Tuesday, March 29, 2016

TV Tuesday: American Crime

Having heard rave reviews of the ABC drama American Crime, my husband and I started watching it this second season (which has just recently wrapped up). My husband found it a bit too disturbing (it's not at all graphic but does deal with some sensitive topics like male rape), but I was riveted for the full ten episodes.

American Crime (not to be confused with American Crime Story which is airing a re-enactment of the OJ case) is a wholly unique show, unlike anything else I have ever seen on TV before. Each season, it tackles a different crime, with an entirely different set of characters and location, and it delves into myriad issues that are relevant to our society today. Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman are the lead actors in the show, but they play completely different characters each season. So, essentially, each season stands on its own as a sort of mini-series. I haven't watched season 1 yet, but the synopses I read say it deals with the court trial of a home invasion that resulted in the death of a war hero who may have had some secrets in his life.

Season 2 takes place in Indiana and aims to capture a typical American Midwest town. In the first episode, a high school boy named Taylor goes to a party and later admits that he was drugged and sexually assaulted. Taylor lives with his single mom, who works as a waitress, and is a scholarship student at the prestigious Leyland School, a private school where most of the students come from wealthy, upper-class families. The party that Taylor went to was an annual tradition: the Captain's Party, hosted by the two captains of the school's championship basketball team. It's the kind of thing that most parents and school administrators know about but look the other way. Photos of Taylor from the party - in which he looks drunk and half-naked - circulate on social media, triggering the crisis.

In that first episode, the main characters are introduced, including the boys on the basketball team, especially the two captains, Eric and Kevin. The basketball coach is played by Timothy Hutton, and his wife, the art teacher at Leyland, is played by Hope Davis. Leyland's principal - a completely unsympathetic character - is played by Felicity Huffman. Taylor's hardworking mom is played by Lili Taylor. Eric's and Kevin's parents are also introduced, as well as other important characters. The acting - from the big name actors as well as the lesser known teens - is absolutely superb.

As each episode unfolds, the show digs deeper into the story, as secrets and lies are uncovered. The details of the assault are revealed gradually, although even by the end, it remains a matter of who do you believe? That event triggers an avalanche of effects that reverberate throughout the entire community, eventually leading to some tragic consequences. Leyland, the private, mostly white school, is contrasted with the local public school, where incidents of racial violence break out and the multi-racial administrators struggle to maintain control. The media and the police are also involved throughout the story.

American Crime tackles all kinds of important issues in our society in a way that highlights the gray areas. This second season addresses issues of race, sexual orientation, and class and highlights our biases and prejudices (it seems the first season, though focusing on an entirely different crime, has a similarly broad and thoughtful approach). Nothing is clear-cut here, and the viewer is constantly caught off-quard, wondering who to believe and who are the good guys.

This is a TV show of the highest quality, with excellent acting, realistic writing, and situations that mirror the complexities of real life, with no easy answers. It's a crime show where you never even see the faces of the detectives and lawyers - regular citizens are the focus here, including crime victims, perpetrators, and everyone else affected by the crime(s). If there was a book group equivalent for TV shows, American Crime would be the perfect show for a group discussion - the issues introduced here are complex and thought-provoking. And if you only like stories that wrap up all the loose ends with a nice, happy ending, then this one probably isn't for you. I can't wait to see what they come up with for season 3 (and I still need to go back and watch season 1).

American Crime airs on ABC. The second season has ended, and the last half of it is still available On Demand and on Hulu, and the last few episodes are available at ABC's website. It doesn't seem to be available on Netflix. Both season 1 & season 2 are available at Amazon for $19.99 (or $1.99 per episode). If you missed the start of season 2 and don't want to pay for it, then you will have to wait for season 3 - you don't want to miss this one!


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

TV Tuesday: The Americans

My husband and I were excited last week by the return of one of our favorite TV shows, The Americans, for its fourth season. It just gets better and better!

This FX show takes place in 1980's Washington, DC.  Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings run a travel agency together and seem like a typical suburban family, with their kids Henry and Paige. There is nothing typical about them, though. They are both Soviet Union spies who were sent to the U.S. when they themselves were teenagers to grow up here, get married, and become imbedded as spies who appear like any other American couple.

