‘Twas the night before Christmas and despite the sleeping spouse, there was still one stirring in the Chiarian’s house. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care as she hoped despite the pain, she’d be able to be there. The family was nestled all snug in their beds, while fear of disappointment danced through her head.

While everyone’s talking about holiday cheer and how there’s laughter in the air, for the chronic pain patient it’s not that easy to get into the holiday spirit. We remember the happier holidays of the past and all that people want to see in us, but there are so many thoughts acting as obstacles in our path.

Will I have the spoons (energy) that I need to make it through the day?
We speak of energy in terms of spoons (The Spoon Theory, by Christine Miserandino). We know what it was like to have normal levels of energy to accomplish tasks and how much more energy every task requires now that our bodies went crazy. You don’t appreciate the energy it takes to get ready for something until you need a nap after every shower you take.

What will I do if I experience a pain flare and how will everyone else respond to me if I do?
Almost worse than the pain itself is living in fear of the pain, especially when we know how it seems to ruin everything for everyone, not just us. For the patient and their family, they know far too well how pain can ruin even the most important of occasions. And for the patient, we know the look on the faces of those we love when we have to cancel or depart early. It’s one thing to see those faces a time or two in a lifetime, but it’s a lot harder when it happens time and time again, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Will I be able to engage?
People rarely realize how much time we really spend alone (or at least alone in our thoughts). We think about so many things. Should I tell them about what I’m facing? Should I answer how I’m really feeling, or just say, “I’m fine”? Am I talking too much about my conditions? Is it just me and my brain, or is it them? Are my feelings about this even rational? Am I losing my mind? Most of these thoughts are actually healthy thoughts, but when we second guess engaging with the world and live in constant fear of offending, it becomes detrimental to the way we see our value on this earth.

How many days of pain will I experience after the holiday is over?
We’ve learned from those times that we’ve tried to “push through the pain,” that this will be a factor nearly 100% of the time. While the healthier us could push through the pain, that often backfires when it comes to chronic pain. After a few hours of festivities (no matter how light the festivities seem to be), our nervous systems usually respond to the stress with inflammation and pain (which can last several days or even weeks).

Will I live up to what’s expected of me or am I going to let down everyone I love, yet again?
Even when nobody around us expects much from us, there’s always a part of us that still longs to be like our former selves – to have the strength and energy that we once had. The truth is, despite everything we’ve been through, we want to be more for those that we love. Our lives were forever altered and reconciling that with a lifetime of dreams isn’t easy. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves, we’re mourning and trying to adapt to the reality of all that we face. It hasn’t been easy on our families either, they’re in mourning too. Chiari/comorbids have stolen hopes and dreams from all of us, but we don’t have to let it dominate us. We can figure it all out together and be a stronger family for it!

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Making homemade stockings and cutting flowers for wreaths.

Baking treats and devouring them with hot cocoa by the tree that we spent hours decorating.

Shopping for just the right gifts and wrapping them meticulously, so those I love know just how special they are.

I remember all the traditions that we did together as a family before my symptoms hit hard.

Now, I am reduced to shopping the internet for gifts, but still, I do the best I can to find something special.

I usually start out trying to help decorate, just to end up on the couch watching everyone do what I can no longer do.

I sit here and watch despite the pain I feel from the few decorations I put on the tree because I so want to stay a part of things as much as I can, while I can, even if it’s nothing more than a shadow of what I once was.

Do they know how much I still long to be a part of it all? How much I long to be a part of them?

I sit here and as I ponder how much things have changed and all that I am now, I find myself stuck in my head.

Do they see how stuck I am?

Do they see how afraid I am, that each holiday might be the last that I have with them, and they have with me?

I’ve got to get out of my head and be present.

The best present that I can give them really is just me, fully engaged in showing them that they’re the best that has ever happened to me!

The week before Christmas in my home is filled with gift wrapping, cookie baking, dogs barking, people talking (loudly)… On a normal day, we feel the pain in the stiff neck, the backache, the headache, (the list could go on). When we are surrounded by stressors, they can take a toll on a person, especially a chronic pain patient, so it’s important that we “just take a minute” when it’s needed.

Christine Miserandino created a theory called The Spoon Theory as she struggled to explain her chronic pain (from Lupus) to a friend. The theory basically goes like this. Every day we get twelve spoons. Every activity we do uses a spoon or more. For example, a shower may use three spoons, leaving us only nine for the rest of the day. During this time of year, we have to be careful how we use our spoons, so we aren’t trying to borrow spoons from the next day/week, because the old adage is true… what we do today, we pay for tomorrow.

