Communion Of Dreams


Machado-Joseph Disease: Management trainee.

This morning I picked up my monthly meds. Basically, the same set I have been taking for almost a decade.

And as I was going through and organizing things, I realized something interesting: I’m taking *way* less of my opioids (Tramadol and Tylenol #3) now, thanks to my Medical Marijuana.

The growing MJD symptoms had started cutting into my small reserve of the opioids which had been more or less stable for years. I mentioned this in one of my first posts about MJD:

But of course, being aware of — even moreso paying attention to — more pain is, well, painful. Distracting. Annoying. So in terms of my perception, my ambient pain levels have gone up significantly in the last few weeks. I noticed recently that my use of my prescription pain meds (Tramadol, Tylenol 3 with codeine) that I’ve been on for about a decade for an intercostal tear has ticked up recently. Now, that happens, particularly when I am doing some strenuous exercise/project. There’s a sort-of natural ebb & flow to it through the year, with some months being a little higher usage, some being a little lower usage. But since we finished installing a new stamped copper ceiling in the kitchen, I haven’t been engaged in anything very physically demanding. That was six weeks ago, and I should have reverted to something closer to baseline. I haven’t.

By the time I got my MMJ card two months ago, I had pretty much used up the small reserve I had. That was a little nervous-making, since I really didn’t want to increase either the power or amount of opioids I took.

Well, in just two months of having access to MMJ, and about a month of understanding how I can best use it for my needs, things have changed. A lot. Like, I’m now taking half the amount of opioids I was (same for alcohol intake). In this short time I have already replenished my reserve. I could probably cut that further, but I’m still just using the MMJ products in the evening (very mild dosages) and overnight (mild dosages).

This disease, and the version I have, is progressive. With luck, however, I should be able to manage the symptoms, and particularly the annoying pain issues, without increasing my intake of opioids for a while. We’ll see — it’s all about learning how to manage things.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: not immune.

I just spent about 20 minutes sitting on a toilet. And so far this morning, a total of about an hour doing that.

TMI? Yeah, sorry. But I mention it because it has demonstrated a truth of which I was only partially cognizant of previously: there is no immunity from other illness when you have a chronic disease.

I mean, I knew this, but until you live with it, it’s not something you think about a lot.

See, a couple of weeks ago I started to notice a pattern of gut-grumbles I don’t normally experience. And about ten days ago it resolved into something I thought I recognized: giardiasis. Twenty+ years ago I had a bout of this, likely picked up from tainted water on a camping trip. Where I got it this time, I have no idea.

But after recognizing the symptoms, I contacted my GP clinic and got in to see a doc. Who did the necessary exam, discussed options with me, ordered the appropriate tests, and prescribed a powerful antibiotic which is the standard treatment for giardiasis, and which cured me the last time. I’m now in day 7 of that treatment, and while there are *some* indications it is working, well, I still wind up sitting on the toilet with nasty spasms every 6-8 hours or so, unless I really load up on OTC anti-diarrheal treatments. Even so, I don’t dare get very far from a bathroom for very long.

Of course, through all of this, I am still experiencing the random rotation of MJD symptoms. Joy. Now I have TWO reasons to compulsively check my health/testing accounts: to see if the MJD test results are in, and to get confirmation of the giardiasis. Because yeah, even though tomorrow will be seven weeks since the genetic test samples were collected, I’m still waiting on those results.

No one who has lived with a chronic disease will find any of this surprising. They know that it just goes with the territory. Hope you never have an opportunity to experience it for yourself.

Me, I’m going to take some pro-biotics and get a nap. Maybe the test results will be in after.

Jim Downey

Edited to add several hours later:

Spoke with my GP’s office. Turns out I did have giardia, but happily there was no sign of c. diff, which was a possible concern. So after a week of taking Flagyl, I can now stop that (that alone was probably part of the ongoing spasms & diarrhea) and work to get my system working normally again. That means increasing my probiotics, getting back to normal eating habits (with my relatively high fiber diet), and taking it easy just to let my body recover.

