6.17.2019

innocent abuses

It has probably not been more evident than this weekend that our fifteen-year-old son, Calvin, is still suffering the side effects of the benzodiazepines he began taking at the age of three, and that he has been off of for over a year. What is clear is that Calvin cannot sit still for more than a few seconds or minutes at a time, except when sleeping. What is unclear is whether it is a case of akasthisia, psychomotor agitation, mania or some other condition or combination of conditions and whether it might also be due, in part, to his Keppra. In any case, all day long Calvin paces, pats, bites, writhes and flails.

This weekend, while on flights to and from Florida to celebrate Michael's mom's eightieth surprise birthday (more on that later), we were held captive to Calvin's innocent abuses. In short, he destroyed us—batting us in the face with his flailing arms and fists, tearing at my brittle hair with his sometimes clammy hands, shrieking at times for unknown reasons, grabbing around our necks every few seconds for hours while we were confined to sitting on either side of him. It is hard to be on the receiving end of this kind of relentless manic behavior from a kid approaching my height, but I cannot imagine the suffering he must endure from this violent restlessness that has plagued him for years.

Last week, our local NPR station aired a call-in show on benzodiazepines. Its producer, an acquaintance of mine, suggested I contribute; I was grateful to be its first caller and to share our experience. If you are taking benzos—even if just periodically—or thinking of taking them, I recommend you listen to the show.

This weekend, I was reminded of how deleterious benzodiazepines like Klonopin, Clobazam, Valium, Ativan and Xanax can be on the developing mind, the adult mind, the aging mind. Benzos like Xanax can become addictive after only a few doses. What's worse is that they often have paradoxical side effects and worsening of the very symptoms the medications are meant to treat, particularly when their efficacy wears off, as they tend to do. 

When taken for anxiety, insomnia and seizures, those conditions can quickly worsen when benzo dependency kicks in, causing many patients to increase their dose in order to recapture the desired effects. This can become a viscious cycle. Regrettably, by the time folks witness and understand the dichotomy and unsustainable nature of benzos, they may find themselves at high doses of the drugs that are nearly impossible to discontinue*.

From Wikipedia:

Long-term worsening of psychiatric symptoms (of benzodiazepine use)

While benzodiazepines may have short-term benefits for anxiety, sleep and agitation in some patients, long-term (i.e., greater than 2–4 weeks) use can result in a worsening of the very symptoms the medications are meant to treat. Potential explanations include exacerbating cognitive problems that are already common in anxiety disorders, causing or worsening depression and suicidality, disrupting sleep architecture by inhibiting deep-stage sleep, withdrawal symptoms or rebound symptoms in-between doses mimicking or exacerbating underlying anxiety or sleep disorders.

I should note that some folks, who don't seem to experience these side effects, swear by benzos.

Sadly, what I think has happened to Calvin is that his developing brain was forever altered by benzodiazepines. He was not a hyperactive child before taking them. I fear he'll never be calm again, forever restless and forever subjecting us to his innocent abuses.

*For help discontinuing benzodiazepines, please refer to The Ashton Manual.

6.11.2019

blonde redhead

Music will save the world. Last night it saved me from monotony and despair. Despite needing to catch up on lost sleep due to Calvin's recent and prolonged waves of seizures, for the first time in what felt like forever, Michael and I stepped out to see a concert in the "big" city of Portland, where most of Maine's hipsters live. Regrettably, the event was sparsely attended, which bummed me out a bit, knowing that the band might be discouraged, too. But Michael reminded me that as artists, these musicians don't care. They just want to play. He was right. They gave their all and everything.

We've been listening to Blonde Redhead for nearly twenty years. Michael first heard them on Bowdoin College's radio station. While driving, he was so blown away by their powerful and distinct sound that he pulled to the curb, found a phone booth and called the station to ask who the DJ was playing.

