmares I endured since I was a very young child were a precursor to this.  The first time I gave serious thought to killing myself, I was 17.)  A strange Stockholm-like syndrome can develop where you long to escape, but are afraid to.  However, I hope it’s clear that I am in no way trying to take anything away from the trauma victims of the “regular” kind of rape suffer from.  Though our hells overlap in some ways, they are not identical.

I liked the idea of using “rapeseed” in the title, not only because it catches the ear, but because I feel it works on a metaphoric level.  Rapeseed is a plant which grows beautiful yellow flowers; it belongs to the mustard family from what I’ve read (and apparently the name has to do with the Latin word for root vegetables and nothing to with an act of violence).  Kirsty Mitchel shot part of her Wonderland series in front of a breathtaking field of rapeseed flowers.  It is also, apparently, what canola oil is made from (or at least used to be?  I’m finding mixed info), around which there is some controversy if it’s truly safe for human and animal consumption.  The word at once touches on horrible, horrible acts of violence and abuse, potential danger but still has immense beauty to offer the world.

In this image, I imagined a beautiful, unicorn-like creature, someone that would look completely pure and innocent, someone who looked like that would never have had a single bad day.  And I just poured my emotions into the shoot, letting them all out.  I’ve already said it was cathartic, but I can’t stress just how much it was.  I felt lighter that day than I did in a long time.  Even editing it was therapeutic.  Some images seem to fight you the whole way, kicking and screaming, into what you want them to be; this one felt like it was actively working with me to help me achieve my goal.  It’s one of the most gratifying feelings when art flows like that.

I have been studied makeup application a lot recently (mostly for upcoming images) and this was one of my first times being able to test just a little bit of my new knowledge out.  That was fun, although tiring.  But I’m pretty pleased with my first attempt at being a makeup artist!  I had to search high and low for some cosmetic-grade silver glitter of the right size and color to make the glitter-tears; you really wouldn’t think it would have been so difficult, but it was!  I eventually found some on either eBay or Etsy; I’ve bought some from both and now I don’t remember where this particular one came from.  I already had the silver wig, so I just grayed up my eyebrows to match it better.  I used Nyx’s Jumbo Pencil in Milk for the entire eye/cheekbone area along with a nice matte white eyeshadow from BH Cosmetics pallet, along with two shades of lavender and a darker purple in my crease and as blush.  I contoured with another Nyx product, an eyeshadow in Taupe which is perfect for my pale skin (even paler here, so I used a very light hand).  I highlighted cheekbones, lids and inner corners with Deviant Cosmetics Ghost Violet, which is just about my new favorite thing ever.  It has the most gorgeous flash of purple when the light hits it, and Deviant Cosmetics has four or five colors in their Ghost line; I recommend them all!  (If you’ve been eyeing the Kat Von D Alchemist Palette but don’t have the money, go see Deviant Cosmetics.  Their colors are brighter, more vivid, they carry one more color than comes in KVD’s pallet, and it’s WAY less expensive!  And since it’s mineral makeup, there are no weird or harmful ingredients to worry about.)

After I did my makeup and looked utterly insane in person, I set my camera up and a couple lights.  I actually really hate setting up lights, so I always try and make it as minimal as possible.  Luckily, this shot didn’t call for anything fancy, so I got away with only two.  I taped some white, mesh fabric to the inside of my front door, and it gave me a lovely, neutral whiteish backdrop that wouldn’t distract from the main subject.  I was nearly done shooting when I remembered I’d intended to wear my unicorn horn circlet from Firefly Path!  I quickly shot a few more images with it on, tipping my head at different angels and planning on adding it on to the final image in post, which I did.  (This is not the exact circlet that I have, my horn is silver and the crystals are lavender, but this seems to be the only one in her shop at the moment.)

Unicorns represent a lot of things to me, but innocence and purity are two big ones.  If a human is sad, well, that’s… sad, but normal.  If a unicorn is sad, it’s tragic.  That there could be anything their magic couldn’t overcome underscores the power of whatever is causing them pain.  To me at least, that emphasized the magnitude of the power depression can hold over you.  The working title for this image as I tinkered on it was Sad Unicorn, because that was all I could think of when I needed to save the file for the first time.  It still feels appropriate in a way.

I added the trees and birds on the background, as if perhaps the unicorn girl is longing for her forest home.  I specifically chose to add crows, both because they’re one of my favorite birds (did you know they actually make and use tools and are incredibly smart?) and because Native American legends say they escort one’s soul into the afterlife.  That felt very fitting giving the subject of the image.  She seems like she’s in an alien land, somewhere she doesn’t truly belong, which is how I’ve felt about my time on earth just about every single day since I was born.  I knew this was not my true home.  My true home is where my soul resided before it decided, for whatever insane reason, to incarnate into this life.  In a meditation, months ago now, I actually visited what I consider to be my true home and I sobbed and sobbed, because I was so glad to be back, even for a moment, and also because I knew I couldn’t stay.  That place, that timeless, unchanging Home, is where this ethereal creature belongs too.

Now that I’ve gone on for probably far too long, I’ll finally show you the image.  I felt it was very important to explain my reason for the title I gave it to give people a way in to understand it.  And for anyone concerned about me, thank you, but I’ll be ok.  I’ve been through worse.  And I didn’t even have photography back then.  I have an excellent support system, which I didn’t have nearly as much of before, including my really incredible therapist.  All that said, let’s get on to the first image I’m releasing this year!

Rapeseed's Harvest

Lastly, I don’t enjoy talking about my mental health (or lack thereof) to strangers on the internet, no matter what impression this post gave you.  I speak candidly and openly about it because we NEED to end the stigma around it.  And the only way for that to happen is for those of us who struggle with it to speak about our experiences.  A lot.  In detail.  Repeatedly.  I do think things will change eventually, but it will take a lot of voices speaking honestly, blatantly, about it.  My voice is only one drop in the ocean of voices, but to quote Cloud Atlas, what is the ocean but a multitude of drops?

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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
stickers
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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