So, no news yet on the MJD test, but at least this other problem should resolve in the coming days.

JD



Take the long view.

Last fall, I embarked on a long-term project: doing exterior repairs and repainting our 140 year old Victorian Italianate home. As I’ve mentioned previously, this place has been in my wife’s family since the early 50s, and in all that time has basically been white with some color trim work. We’ve decided to change that, and here’s a little before & after from last fall to show you the difference:

I started back on this section of the house for two reasons: 1) it was fairly simple in terms of ‘gingergbread’, so it would give me a chance to work out the color scheme and get used to painting, and 2) the small, almost square window there in the corner actually needed a fair amount of carpentry work, to repair a stubborn leak that had caused some structural damage. I wanted to get that done before the damage got worse.

Anyway, I worked on it for a couple months last fall, until Winter settled in. And I got back to it in May, once the long and strange Spring turned reliably nice enough. I’m now finishing up work on the next major section, and as I’m inclined to do I’ve been posting progress pics on Facebook. And I’ve noticed a curious thing.

My friends have been posting encouraging comments as I go, which I expected (and hey, a little encouragement helps). But occasionally someone will post a comment to the effect that with all that I’ve accomplished, I must be getting close to being finished.

Say what?

Now, partly this is just due to the difficulty in getting a handle on just how big this place is. I mean, it’s no mansion, but it is a big ol’ 19th century farmhouse. It’s big enough that I can’t honestly take a decent pic to give a sense of the size. But take a look at the pics above. Note how there’s basically three different walls there. Got that? Yeah. Now, in total, this place has 20+ such walls (including the ones on the second story that are discrete from the ground floor walls. I also need to completely redo the 10′ wide front steps and railings, as well as the little side porch floor and railings. And about a third of the house has more gingerbread detailing that will take extra time.

Let’s put it this way: I’ll be very lucky if I can get it all done this year. Hell, I expect that it’ll take the better part of next year’s good weather to get it done.

And this seems to come as a surprise to many people.

But that’s not the curious thing.

To me, the curious thing is that a lot of people seem to think that working on something of this scale would be daunting. Intimidating. Scary. Whereas for me, it’s the most natural thing in the world, and not daunting or intimidating in the slightest.

Partly, I think that is just the perspective that comes with getting to my age (mid 60s): you tend to see larger arcs to life.

But it’s also because I’m a novelist. St Cybi’s Well took me the better part of a decade to write. Even discounting the long periods when I was just thinking through the novel, or was otherwise preoccupied, I still spent several years actually writing and rewriting it. I’m used to thinking in terms of taking the long view. Of working a little on a project when I can, slowly making progress, page by page, wall by wall. Here’s where I am currently:

For scale, that storm window is approx. 2′ x 8′.

I should get the repairs and priming done tomorrow, and the rest of the window frame painted on Monday. The storm window itself needs some repairs, then painting. Then there’s an identical one just out of the frame of the picture above.

One step at a time.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: testing time

So, late Wednesday FedEx delivered this:

That’s the sample collection kit for the MJD genetic test.

The paperwork included indicated that I could just take it to a local Quest Diagnostics and they would do the blood draw and send the samples off. I made an appointment for the next morning, and did just that. That done, now we just wait for the results. Ideally, I’ll get a copy of the results (I’ve formally requested one, and they should comply, since that’s part of the HIPPA guidelines) and not even have to meet with the Neurologists at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. About the very last thing I want to do is deal with those people again. Yes, that experience has continued to annoy me.

And on that point, on one of my recent morning walks (I walk ~3 miles most mornings), I found myself walking with a couple of neighbors for part of the time. They were chatting about healthcare for another neighbor who was recently injured, and the conversation turned to the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. I mentioned that I’d recently had to deal with the Neurology Clinic there, and they both exclaimed words to this effect: “Oh, Jim, why the hell did you do that to yourself?!?!”

Yeah, the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless has a bit of an image/reputation problem with the locals.

