What I learned after 10 months of being sick and stuck in my apartment

SheKnows, AUGUST 4, 2016 AT 8:00AM AM EDT

What I learned after 10 months of being sick and stuck in my apartment

What’s the longest you’ve ever been alone? Last fall, I was diagnosed with an illness that had progressed to the point of absolute debilitation, and I’ve been homebound for the last 10 months. As a result, the longest I’ve been totally alone is around five weeks straight, with about seven brief interruptions by grocery delivery drivers — who’d wind up inching back from me as I babbled away about anything, anything at all.

I’m recovering from severe B12 deficiency, which destroys the protective myelin sheath around my nerves, brain, and spinal cord. This process causes damage all over the body, but the most pertinent symptom here is trouble walking. On bad-ish days, I walk like a pregnant robot, my movements stiff and my legs bowed out.

I live alone at the bottom of a condo complex that slopes down into a gorgeous tree-covered canyon. Peaceful? Oh my goodness, so yes. But also completely inescapable since I can’t drive. The renowned transit was a big reason I moved to Portland, but my bus stop lies at the top of that big ole hill. It might as well be Everest.

More: How a vitamin deficiency nearly paralyzed me

My close local friends are mighty in quality, but very few in quantity — and they have busy lives of their own. I was also in so much pain this winter that I usually didn’t want to see anyone. It just hurt too bad, and I just didn’t have the energy.

Things have been improving lately. I’ve been “able to people” about 15 percent of the time. (Woo!) But since that hill became my peaceful prison nearly a year ago, I’ve been alone more like 95 percent of the time.

It was really difficult. There’s no need to tiptoe around that. Some days I felt abandoned, and rational or not, it felt like I had no one at all — like I had disappeared and the world was just fine and dandy without me. (I’ve definitely decided to put down some real roots when I get out of here.) It was one of the darkest times of my life, and on some days, I honestly didn’t know if I’d get out the other side.

But as I get further away from the dark times, it’s becoming clear that this experience has actually been wildly beneficial. Facing darkness brings truth, and has helped me to see more clearly. I was able to really think about what I want from life and relationships. I made some really solid goals, and I was able to gain a healthier perspective on my past. (Plus, I finally got to grow my eyebrows out to find my “natural arch” sans anyone seeing the furry stage, huzzah.)

Another fun result of all this alone time is a definite increase in silliness. I’m singing at the top of my lungs, I’m talking to myself, giving self-fives (which I realize I stole from Liz Lemon), I’m writing without censor, I’m tanning in my underwear — I’ve actually had some really good days!

But the biggest aspect of it all has been reflection. I’m a spiritual person, a meditator, a writer. I like to reflect. You could even call it a hobby, but this was fucking intense. During the worst times, I was lucky to sit upright for an hour. Sound often irritated me intensely, and I was in too much pain and too weak to even hold up a book. Very literally all I could do was think. (And I took up bird-watching. I’m going to keep it.)

At some point in all the reflection, I realized that I’ve often bounced off of everyone in my life instead of moving from my own center. Other people’s reactions, and more specifically, my fear of them, had taken over my interactions, creating a distance between me and everyone in my life. I saw how this affected my relationships, and I wondered if others struggled with their own version of a similar problem. I mused on the façades we all wear.

Then I wrote a book about it. And I even found an agent, a good one. We’ll see what happens with it all, but I’ve never felt closer to having a work life that satisfies me. My relationships have become much more authentic (for better or worse), and I feel more connected to myself than I ever have.

I don’t recommend that anyone spend 10 months alone in their apartment by choice. It’s not as spectacular as that — but it’s really made me see the value in developing comfort with being alone. I feel like I’m gonna be a force when I finally bust out of here, and it’s exciting indeed.