I’m learning to let go of things that I simply can’t do anymore or ask for help when it’s available. If you have family, ask for help and put them to work. Let them wrap the gifts or do the cookies. Allow them to help. I’m not very good at that. I know how I like my stuff done, but I’m learning to be gracious even if it’s not all ‘my way.’ I saw a meme the other day that said, “the first Christmas wasn’t perfect so it’s okay if yours isn’t either.” There are no truer words.

Many of us struggle with sensory overload. We can’t deal with loud noises, flickering lights, crowded places, etc. I have chronic tinnitus. It’s always there. So, when it gets too loud for me – when people are over-talking each other, the TV is blaring, grand-kids are running, and the dogs are barking – I excuse myself and I go to the bathroom and take a few minutes to just ‘be.’ They really will not follow ya to the bathroom, so take your moment and breathe, and allow peace to come in. Do that as many times as you need to. I promise it makes a difference. If you are asked, just say, “Well, I have to do what I got to do,” and let that be that.

I hear many times of families who just aren’t very understanding or supportive. We will not convince them in one visit. Michelle Cole wrote an amazing article called Dear Family. It’s on how to tell families and friends what we need from them. I would encourage all to read that. Should there be that one family member who just starts on how yoga helps or how we aren’t praying enough, whatever their “answer” is for our issues, as much as we would like to come back at them, don’t! It’s not the time, and it’s not worth the spoons, so for their sake and the sake of others there (and for your sanity), just let it go. We know the truth. We know some will never understand no matter what, because honestly unless it happens to them, they can’t know. Enjoy your day no matter the naysayers.

Pace yourselves. Do a little each day. Epsom salts baths are a Godsend for me because they help tired sore muscles and joints. If your body says to ‘lay down,’ listen. Our bodies dictate what we need and we have to be mindful. Remember, stress exacerbates our symptoms. As best you can, try to be as stress-free as possible. I know it’s hard. I really do, but none of us need or want a flare (or to spend the next week in bed). Remember, if you can’t do anything (if you can’t do the first cookie, wrap the first gift, buy the first gift), that is okay too! It really is! Above all, give yourself grace! Oftentimes, we extend grace to others but leave ourselves out. Don’t do that! Give yourself grace and while you’re at it, give yourself a little holiday hug!

I pray we all have the best Christmas, remembering why it’s celebrated in the first place. As the admin of our Chiari Prayer Group, my prayer is “May God bless you and keep you. May The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace!” (Numbers 6:24-26)

My sister asked me how she could pray for us specifically. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

As we lift up a warrior fighting EDS, Chiari, and/or Comorbids,
We are believing You for:

Knowledgeable doctors/surgeons
With hearts for the patients that are trusting them
Ears to hear them
And a willingness to unlearn and relearn

CSF leaks to seal
Cranial masses to disappear
Narrowed venous structures to widen
And cranial pressures restored to normal

Sticky filums to release
Stretched spinal cords to retract
Conus Medullaris’ to rise
And elongated medullas restored without consequence

Collagen restored without mutation
Intravertebral discs moving back into their rightful place
Laxity issues resolved
Straightened odontoids and clivus bones
And craniums to rise

Spines to straighten
Cerebellar tonsils to rise
CSF flow restored
And syringes (syrinxes) dissipated

Muscles reconditioned
Paralysis reversed
Vision completely restore
Ringing in the ears to cease

Habitual good night’s rests
No insomnia, painsomnia, chronic fatigue, or narcolepsy
Breathing issues corrected
Restless legs calmed

Nerves decompressed
Even vagus restored
Motility perfected
Inflammation gone
And pain a thing of the past

Depression replaced
Hearts seasoned with grace
Families restored
Where no one’s needs are ignored

Thank You, Father,
That despite all we’ve endured,
Your grace continues to be sufficient.
That none of this has taken You by surprise;
You knew all we’d face, yet You still chose each of us and call us Yours.
Our hope is in You and You alone,
The Author and Perfector of our faith,
We stand on Your promise that You still have a plan for each of us!
We might not know what it is or understand how we’ll get there,
but You are a good Father, and we trust You completely.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen!

(Note: This prayer was written to become a collaborative prayer, that we can add to as needed.)

It started with a headache,
But it didn’t go away.
Soon I would find out
That it was here to stay.

They all say, ‘the sun’s out,
go out and get some air!’
But my wobbly legs ache,
not to mention every strand of my hair.

Every Doctor says, ‘You look just fine!
It must be stress. Just get some rest.
Here’s more meds to try to help,
And we’ll run a bunch of tests.’

