What the hell happened to my health this year?

The first half of 2019 has been slightly rubbish for me. I have been promising to talk about it for a while, so here is the story about how I turned into Pikachu, stopped drinking gin and spent 5 months crying on a couch. Interestingly enough, that isn’t even an exaggeration.

It all started a couple of days after Christmas. I had an on again off again fever that would not go away, combined with a general ‘unwell’ feeling. I figured I just had a virus and spent most of the post-Christmas week in bed.

Bizarrely the time between Christmas and New Year is actually a really good time to get sick. Everyone is already out for the count because of hangovers and overeating, so being sick in bed is just another variation on the theme. And I already had time off work so there was no feeling guilty over taking sick days. After having the fever and sleeping a lot for about a week I called my doctor just in case he thought anything weird was going on.

Side note: my local GP has this fantastic scheme where you call for an appointment, but instead of just giving you one you will get a call back from a doctor. This means the GP can prevent a lot of unnecessary visits because they can triage patients and for sick old me it meant I did not have to leave my bed to get confirmation that it was as I suspected, probably a virus and I should stay in bed and have lots of water – the GP said to call back if I was still sick in another week.

I was happy with that answer…until I looked in the mirror the next day and realised I had turned yellow. My skin and the whites of my eyes were a distinct canary shade, overnight I had turned into a runny poached egg, a non-electrical Pikachu, a sad bedridden banana. I can’t tell you how disconcerting it is to wake up one morning and just be a different colour. So, I called my GP and asked for a doctor call back.

I spoke to the same GP that I had the previous day, saying I had all the previous symptoms except now…I am yellow. Yellow? Yes, yellow. Are you sure? I’m yellow, I’m not sure of anything. Now this is where the call back system is awesome, previous appointments with this GP had been between 1 and three weeks away. This time, given the weird yellow tinge, the GP told me to get down ASAP and they would see me in 15 minutes.

I somehow got myself down to the GP where the nurse had stayed late to make sure I could get a blood test. The GP was hopeful that it was nothing, but it could also be something really terrible… fun times. Fun fact: turning yellow is called jaundice and is an indication that there is something seriously wrong with your liver. The most common causes are being a newborn (I’m 30 years too late for that), alcoholism (even though I talk about gin a lot, I am under the recommended alcohol intake guidelines) or hepatitis. It was this last one that I was scared about, I had been to India a couple of months before (I will write about it at some point, promise) and the doctor thought I could have picked it up there.

Anyway, I went home and went back to bed. The doctor said the blood test results could take a couple of days so just stay hydrated, it was probably nothing, and rest up. The next morning at 7:30am I got a call from the doctor to say the blood test showed my liver was in a seriously bad way and to get to the hospital ASAP. To say I was scared was a slight understatement. I managed to keep it together until I called my parents in NZ to let them know what was happening, it was as I was saying goodbye that the tears started flowing and I couldn’t really stop.

I won’t go into all the details, that would make this post intolerably long, but in a nutshell I arrived at the Royal London Hospital, was rushed through for more tests and assigned to a magical senior doctor person (no idea of what the proper titles are). After a full day being wheeled around different corridors my magical senior doctor person decided that he was able to treat me as an outpatient because I lived by myself – which meant if it did turn out to be something highly contagious I was not going to be infecting anyone. The other reason for this is there if it was one of a few different infections there is no actual ‘treatment’ aside from rest and staying hydrated.

I spent the next week going to the hospital every day, feeling too sick to be self-conscious about the whole yellow skin debacle, to get more blood tests and ultrasounds of my liver. The doctor was trying to narrow down exactly what was wrong with me. I was trying not to cry and at the same time wondering if the NHS was actually staffed by vampires and that was the reason they wanted so much of my blood.

Ironically over those few days of being going to the hospital I went rapidly downhill. I got a seriously sore throat, lost my voice, all over body itch (imagine a full body mosquito bite), swollen glands and lymph nodes, liver felt so swollen that I couldn’t breathe properly, had zero appetite and lost a scary amount of weight – and after a few days of sitting in plastic hospital chairs I had managed to hurt my hip so I was walking everywhere with a limp. And because we didn’t know what it was there was still the possibility that I was highly contagious, so I couldn’t be around people. New year new me? Well, yes except the new me was a breathless and itchy yellow skeleton with a limp who couldn’t talk.  

To say my boyfriend was amazing during this time was an understatement. It was before we were living together, and he spent that week coming to my flat after work to cook, clean, make sure I was alive, and make endless cups of tea – all while I was sadly sitting on the couch mute and yellow. He would then wave and disappear off to his flat, because I could still be highly infectious. I just, well…love him.

Anyway, after a week or so I was referred to a liver specialist and finally got a diagnosis – I had glandular fever (or mono for the Americans). Now I think most people have had glandular fever at some point, normally at school or uni and it is not a huge deal – you miss a few classes and sleep for a month. Apparently I was super special (read this as all the doctors got excited about the unique situation) because I actually had glandular fever as a kid…you are not meant to get it twice. Oh and in my case the virus had a complete vendetta against my liver. For exactly how deep the hatred went, let me tell you a little about liver enzymes. A normal human has a level of around 25, over that week just after New Year mine was at 500. Not great. Very yellow.

