As tiring as it was having a newborn (and four other little ones) on my hands last spring, a different sort of tired began to settle over me last summer. And a little nausea. And a little bloating. And some abdominal tenderness. I took a few pregnancy tests (even though I knew it would have to be next door to a miracle for them to be positive) because that's what fatigue and nausea and bloating have always meant for me before, but they were definitively negative. I waited for it to go away, but it stayed and slowly crept up in intensity.
By October my in-laws were mostly convinced I was pregnant again even though I told them I wasn't. I don't blame them. My middle had swollen, I was tired and cranky, and I would have thought I was pregnant if I'd seen me then too. At the end of October Matt finally told me to go to the doctor. I was reluctant because my symptoms were so vague and unspecific and I'd seen enough doctors in high school for vague and unspecific symptoms to know what an endless and expensive wild goose chase it can become to track down the cause. But I went.
I met a new lady doctor who was much heavier-set than I am, and I felt silly lifting up my shirt and complaining about my four-month-pregnant-looking bump, nausea, fatigue, tenderness, and general icky feeling. She felt my tummy and thought my colon felt funny and wanted to order a CT scan. I recoiled at that since our insurance is only high-end, and that $2500 would come out of pocket. I asked for an ultrasound instead, but she insisted on a CT and some blood work. A few days later the blood work showed I was not anemic, my thyroid was functioning perfectly, and only my bilirubin levels were slightly elevated (a dead-end lead we had followed up way back in high school). CT showed only an enlarged spleen (same dead-end road that has been there since high school) and a few small gallstones.
Sure that those few little stones were an incidental finding, and frustrated with another dead-end, I declined the doctor's offer to follow-up and decided to focus on getting more rest. Then Elijah acquired a two-week case of diarrhea, then Thanksgiving came, then Elijah's birthday, then Christmas, then ten days at my parents' house while we fought a nasty virus. I didn't expect to actually feel any better during any of that. But when February came along and we were all healthy and Elijah was finally sleeping through the night I was daily frustrated with my increasing level of fatigue.
I was met with another challenge in February as well: revamping our diet once again to meet our shrinking grocery budget. This was no small task and certainly added more stress to my daily routine.
It wasn't depression. Despite my many challenges, I still woke each day with ambition and eagerness, but my body just wouldn't rise to meet me. I had a lot I looked forward to doing, even with the stress, but just couldn't get done. I was tired and achy doing laundry, my middle was sore driving in the car, I felt bloated and sluggish after meals. But I kept pushing myself, because, well....what other option was there?
On Monday, March 4th I drug all five kids to an Amish store to load our cart with a 50lb bag of oats, a 50 lb bag of potatoes, a 25 lb bag of dried beans, and various other bulk groceries. I felt shaky hoisting them into the cart. I felt shaky carrying them into our house. I herded the kids inside, whipped up a quick dinner, left the kids with Matt for bedtime, and ran out to three other grocery stores after that to stock-up on a months' supply of all our essentials. I came home at 10:00pm, unloaded bag after bag, put some bread in the bread maker and collapsed in bed.
On Tuesday, March 5th I filled my mug of coffee, packed our lunch, loaded my kids up in the van, and rushed off to art class like any other Tuesday. I tried to ignore being exhausted, but I grew shaky and began to feel weak, lightheaded, and cold. I set out plates and tried to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my kids while the other moms set out their food, but a new question nagged me now: "What if I actually can't do this anymore? What if it's not a matter of pressing on and putting up with any longer? What if my body actually tells me 'No. No more.'? What then?"
At that critical combination of physical exhaustion and emotional weariness, I broke. I tried not to. Toby asked me something and my brain just wouldn't process it. I stared at him, hearing words, but not understanding them. Someone else was talking to me, but all I could think about was, "What am I going to do if I can't keep this up? I have five kids depending on me. I have to make sandwiches now. I have to." The person in the background spoke to me again. I looked my hand, holding a peanut-butter-laiden knife. It was shaking. And for the first time in my long, proud tenure are Super-mom, I had to admit to myself that I was done.