As time went on and
the headaches got worse,
No meds would work
This felt like a curse.

I couldn’t work.
I couldn’t clean.
I couldn’t cook.
Still not knowing what this means.

I wouldn’t give up
Until I knew what was wrong.
It’s a Chiari Malformation,
So you must stay strong.

So, I have a malformation
In the back of my head.
There isn’t a cure
So I plead and I plead.

Please take this away
And I promise I’ll be the best.
I want to live my life
Please just run some more tests.

“Brain surgery may help you
But it’s not a guarantee.
We will remove part of your skull
And you should be headache free.”

As I walked into surgery
I felt a sense of peace.
I just knew I would be better
And it put my mind at ease.

Two surgeries later
And my symptoms are still here.
There’s no more options or treatments
And my pain won’t disappear.

My new life is different
And not what I had planned.
I still don’t know my purpose
And I don’t know where I stand.

One day at a time.
That’s all I can endure.
So I’ll keep raising awareness
Until Chiari Malformation has a cure.

Today is 11th April, 2019. Spring is in the air, yet I struggle to appreciate its presence. My daughters are at school, my son is at home in bed yet again. Like so many other days he is unable to get up. My son is 19 years old and looks just like any other 19 year old. You would never guess that this 19 year old is fighting a tremendously unfair battle every single day and has done so for several years.

Let me rewind.

My son was around 9 years old when he first complained of a lack of feeling on his right side and regular headaches. Doctors in Ireland, where we were living at the time, told him to drink more fluids after his daily soccer practice and put the numbness down to a trapped nerve. When he was 14 years old and living in Canada, he was told exactly the same by doctors there. However, when I finally insisted on him being referred to a neurologist, this very neurologist laughed at my son for wasting his time. He was told that it was all in his head. I vividly remember telling him off myself in the carpark on our way home.

I also remember being disappointed about his worsening school reports, blaming the onset of teenage years for his inability to concentrate and retain information. Blurred vision was also dismissed when his eye test came back just fine. Doctors didn’t grow concerned until he was 16 years old and living in France when a routine soccer medical check-up showed a sudden scoliosis deterioration from 8 degrees to 40 degrees. Subsequent MRIs showed Chiari Malformation (CM) with extensive Syringomyelia.

Neurosurgeons were quick to reassure him that all should be fine after a decompression surgery. Nevertheless, I spent hours researching these unknown rare conditions and found two experienced neurosurgeons, one in England and one in Belgium, for second opinions. Whereas surgeons in France took a more traditional approach and talked about inserting a shunt, both these surgeons warned strongly against this and so we made the decision to go to Belgium for the surgery. We felt well informed and were full of hope when my son embarked on his healing process 3 years ago.

Let me tell you where we are now.

Doctors in Europe tell us that my son is one of the unlucky few as his health has drastically deteriorated. Scar tissue has attached itself to his brain tonsils but that only explains part of his deteriorated health. So I embarked on a mission to get to the bottom of these problems. Surely there was hope to be found in the health system in France, one of the best in the world! After countless appointments with multiple health professionals, we were dumbfounded by the complete lack of understanding, knowledge and pure arrogance in relation to CM and its associated conditions, which resulted in my son’s mental health being questioned yet again.

I started carrying out my own research, which clarified the distinct link between brain disorders and compromised immune/digestive systems. Whereas his doctors are reluctant to make that link, the evidence is clear. 18 months after surgery, my son got struck down by glandular fever. Again, we were hopeful that this would only be a temporary setback. Today however, my son suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome as well as dysautonomia.

At our wits end last summer, we turned to a hospital in the United States that specialized in Chiari Malformation. Our first consultation with its Managing Director turned out to be an eye opener. This neurosurgeon could literally finish our sentences. My son was finally understood. It turns out that doctors in Europe had failed to diagnose another condition, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which caused craniocervical instability. This in itself can be a debilitating condition but the combination of craniocervical instability with brain decompression surgery can be a death sentence. He further explained that such patients are deemed to benefit from Occipitocervical Fixation (OC) Fusion surgery. However, this surgery has not yet received the green light for these conditions from Health Services in Europe.

Armed with a diagnosis of Complex Chiari, we faithfully returned to my son’s French doctors, only to be met, yet again, by a lack of understanding. My request for an upright flexion/extension MRI was seen as outlandish and peculiar. Turns out, an upright MRI is not yet available in France. Instead they still rely on flexion/extension X-ray images which fail to adequately detect craniocervical instability.

