The Luxury of Despair

The Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph sang at a music festival in our village last August. A song was about the conflict in Palestina and the fate of those innocent civilians living there. „Despair is a luxury,“ he sang. (There’s the link – check the song out!)

Martyn Joseph singing
Martyn Joseph singing at our annual music festival in August 2018

Those lyrics struck a chord with me. I remembered how a neighbour met me in a train last May. My hand and arm were bandaged with a dressing of anti-inflammatory cream. The medication that had transformed my life since Christmas 2015 had been working less well in the previous months. Now it had stopped working entirely, and alternately my wrists, arms, knees swelled up. I had backache and felt exhausted, drained of  energy, not rested after sleep. We talked a little, and she said, „You are brave.“  I said, „I’m not. I have no choice.“

Inside I didn’t feel brave. I was frightened. Frightened that the joy of life, given back to me by the treatment, was lost. Frightened that I would go back to chronic pain, frightened that I might not be able to work, frightened that I would be too tired to go out into the world, and loose the social life that keeps my soul afloat.

Six months on, one of the alternatives that are currently available, does seem to be working. The swelling disappeared in June and the back ache that plagued July is gone too. Side effects are being controlled with another medication. I am energised again, able to get up early, go hiking, swim, go out in the evening and generally feel good about myself again. I’ve just been on holiday for two weeks of swimming, diving, reading, eating, fun with friends, and generally had an amazing time.

In retrospect, it‘s a shame that I allowed several months to be marred by feeling miserable. My doctors are caring and will do their best to find a treatment that will help me. I am incredibly lucky to live in a country where my treatment will be paid for, more or less whatever it costs. (Think of the people in poorer countries, where this is not the case; and for the Americans with disorders like mine, who told me that they will not get insurance cover, if President Trump’s health care reforms are enacted).  I have a job and an understanding employer. I have a secure home, and a loving family. There are plenty of things I can still do, even if I have aching joints. Things could be so much worse.

Despair is a luxury” sings Martyn Joseph. If you can‘t change anything, then despair has no use – it’s like a luxury. That’s how I understood the words of the song, So, if despair can galvanise me to go into action and change something, then it’s useful. If not, despair is only destructive and will never end. Acceptance and trust are the keys; enjoying every moment, when nothing is seriously wrong – and of course even during a flare-up, there are such moments.

Meditation is the greatest tool I know to instantly get into a mind-frame of acceptance, trust and happiness. But exactly when I’m in pain and feeling bad about myself, is the time when I don’t use it! If I have backache, or other aching joints, I find meditation most difficult….. Will I manage better next time? I’m working on it.

Am I really what I eat?

In the bad old days when life seemed to be filled only with pain, I used to comfort myself and find moments of peace with the thought: „I am not my body!“ If I could see myself at a level of consciousness where my soul and not my body was in charge, then the pain lost its power over me. That was rare, but it did happen.

If I am not my body, then I am also not what I eat, right? Up to now I believed that medication, exercise and stress-reduction are more important for my well-being, than food. However, the more I learn about diet, the more I think that it may be important too. Diet seems to be the question that interests people the most.

The leading Swiss charity for musculoskeletal disorders, the Swiss League against Rheumatism, recognises that many patients would like advice about diet, but do not know where to find reliable information. They publish an excellent series of articles explaining the different views (German, French, Italian). Many rheumatologists are sceptical of or reject any significant dietary influence on the development of chronic disease, and fear that special diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies, and make things worse for patients. At the other extreme there are holistic physicians, and health advisors who believe that diet can even replace medication.

When the disease flares up, I would try almost anything to alleviate the pain; and it seems intuitively plausible that what we eat may affect the progress of disease. It is well-known that a poor diet can lead to other health problems, such as Diabetes or cardiac disease. But what about Arthritis? Health care specialists who believe that diet has no influence, point out that there is no clear evidence that diet makes a difference. But that could be because the subject has not been adequately researched yet. We still don’t understand what triggers arthritis, so in my view it’s too early to eliminate diet from the list of suspects.

But where can patients like myself find the information to make their own decisions?

My General Practitioner sent me to a nutritional consultation at the local University Hospital. I was amazed to learn that they even have a leaflet for people with inflammatory arthritis (published by the Swiss Society for Nutrition in German and French). There I was told that many elements of a Mediterranean diet can help reduce inflammation.