So, they get up in the morning, feed the kids and take them to school, maybe stop in at the travel agency for a while, and have dinner with their kids in the evening. In between, though, at all hours, one or both of them might be out on an assignment, wearing a disguise and gathering information - perhaps sleeping with a politician or meeting up with another spy or even killing someone who has gotten too close to their secret. It's all very thriller-ish, packed with action and sometimes sex and violence, while on the surface, they live this sedate, "normal" life.

Challenges are constantly coming up, from finding out that their neighbor works for the CIA to their teen daughter getting hooked on religion and joining a church. There are crosses and double-crosses, hidden secret lives, plus inside looks at what is happening within the CIA and inside the Russian embassy. One of the most amazing things about this unique show is that the viewer is witness to both sides of the Cold War, but you find yourself rooting for the main characters, the Russian spies!

The acting on The Americans is superb. Elizabeth is played wonderfully by Keri Russell, who conveys both a passion for her country and strong belief in what she is doing but also maternal love for her children. Matthew Rhys plays Phillip...though you may not recognize him at first in many scenes! His disguises are plenty and very convincing. Even the actors who play the children are excellent, especially Paige, who by the third season (and her teen years) is starting to wonder about her parents' comings and goings at strange hours.

There is tremendous complexity to this show - it's a family drama and a spy thriller, an action-packed adventure that also delves deep into its characters' emotional lives. In addition, the setting is very well-done - it really feels like the 80's without being overdone. We loved it right from the very first episode - and it just keeps getting better.

Season 4 just began on FX so is available On Demand and on the FX website. It is also available for $1.99 an episode on Amazon Prime, and the first three seasons of The Americans is available for free on Prime (or for $20 a season/$1.99 an episode for non-Prime members).


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Weekly Inspiration: For Friends & Family - What To Say

This TED talk popped up in my sidebar on Youtube this week, and it sounded (unlike some of Youtube's other suggestions for me) like something perfect for me. It was. Although the speaker is not chronically ill, she is recovering from the loss of a limb, so she understands a few things about physical disability, mourning, and grief...and the horrible things people say when they don't know what to say.

Adrianne Haslet-Davis was a victim in the Boston Marathon bombing and lost her foot and lower leg. In this talk, What People Say When They Don't Know What To Say, she describes some of the things friends and family said to her while she was in the hospital and working to recover and grieve her loss. No one with chronic illness will be surprised in the least by some of the horrible things people said to her. We've all been there - hearing a well-meaning loved one tell us how lucky we are or suggesting that vitamins could cure us or (my personal favorite) tell us that God never gives us more than we can handle.

Adrianne's experiences are similar (and sometimes, even worse), and here, she provides advice to friends, family, medical professionals, and caregivers on what to say:

This would be a great video to share with friends and family, but I think it is also helpful for patients enduring these kinds of ignorant comments. For one thing, it tells us that it isn't just US - that it is a universal experience for friends and family to not know what to say and to blurt out awkward, inappropriate, and even hurtful things. Adrianne also talks about where these horrible comments come from - she theorizes they come from a place of fear. I agree completely. I think one reason so many people have trouble dealing with those who are chronically ill is the constant reminder (perhaps even unconscious) that this horrible thing could happen to them, too. Yes, they love us and they want to help us, but deep down inside, it is terrifying to see a formerly lively, active loved one become so severely ill (which is also why so many of our loved ones gets mired in denial).

I've written previously about this topic in CFS and Family, The Invisible Wall, Helping Family Understand ME/CFS, and in my ProHealth article, Who Do You Tell and What Do You Say (kind of the opposite of Adrianne's talk here, about what we say to others).

What are your thoughts on the things people say? Share your experiences in the comment section, about what your loved ones have said to you or your own strategies for dealing with these kinds of comments.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Unique Gene Expressions in ME/CFS and Lyme Disease

Two recent studies have been published using the latest technology to analyze the genetic expressions in ME/CFS patients and those who have had and been treated for Lyme Disease, respectively.

In the ME/CFS gene expression study, they used 88 subjects - 42 with a diagnosis of ME/CFS and 38 healthy controls - to conduct a comprehensive study of the entire known genome to look for differences and distinct markers in the ME/CFS patients. They found 442 SNPs (pieces of known genetic material) associated generally with the ME/CFS patients, 12 of which were significantly in the coding region of the genome, with 2 of these being especially significant. They also identified 5 SNPs specifically related to T-cell receptors (a part of the immune system known to be dysfunctional in ME/CFS).