Inside the small venue, Port City Music Hall, Michael and I positioned ourselves front and center, within arm's reach of the New York-based trio. Italian twinsSimone and Amedeo Pace, jammed guitar, drums and sang, while vocalistKazu Makino, who also played guitar and keyboard, employed her voice quite ethereally and at other times wild and loud.

Bathed in orange and purple light, I danced with abandon to the jazziest of their gorgeously ecclectic rock songs, and beside me Michael did, too. I missed Calvin, wishing he could be there with us while knowing it was something he would probably never do. Regardless, as the bass drum beat in our chests, we felt this musical elixir fix us, at least for one night, before going back to the grind.

6.10.2019

if-onlies and might-have-beens

Foul is the smell coming from my son's mouth, as if there's something rotting inside him. It stinks like a festering wound. I think some of it might be blood from having bitten his tongue during the seizures he suffered the other night and this morning. Of late, the grand mals are coming in clusters—nine in the past month.

These seizures, drugs and side effects have been ruinous for all of us in some form or another, and there's really no end in sight. Calvin can't stay still for even a few minutes. It's called akathisia, the movement disorder characterized by an inner feeling of restlessness due to the use of antipsychotic drugs. I know for certain it's a side effect of the benzodiazepines Calvin was on from the age of three until fourteen. Keppra is also a culprit. I fear they've changed my boy's brain forever. Ruined. Devastated. Wrecked. I despair thinking of all of the if-onlies and might-have-beens.

Forlorn, my antsy boy held briefly in my lap, I remember Michael's notion that music will save the world, so I get up and turn on FIP (France Inter Paris) radio network. I've been tuning in a lot lately, and it's eclectic music and ticklish French accents have been a saving grace. The second song, River Man by Nick Drake, is gorgeously sorrowful and familiar. A few of its lyrics always bring me to tears.


Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn't sure.

I'm not a praying gal, but sometimes, like when Calvin can't settle, is manic or is in the thralls of epilepsy's fits and I feel myself sinking, like Betty, I find myself wishing for the sky to blow away. Other times, like when Calvin can remain in my arms for extended periods, looks straight into my eyes, or when I see him smile and give Michael hugs and kisses, I'd grip fists of that sky forever.


6.07.2019

on sovereignty

the breakthrough from gray skies to blue doesn't always bring me pleasure. sometimes the shadows cast by an unfettered sun are far too hard-edged for me. i must squint and scowl, avert my gaze. glowing colors which are saturated on dewy mornings appear washed-out and tired at midday, as if an antique snapshot made them that way.

on days like this the events of the world, the nation, feel crushing: weak and deceitful leaders, starving, neglected children, abused and oppressed women, desperate, fearful migrants, mass shootings, suicides, overdoses, executions. i overheard the grocer's cashier say, "she had on a dress she had no business wearing." her words stung as if they were meant for me. i wanted to say something like, people can wear whatever the fuck they want, or, as my dad used to say jokingly, what's it to ya, cabbagehead?

weariness and worry weave themselves into my body and brain. i know it's the consequence of stress and sleep deprivation. almost nightly, i catch myself clenching my jaw or grinding my teeth. perhaps it's loneliness i feel in my bones, strolling around in the garden somewhat aimlessly. what am i searching for? i bend, crouch and stretch, snapping errant twigs, clipping others, forcing growth into otherwise gangly, rambling, branches. i thirst for this control of nature; i have none when it comes to my boy and the seizures he suffers so endlessly. i wish so much for freedom from this malady.

recent talk of a merciful god bugs me. i recall a friend thanking god for protecting her non-verbal, disabled child from nearly choking on a chunk of celery that had been lodged in the back of her mouth for hours. why hadn't god simply protected the girl from gagging on the celery in the first place? why hadn't god saved the child from suffering scores of seizures that rack her brain? no doubt countless pleas have been made to god—concerning war, famine, disease, blight, disaster, injustice. they go unanswered regularly. though the existence of a certain kind of sovereign universal force (Nature?) seems reasonable, it's the belief in a merciful god—and one who condemns and punishes—in this messed-up world that is so astonishing to me.