I said something to my friend like, "I'm sorry. I'm not feeling well right now." But in my heart I said, "I'm done. I can't keep going at this rate. Physically, emotionally, I'm depleted. I admit it." Several wonderful women immediately swooped in. They ordered me to lay down. They made lunch for my kids. And I lay on the couch a long time, wiping a few tears, wondering where to go from here, and feeling a little silly over it all. A friend drove me home because I was still feeling a little disconnected and I wasn't sure I was safe to drive. I laid on my couch all afternoon trying to assess my situation.
Was it a physical problem? Was it an emotional problem? Did I have a panic attack? Do I go back to the doctor? Do I just need to rest more? Finally, I called Matt at work, and I called my parents. Wednesday I rested and a friend brought dinner. Thursday Matt was off of work and I went to see my doctor. She drew more blood for labs. Friday my parents arrived to stay with me for a week and I began having chest pain. It was slight, but something I'd never felt before and stayed with me all weekend. On Monday the 11th it was worse and I had a sharp pain between my shoulder blades. I went back to the doctor feeling a little shaky. My blood pressure, which is always quite low (being no higher than 110/70 even at the end of a pregnancy) was up to 128/86. My heart rate, which is normally no higher than 70 was up to 106. So I was sent for a chest CT scan to make sure I didn't have a blood clot in my lungs, but when that and an EKG were all clear, I was sent home to rest.
The doctor scheduled an echocardiogram for the next week, to get a better look at my heart, and I spent the week trying to relax and let my parents help out. I began to have more specific and sharp pains directly under my ribcage on the right side, where my gallbladder is, and decided to look again at the possibilities that I was having gallstone complications. When my parents had to leave they graciously offered to pay someone to come to my house a few hours a week to help out with kids and chores until I got my feet back under me. I didn't know who might be able to do that, but after I mentioned the need at church I got hooked up with a homeschooling family nearby, whose 17 year-old daughter would be perfect for the job. J met our family on Monday the 18th and came for her first afternoon of work with us on Tuesday the 19th. I showed her how to run our washing machine and dishwasher, how to put the laundry away, make a few simple meals, and help the kids with schoolwork; and she rose to the challenge.
On Wednesday afternoon the chest pain began to burn. My whole chest wall burned into my armpits and up my neck. I felt lightheaded again. I called my neighbor over, afraid I was going to pass out. Matt finally told me to go to the ER, but after five hours there, another EKG, and more blood work, they gave me an IV bag of placebo-fluid and sent me on my way.
This Tuesday I went for an ultrasound of my gallbladder which showed "multiple small stones" and yesterday I met with a surgeon who said there were at least 20 stones and who was confident that these little rocks were the source of all my problems: bloating, aching, chest pains, back pains, and fatigue. He said it was a "no-brainer" to take it out now before I get a stone blocking a duct and end up with emergency surgery. I've spoken with many people now who have had their gallbladders removed and are happy with the result. I've spoken with at least one person who has delayed her surgery and tried homeopathic remedies and who wishes she would have just had the surgery. It is laproscopic, outpatient surgery, and I should be up and running again in a couple of days. So I agreed and surgery is scheduled for Tuesday April 9th.
I think these little gallstones have been, in many ways, the straw that broke the camel's back for me--enough to push me over the edge into asking for help, something I probably should have done awhile ago. In many ways, despite my physical illness, the last few weeks have been my healthiest mental weeks in awhile. So many people have stepped in to watch kids, to bring meals, and to help out. I feel cared for.
Yesterday J came for a full six hours and I left. For the first time in nine years of parenting I really left it all behind. J did the laundry, she washed dishes, she ran the homeschool, she served snacks, and she cooked and served dinner. I picked up a good book, drove to a coffee shop, and read in the quiet, soft lamplight while sipping steamed milk. For over two hours I didn't think about parenting or cooking. I thought about being a woman, and a follower of Christ. I went for a walk on a path by a stream and soaked in the sunshine and warmth of a first spring day. Even better, when I came home I found that nobody had really missed me and that things were well under control, which gives me the freedom of heart and mind to leave again the next time J comes.
The gallstones will soon be gone and hopefully with them, my aches and pains, but I'm thinking I might keep the habit of taking some time each week to take my engine from fifth gear to first, now that I know it's possible.