In recent discussions, our son’s Belgian neurosurgeon cautiously recognizes the link between CM and EDS. However, as these studies are in their infancy in Europe, doctors still carry out decompression surgeries without checking for EDS. He also questions the durability of an OC Fusion but agrees that much more extensive research needs to be carried out in Europe and that my son is extremely unfortunate this hasn’t happened yet.

So where does this leave my son? In the land of limbo. Knowing that Europe is trailing some 10 years behind the States in this field. France, with its inherent reluctance to change, probably closer to 15 years. School is no longer an option for my son as his brain fog and memory loss have become more and more of a problem, his fatigue too debilitating and his headaches too frequent.

We are tired of fighting the system, tired from having to spell out the name of his conditions to health professionals, tired of being misunderstood. There are days I avoid going out as I don’t want to answer people’s well-meant questions. There are days I am ashamed of the anger that wells up inside me when friends air their worries about their children’s school results. There are days I feel like I am being punched in the stomach when I see his friends play a soccer match. People tell me I am strong. I don’t agree. I wish I had been strong all those years ago and believed my son over his doctors.

My son is my hero. My son is a fighter. My son has generally done what health professionals told him to do, taken every medication health professionals told him to take, followed the advice health professionals told him to take, yet the system continues to let him down. When I look into my son’s eyes, I still see this steadfast determination but I now also see pain and disillusionment. My son believed me when I told him we would overcome this together. My son believed me when I told him the worst would be over soon. My son doesn’t believe me anymore. I feel that I have failed him.

Complex Chiari diagnosed so late is a life sentence. It has brought pain, sadness and isolation, not only to my son but to my entire family. My husband and I are learning to compartmentalize, enjoy moments. We live in hope that our son’s better periods will begin to lengthen and pick ourselves up every time these come to an abrupt end. We have to. We owe it, not only to our son but to our daughters too.

We continue our journey through the unknown, thankful for the sources of information coming from the United States, usually met with skepticism and resistance by French health professionals. However, one thing I have learned from our journey so far is that we cannot fight these conditions and health services alone. Surely there must be more people out there in Europe. Surely, as a group we can start making a difference. Let’s unite! Let’s educate! Let’s raise awareness! Our children deserve so much better! Our children deserve to be heard, supported, and at the very least, understood!

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Like any marriage, we’ve had our rocky moments. We’ve both showed our ugly sides more than we like to admit. I’m not sure when he changed, but somehow along the way in our 27 years of marriage, my husband morphed into this amazing man who is EXACTLY what I need in every way!

My husband doesn’t have the same responsibilities that most husbands have. He works full-time to provide for his family and does more than his fair share of household chores. But my husband has a wife with several chronic conditions. He has a wife that has been in some level of pain almost every day for over 18 years! He’s seen me through ten surgeries since we’ve been married, eight of them being in a five-year period. That is enough to exhaust the strongest of men, but exhausted or not he has stood by my side through all of it.

I first became symptomatic following a car accident. We were both 29 with three young kids (ages 2, 5 and 8). I was initially diagnosed with double whiplash, but when that failed to get better, I was left with no reason for why I couldn’t hold up my head. It felt like my neck lacked the strength to hold up my head for more than an hour at a time and on some days, not even that. To add insult to injury, I went without a diagnosis for over a decade. It couldn’t have been easy to stay by my side when all the doctors were saying that they couldn’t find anything wrong with me.

Over our decade without answers, I continued to decline. I started having severe cognitive decline and memory loss. I’d have periods of time where I lost my ability to walk and use fine motor skills (so I couldn’t write or pick up small things). He helped me walk to my classes and even helped me do my homework when I couldn’t write. He didn’t have the answers, but he knew that I desperately needed them, and he was determined to stay by my side even though by doing so it was putting an unfair burden on him. He didn’t have the help-meet that he needed in life. He just had this sick, scared wife, with no means to any end to her suffering.

When I was finally diagnosed, the choice for decompression was an easy one. It was 2010 and I was now 39 years old. I had lost 10 years and the possibility of getting my life back and engaging as a wife and mother again was something that I couldn’t pass up. We never expected this “easy surgery” to take the turn that it did. We knew that there was a chance that it would be unsuccessful at relieving all of my symptoms, but never in a million years did we think that decompression would open Pandora’s Box on my need for surgeries. From 2012-2015 I needed seven additional surgeries. Each surgery had its own recovery and complications. And with each additional surgery, I became increasingly dependent on my husband for help, but not once did he complain. This was affecting his life too, but not once did he concentrate on that. Not once did he think of it as being unfair to him to have to care for me, even though it really was. I’m now covered with scars on my left side from my neck to my groin, one night he raised my pajama shirt and gazed intensely upon them. He started kissing them. When he got to the scars covering my stomach, I pushed him away and with tears in my eyes, I told him that I wasn’t comfortable with him touching me there. He looked me in the eyes and told me that he didn’t see me the way that I see myself. He said that when he sees my scars, he’s reminded of all that I’ve had to fight through and what a strong woman he’s married to. “I wish that you could see yourself the way that I see you,” he exclaimed. All my insecurities just melted with his words of affirmation.