I was super thankful for how the doctors treated me, even if I did feel completely in the dark most of the time (hospitals are mysterious and terrifying). Between being seen so quickly by my GP to the number and variety of tests and seeing kind and competent specialists at the hospital – this was the first time I have had a positive experience with the NHS. They are fantastic in an emergency. If you are curious, all these hospital visits, test etc cost me a grand total of £8…I only had to pay for the antibiotics and even those were subsidised.

Treatment for a fucked liver is essentially nothing, you just wait for it to repair itself. The only things that I was banned from were drinking, pain killers, fatty foods and contact sports. I am sure it will be a surprise to no-one that the only item on that list I didn’t have a problem with was the contact sports. As I became less critically ill I was desperate to feel slightly normal, but I still had to be so careful about everything that I consumed. And don’t even get me started on having your period when you are not allowed pain killers. (It was during this deeply sober experience that I realised I was sleeping on a gin pillow case, I was not amused.)

Because in case I forgot to mention, as well as getting glandular fever I had also managed to get a bad case of tonsillitis. Hence why I couldn’t talk. The doctor decided to give me steroids and two types of antibiotics (two because when you have glandular fever you are not allowed penicillin…not sure why…) to try and get rid of it. When you have liver problems it is super important to stay hydrated, but the tonsillitis was meaning I couldn’t swallow. Hence the multi prong approach.

Anyway, I spent about a month signed off work. Just at home sleeping and watching Bones series 1-12. There is no active treatment for glandular fever, so just a lot of resting and water. I have never been signed off work before, it is the strangest feeling in the world to go from 100 to 0 with no handover or anything. Just throw up an out of office and trust that the world of work will cope without you. It made me deeply uncomfortable to do that, it felt like I was shirking my duty somehow, but I was so sick that I didn’t have a choice.

Since then, I have not exactly been having fun. Almost all of the symptoms went after the first month, but true to glandular fever form the exhaustion stuck around for a long time – I am still battling with it now. Saying I’m tired is like an understatement. I don’t mean the tiredness of a sleepless night, or even that of a month of insomnia. I can only compare this type of tired to the full body ache following a three day festival binge. I have spent the last five months having to be so damn selective about what I spend my energy on, I could choose to cook myself dinner or shower or Skype my family but not all three. I had to stay at home from work when the lift was out because walking up a few flights of stairs would have ruined me. It was only at about month 4 that I managed to see friends, and it was only this month that I did five days in the office in a row (work has been amazing at letting me work from home whenever I needed it).

I have struggled so much with this exhaustion thing. I am a deeply independent person, and all of the sudden having to be so reliant on my boyfriend to just exist was a challenge. Normally if I am tired or things are not going my way I can push through, just working harder or longer is the solution. But with this I just can’t. The other part that has been a struggle is that all of my previous mental health coping mechanisms require energy. How can you possibly boost your mood when you can’t get up off the couch and even switching shows on Netflix seems like too much? I have found this year really, really hard.

I am not used to being weak, not used to crying in front of people and being so totally unable to help myself.

I think my low point was sitting on the couch crying that I felt like a terrible friend, employee, daughter, sister and girlfriend because I couldn’t contribute anything. I was cancelling all plans and didn’t have the energy to even respond to the well wishes let alone reach out to people in the way that I normally would. It has been a very introspective and challenging year.

Where am I at now? Well, I have only cried from exhaustion once this week so that must mean I am improving. But seriously I am miles and miles better. I am back to working full time, managed a weekend away in Belfast last weekend, can drink again and I sometimes have left over energy to clean or blog or work on Zeal & Heart. I think this is the best ‘work life balance’ I have ever had, I have to be ruthless about how much I do – hoarding my energy like a miserly dragon. The difference is now I can see light at the end of the tunnel. I am slowly feeling more in control of my health again, and with my current energy levels I can at least fake being a functioning human.

So…that was my health update. 2019, you can get fucked.

4 thoughts on “What the hell happened to my health this year?

  1. Dear Rebecca,
    1 – I am so, so sorry to hear how tough these few months have been. Sending you a giant hug from Auckland.
    2 – I freaking love your writing (and as a compulsive reader, I like to think I have very high standards). When are you writing a book?
    3 – as a newly trained health coach there is a long list if things I’d like to share my newly acquired wisdom on but I’ll just say this: our bodies need to scream at us when we keep not listening… and sustainable health comes from lifestyle choices. So as horrific as this must have been (can’t even imagine), maybe there is a silver lining in there for you… xx

  2. Omg Rebecca, I had glandular fever last October and am still coming around now. I’m good until I do too much or my immune system is fighting a cold etc and then I feel myself tanking again. Can’t even imagine adding all the extras into that misery. Taking 4 months to get back to full time work also nearly broke me financially, thank the lord I live in my home town again and my Mum could save the day cause 5 days sick pay doesn’t go far!
    Reading your explanation of the level of exhaustion was so damn cathartic, cause it’s so fucking hard to put into words. Its like your body is trying to shut down just because you wanted to walk to the fridge.
    Kia Kaha ❤️

Comments are closed.