This is a very significant study, as it is the first one applying the advanced genetic analysis currently available to ME/CFS, but it is not the first genetic study of ME/CFS. Two earlier researchers began this process about 10 years ago. Dr. Kerr of Scotland headed up a genetic ME/CFS study whose preliminary results were published in 2008 of 25 patients and 50 healthy controls. Then, those genes that were different in the ME/CFS patients in the first round were analyzed in another 55 patients and 75 healthy controls (my blood was a part of this study! I worked through Dr. Enlander in NYC to donate my blood and participate in the surveys). Their results showed 88 genes showing different expression in the ME/CFS patients, many of these related to immune function or infections, which suggested 7 sub-types of ME/CFS.

Dr. Gow, also of Scotland, published a follow-up paper in 2009, building on Kerr's earlier work. This was a smaller study - only 8 patients and 7 controls - but went into greater depth. It found 366 genes with different expressions in ME/CFS patients versus healthy controls. Unfortunately, all of that ground-breaking work in Scotland came to a halt when funding dried up...so seeing this new study is a reason for celebration and hope!

However, even before the technology existed to do this kind of genome analysis, researchers knew that ME/CFS had genetic roots, just from observations of how often ME/CFS occurred in family members. Back in 2006, the New Jersey CFS Association did a population study of ME/CFS incidence in families with some startling results, showing both genetic and infectious roots for ME/CFS. In their study of 219 patients and their families, blood-related family members not in the same household as an ME/CFS patient had a 3 times greater chance of getting ME/CFS, those in the same household but not blood-related (like spouses) had an 8 times greater chance of getting ME/CFS, and those both blood-related and in the same household, like children, had a 13 time greater chance of getting ME/CFS than the general population! Wow. Is it any surprise that both of my sons got ME/CFS a couple of years after I did?

Back to the present, another new study was just published analyzing the genes of Lyme disease patients (29 patients and 13 controls) at the time of diagnosis and six months later, after treatment. It showed a different gene expression in patients, both at the time of diagnosis and six months post-treatment, than the healthy controls. Interestingly, it did not show genetic differences between those patients who were fully recovered and those who had persistent symptoms. Those gene expressions specific to the Lyme patients showed some similarities to those of patients with three different chronic immune disorders, suggesting that Lyme causes similar immune dysfunction that stays on, even after the disease is resolved.

Why should we care about these complicated genetic studies that we can barely understand? Because this information on gene expression could form the basis for future biomarkers (providing a test for ME/CFS and more reliable testing for Lyme), modes of treatment, and perhaps even cures through genetic manipulation. The better the medical field understands what is behind our diseases, the better treatment that will be available to patients. These genetic studies help to form the basis for future research and improvements in patient care and are definitely a reason to celebrate!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

New ProHealth Article - Balancing Hope & Acceptance

I am continuing to recover after my bout of both flu and bronchitis last week. I'm feeling much better overall and able to function pretty normally again. I'm still coughing and sometimes sound like Darth Vader when I breathe (and my husband says I've been moaning in my sleep!), but the inhaler and Mucinex continue to help, and it keeps getting better.

My latest article has been published on ProHealth website's Inspiration Corner: Balancing Hope & Acceptance. You can read the full article at the link, and I will reprint it here on my blog in a month or so.

This article deals with the delicate balance in chronic illness between accepting your current condition and making the best of things, while still holding onto hope for a better tomorrow.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on both acceptance and hope, either here in the blog comments, on the ProHealth article's comments section, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

(In case you missed it, my ProHealth article for February was The Joy of Celebrations, with tips on how to easily make a day like today into a special occasion! I just painted my nails a lovely shade of green and hung our St. Patty's Day decorations up. Going to get the corned beef started soon.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TV Tuesday: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I am slowly coming back to life after a bout of both the flu and bronchitis. I would say that the Tamiflu and antibiotics both did their jobs since about one week later, I am starting to feel much better and my cough is clearing up. Even my thinking cleared up today (yay!) and my energy is returning, so I am trying to get back into my usual blogging routines. I have plenty of fodder for my weekly TV Tuesday feature because my son and I were both home sick last week, so we watched a LOT of TV together!

On my worst day last week, I couldn't even manage scrolling through Facebook or checking my e-mail. My son was still asleep, so I needed some seriously mindless TV (and something other than crime shows which I was overloaded on from watching with him!). I settled on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy on Netflix, propped myself up on the couch, and binge-watched about 6 episodes in a row! It was just what I needed - light, fun, and fluffy to lift my spirits.