in gazing through the shrubs and trees, I consider calvin, my little guinea pig, who is surviving on one pharmaceutical drug and two cannabis oils for his epilepsy. one oil i make, the other i send for in the mail. every good month is flanked by awful ones. his seizures are reliable and often come in clusters, of late, at the very least weekly. i hear of others afflicted with this disease, some too poor to afford their therapies.

folks go on about their freedoms while being hamstrung by healthcare premiums, copays, costs and deductibles so excessive they risk bankruptcy. some must choose between food and insulin. greedy corporate bastards and their political pawns feed on people's fear and ignorance, twisting the notion of what it means to be free, keeping people sick and shackled, widening the divide between those who have (money, power, control) and those who don't and never will. no one should profit off of ailing bodies. that's not freedom. that's tyranny.

near the end of my musings, i glance outside again and then at a spoon that hours before had peanut butter on it. it sits on a mysteriously-gotten susan sontag book, patiently awaiting to be picked up. it could sit there forever, until it becomes part of the room's wallpaper—an antique snapshot. i sit here wondering, though not concerned, what life is all about, my motions and emotions so crisscrossed in my body's sovereign continent. yes, sovereign.

a birdsong sailing through the screen door breaks my melancholy. i hear the bus pull up with calvin. bathed in late-afternoon dappled shadows, the garden has softened. the breeze is cool and exhilarating. the sun on my back feels good.

6.02.2019

bigger picture

My husband said, "You have to forget yourself." He was describing what it takes to care for our son. It's a monotonous, tedious, sometimes frustrating job which requires laser focus on Calvin's every move lest he get hurt or make a mess out of things, namely his own shit, of which I have much first-hand experience.

In yesterday's post, helicopter mama, I describe some of the minutiae of Calvin's care, my bad habit of hovering over him and his caregivers and, in doing so, my tendency to step on toes. The post drew a number of comments, the first from my friend, Les, whom I've known for twenty-three years. He wrote:


You are the only woman I know that is strong enough and has the right personality to do what you do.


One of Calvin's former therapists commented:


poignant and insightful for those who hope to say the right thing ... but don't.


A friend and mother of a child like Calvin sent me one of two heart GIFs, and another simply said:


Yup.


One reader with whom my post struck a nerve, wondered for whose benefit I write the blog. I explained that I write it 
for myself and those in similar situations, with the added hope of engendering introspection, including in myself, and to offer insights into messy situations which are nearly impossible for most people to imagine or grasp otherwise. I said I hope the blog prompts readers to put themselves in other's shoes, to recognize their own good fortunes and perhaps inspire empathy, humility and gratitude. I should have added that I aim to reach people who find themselves in any kind of stressful, challenging circumstance, hoping they find solace in my words and perhaps feel less alone.

Another reader, a poet whom I've never met, sent me a personal email in which she said:


I hope most caregivers have grace and understand and allow room for what you need to do to be with your son. Caregivers have a difficult job too—but it is not the same thing as being you in your relationship to Calvin. True healers one hopes for—and the healing is in support of you too. It has to be. You and Calvin are not in isolation from each other, and I (can only) imagine this requires dedicated teamwork. 

She went on to say:


I have been reading your posts for a number of years now—I don’t know how many years. Your honesty about yourself and others—not sham “honesty” to excuse cruelty, but true and difficult honesty—is your integrity. You don’t make this shit up. You hold yourself accountable. I hope most of your nurses and other supporters understand and can be there with you.

Her words brought me to tears; I sincerely hope I live up to them.


