» Archive for September, 2011

Jenga with recyclables

Friday, September 16th, 2011 by kara

So the Pumpkin and I recycle. Not as much as we could do, but we make an effort to rinse and flatten containers, disassemble boxes and put the newspapers into a paper bag for easier handling.

Only problem is, both of us are equally lazy with regard to putting the recyclables down into their respective bins in the garage, and then getting the bins to the recycling center when they’re full.

It was so easy and convenient to recycle in Saline. The city provided recycling service along with garbage pickup, and it wasn’t even necessary to sort the recyclables! You just put your appropriately-managed recycling materials in a bin at the curb along with your trash can. If there was something in the bin that wasn’t cleaned properly, or if the materials weren’t all truly recyclable, they’d leave the bin and its contents, along with a big sticky note explaining why you sucked at recycling. Sufficiently chastened, you would never make that mistake again.

Here in Knoxville, we could have that same convenience, but we’d have to pay for it. I hate having to pay for something that I think should be available as a given service, so instead of subscribing to our waste hauler for recyclable pickup, we maintain our own bins and take a trip to the recycling center every so often.

Everybody’s got different ways of handling their recyclables. We used to have a really cool basket which was just the right size for stacking newspapers and other paper in; this basket had a big brother which was the ideal size for about a week’s worth of glass/metal/plastic recyclables. These baskets sat on the kitchen floor by the trash can, and they worked beautifully for us for a long time.

Even though we rinsed everything really thoroughly (don’t worry, we don’t waste a lot of water rinsing recyclables–used dishwater performs this task remarkably well), Belle and the other fuzzies would occasionally dip into the recycling basket and pull out the plastic cap from the half & half bottle, and chew on it.

We didn’t think this was a problem, as our dogs didn’t often go to the recyclable basket to find a new “toy.” But when we discovered Belle had swallowed a chunk of half & half lid that was larger than a quarter in diameter and jagged on the edges, we stopped using the basket. It wasn’t secure, and it was just too big a pain in the pants to put it up out of their reach when we left the house.

‘No problem,’ I thought. ‘We’ll just have to make a daily trip down to the garage with the recycling stuff. It will force us to be more conscious of the recyclables.’  Yeah. No, that’s not what happened.

Instead of taking one or two pieces of plastic down each day, Rick and I fell into the habit of rinsing and squashing the containers, and then leaving them sitting on top of the toaster oven. It’s kind of like playing a sadistic version of Jenga, in which the base is the slightly-uneven top of the toaster oven, and instead of smoothly-machined pieces of tree, the playing pieces are irregularly-shaped and made of lots of different materials.

The challenge begins when every square centimeter of the toaster oven is occupied with a recyclable. Then we must begin to carefully stack squashed two-liter soda bottles and rinsed Castlebury’s chili cans on top of the initial layer. The game continues until it’s no longer possible to add another piece to the pile.

The loser of this game is the one who contributes the ‘toppling piece’, the straw (or gallon milk jug) that breaks the toaster oven’s back. The loser must then gather up all the recyclables and take them to the garage to then be Jenga’d up on the bins down there, a punishment worse than death.

(Didja see that? I just made a word! Or maybe not, because Jenga’s been around for a while. I would imagine lots of families Jenga many things in their everyday lives, from library books to unsorted junk mail to cookware, etc.)

Why is it so hard for us to make a daily trip to the garage to take the recycling down, and then to make the trip to the recycling center every couple weeks? The garage isn’t very far (unless my knees are hurting, then going up & down two flights of stairs makes it seem like it’s miles away), and it’s not a scary or threatening place, unless the recyclables are really out-of-hand–then one might be caught in an avalanche, but it would be an avalanche of plastics, because we put metal and glass in the lower bins. So that threat is disproved quite easily, too.

And yes, now that I’m working on Saturdays, that throws a monkey wrench into the weekly chore schedule. Saturdays used to be our marketing/library/recyclable/housework day, and it just lacks a lot of appeal when there’s only one of us working on that stuff then.

We might have to bring the pretty baskets back up out of the garage; maybe if we can keep the kitchen table cleared off, that will make it easier to put them up while the dogs are unsupervised. Maybe it would even be worth paying the extra money to have our garbage company pick up recycling materials…nah, that’s definitely not the solution.

I’m not alone in living with Sjögren’s Syndrome

Friday, September 2nd, 2011 by admin

Last February I was diagnosed as having Sjögren’s Syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease in which my body attacks moisture-producing tissues like tear ducts and saliva glands. Hadn’t ever heard of this disease before then, but I guess I wouldn’t have without knowing someone who has it–I’m not a doctor, after all. Don’t even play one on TV.

Since my diagnosis however, I’ve come upon some more people who have it. This feels kind of like when you finally choose your new car, feeling as though it’s unique and wonderful, and then you begin noticing many more of the same car on the road, in the neighborhood/parking lot/drive through. My friend Dannette, who lives in Arizona, knows someone who was just diagnosed with Sjögren’s a few months ago, and now of course, there’s tennis player Venus Williams, who was diagnosed just two weeks ago. I’m not feeling very special or unique anymore, dangit (pouting). Since better than 4,000,000 Americans have Sjögren’s, I guess I was never alone to begin with. It’s one of the most-common autoimmune disorders, and 9 of 10 patients are women.