* * *

Late last week I also received my state Medical Marijuana card. I decided to apply for it, as part of my decision to be more active in managing my symptoms, whether they’re due to MJD or something else. Approval was all but certain, since on the ‘chronic pain’ criteria alone I qualified, having been on mild opioids for 10+ years. As I mentioned in one of my early posts about MJD, I’d noticed a persistent uptick in my use of my Rx pain meds (rather than just the occasional up and down variation I see over the months), particularly to aid in sleeping. Symptoms like Restless Leg/Arm Syndrome tend to disrupt my sleep in the early morning hours, contributing to spiraling problems associated with lack of sleep.

So I wanted something to help me sleep, without increasing my use of opioids or getting into a cycle of taking additional Rx meds. Many of my friends who deal with chronic pain has found MMJ (Medical MariJuana) to be efficacious in dealing with sleep problems, so I figured it was worth a try.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like going to a medical cannabis dispensary for the first time to make one feel *REALLY* old and out-of-touch. Seriously, I gave the budtender a nice tip not only for his assistance, but also for not calling me “Gramps”.

The whole experience was a little overwhelming, even though I had done my research and spent a fair amount of time exploring products on the dispensary’s website. It’s clear that this is still an immature industry, figuring out how to do branding/marketing, communicating with different clienteles, tapping into demographic groups who are not already savvy about cannabis use.

But I was able (with the help of the budtender) to select some different products to try. One of the problems that the industry has (at least in terms of medical use) is that the effects of cannabis are so varied, and standards so inconsistent, that pretty much the universal advice to new users is “just try a bunch of different things at small doses to figure out what works for you”.

So that’s what I’m doing at present. So far, it looks promising.

* * *

Not all the tests we face in life are big. Or obvious. Or dramatic.

Sometimes they’re just a simple challenge: how to deal with this small problem. How to help someone. How to get through the day, or night.

With luck, in another couple of weeks I’ll have more information about my MJD status, and know whether and to what degree I have the disease. I was always very good at taking tests in school, and those I’ve faced in my life since I like to think I’ve passed reasonably well.

Waiting is hard. But it is just one more test to manage, piece by piece, day by day.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: brief update

As the title indicates, this is just a brief update for those following this story.

I’m still waiting for the paperwork for the genetic test to come through. This isn’t surprising, since the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless moves at the speed of most bureaucratic institutions. It could show up any time, or not for weeks. We’ll see.

Since there isn’t any kind of ‘cure’ for MJD, and the disease progresses slowly, I think that unfortunately the medical community doesn’t tend to think that it is a pressing issue. If I had some kind of cancer, or a serious heart problem, testing and treatment discussions would have been much more aggressive. I know — I’ve had a serious heart problem.

I noted in my last blog post that I have no intention of continuing care with the Neurologists at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. I have also decided that I need to take my own care into my hands for at least the time being, until I have the test results back and arrange for a new neurologist. I know what treatments are typically used to manage the symptoms of MJD patients, as well as what my family members have found helpful, at least in the early stages of the disease, and I have taken steps to use the same/similar treatments. If it turns out that I don’t have MJD, none of these steps will cause problems.

So right now everything is about mitigation. My balance and flexibility exercises have already shown positive results. The Restless Leg/Arm Syndrome continues to show up periodically. Hand cramping and tremors still happen, particularly after I have been using my hands for intense work. Episodes of vertigo still hit me, particularly when I rotate my head or bend over. Shooting pains and ongoing aches still happen in both hands and feet, though not usually at the same time.

And something new, that I don’t recall hearing about from any of my family, though it is a classic symptom of Type 3 of MJD: instances of blurry/double vision. This isn’t debilitating (at least not yet), and only happens when I am trying to focus on something up close, but it was very surprising and disorienting the first couple of times it happened. If you’ve ever worn multi-focal lenses, it kinda feels like that when you first put them on. I’ve since learned that simply shifting my focus further away resolves the problem instantly.