While I digested the various comments yesterday, one in particular, I realized that my post was missing something. I needed to helicopter out to see the bigger picture rather than hovering at microscopically close range. I'm not saying caregivers shouldn't forget themselves and focus closely on the job at hand: my boy's safety and well-being. I'm saying that from a more generous vantage point I'm able to see that, for all of my complaining and frustration, most of our many caregivers over the years—nurses, ed techs, teachers, therapists—have been lifesavers of sorts. If it weren't for their assistance, their affording me much needed respite, who knows how I'd be dealing? And I'm not saying I couldn't take care of Calvin without them. I know I could. I did for the first two years of his life and for months at a time since then. But I've little doubt I'd be in far worse shape without having had them, (not that I'm in that good of shape now.) Caregivers have allowed me to walk the dog, romp in the garden, write my blog, research epilepsy treatments, do house chores and shopping, catch a rare movie and sometimes a much-needed nap, and grab a drink and a bite with my husband. But perhaps the most important thing of all that has nothing to do with me is that they have always doted on my son.

As I finish this post—one not unlike most others in which I begin writing without fully knowing where it will end up—I see that it has done what I hope my posts do. It has prompted (my) introspection. It has humbled me some, revealing my thin skin and pettiness. And it has helped me to be grateful for my own good fortunes.


Calvin and nurse Rita

5.31.2019

helicopter mama

I'm a helicopter mama, hovering over the natural disaster that is my non-verbal, incontinent, legally blind, autistic, cognitively and physically disabled, chronically ill son. Regular electric storms wreak havoc inside his skull causing him to writhe, twitch and convulse. Including this morning's, he's had nine grand mals this month. A recent electroencephalogram revealed brief, fifth-of-a-second epileptic discharges (not considered bona fide seizures) occurring—at their most frequent, during sleep—once or twice every ten seconds or so.

I'm a helicopter mama for which I sincerely apologize to no one. I know my son far better than anyone. He's on my radar all day and all night long—no further than arm's reach, mind's eye or earshot. I know when he is too warm, too cold, when he's having, just had, or needs a poop, even if he's not in the room. I know when he's apt to wet through, when he's hurting, feverish or seizing, mostly when others don't. On days when he's most vulnerable—in the wake of or lead-up to seizures—I know when a bath is likely too long or cool, or a walk in the sun with wind is too cold. Exposure to the elements can sometimes be stressful for kids like him. Because Calvin can't speak, I've had to become adept at walking in his shoes. I know when he's headed for a seizure hours before it occurs, can sense its omen's and feel in my gut the weight of possible triggers. And yet I find myself biting my lip, reluctant, though failing, to hover too much over others caring for him. Though I don't want to be, I'm good at stepping on toes.

Some say, you have to trust us. I respond, trust is something to be earned. Others say, I love your boy, then go on to verily neglect my son.

As other helicopter mamas of kids like mine will confirm, some folks—whether with empathy, ignorance, conceit, contempt or concern—make attempts to save us. We are told to relax, told not to worry, asked if we are tired (hahahaha!) and told to get some rest. We are told not to get upset in front of our kids lest our outward stress set off a fit. This unsought advice, though likely sincere but perhaps—even if subconsciously—self-serving, brings to mind a favorite quote from a song by Gang of Four:

Save me from the people who would save me from myself.

The rest of the lyric, which is deliciously irreverent and hilarious, but which I rarely quote because it it is also rude, goes:

They've got muscles for brains.*

Something helicopter mamas also hear often is, Everything will be fine.

One dear friend genuinely put it this way:

Calvin is not going to die (anytime soon) ... or maybe he will.

She did not sugarcoat. She did not dismiss. She spoke what I know to be the truth, which in a strange way gave me a sense of calm, knowing in that not-too-unlikely, worst-case scenario I'd have done everything humanly possible to keep Calvin safe. As a helicopter mama, I'd have done my very best.

*Yesterday I took this line out for fear it offended, but then I added it back in for full transparency and accountability, noting what I hadn't originally, which is that it is rude.

Photo by Michael Kolster

5.30.2019

the trouble with keppra

May has been another rough month; Calvin has suffered eight grand mal seizures, three of them within thirty hours, though just two focal (partial) seizures. In April he had just one grand mal, though ten focal seizures. A recent EEG captured one of this month's grand mal seizures, plus a number of focal and generalized "discharges," which were explained to me by Calvin's neurologist as possible precursor to seizures which never emerged. Other suspicious behaviors, however, such as space-outs, finger stimming, flushed cheeks, shivers and jerks, rapid breathing, eye pressing, tummy grumbles, ear rubbing, insomnia with repetitive humming, clammy hands, rapid, pounding heartbeat and other panicky behaviors were reportedly not seizure related.