Fake it ’till you make it, unless you’re at the doctor: 7 lessons for the chronically ill

Guest post by Meghan Grunow, 2016

If you told me fifteen years ago that one day I’d be smoking weed and watching movies all day, and I’d be upset about that fact, I wouldn’t have believed you. However I suppose even in my stoner hayday if you told me that was the only thing I could do, I’d have considered it for a minute, but eventually declined.

I’ve fallen ill, I guess that’s the word — ill. I’ve fallen worthless is what it feels like. Not that I’m not fabulous on the inside still, I’m awesome, but my body has taken to no longer working, so the fab’s pretty hard to show.

It started out with getting what I thought was the flu a few times a year, in 2009. The number of “flus” crept up, and up, and up. This fall it never left, and a whole miserable host of symptoms had piled on by then, it’s truly been a nightmare. It seems to be something with my nervous system, I’m currently awaiting the MRI results of my brain. If you ever wonder how to make time cease to move… oy!

Vacuuming isn’t hard. But when you have a chronic condition that causes fatigue issues like I do, sometimes it falls by the wayside. There are… Read more

Health-wise, a good day is where I’m able to cook a meal and do some dishes, or draw or write, for an hour or two. Many days all I can do is just lie here — as sound is irritating, and my arms are too weak to hold a book. I’ve taken a liking to bird watching. I think I’ll keep it.

This has been such a bizarre experience, but I’ve learned some things along this journey…

1. You have to be your own advocate and medical researcher

Which can be really difficult when it feels like every single friggin’ thing in your body is malfunctioning. But it’s not actually every single thing, it’s tons of individual things, and we are the only ones who have access to exactly what those symptoms are. Make lists. Research. Don’t rely on one source of information, always cross-check. Bring up all possibilities with your doctor. If they poo-poo ideas for no good reason, find a new doctor.

2. It’s stupid that we have to pick between MD’s and naturopaths

I’ve picked one or the other over and over and neither way has worked — I think they need to be a team. Our health system is bonkers. I’m trying for a naturopath as well as a specialist this time.

3. People will have opinions on your condition

Projection is when we subconsciously take our experiences and project them onto others’, assuming their experiences and motivations are the same as our own. People will assume your illness is the same as theirs, people will think you’re faking, people will think you’re terminal. Unless what they are saying is along the lines of, “You are such a badass, I’m sure you’ll beat this, how can I help?”, or helpful and pertinent suggestions, just ignore them. They mostly mean well, but they can be really distracting. Eyes on the prize.

4. Fake it ’till you make it! Unless you’re at the doctor…

I’ve found that trying to pretend I feel good when I have to leave the house is helpful. It can distract me from my symptoms for short periods, makes me feel emotionally strong, and it feels better than the alternative. (I am of the smiley and friendly variety and not accustomed to scowling in public. People scowl back!)

However, I was doing this fake act at the doctor, which muddied the waters. I kept wondering why they didn’t seem to be listening to my words: “this has completely stolen my life,” “this is very urgent,” “extreme pain.” I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously at all.

As things have progressed my ability to “fake it” is disappearing. And now my docs are taking me seriously! Jeebus. I’m real in front of doctors now. Even though there’s a bit of me that’s incredibly desirous of pleasant social interactions — that’s not the time or place. Save it for the cab, and be real with the doc.

5. But don’t cry

They’ll think you’re hysterical and call “anxiety issues”. Unless you’re a man. Then your condition must be really bad.

6. You’ll learn about your friendships

I thought I had a great crew of friends in Portland, people came to my parties, and I had more invites than energy to attend them. Of that big ol’ gaggle of peeps… know how many I’ve seen since it got bad three months ago? TWO.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Maybe I was spreading myself too thin friend-wise, and not putting in enough time? Or is this just what happens when we get older, and lives get crazier? One thing’s for sure, I’m going to take finding a partner much more seriously once this is over…

7. Solitude

As a single person living alone, I’ve been all by myself like 98% of the time since it got bad. However, being a single person living alone is my doing — I like solitude. I don’t like to be around people when I’m miserable and cranky. (See: #4, also likely contributor to #6.) This time has really cemented my relationship with me; I know myself really fucking well, and I love myself dearly. No matter what that MRI says, I think that that fact is going to help me get better.