So that’s where things stand. While I wait for the test, I’m just doing my best to learn to cope with the symptoms. It’s been an interesting process of adjustment to my new reality, and again confirms just how plastic/adaptable humans can be.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Changes in attitude, changes in longitude

Yeah, I know it doesn’t scan as well. But I don’t want a noted songwriter’s lawyers to sue me. And it’s more accurate for my use.

Yesterday my sister (who, as I’ve mention, has MJD) had her semi-annual check-in with her neurologist’s office, this time a virtual chat/exam with a staff Physician’s Assistant she hadn’t worked with previously. I popped over to St Louis so I could be with her for it, as it would give me a chance to see how it was done, have an introduction to the P.A., and get a direct handle on her current condition and challenges.

And I wanted to talk a little about the difference between this virtual session and my experience with the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. Obviously, I’m not going to get into health/medicine details, and I have cleared this with my sister.

The difference was striking. Rather than an almost patronizing “I know about this, because I’m the doctor” that was the overall vibe of my exam, the P.A. shared that she herself has M.S., and so personally understands the difficulties of having a neuro-muscular disorder which may be treatable, but for which there is no cure. Even with the limitations of a Zoom call, she exuded empathy, nodding as my sister described recent challenges and changes to her condition, discussing what meds have been working and which needed to be tweaked. They went over vital stats, overall health and wellness, chatted about the possibility of different kinds of therapies which might help, and so forth. The whole thing was personal, friendly, and very helpful.

Now, my sister has a diagnosis of MJD that has been confirmed by the genetic test, and a long care history with this neurologist and their staff. So none of that is an issue, whereas in my case things are still indeterminate (frustratingly so, as I’ve noted). So that’s certainly a very big difference between us, and the care we might expect to receive.

But as my sister was discussing her symptoms with the P.A., I couldn’t help but check off how I had a less severe version of most of them. And I couldn’t help but notice how the P.A. really listened to her, and her own assessment of how she was doing, what she was experiencing. Lastly, I couldn’t help but compare the care and attention she had received versus how I had been treated in my initial exam and in follow-up communications.

Now, you might think that comment is a little harsh, given what I said in this blog post. But I haven’t mentioned here that after that post, I received a response from the Attending Neurologist which … rather curtly doubled-down on the attitude of the initial assessment, and said they knew what they were doing, he knew more about the disease than I did, and that I was presymptomatic for MJD in all their tests, whatever I might happen to think I was experiencing. Though he did grudgingly allow that the genetic test may show something, and if so they’ll address that.

Well, actually, no, they won’t. Because once I have the test results, whatever they show, I’ll be finding a new neurologist. I’ve just seen the difference in how people can be treated, and I know which way I want to go.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Self care.

Yesterday morning, after having had time to digest things from Monday, I sent a message to my “care team” at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. It was a less accusatory and more distilled version of my last blog post, outlining my thoughts and concerns about how the assessment had gone.

Why?

Because in this day and age, you have to be your own best advocate as a patient.

And it worked: within two hours one of the neurologists called me directly to discuss my concerns. It was a good discussion, actually, with a fair amount of back-tracking and back-fill on his part, along with assurances that they really DO understand that this is something that needs proper and prompt attention. REALLY.

I expect, cautiously, that going forward things will be more a meeting of the minds rather than the doctors assuming that they have a monopoly of knowledge about this disease, and will pay more attention to what I say I am experiencing and think it means. But we’ll see.

And that touches on what I wanted to write about today: self care. Or, to borrow a phrase from my old economics textbooks, enlightened self interest.

There are good people in the world. In fact, as cynical an old bastard as I can sometimes be, I think that most people actually want to do the right thing in most situations. We’re a social, collaborative species.

And I think that most medical professionals want to do everything they can to help their patients as one of their basic motivations. Yeah, sure, a bunch of other motivations can also come into play, but I doubt that there are many medical professionals who are truly only in their job for the opportunity to lord it over others. But sometimes, in the stress and demands of their jobs, they need a reminder that you’re a person with a medical concern, and not just a medical puzzle to be solved. So, as I said, you have to be your own best advocate. Recognizing that fact after my experience Monday was an important step for me on this journey.