This news made me wonder if Calvin's suspicious behaviors are drug related, including the uptick in seizures after having increased his one pharmaceutical, Keppra, in early March to account for weight gain. So, in my ceaseless sleuthing to unearth ways to reduce Calvin's seizures and improve his quality of life, I went back to the Internet to study—for the umpteenth time—Keppra's side effects. I read what I had long suspected, that seizures can be a side effect of Keppra. In understanding that most side effects are dose related, and with the knowledge that Calvin has always been on an extremely high dose of Keppra (as high as 86 mgs per kg compared with the mean therapeutic dose of 44 mgs per kg) we decided to decrease his dose by ten percent (from 75 to 66 mgs per kg) to see if the side effects he seems to suffer might abate. It is too early to tell for sure, though his behavior and sleep do appear, generally, to be slightly improved.

Below is a list of Keppra side effects taken from the website drugs.com. I have highlighted the ones I sense Calvin might be suffering. Some of the side effects, such as joint, bone and muscle pain, I can never know with certainty; since Calvin can't speak, I can only presume.

I should note that for some people, like any antiepileptic drug, Keppra works wonders. And, sadly, all antiepileptic drugs have scores of side effects.

In Summary:

Common side effects of Keppra include: infection, neurosis, drowsiness, asthenia, headache, nasopharyngitis, nervousness, abnormal behavior, aggressive behavior, agitation, anxiety, apathy, depersonalization, depression, fatigue, hostility, hyperkinetic muscle activity, personality disorder, emotional lability, irritability, laceration, and mood changes. Other side effects include: tonic clonic epilepsy, dizziness, vertigo, decreased neutrophils, depressed mood, neck pain, and pain. See below for a comprehensive list of adverse effects.

More Common:

Aggressive or angry
anxiety
change in personality
chills

cough or hoarseness
crying
depersonalization

diarrhea
dry mouth
euphoria
fever

general feeling of discomfort or illness

hallucination
headache
hyperventilation
irregular heartbeats
irritability

joint pain
loss of appetite
lower back or side pain
mental depression
muscle aches and pains
nausea
painful or difficult urinationparanoia
quick to react or overreact emotionally
rapidly changing moods
restlessness

shaking
shivering
shortness of breath
sleepiness or unusual drowsiness
sore throat
stuffy or runny nose
sweating
trouble sleeping
unusual tiredness or weakness
vomiting


Less Common:

bloody nose
burning, crawling, itching, numbness, prickling, "pins and needles", or tingling feelings
clumsiness or unsteadiness

discouragement
dizziness or lightheadedness
double vision

earache
feeling of constant movement of self or surroundings
feeling sad or empty
increase in body movements
loss of bladder control
loss of memory
mood or mental changes
outburst of anger
pain or tenderness around the eyes and cheekbones
problems with memory

redness or swelling in the ear
seizures
sensation of spinning
shakiness and unsteady walk
shakiness in the legs, arms, hands, or feet
tightness of the chest
tiredness
trembling or shaking of the hands or feet
trouble concentrating
unsteadiness, trembling, or other problems with muscle control or coordination

Incidence Not Known:

