Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Chewing on Snakeskin: Update on Illness

by Troy Chapman

(published November 04)

It’s Halloween and today I saw a man on television from Africa demonstrating (on an old snakeskin) how he bit and crushed the neck of a giant boa constrictor after it had attacked him.

That’s relevant for two reasons. The first is that it reminded me that we all have our problems, some worse than others, and my illness fits into the category of “probably not the worst thing that can happen to a human being.” Fate could have dropped me in an African desert somewhere with a giant boa constrictor wrapped around me and my only option being to bite its neck — about the size of my bicep — in two.

Or, as Ma used to say: Things could always be worse.

The second reason the snake story is relevant is that it showed up on Dick Clark’s “Bloopers,” and I had a pretty good laugh along with the news lady who tried her damnedest to tell the story with a straight face. I’ve read that laughter is good for you when you’re sick (probably even when you’re well) so I watched a whole half-hour of Bloopers — most of which weren’t as funny as this one but I still got a few more good laughs out of it. I haven’t been doing a lot of laughing lately so I probably needed it.

As to how I’m feeling... well, like I’m about halfway though the snake’s neck. I finished up the two-week antibiotic treatment for h. pylori (the bacteria that causes acid reflux) three days ago. I had hoped the antibiotics might kill whatever else is going on — or that the cause of my problems were an extreme case of h. pylori — but that didn’t happen.

The lower intestinal seizing and dizziness continues, as do the electrical storms that come as fits throughout the rest of my body. These are very strange and when they first started about two months ago they freaked me out. This, of course, only made the attacks worse as my body broke into fight-or-flight mode (with nothing to fight and no where to fly to). This is what led the prison doctor to conclude I was having anxiety attacks and send me to “psych services.”

Well, I was having anxiety attacks but they were caused by — rather than the cause of — these other symptoms. I know this because now I’ve learned to manage the anxiety with deep breathing and relaxation even while the attack goes on through my body. Besides this, just being more familiar with the attacks and knowing that so far none of them has killed me has allowed me to keep from freaking out when they occur. (The psychologist, by the way, said there’s nothing they can do for me because she doesn’t think it’s panic disorder.)

As to what’s causing the symptoms, we don’t know. The doctor mentioned a form of “abdominal epilepsy.” Maryann and I had never heard of such a thing but when she checked it out it sure enough exists. It’s real name is abdominal myoclonus. But at this point they’re not testing for that.

Another possibility is multiple sclerosis. A friend here has it and the symptoms he described are unfortunately similar — absent the abdominal stuff, which might have been a virus that teamed up with or even triggered the alleged MS. To my knowledge this is a disease that can go in and out of remission. So far they’re not testing for that either but they are doing a CT scan of my abdomen to rule out other things.

One good thing came from talking to my friend about MS. It was his advice to not let it control you if you can help it. There are many forms of MS from mild to severe, so I’m not making a cavalier statement here about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” I know in some cases this disease is horridly debilitating.

He told me that when he first started having episodes he didn’t know what was happening, wasn’t getting much help from prison health services (was, in fact, accused of “malingering,” their euphemism for “faking” — as was I) and didn’t know whether to rest, try to move or what. He ended up getting severe depression and anxiety and was able to get some help for that. But he also learned that it only makes things worse not to go on with your life as much as you can.

He passed that advice on to me and, whether I have MS or not, it works. Now instead of waiting in fear for the next attack (or even when I get one), I’m back to taking walks (still brief and slow at this point), going to my various activities in the prison, and trying to get on with my writing and other work when I’m in my cell. This hasn’t made the attacks go away but it’s robbed them of some of their power.

I want to thank you all for your emails of support, your prayers, and medical information. It’s been invaluable. If I’m able to find some spiritual value or uplift in all this it’s a direct result of the love and support of others outside and in here. This is especially true of Maryann who, though as stressed as I am by all this, has been a champion and deserves all the credit for propping me up.

As the saying goes, behind every good man there is a good woman and behind every good woman there is a man chewing on a snake’s neck — or a dried snakeskin that only represents the snake as he recounts the tale.

Anyway, I’ve got good teeth and I’ll keep you posted. Godspeed to all of you.