It also reminded me that I need to shift my thinking in some other ways. Specifically, that whatever I can do to improve my condition will just be a help dealing with it over the long haul. The last time that I learned this was after the stents were installed six years ago, and I had to go through cardio rehab, since about a third of my heart had never fully developed. That was a hassle. But it shifted my thinking, strengthened my heart, and gave me more strength and endurance than I’ve ever had in my life.

So this morning, for the first time in decades, I got back to doing my old martial arts exercises (adapted for my age and condition). The stretching and flexibility components will help me with the early stages of dystonia, and the katas and bo-staff work will aid greatly with my balance and coordination. They’re not going to reverse the effects of MJD, but they will help me make the most of the remaining abilities I have for as long as possible.

And while I was appalled by how inflexible I’ve become, and grateful that there was no one in the room watching me, it felt good to be doing something that I know will help. I had been considering taking up Tai Chi or yoga, but decided that the deep old knowledge I had from my years as a student and instructor of Jujitsu would give me comfort and would be one less barrier to making this a routine in my life, as my (almost) daily 3 mile walk has become since my stent procedure. And comfort is an important component of self care.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Livin’ outside the norms.

This is going to be a hard post to write. It might be a hard post to read. In part because I’m probably going to come across as a pompous ass to at least some extent. And in part because it’s not yet resolved, so I don’t know where the story goes from here.

But when I made the decision to start writing about this experience, I told myself that I would be honest about it, the same way I was honest about the care-giving experience, however painful or embarrassing it might be. I know that honesty has helped other care-givers; I hope this honesty helps people who may be facing a diagnosis of ataxia or some similar condition, or who have struggled to get the medical care they need.

Yesterday I had my long-awaited neurological assessment at the local large-institution university hospital which shall remain nameless. I’ve mostly avoided medical care within this institution in the 30 years I’ve lived here. Oh, they have a solid reputation, and do a great deal of good both for the community and for medical science. But I had worked for five years at the large-institution university hospital where I went to grad school, and knew all too well what “Big Medicine” is like. That experience taught me that whenever possible, I should stick with independent doctors/medical groups, where there was less chance that I would be treated as a medical file and more chance that I would be treated as a person with a medical concern.

However, with something as rare as Machado-Joseph, I wanted to tap into the best pool of talent/knowledge I could. And that meant at least starting with the local large-institution university hospital system.

The assessment started out well enough, though I felt poorly from lack of sleep the previous couple of nights. The Intern Doctor came in, introduced himself, went over my file info with me, confirmed that I had been referred by my primary care doctor for an assessment for MJD. He then asked me why I thought I was experiencing the onset of the disease. I started by saying that I was a conservator of rare books and documents, so tended to be hyper-aware of how my hands functioned. This didn’t seem to register as anything different than if I told him I mowed lawns or something for a living.

About five weeks ago I wrote this:

I’ve never really defined myself in terms of my job, but it has always been one of the interesting things about me. Conservators are so rare that it’s always a talking point when I introduce myself to someone; they always ask about what sorts of things I work on, what’s the oldest/rarest/most valuable item, et cetera. Even surgeons, who seldom suffer from a self-esteem deficit, will pause and with a note of respect ask how I got into such a profession.

So … well, I was surprised at his lack of reaction. I then told him that I had been a highly accomplished martial artist and athlete in my 20s & 30, with exceptional reflexes, sense of balance, and eye-hand coordination. Again, he took this in stride, as though I’d just told him I played Little League Softball. I explained that I’d always had a heightened awareness of my body, and invariably knew when there was something wrong with it. As an example I told him about my experience with detecting a subtle problem with my heart, finding out that I had a congenital defect, and having the stents put in … when almost no one else would have noticed a problem (and, in fact, nothing has shown up in routine physical exams). Again, he nodded, as though I told him I’d once diagnosed a hangnail. Then he shuffled his papers and said, “Well, let’s do some tests, shall we?’