Sjögren’s causes a collection of symptoms which include dry eyes and mouth, and can cause muscle and joint pain and lack of stamina and energy (which Venus and I both share, so I feel closer to her already!), as well as damage to the tissues of the eyes, mouth, stomach/digestive tract, kidneys, central nervous system and lungs.

Due to a shortage of saliva Sjögren’s patients will have difficulty chewing and swallowing at times, and low saliva production also makes dental problems commonplace. We’re also more susceptible to lymphoma. Also, a piece of dust or a hair in our eye isn’t just a temporary discomfort; tears help flush impurities and foreign objects out of the eye, helping prevent injury and infection, but Sjögren’s patients don’t have that built-in ‘flushing’ capability anymore. So a piece of dust may carry bacteria into our eye, and scratch the cornea when our eyelids scrape it back and forth over the surface. I carry eye drops, mouth spray and now nasal saline spray to mitigate the symptoms.

It’s not unusual for a Sjögren’s diagnosis to take 6 1/2 to 7 years, because the individual symptoms are easily mistaken for something else, like asthma. In fact, Venus had been misdiagnosed four years ago with exercise-induced asthma, but the asthma medications never helped her. It was only after unsuccessful treatment for asthma, combined with her enlarged and painful joints and extreme fatigue, that her doctors put them all together and discovered she has Sjögren’s.

I have no idea how long I’ve had Sjögren’s, and I’ll probably never know. I’ve been hurting and dragging my sorry, tired ass around for years, but my diagnosis back in February was the result of a very pointed problem with my parotid salivary glands: They were extraordinarily painful, and so swollen that I looked like a short John Goodman in drag.

If I saw something I wanted to eat, my parotid salivary glands would of course try to do their job and flood my mouth with saliva–and that resulted in stinging, twinge-y pain, truly a reverse-Pavlovian experience. Having had a gallstone before, I compared the sensation to the pain of a gallstone attack and guessed that I had ‘stones’ which would occasionally obstruct my salivary glands. Granted, this twinge was on either side of my jawbone, and the other was in my gut, but somehow it felt similar.

I couldn’t have imagined the pain and inflammation was due to my own white blood cells trying to kill my salivary glands.

I visited my regular doctor, who saw my unusually-square jaw and said “Oh my gosh, I’m going to get you to a specialist TODAY.” That was on a Friday, but amazingly by the end of the day I was being seen by an ear, nose & throat doctor who worked me in to her busy schedule.

She examined my mouth and said my parotid salivary glands were not obstructed, nor were they oozing pus as they would if infected (thank GOD and all that is holy). On the medical history form I’d filled out, she noted that I’m hypothyroid due to Hashimoto’s Syndrome, which is an autoimmune malfunction where my body attacked and killed my thyroid. She said she was ordering blood draws to check for Sjögren’s Syndrome, another autoimmune malfunction, and sent me home with prednisone and an antibiotic, just in case.

I went Monday for the blood draw. The lab tech, a kindly woman who’s drawn blood for me many times before to monitor my thyroid and cholesterol levels, had a bit of trouble entering the test coding; when she saw what the draw was for, she clucked and told me she was sorry. At that point, I was a bit dismayed at her reaction because I didn’t feel critically ill and had no idea what a diagnosis of Sjögren’s would mean.

Went back to see the ENT with my Pumpkin in tow, and we laughed and joked while waiting for her in the examining room. Yes, my blood showed the antigens for Sjögren’s, and also for rheumatoid arthritis. No ‘cure’ for it, just treatment of the symptoms and therapy to mitigate the disease’s effects, which of course included prednisone.

It was truly and actually a relief to know that there was something truly wrong with me. I’ve been feeling like walking garbage for a long time now, but each of my symptoms seemed commonplace and explainable by everyday causes. I attributed all my aches and pains to osteoarthritis, and my dry mouth to my relatively new job in a call center–essentially, I talked for eight hours a day, so whose mouth wouldn’t be dry?

During her Good Morning America interview a couple days ago, Venus also said that after suffering for so long and not knowing why, her Sjögren’s diagnosis was a relief. Now she can concentrate on treating her Sjögren’s effectively, and recovering from it as much as possible. I can identify with that relief.

But what then? Because now that we know what we have, we can rest easy knowing that we’re not crazy or hypochondriac; medicines can help us manage the symptoms, and we know that there will be times when we can’t do the things we used to do.

But the fact remains that we’re no longer functioning the way we used to, that there IS something wrong with us. With that knowledge comes an consciousness that we are finite and mortal and when that realization finally hits, it is a sobering, sad day–or at least, it was for me. I don’t know how Venus feels, but I can imagine that the pride and confidence she once had in her amazing body and athletic talent has taken a blow.

Sjögren’s doesn’t mean that we can’t be physically fit and happy and healthy otherwise, but it means that we will have to change some behaviors and ideas to accommodate our new physical status. I hate to use the phrase “suffering” to describe my experience because it seems lurid and hyperbolic, but that’s what’s happening: I am ‘suffering’ with this syndrome, and so is Venus, and so are the other 4,000,000 of us in the U.S. So in order to thrive again, we must learn to adapt.