The picture shows me with my kids eating a Mediterranean diet on holiday in 2014. We were doing it years ago!

Family holidays in Sicily

The first thing is to guard against Osteoporosis. I‘ve had reduced bone density since my mid-forties, so that means making sure I get enough calcium (Fish, cheese, yogurt, various seeds – you can find information on the web) and Vitamin D (supplements and going out into the sunshine).

People affected by inflammatory arthritis need a lot of protein, which is contained in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans and pulses. Some of those foods may promote inflammation, as I explain below.

If there are foods that promote inflammation, then people like me should avoid them, and eat more foods that are anti-inflammatory. That’s where the Mediterranean food comes in. As is well-known many Western diets contain high levels of Omega-6 fats, in particular arachidonic acid. These are considered to promote inflammation and are found in meat, eggs and high fat dairy products. Our Western diets contain a lot of arachidonic acid. So according to the advice I received, these should be reduced as much as possible. The anti-inflammatory „good“ foods contain Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish – so cod-liver oil really is good for you! – and certain oils. Oils that are particularly good are Linseed (we had that at home when I was a child, but it was only used to grease Cricket bats), walnut oil and rapeseed oil. To my disappointment olive oil is good, but not amongst the very best.

The last advice is to eat things containing something called Antioxidants because they scavenge „bad guys“ called oxygen radicals (who would think that something with the word oxygen in it would be bad for you?). You get your antioxidants if you eat lots of fruit and veg, and whole grain products, and nuts and seeds.

I was delighted with this advice, except it described quite well the way I eat anyway, and I‘ve still got active AS. What can I change?

I suspect that I still eat a lot of unhealthy food, even when I think that I am eating healthily. Ten years ago I visited Japan for 2 weeks.

Vegetable seller in Japan
Vegetable market in Japan
Pasta chef in Japan
Fresh pasta chef in Japan

The food was absolutely amazing, lots of weird greens and freshly made pasta. It was before my AS diagnosis, although I‘d had symptoms already for many years. I remember well how astonishingly energised and healthy I felt. I had no idea why but vowed to eat Miso soup for breakfast from then on. My promise to myself didn’t even hold a week! In the rural area in Switzerland where I live it was hard to find Miso for the soup, and my family preferred to start the day with traditional Swiss breakfasts…

Brunch bei Marlene und Sämi Wyss Rubi, Hagiboden
Traditional Swiss farmers’ breakfast

Maybe writing this blog will motivate me to try again and report in more detail in a later blog, on what I discover. The whole subject of diet is huge, and I find it quite complex.

Recently I went on a alpine trip collecting wild herbs. In the evening we prepared a wonderful 5-course meal with these plants. It was delicious, and again I felt marvellous afterwards. I’ll leave you with a picture of our starter.

Herbs from mountain meadows are delicious
Mountain meadows are a source of delicious herbs

When things don’t go according to plan – An April Fool’s Day Joke?

It’s time to come out with it! In January I broke my leg skiing. Now it’s April, and I STILL have a sort of plastic brace on my leg. I’ve barely been out of the house since the accident, except to go to the doctor’s or physiotherapy. But I’ve been to many places inside my head and – thank goodness – I’ve come back again. Life is still an adventure, even within the constraints of hoping around the house. But this is an adventure I could probably do without.

Skiing below the Eiger North Face
Below the Eiger North Face minutes before my accident

So here is the photo of me just before it happened. I’m looking at camera in my orange jacket and black helmet. To the left is the Eiger North Face. We are a group of friends planning to ski down a long descent just under that iconic mountain. We even had a wonderful local guide/teacher with us. Now, on Easter Sunday, it seems such a long time ago.

I was concentrating on practising my new improved short turns in deep snow, and didn’t notice a sort of drop to my right, someone came too close and to avoid a collusion I veered right and at the moment of falling into the drop, I couldn’t decide whether to brake and fall sideways or try to jump cleanly into it, so I fell straight into it and at that angle my touring ski bindings didn’t open.

Just the day before I’d seen Tom Cruise on the Graham Norton Show breaking his ankle and then running on. I was so impressed, but somehow something uncanny resonated with me that evening. So when a similar thing happened to me the next day, I was very aware of what was happening and knew instantly that I had broken my leg (tibia for people who know about bones), and that this was going to be a long story.