He ran me through a bunch of tests, checking balance, reflexes, body sense perception, eye tracking, hearing perception, hand movements, and a variety of other things I was unfamiliar with. I was shocked at how poorly I did at a number of these, even being aware that I had been having problems with some of them for months. When we finished, we sat down again, he looked over his notes and then back at me and said, “well, almost all of your tests are within normal parameters, and the ones that aren’t aren’t *that* bad. Are you sure you’re having a problem?”

I must’ve looked like an idiot. Lord knows I felt like one, sitting there, mouth agape. When I finally shook off the shock, I said “well, yeah. I have these pains, frequent urination, these tremors, hand spasms, etc etc etc …” and I ran through the list. Again.

He frowned, looked over my information again. “Well, I see you drink a lot*. That can cause problems. I think we should run some labs, maybe do an MRI. We can also do the genetic test for MJD, if insurance approves that. But I don’t think you have a big problem. Let me go consult with my Attending Physician, see what he says.”

Time passed. I was … bewildered. I honestly had not expected things to go like this. What was so OBVIOUS to me in terms of my changing abilities (and which my wife has likewise noticed), seemed … normal? I felt a little stunned. Well, more than a little, to be honest. I felt completely adrift.

A tap on the door, then the Attending Physician entered, followed by the Intern. It was NOT the Attending Physician I had been expecting. Evidently, something had come up, so this other person was handling cases today. He introduced himself. He was polite, and going off what the intern had told him, he started out the same way, asking why I thought there was a problem. I said that I knew there was a problem with how my hands were functioning because I’d been a conservator for 30 years, and losing control of my tools suddenly was not normal. That got his attention. I also explained that with my family history of MJD, both my sister and uncle had experienced very similar onset symptoms, etc etc.

He said that he’d had experience with MJD patients at a hospital back East where there was a large Portuguese population, and asked if I knew there was a Portuguese connection in my family. (Machado-Joseph is also known as Azorean Disease due to the high frequency in that population … but it is well known to occur in unrelated populations around the world.) I told him not to my knowledge. He then said that I “didn’t have the look” of someone with MJD. Meaning, I suppose, that I didn’t have the narrow face and protuberant dark eyes that many people (including my aunt and cousin) have. But neither my sister nor my uncle have/had those characteristics.

But he said that they’d put in for the genetic test, and that they’d get me a prescription for a beta-blocker to help with the hand tremors. Oh, and he chided me for drinking 2-3 scotches each night. Told me to cut back to just one. With that, he was out the door.

The Intern sat down, started making notes on the computer. He explained that they wanted me to have my B-12 levels checked with a blood test, just to be on the safe side, and instructed me where to go in the hospital complex to get that done. He confirmed which pharmacy I wanted to use for the beta-blocker. And he told me that he was leaving at the end of the month (next week), but that someone else would be in touch if they saw a problem with my labs or needed info for the genetic test. Otherwise, I’d probably be sent info from the hospital about how to have the genetic test done, where, and when.

Then, politely, he showed us out.

We went over and got the blood draw done. My mind seemed to slowly be coming back online as we walked, parts and pieces of the whole session coming back to me and starting to integrate. I was discussing it with my wife, who confirmed my recollections and understanding of what we’d just been through. But I felt completely bewildered and full of self-doubt when we got home. I wrote my sister and a couple of close friends, explained briefly what had just transpired.

* * *

Last night I took extra pain meds, crashed early, and got a decent night’s sleep. This morning I woke to an email response from my sister. We’re close, and she is fiercely loyal & loving. The email was furious that I’d had the experience I’d had, at least in part because she had almost the exact same thing happen to her some fifteen years ago when she first started experiencing the onset of MJD.

After thinking it all through again this morning, and in writing this, I’ve set aside the self-doubt. I know what I’ve experienced. I may or may not have MJD, that will likely only be determined by the genetic test. But I know that my balance has been compromised, that I have been experiencing a wide range of symptoms that point at MJD onset. Perhaps it is a mild case (I think this is most likely) and hopefully will progress slowly. But even in the last six months since I first noticed the symptoms, things have gotten worse.