Attempts at killing oneself
being forgetful
bleeding gums
blistering, peeling, or loosening of the skin
bloating
blood in the urine or stools
bloody, black, or tarry stools
blurred vision
changes in vision
chest pain
constipation
dark urine
difficulty with moving
fast heartbeat
fever with or without chills

general feeling of tiredness or weakness
high fever
increase in body movements
indigestion

itching
light-colored stools
muscle pains or stiffness
painful or difficult urination
pains in the stomach, side, or abdomen, possibly radiating to the back
pale skin
pinpoint red spots on the skin
red skin lesions, often with a purple center
red, irritated eyes
sores, ulcers, or white spots on the lips or in the mouth
stomach pain, continuing
swollen glands
swollen joints
thoughts or attempts at killing oneself
trouble with balance
twitching, twisting, or uncontrolled repetitive movements of the tongue, lips, face, arms, or legs
uncontrolled jerking or twisting movements of the hands, arms, or legs
uncontrolled movements of the lips, tongue, or cheeks
unexplained bleeding or bruising
unusual bleeding or bruising

upper right abdominal or stomach pain
weight loss
yellow eyes or skin

General:

The more commonly reported adverse reactions in children have included fatigue, aggression, nasal congestion, decreased appetite, and irritability.

Nervous system:

Very common (10% or more): Headache (14%), somnolence (14%)
Common (1% to 10%): Dizziness, ataxia, vertigo, paresthesia, coordination difficulties
Postmarketing reports: Choreoathetosis, dyskinesia

Psychiatric:

Very Common (10% or more): Non-psychotic behavioral symptoms (up to 38%), psychotic symptoms (up to 17%)
Common (1% to 10%): Depression, nervousness, amnesia, anxiety, hostility, emotional lability, irritability, mood swings, hypersomnia, insomnia, apathy, tearfulness, negativism
Postmarketing reports: Panic attack

In studies, non-psychotic behavioral symptoms (reported as aggression, agitation, anger, anxiety, apathy, depersonalization, depression, emotional lability, hostility, hyperkinesias, irritability, nervousness, neurosis, and personality disorder) were reported in 38% of pediatric patients aged 4 to 16 years compared to 19% in placebo patients. Dose reduction or discontinuation due to behavioral symptoms occurred in 11% of pediatric patients.

Hematologic:

In pediatric patients 4 to 16 years old, mean decreases in WBC and neutrophils were 0.4 x 10(9)/L and 0.3 x 10(9)/L, respectively, compared to small increases in placebo patients. Mean relative lymphocyte counts increased by 1.7% in patients receiving this drug (placebo=decrease of 4%).
Common (1% to 10%): Decreased white blood cell count (WBC), decreased neutrophil count, increased lymphocyte counts, higher eosinophil counts
Frequency not reported: Decreases in white blood cell, neutrophil, and red blood cell counts; decreased in hemoglobin and hematocrit; increases in eosinophil counts
Postmarketing reports: Pancytopenia (with bone marrow suppression reported in some cases), thrombocytopenia, agranulocytosis

Hypersensitivity:

Postmarketing reports: Anaphylaxis

Dermatologic:

Alopecia reported with this drug resolved with discontinuation of therapy in most cases.
Frequency not reported: Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS), toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN)
Postmarketing reports: Erythema multiforme, alopecia, angioedema

Other:

Very common (10% or more): Asthenia (15%), fatigue (10%)
Common (1% to 10%): Pain, vertigo

Respiratory:

Common (1% to 10%): Pharyngitis, rhinitis, increased cough, sinusitis

Gastrointestinal:

Common (1% to 10%): Diarrhea, gastroenteritis, constipation
Uncommon (0.1% to 1%): Nausea
Postmarketing reports: Pancreatitis

Ocular:

Common (1% to 10%): Diplopia

Hepatic:

Postmarketing reports: Abnormal liver function tests, hepatic failure, hepatitis

Musculoskeletal:

Common (1% to 10%): Neck pain
Postmarketing reports: Muscular weakness

Immunologic:

Very common (10% or more): Infection (13%)
Common (1% to 10%): Influenza
Postmarketing reports: Drug reaction with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms (DRESS).

Metabolic:

Common (1% to 10%): Anorexia
Postmarketing reports: Weight loss, hyponatremia

Cardiovascular:

Very common (10% or more): Increased diastolic blood pressure.

Renal:

Postmarketing reports: Acute kidney injury

Photo by Michael Kolster