Zebra Senpai

This will probably be a car crash of a post.

I’ve been really thinking about Japan a lot lately – Something about the particular kind of crisp cold we’ve had lately reminds me of autumn in Tokyo, the perfect kind of weather in which to put on some fingerless gloves, pick up a hot coffee in a can from a vending machine, and wander aimlessly around an almost-impossibly busy city, listening to the 16-bit twinkle of pachinko machines and the rush of trains overhead and underfoot, breathing in the smell of falling ginko leaves, and generally revelling in the sheer neat, flowing, well-organised urbanness of it all.

It struck me, comparatively recently, that when I’m sad about not being in Japan anymore, I don’t just miss Japan, I miss being ablebodied, since that was the last year that I managed to “pass” in.

Every Monday, I’d come home from my shamisen lesson and spend the afternoon resting my hands because my wrists hurt so much. In the evenings, after Dearest was out at work, I’d Skype with one of my pen-pals, and I’d do it lying down because sitting upright was so painful. During the day I’d still walk tens of kilometres, stand for hours on trains, teach six lessons a day in Toda whilst spending my dinner hour cycling around the nearest towns, or shuttle back and forth between Tokorozawa, Gotanda and Hasune, or (after the earthquake) donning steeltoed boots and a hanten to hep re-setting fallen gravestones in my beloved Zoushigaya-reien, but I was pretty much already obviously more ill than I had been before I left.

I returned home in the September of 2011. By the spring of 2012, I was taken to an occupational therapist by the then-new friend that I now call my sister, to get help for the pain in my hands. I degenerated for another year after that, until I had to admit that the pain was everywhere and all of the time. I was given naproxen and codeine in May of 2013, a tentative EDS diagnosis in August, my first bottle of morphine in October, then finally saw the specialist to confirm it in July 2014.

But that’s not the whole story.

Whilst I was in Japan, a then-peripheral-internet-person-I-knew was in Canada, getting a diagnosis of EDS. This was the first I’d heard of it, and my response was something along the lines of “Oh god, hope you’re all right” [Let me google this…]

She had comforted her followers with a brief “I know that many of you will now be thinking “Do I have EDS too? And the answer is probably not – You’d have to have been really sick, for a long time, so you’d know. And it’s really, really rare.” but I looked at the list of symptoms, looked at myself, and quietly filed it away as “This sounds a little bit like me.” I met another of her friends, also with EDS, and reading about their day-to-day life made me think “Yep, this really does sound like me”.

On the same day in November in 2011 that I’d met my sister, I also met Best Friend. We got on like a house on fire from the start, enough that the friend who’d introduced us to each other admitted that he’d deliberately kept us apart for about five years because he knew that if we met, we’d wreak havoc, love each other unto death, and (subtext) would completely push his nose out of joint in favour of the other.

The fact that the old schoolfriend who had tried so hard to get us not to meet never gets mentioned in my blog is probably telling – This was one of the last of his self-centred bullshits, in which he’d manipulated, undervalued and generally treated-as-things the people around him.

Best Friend is a creator of things – Better than I am now and better than I ever was – and I found myself always making excuses for my current lack-of-creative-output. He knew my hands were ruined, he was the one that first sprayed the inside of my wrist-braces with an inhaler to stop me from scratching off my own skin, and he was pretty much the only person to offer reasonable condolences at the loss of their use. And, honestly, encouraged me that it was worth trying to keep working with them, even though it hurt and I was producing work that I was ashamed of, because at least it was something.

Anyway, about a year after first meeting Best Friend, in the middle of a month-long blizzard, I spotted a symptom in him that could be nothing other than EDS. I pointed it out. He went into treatment and, soon after, was diagnosed. In return, he pushed me into also going back to a doctor, and thus we went through diagnosis and treatment together.

At some point it occurred to me – Almost every zebra that I know has their zebra-senpai, the person who usually knew them well enough to say “Look, having put together all of the things that’s wrong… This is what you need to say to a doctor.” My two online friends did that for me, then me and Best Friend did that for each other, then both of us have done that in-turn for other people. Looking back even further, at least one of the two online friends credits someone else with putting together the jigsaw pieces for her first, before her doctor got to her, and I bet that if I asked some of the many other zebs that I’ve now met if they has a zebra-senpai, they’d be able to name at least one non-doctor who put the idea on the table first.

And this makes me worry. I worry because I am part of a well-educated, accessible, tolerant community who very much look after each other and aren’t afraid to go digging through PubMed to make sure that they’re helping correctly. And there are definitely zebras out there who don’t know anyone else like them, who don’t have internet access, who don’t have the background to stand up to a doctor and say “No, you’re wrong and here’s why.”

There’s thousands of zebras out there who have no idea that they’re zebras. They think that being tired all the time is normal, and falling over when their hips fail is clumsiness, and that hand pain and loss of function is just overwork, and probably a dozen different just-so-stories about why their back hurts and shoulders don’t always move right and why they only eat every third day and defecate once a week.

If anything needs an awareness campaign, which I’m usually so sceptical of, it’s EDS.

Two steps forward, one step back

Also, right now I am very, very worried that I don’t have EDS at all, I’m just suffering from a case of one-man mass hysteria and I’ve got nothing wrong with me that a good slap and being told to pull myself together wouldn’t cure.

Possibly precipitated by having had a couple of good days, made some trousers, done my own laundry, and had sufficient morphine to not be in too much pain, and for the remaining (still unpleasant, but more uncomfortable than crippling) pain to be fairly hard to localise.