My friends helped me back to the main slope where a sort of motor bike on skis picked me up and took me to the Alpine train station called Scheidegg. I was put on a train back down to Grindelwald. During the train journey a middle-aged man, who was obviously used to telling people what to do, hit my leg with his ski stick and told me to take it off the seat. I breathed deeply and managed to remain courteous, but my explanation caused him to beat a rapid, wordless retreat to another seat. At Grindelwald the ambulance was not there as promised, so two station masters carried me to a taxi, which took me to a local doctor, who seems to earn a good living in winter x-raying people and encasing their injuries into plaster. The doctor also gave me a bottle of an opiate based pain-killer that I know from serious AS flare ups, so I chatted nonstop and cheerfully to the woman in our group who kindly drove me home. Goodness knows what I found to talk about!

At home a neighbour helped me set myself up with cushions in bed and an office chair to scoot around the kitchen. Over the next weeks my son visited regularly and helped with things like putting the rubbish out and filling the bird-feeders, neighbours shopped, and the Red Cross taxi service took me to the doctors. The ice and snow only melted in mid-March, so until very recently it was almost impossible to go out safely .

My well-being is very dependent on lots of movement and sport, and when after 10 days I was suffering from acute backache, I was terrified that a AS flare was starting. I started taking NSAIDS (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) regularly again, and they upset my stomach and made me feel sick. However, massage and physiotherapy managed to relieve the pain, so I could stop taking medication.

I got very lonely sometimes. Many friends visited and that saved me. But my daughter had only just moved out two weeks before and was abroad, so I was living alone for the first time in about 30 years. Morning meditation was difficult at first because of the pain, but I kept writing a journal and trying. That time in the morning is special, because it helps me to reframe negativity, create intentions and a purpose for the day, and live in the present moment. An example: on days when I saw nobody was to pose the question: “Am I lonely, or do I have the opportunity to enjoy a day of solitude?” Around me are so many people who are stressed out by the demands of their jobs and other people, and who would love a day by themselves.

One of my friends who told me that she’d never broke a bone, promptly broke her left leg skiing too. So we are thinking of forming a Facebook group. Anybody else?

Andrea and Judith broke their legs skiing
Andrea and me both broke our legs skiing in Winter 2018

Now the weather is a bit warmer and the snow has melted. I can put weight on my leg. Next week is another X-ray and if the bone has mended, I will loose the brace. Only downside is a sort of wandering Arthritis. Yesterday my right index finger and left elbow were swollen and painful. Today it’s my right knee and a bit in my right wrist. I’ve had this twice before – anybody else know it?

But otherwise life is looking up.

Have Disease – Target – Kill Something

I recently came across an interview with Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Indian-American physician, oncologist and author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. I would like to share his thoughts.

His ideas show how medical research could be changing its analytical paradigm and how this change might open a path to better care for people, particularly for those who are suffering from diseases like AS, which are currently considered incurable.

According to Dr. Mukherjee current medical treatment boils down to six words: Have disease, take pill, kill something. This approach goes back to the extraordinary success of treatments after the discovery of antibiotics. It worked so well, that it became the basic approach to the treatment of disease, not only for diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, but also in non-communicable diseases. Indeed the treatment of AS using biologic drugs is also based on this idea. These drugs aim to stop the immune system mistakenly attacking itself by blocking the activity of a naturally occurring protein in the body (TNF-alpha), which is a key communicator driving the damaging inflammatory processes in many – but it seems not all – cases of AS. To paraphrase Dr. Mukherjee it’s Have AS, get injection or infusion, block TNF-alpha.

Dr Mukherjee believes that this model of Disease – Target – Kill still has an essential role to play, but there are many other areas that are not researched as much, but are just as important. What about the environment that the diseased organism lives in? What about the immediate cellular surroundings in the diseased area? What are the connections between cells that sustain normal physiological interactions in life; and how and why do they change in disease?

Aren’t these exactly the questions that lie behind many of our thoughts when we share ideas on a Facebook discussion forum, or a blog, about what makes us sick, or keeps the pain away?

If we could answer these questions we might show how things like air pollution, or stress or unhappiness affect the likelihood of getting Arthritis. It would lead to regenerative medicine, e.g. rebuilding cartilege in Osteoarthritis instead of replacing joints; and to nutritional medicine, e.g. finding out whether some foods can trigger Arthritis or protect you against it; and best of all to preventive medicine, to stop disease even breaking out.