This man who vowed to love me for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, really meant it, and those vows were continually put to the test every day of his life. And he wasn’t seeing the polished-up version of me that others tend to see. He saw the frustrated me, the defeated me, the hopeless me. The me that went from one pair of pajamas to another. The me that gained over a hundred pounds on nerve meds that ultimately made me worse. The me that started to stutter and slur and hated myself for it. The me that drooled in front of people and whose nose ran uncontrollably when I sat down to eat. The me that lost control of both her bladder and bowels and that had to wear a diaper for years. The me that no longer could wipe herself or shower without his help. The me that took so much of my pain and frustrations out on him, when he’d take all of it upon himself in an instant if he could save me from it. Not only does he not complain or criticize, but he became my biggest cheerleader in life!

He listened to me as I read studies to increase my knowledge on what I’m facing. He lets me yell to him about the incompetency of doctors. He’d make small jokes to help me make light of the seriousness at hand. When he forgot things, he’d say that he was having a “Chiari moment.” I’d remind him that he wasn’t the one with Chiari and he insisted that it was sympathy pains. When he developed a herniated cervical disc and we looked at his MRIs together, the first words that came out of his mouth were, “well, I don’t have a Chiari Malformation,” as he pointed at the cerebellar tonsils. I often feel so unworthy of his love, yet if you talked to him, he’d tell you how unworthy he is of my love.

There’s no denying his real role in my life; he’s my hero!

*This article is dedicated to my husband, Johnny (my hero and the love of my life) and to all the other couples trying to hold a marriage together through this crazy fight we face.  

I’m in an abusive relationship. It’s not a romantic one at least, not in the traditional sense of the word.

When I fell in love with her, she reminded me of a goddess. She was beautiful and kind. She never took no for an answer. She was unstoppable. She was an inspiration. To me and to everyone around her. She made me feel the highest high.

As time went on, I watched my goddess like creature slowly turn to stone. She suddenly became cold. She wanted me to stop caring about everything: my friends, my family, my hobbies, my career. She just wanted me to stay inside with her and listen to her. She wanted all my attention.

It started with bashing other people. Telling me why they didn’t deserve my time. She blanketed her insecurities by saying I was better than dealing with other people’s problems and to put myself first which really meant her and her illnesses.

Once I isolated myself from the people that I once would have laid my life down for, she turned it on me. There was no more self-love. Instead she instilled self-doubt. I wasn’t good enough to have friends and family, and love and happiness. I deserved her miserable and toxic company. All this emptiness was my fault and now I must live with it and her forever.

After she attacked my mind she started on my body. I had bruises everywhere. She’d trip me and push me into the walls. I was so sore and tired. I couldn’t eat. I lost so much weight.

All the confidence she once gave me was gone. I didn’t care anymore what I looked like. I didn’t do my makeup or change my clothes for days. Why should I? She is the only one who loved me and now she’s turned on me. I’ll stay in my sweat stained shirt forever. Maybe it will keep her away from me so I can be in peace.

It didn’t. Clothed or unclothed, it didn’t matter where I was, what time it was, or who I was with. She was always in my ear whispering about how much I’ve changed and how ashamed of me she was. Her presence made me vomit. She gave me headaches that lasted for days. I wanted to kill her.

I started to hate her. I hated her for making me hate myself. And every time I would get close to telling her to stay away from me forever, I would get flashbacks of that goddess. The girl who laughed in the face of fear. The girl who made me feel the best I’ve ever felt. I know she’s still there. I can’t give up on her.

When did she get so callous? Maybe if I can track down what triggered her abrupt change, I can help her get back to herself. What made her so abusive?

I need her to get back to who she really is. Who is she anyways? She is me. I am her. She is the reflection in the mirror that I refuse to look in the eye. She is my body before and after this disease. She is my greatest love and my mortal enemy. But can I live without her? How can I end this cycle? I can’t. I can’t walk away. I must continue to be destroyed and only hope that goddess will reappear. That her glow will radiate into my soul and warm me. That I can look at her and see love and not despair; that I can love this broken diseased soul that makes me who I am.