And this is why I decided to write about this at such length. Because if I, a very privileged, highly educated, white, middle class professional man can be subject to such dismissal of a medical complaint, then I can only imagine how others without such advantages must fight for proper care.

This will not come as news to many people who are less privileged, or who exist at the margins of our society. Actually, it wasn’t news to me, either. But I thought it might prompt others to perhaps give it another thought.

Jim Downey

* As noted a month or so ago:

I’ve also noticed an uptick in the amount of alcohol I’m drinking. Self-medicating, in other words. Again, this does tend to cycle, with some times of the year it being a little higher (2-3 double Scotches in the evening) and other times lower (just 1 double, occasionally 2). Years ago I stopped worrying about it, after discussing it with my doctor, because she observed that it was probably healthier for me than increasing my use of even mild opioids (the Tramadol and codeine), so long as I didn’t develop an alcohol problem.



Machado-Joseph Disease: Adjustment.

[I’ve decided to be public about my realization that I have the onset of MJD, the diagnosis process, and then living with the disease. Given the rarity of this disease, my hope is that this series of blog posts will help educate others, and perhaps provide some insight into it and related conditions. This is the third post in the series, written about a week after the second, as I started reframe what this would mean for me going forward.]

Been an interesting week, as I have been adjusting to the new normal of having MJD (as noted in my previous post, this is now where my head is at, though I won’t have an official diagnosis for about two months yet). It’s mostly been a process of re-calibrating my body awareness: noting that I have these muscle spasms in hands, feet, and legs, that the pain levels are there, and so forth, and then just moving on with my day. Living with chronic pain from a torn intercostal muscle that’s never healed properly, along with the random aches & pains of various abuses I’ve subjected my body to over the years of living life fully, means that to a certain extent the new aches & pains associated with MJD are just more of the same.

That’s not to discount the disease, nor the pain that comes with it. That’s real. And it has an impact. More pain, even if it isn’t worse pain, takes a toll. It wears me down faster. It’s more distracting, so it makes it harder to focus on any given task, especially creative ones. For the most part, though, I can just acknowledge the pain, listen to what it is telling me, account for it, and then get on with whatever I’m trying to do. So the pain isn’t the problem.

What is the problem is the degree to which this interferes with my bookbinding/conservation work. I’d been attributing the aches and pains in my hands to arthritis for years, and in truth I actually do have arthritis in some of the joints in my hands. That’s the result of the trauma inflicted by martial arts (primarily SCA combat) for about a 15 year period when I was a young man.

But worse than the aches and pains is the stiffness, spasming, and occasional loss of control in my hands. So far, the latter has only happened after I have been working using my hands (specifically while putting up the stamped copper ceiling in the kitchen this past winter). But I know it is just a taste of things to come. Dystonia is a classic symptom of MJD, and the spasms and pain in my hands that I’ve noticed the last few years is only likely to get worse and become more of a limitation. I had already started to scale back the conservation work I do, but now I need to be thinking in terms of finishing up pending obligations, handing off clients to other conservators, and becoming officially ‘retired’ as a book conservator. That’ll be a hard adjustment to make, since so much of my self-identity is tied up with it.

* * *

(a few days later… 4/7)

Something I’ve been thinking more about is the difference in the types of pain I’ve been feeling. This is distinctly muscle pain, as opposed to the kind of pain one has from arthritic damage to a joint, or tendon damage, or a broken/bruised bone. This is the kind of thing pretty much everyone has experienced at one time or another, from over-using a muscle (or a group of muscles). It feels almost exactly like what you experience the day after a really hard physical exertion, except it also feels a bit like what you experience shortly after exhausting the muscle in exercise. Think how your calves/feet feel after a five mile hike in street shoes: tired, twitching, and sore. Then add in how your calves would feel the next day, in terms of stiffness and that deep ache. It’s unusual in my experience to have both of those at the same time, but that’s pretty much what my hands and feet/legs feel when I’m having an episode of the MJD effects.