It seems to me that Dr. Mukherjee is explaining a way for medical research to look at well-known diseases from a new perspective.  I find that really exciting and can recommend his TED Talk, where he actually used the example of rebuilding cartilage to combat Arthritis to demonstrate how it’s being applied.

And by the way, my TEDx Talk is also finally online. Please do watch it and pass it on to anybody who might be interested.

Have a great week, and get in touch, if you feel like it.

Do I believe that I can be healthy?

The short answer to this question is “Yes, biologicals gave me back my life”. I’m lucky that I can give that answer, but that topic is for another blog.

But many people, including myself, who suffer from chronic disease feel that their medication is not the only important thing. Tragically, for others there is still no medication that really helps. So we search for other ways to find well-being. In my last blog I named four things that help me: diet, sport, managing stress, experiencing beauty and joy.

Healthy Vegetables alexandr-podvalny-unsplash
Healthy vegetables

These are all important for happy living. But do I think that these things can make a difference to my AS? One thing is for sure, I would like to believe that I can influence my own health. I want to feel empowered and to control my disease.

Western medicine is responsible for the administration of medication. We have specialist doctors, who we hopefully trust and confide in. But, with health choices outside our medication they often can’t help us much, because they don’t know. The knowledge is simply not there, and good clinicians will not engage in unproven theories. It is understandable that a doctor who is trained in Western medicine will generally not recommend treatments, which are not scientifically proven to work. In fact, if a doctor believes that an alternative therapy is harmful, which some quack remedies undoubtably are, then she will try to stop her patient using them.

Most of us know lots of people who offer advice about “alternative treatments”, or eating differently,  which sports are best, or how to reduce stress, and so on. And there is no shortage of stuff in the internet, about people who claim to have “cured” AS. We search through the jungle of literature, different alternative treatments, perhaps finding things that really seem to help, but maybe wasting precious energy and money with things that don’t work, or even fall for a Charlatan and make ourselves worse with something harmful.

At the end of the day most of us believe that we have found some things that work for us. One friend with AS drinks a whisky every evening. That’s his tonic. My belief is that I feel worse the next day, if I drink alcohol. But, I still drink a glass of wine occasionally!

Not so healthy processed vegetables! christin-hume-unsplash
Not so healthy processed vegetables!

If there is any serious research on the subject of whether an evening whisky helps reduce AS symptoms, it would probably say it doesn’t, or at best that the evidence is inconclusive. What makes many therapies work, is that we believe in them. I think this is true of many alternative treatments, such as homeopathic pills, which contain no measurable therapeutic substances. It is belief when patients react positively after receiving placebos in clinical trials. Indeed sometimes they even know they are receiving a placebo, and still feel better.

People suffering from serious or chronic disease need hope. They don’t want to feel helpless. They need to believe that they can influence their health.

Alternative therapies, which are not scientifically based, can give this hope. They can harness the power of belief in cure or at least improvement. They don’t have to keep within the boundaries of scientific knowledge, which may make believing in recovery harder. And many people who offer these treatments, do indeed have great powers to make people feel better: about themselves in their body, mind and soul.

A treatment that harnesses both the powers of belief and of science, and gives patients hope would be the best therapy in my opinion. Until the biologicals worked I had no hope; in a state of despair I could not mobilize any healing powers. Shamans give belief and hope, and there are many documented examples of how they can work wonders. But science is not the focus of shamanic healers, and when it comes to HIV/Aids for example, anti Retroviral therapy prevents a lingering death, and nothing else reliably does.

Can medical doctors also harness the power of belief and hope, without losing the science? I believe that they can and should, but that needs a view of the patient as a whole person in a system and in her environment, and not letting the insights of technology and science reduce a patient to a sick organ. Only a person seen in their entirety will respond to hope.

Finally, medicine starts with scientific health research, so that also needs to broaden its perspective. One way in which that is happening will be the subject of my next blog.

And by the way, my TEDx Talk is also finally online. Please do watch it and pass it on to anybody who might be interested.

Thanks to Dr. Jody Staehlin for feedbacks and helping me to clarify my thoughts… and I would welcome your comments on what I’ve written, please feel free to start a conversation about these subjects close to our hearts.