6 life lessons for introverts who love people-time

Guest post by Meghan Hartley, 2015

I am an outgoing introvert. Oxymoron, you say? Nope, you said wrong!

People frequently clump shyness and introversion together as the same thing, but it’s not. It was an “ah-ha” moment when I learned the actual definition of introversion. It has nothing to do with shyness, which is a fear of social situations.

An introvert is someone who is introspective by nature. Engaging in said introspection is what recharges an introvert. Being alone to sort through one’s conscious feelings and thoughts is imperative to the introverted person. Extended social time is draining to an introvert. When shit hits the fan an introverted person generally doesn’t say, “I need to call so and so now,” they say, “I need to be alone, bugger off!”

There’s a range of introversion (like everything, ’tis a very gray world, not black and white), and some introverts would really prefer everyone bugger off most of the time. Then there are people like me who adore people-time, but get exhausted from it. I love connecting with others. I need to connect with others. I adore telling stories and shooting the shit. I’ll get just as cranky if I go a couple days without decent conversation as I do if I don’t get my recharge time! It’s a very careful balance, and one that perplexed me before I pinpointed exactly what was going on.

To sum up, folks on this area of the intro-extroversion scale (ambiverts) need to have quality people-time, just as much as we need to have quality no-people-time. If either side weighs too heavily we feel “unsorted.” Bajiggity. I know that’s not a real word, but I find it perfect to describe the anxious-emo-crankiness that I get from unbalanced people-time expenditure.

But I’ve done some research on this topic, primarily by feeling awkward at social commitments, just to give fellow people-time loving introverts these tips…

Figure out CaveTime

Sort out how much awesome alone time you personally need. For me it’s three good chunks (four-ish hours) a week, at least. Any less and the bajiggity sets in. I generally enjoy even more!

Make time for CaveTime

Actually schedule it, and commit. It can be hard if something comes up to be like, “oh, no, I have plans to hang out by myself.” But remember that it’s more than that. It’s what you need to recharge and maintain a balanced and pleasant mental landscape — it is very important. If you do need/want to do something else, reschedule CaveTime and make sure to fit it in later.

Make CaveTime plans

How exactly are you going to spend your treasured alone time? If the answer is “I dunno… dinner and hanging around the house,” that’s not good enough! What are you going to cook? Are you going to watch a movie? Pick out a really good one in advance. Are you going to do something creative? Get amped about whatever you’re making. Will you hike? Where? Find new music? How? Pin it down. Planning a proper night will help you commit to CaveTime, as well as making sure that you get the most out of it.

Kick FOMO’s ass

I used to have a serious case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out, it’s totally a real thing). I had a really hard time saying no to invites, then I’d wind up feeling awkward — wishing I was home with a paintbrush, or a notepad, or Netflix, or whatevs. Now I say “maybe.” Maybe is a truly magical word.

Pick your people-time carefully

Check in with yourself to see how you feel after spending time with someone, or a group of people. You will find some people to be more draining than others. Choose people that you have a genuine connection with. I wrote an article here awhile ago about pros and cons of coupling and a few of you commented that you’ve found partners that don’t even count as “people”! Like, you can CaveTime with them there and still feel recharged! Mannnn, that’s sexy.

Try going out alone

I find that I often enjoy quality introspective time, as well as snippets of fun and interesting conversation when a book is my only partner in crime. Sometimes I show up early when meeting friends so I can recharge a bit before hanging.

Prepare for people-filled times

Wedding weekend? Vacay back home? These things are a delightful nightmare for me. I have a total blast, but don’t recharge for a few days, then all of a sudden I feel super-duper bajiggity, and wind up missing out on being present for some really great times. Boooo. Recharge beforehand, make excuses to hang out solo at opportune times, and chill out CaveTime when the event is over.