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: unseen

“You seem to be in pretty good shape.”

I knew what he meant. He’s known me for about 50 years, and had seen my aunt, who I went to live with after the death of my parents, deteriorate and eventually die from what was then an unnamed disease.

* * *

There are a lot of chronic diseases that have little or no visible symptoms, but yet can have the people suffering from those diseases in agony, or unable to do routine things, or seemingly drunk/stoned. Enough so that the ‘hidden disease’ story is a trope unto itself. A lot of people who try and explain what it is like have such a disease write about what it is like to have such an invisible illness or injury. And I guess this is mine.

Now, I’m not unfamiliar with this experience. As I’ve written about, I have chronic pain from a number of old injuries, the most annoying of which has been the intercostal tear I’ve had for about a decade. There’s no obvious injury, but the pain wears me down, and limits how much energy I have for social gatherings (which usually happen in the evenings) and such. When I decide that there’s something I want to do with others, it’s mostly a matter of grin and bear it until the festivities are over, then I can take the extra meds and go fall down. My extrovert batteries and pain tolerance usually get me through such occasions with no one the wiser.

But, for me at least, there’s something different about dealing with chronic pain and having an invisible (for now) illness like MJD. Perhaps that distinction doesn’t make much sense to most people. But while I know that chronic pain brings with it a whole lot of related effects, there’s a different psychological aspect to having an incurable illness.

An anecdote from some years back may explain …

At some social event, I was chatting with an M.D. I knew reasonably well, but only on a social basis. That is, they weren’t my doctor, and there was almost no chance that I would ever see them on a professional basis. And as I said, we knew one another reasonably well. Enough so that at some point the subject of MJD running in my family came up for discussion.

My friend, upon hearing this, paused, and did a mental search. He finally found the memory he was looking for, and with brows furrowed asked me, “the neuromuscular disease that’s like Huntington’s?”

“That’s right.”

The furrowed brow changed to a bare look of disgust. “Oh, that’s … nasty.”

* * *

These days, cancer has little or no stigma. But there was a time not that long ago when it did. It was spoken of in hushed tones. Doctors often would never give a patient an honest diagnosis that included the word cancer, instead using some bullshit medical equivalent. It was that feared, because it was almost uniformly incurable and the treatments for symptoms brutal. It was basically a death sentence, and one that likely meant a prolonged and painful end.

It may be hard to believe, but I remember those days. Very clearly.

And for those who know what it is, MJD engenders something of that same reaction. I’ve seen that response in the faces & behavior of people countless times. For understandable reasons: the disease is progressive, there is no cure, and treatments are fairly marginal.

* * *

“You seem to be in pretty good shape.”

I knew what he meant. He’s known me for about 50 years, and had seen my aunt, who I went to live with after the death of my parents, deteriorate and eventually die from what was then an unnamed disease.

I had expected this. In fact, I was already used to dealing with that reaction from people. Used to explaining that this news didn’t quite mean what it would reasonably be understood to mean. Particularly by those who had seen it themselves.

I nodded. And I transferred my fork from my left hand to my right, because my left hand was spasming a little, though it wasn’t noticeable. I poked a forkful of salad, raised it to eat. “Yeah, I am. For probably the foreseeable future it will mostly be a matter of managing the symptoms to the best degree possible. I’ll know more about that when I get the full workup and genetic test results, and we start trying therapies.”

My friend looked relieved, happy for me. “Good.”

We had a pleasant lunch, and a good long catch-up after. When he left, I took my pain meds, poured a drink, and thought about what the future held.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Management

One of the things people with MJD have found helpful is Medical Marijuana (MMJ). It helps to moderate pain, but more importantly, some of the available strains really make a difference in allowing people with the disease to sleep through the night.

See, one of the problems with MJD is that the twitching, cramping, and pain in the hands, feet, and legs is such that it disrupts sleep. This is something that I noticed particularly in the last few months, as my symptoms started developing, and I have a long way to go before it becomes diagnosable dystonia. So of course, anything that might help me sleep better is of interest. Because the key to dealing with this disease, since there is no cure, is to manage the symptoms to the greatest degree possible. That will allow me to make the best use of my functional time each day, and get the most enjoyment out of living.

And if MMJ will allow me to do that, then I’m game. So I’ve started looking into it. The problem is that it’s damned hard to separate out the quack “MMJ can cure EVERYTHING!” stuff from real, rigorous research. Of course, the demonization of all forms of cannabis by our government over the last half century hasn’t helped. Since it is still a “Schedule I” drug as far as the federal government is concerned, there are real limitations on what kind of science can be conducted on medical applications, which just opens the door to all kinds of outlandish claims. I swear, it’s like the ‘Snake Oil’ era of patent medicine, or the insane hype that went along with radium and other radioactive quackery early last century.

