I am the oldest child and only daughter of my father. I was named after him, and for the first six years of my life, I was the only child. I adored him and looked up to him. I always tried hard to make him proud of me and I never wanted to be a disappointment to him. Even though that meant that sometimes I followed paths in my life that he did not want me to follow. Even then, I was following in his footsteps, because he was always his own man, doing things his own way. That is probably the best lesson he ever taught me.
I shared my father’s impact on my life in a Tribute I wrote and delivered at his funeral, eight and a half years ago. I also wrote several poems about his later years, as he fended off illnesses, and, finally, about his death, in a “privately published” collection of poems called Mo(u)rning Songs.
In the years since Dad died, I have taken on some of his characteristics, subconsciously adopting some of his mannerisms, vocal inflections, and habitual expressions. My Mom even tells me sometimes that I sound just like him, or that I look more like him as I get older.
But there is one thing about Dad that I never wanted to have to face in myself: some of his health issues are now mine. And I am facing them at a younger age than he did.
For starters, I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD) a year and a half ago. My illness was caught at an earlier stage than his, but having watched him go through the vagaries of dialysis in his last years, my sharing this illness with him has been a bitter pill to swallow.
For both of us, long-term use of a medication caused this shared illness. In Dad’s case, it was his chronic use of ibuprofen to treat arthritis pain that contributed to his failing kidneys; in addition, he had type 2 diabetes. In my case, taking lithium for 33 years to treat my bipolar disorder directly caused my CKD.
Unlike Dad, I experienced warning signs—symptoms that I didn’t realize were connected to my kidneys. For several years, I experienced unexplained night sweats, increased urination, and other symptoms that could have been caught by my doctors sooner, if only I had continued to be diligent about having my creatinine levels checked regularly.
Unfortunately for me, I was so busy working and being a secondary caregiver for Dad and, later, for Mom as well, that I didn’t pay attention to these signs. Changes in insurance coverage for lab tests also kept me from keeping up with needed tests. For Dad, renal failure was a sudden and nearly fatal event.
Now, I have to face the music about another condition Dad and I share: high cholesterol. I’ve known since the mid-1970s that I have this condition. But I’ve been in denial, to the point that for 20 years, I’ve refused to take statin drugs to treat it. I actually tried a statin medication briefly, within the last 10 years, but I hated the way it made me feel—especially in combination with lithium and an antidepressant—so I stopped taking the statin. However, after a year of trying to bring down my cholesterol levels via dietary changes and exercise, my levels are even higher! I’m almost certain that my doctor will insist on me taking medicine for my cholesterol. If I don’t, I face the real possibility of developing the other disease that took my father from me: coronary artery disease.
What’s that expression about the sins of the father?
Taking Charge of My Health and Well-Being
The real point of this story is this: My health and well-being are mine to determine, and while I respect my doctors and try to follow their advice, prescriptions, and so on, it is my decision whether and to what extent I will go with “the program” they lay out to me.
I consider this to be the flip side of those god-awful drug commercials that saturate TV: “Ask your doctor if [fill in the blank] is right for you,” followed by the obligatory list of side-effects so dire that they make me wonder, “Which is worse—the disease or the cure?”
And there you have it—My Standard of Care: With few exceptions, I choose the “disease” over the “cure,” because for every action there is a reaction, and if the reaction is enough to darn near kill you faster than the original condition will, then why should I submit myself to greater harm?
Case in Point
I’ll give you a twofer. When I received the CKD diagnosis, I made the decision to stop taking lithium after 33 years. My doctors were leery of this decision, but I conceded that if I ever had to, I would resume this mental fog-inducing, weight-increasing, kidney-killing drug to maintain my sanity. It’s been about 15 months since that fateful day, and guess what? I am happier, healthier, and more balanced than I’ve ever been before! The only caveat to this pretty picture is that I do have to mind my temper—I am sometimes apt to speak my mind before thinking, which I would never have done either as a child in the throes of depression or as a medicated “bipolar” adult. The important thing here is that I am aware of this new tendency, and I am mindful enough to deal with it in an adult manner.
Just this past month, after suffering for years with folliculitis of “unknown” origin, I saw a dermatologist who took one look at me and confirmed what I long suspected (because I researched it): my antidepressant is the culprit! It has caused the nerve endings under my skin to become overactive. But this time, when the dermatologist suggested I might want to change medications, I said, no thanks! Apart from the sensitive skin, this medication works well for me. I am willing and able to deal with the skin issues by using a cream and keeping my nails cut short.