And that’s another thing: this isn’t constant. Not yet, anyway, for me. It’s episodic, lasting for a few hours, at most a day or so. Then it fades for a while. I haven’t yet been able to identify a pattern to the episodes, unlike my intercostal tear (which usually acts up in response to a change in barometric pressure or certain kinds of exertion). It’s possible that there isn’t one, and no way to predict what might trigger an episode. I suspect that may be the case, given that the episodes typically become longer and more frequent over time, until the pain is pretty much constant.

I’m sure I’ll find out. *sigh*

* * *

4/8

Bad episode today. Spasms, twitches, RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome), and a fair amount of muscle pain. Particularly in my hands. Possibly a connection to the cold front (we’ve had spitting snow and wind today, with a hard freeze forecast for tonight)? Whatever, been a rather annoying day. Particularly so since I had been planning on getting some binding work done, and my hands are just in no shape for it, even with having had them in the microwaveable mitts I use to loosen things up.

As I noted above, this is a psychological blow, as much as anything. I’ve never really defined myself in terms of my job, but it has always been one of the interesting things about me. Conservators are so rare that it’s always a talking point when I introduce myself to someone; they always ask about what sorts of things I work on, what’s the oldest/rarest/most valuable item, et cetera. Even surgeons, who seldom suffer from a self-esteem deficit, will pause and with a note of respect ask how I got into such a profession.

I’ll miss that. And I’m honest enough to admit it.

Jim Downey



Turning words into books.

As I noted a couple of months ago, I found a printer to produce the pages for a hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well. This is a photo-essay of the process of turning those pages into finished books. This is not intended to be actual instruction on how to bind books.

My printer for Communion of Dreams had been bought-out and was no longer capable of doing the printing for St Cybi’s Well. I was able to source a new printer after some trouble. Everything was slowed down due to Covid, of course. Eventually I was able to drive over to Wichita KS to pick up the printed pages.

Printed pages and color cover stock. Note that these are oversize. This is necessary to make sure the ‘grain’ of the paper runs the correct way, so that the pages will turn properly once the book is bound. They get trimmed down after binding.

Each section (group of pages) has to be folded, then punched consistently to allow for sewing.

It’s easier to do the laser-design work on the section before binding. The design is that of the St Melangell Centre, of a hare, at Pennant Melangell. This is the location in the book where much of the action takes place.
Once the individual sections are all punched, they are gathered into books and then sewn. This style of binding is “sewn on tapes”.

Sewn text blocks. Note that these are oversize, using the full printed sheets.
The sewn text blocks, now cut down to finished size. This is done individually, using a c. 1915 guillotine.
I designed a simple thin-board jig using my laser, which allowed me to mark on the cut bookcloth where to mount the archival bookboard.
The marked sheets of bookcloth.
Mounted bookboard on the bookcloth.
Completed case, with the edges of bookcloth turned in and additional liners added. Those liners are needed to balance the strain on the boards cause by mounting the color cover stock label.
Exterior of the case, with color cover stock mounted.
Text blocks now lined with support paper along the spine, and endbands added at the head and tail. The outer page of the first and last section has been cut down to function as an additional hinge. This, combined with the sewing tapes, is sufficiently strong to mount the text block to the case covers.

Text blocks mounted into case covers, and allowed to dry under weight.
Finished books. If you look closely you’ll note a slight wedge shape to the text blocks. I wanted a flat spine to match the hand-bound copies of Communion of Dreams, but St Cybi’s Well is longer, and so required more sections. This made the swelling at the spine more noticeable. Once the books are opened and read once or twice, the wedge shape should disappear.
Finished copies.

If you would like your own hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well or Communion of Dreams, click the links. Each edition is limited to just 53 numbered copies, plus two Artist’s/Author’s proof copies. At either link you can also order one of the remaining copies of the Amazing Koob, as well as signed paperback copies. And of course, you can always download the books from Amazon (remember, they’re free on the first of each month).

That completes the next-to-last phases of my Kickstarter. The final phase will be the design and completion of the leather bindings.

Jim Downey