There’s no rush, since I’m not going to see about getting a MMJ card (available here in Missouri) before I have a definite diagnosis, though just on the basis of my chronic pain alone I could qualify. And for the time being I can just rely on the meds I already have (opioids, OTC stuff, booze). But I have been trying to educate myself from what trustworthy sources actually are available. Which, to be quite honest, is enough to drive one to drink.

Ironic, eh?

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: Telling.

4/11

Got together with my sister and her husband yesterday. After the usual catching-up (we only see each other in person a few times a year, since we live a couple hours apart), I told them about my conclusion that I have MJD. Since she has managed the disease for 15+ years, they know full well what the implications of my conclusion are. But my sister and I are a lot alike, and I knew that she would step back, digest the information, then engage with it rationally.

She did exactly that. Then the four of us (my wife Martha was with me) had a good conversation about the disease, what symptoms I had been experiencing, and where things go from here. Both my sister and brother-in-law were able to provide some very good suggestions and observations, offering advice and support based on their lived experience that will be invaluable to me and Martha going forward.

* * *

This morning I started letting close friends know about my conclusions, though email and Facebook personal messages. While ideally I would have preferred to tell them in person, that wasn’t practical. And besides, presenting the information in writing allowed me to shape the impact it would have (I am, after all, a fairly competent writer). This is the template I used, personalizing it some for different individuals:

Hey —.

You may have noticed that recently I’ve talked about my pain levels (particularly in my hands) being more problematic. Well, there’s a reason for that, which will become something I’ll be discussing publicly in the future: it seems I have the onset of Machado Joseph Disease. But I wanted to let my close friends know before I said anything for public consumption.

This is so far my own assessment, but I’m about 95% confident in it based on symptoms over the last six months or so, combined with family history. I’ve got an appt at the end of May with a local MU neurologist who has experience with ataxias, and will get the genetic test and full evaluation then. But there’s almost no doubt that I have it, probably with the initial onset about 3-4 years ago.

Believe it or not, I’m OK with this knowledge. I’ve always known that it was a possibility, and basically I consider myself lucky that it waited to show up until I was ~60. I know what to expect, the medical knowledge of it is much better than things were 15 years ago when my sister had onset, and her experience with it has taught her some coping skills and treatment options that will help me. It’s not good news, but the later the disease manifests, the slower it usually progresses. In many ways, this won’t be that much different than what most people experience with normal aging — in fact, I had ignored the signs of it for so long largely because I just thought it WAS normal aging.

So, there we go. Don’t feel obligated to get philosophical in responding; I wouldn’t have told you now if I didn’t know that you already care and “are there for me” in friendship.

Take care.

It’s interesting to me that the process of composing that message helped to clarify my own thinking and perspective, just as these blog entries have done. At heart, I’m a writer. And writing requires clear vision of the subject at hand, pushing me to analyze not just the facts, but also my emotional reaction to those facts.

* * *

4/12-13

Responses to the above have been interesting, and pretty much what I was shooting for. My friends/family have been supportive but not maudlin, mostly just acknowledging the news and wishing me good luck.

Of course, the text I sent out is a “best case” take on the possible paths this journey can take from here. I figured it was better to give people a heads-up, to let them start to adjust to this news. What I find out when I get the genetic test results back, combined with the assessment from the neurologist, will give me a better idea of what to actually expect. But I didn’t see the point in going more negative with my portrayal, since it is possible that will not be the case. No reason to make people more concerned than necessary at this juncture. If I need to share bad news later, I’ll deal with that, then.

Besides, I have enough to be worried about myself, without having to also deal with the worries of others. Because while I “am at peace with this news”, I am somewhat concerned by the seeming speed of the progression. But I am also aware that said speed is perceptual — going from perceiving no evidence of MJD to what I now perceive is different from the reality that the disease likely began three or four years ago, and hence I am experiencing it at this stage of progress. In other words, I’m likely three to four years into this, but just now aware of that.

For example: now that I am aware of what is going on, I recognize that I have near-constant pain in my hands and feet, and frequent pain in my lower legs. Previously, I would have just noted the pain, attributed it to other things, and then tuned it out to whatever degree possible. Because in my mind, in my perception, it “wasn’t a problem”. Now that it IS a problem, I’m paying more attention to it.

This isn’t a bad thing, per se. It’s important that I catalog the reality of what I am experiencing so that I can give an accurate assessment to the neurologist. So there’s that. It’s also important to pay attention to pain, because it is instructive, at a very basic level of survival. Don’t think so? Then just do a search for reports of what happens to people who for some reason are incapable of feeling pain. Bottom line: it ain’t pretty.

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.

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.

But having both things happen simultaneously is an indication that my body has been seeking more relief from pain. Again, this does happen sometimes, if I undertake some particularly aggressive exercise project. But I haven’t. Instead, it’s probably because I’ve been more aware of the pain related to MJD.

Jim Downey