The very original premise of the show is that a group of girls is rescued from an underground bunker after being held for fifteen years by a crazy doomsday cultist. The girls travel to NYC to appear on the Today Show after their release, and one of them, Kimmy, played by Ellie Kemper of The Office fame, decides to stay in New York to start her new life. Kimmy was taken captive when she was just 13, so she is extremely naive and completely unfamiliar with the modern world. She was basically scooped up from middle school, held underground for 15 years, and is now loose in NYC.

Kimmy finds a job as a nanny for the wealthy Jacqueline Vorhees, played by Jane Krakowski, looking after her pre-teen son and teen daughter. She also finds a place to live, a basement apartment that she shares with a flamboyantly gay black man named Titus Andremedon, played by Tituss Burgess, with a very flaky landlord played by Carol Kane. It all sounds a little over-the-top described here...and it is! That's the fun of this show - subtle it is not. And did you see that cast? They are all excellent at playing crazy, funny characters.

Kimmy is, of course, the star of the show, and Ellie Kemper is perfect for the role of the innocent, perky young woman making her way through both adolescence and adulthood at the same time. Kimmy loves to dress in bright colors and has absolutely no pretense about her, which tends to bring out the best in those around her. Of course, there are plenty of funny misunderstandings from Kimmy's complete naivete about the modern world. Despite all its light-hearted fun, the show is also warm and endearing as Kimmy tackles all the obstacles thrown in her way and helps those around her, too.

Bottom line: this show is absolute cotton candy fun, a delight to watch, often very funny, and a great pick-me-up. It was the perfect show to binge-watch on a sick day, and after 10 episodes, I found myself really caring abut Kimmy and her ragtag group of friends.

This is a Netflix original show, so it is only available on the streaming service. Season 1 is currently available with 13 episodes, and season 2 starts on April 15, 2016.

What are your favorite shows to cheer you up on sick days?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Triple Whammy - Fighting Infections

I posted on Tuesday about suddenly getting sick, but this is turning out to be way more than my usual ho-hum bronchitis again.

By noon on Tuesday, I was shivering with fever (a rarity for me) and had such severe aches & joint pain I could hardly move. I live with mild aches much of the time, but this was different. I woke up Wednesday morning feeling like concrete had set up in my chest overnight - instead of the loose, wet cough from the day before, I could hardly breathe in and had searing pain in my chest when I did manage to cough. This was definitely NOT my usual bronchitis.

After my nap (spent shivering under blankets even though it was almost 80 here yesterday!), my temperature hit 102, so I took 3 ibuprofen. I had been holding off because I didn't want to mask my symptoms when I went into the doctor, but as my son said, there wasn't much chance of that!

It was finally time for my doctor's appointment at 3 pm, and I barely dragged myself over there. I was explaining to the doctor how fast it came on and how severe my symptoms were, when she glanced at the row of numbers the nurse had written down for my vital signs and said, "I see your OI is bad today, too - your heart rate is 100." I said, "That's not my heart rate - that's my temperature" and watched her eyes bug out!

Like most people with ME/CFS, my "normal" temperature runs low, usually about 97.5 and even when I get a "fever," like with bronchitis, it rarely rises above 99. I think this is only the second time my temperature has risen above 100 in my 14 years with ME/CFS!

She agreed with my assessment that this was almost certainly the flu, given how fast it came on and the high fever. The lab in their office was closed yesterday, so she couldn't swab me for flu but felt it was prudent to get me on Tamiflu right away. She also decided to treat the bronchitis with antibiotics, given my history with it and how prone people with ME/CFS are to bacterial infections.

Before I left, she asked how my chronic yeast overgrowth was doing. I reported that it was still fairly bad; I was still taking Diflucan, alternating days with 1 pill and 2. She told me to go back up to 2 pills a day while I'm on antibiotics...I know this drill by now!

So, it seems I have the flu, bronchitis, and my usual yeast overgrowth. I am now taking antivirals (Tamiflu), antibiotics, and doubling up on my usual antifungals. I should have all bases covered now! Within a few hours of taking the first Tamiflu, my fever began to drop, so I am hopeful this will help and will also prevent my immune system from going crazy and causing a long-term relapse. My son got the flu two Novembers ago, and he was badly crashed for over two months (we didn't realize it was the flu until later).

What makes this even more remarkable is that, because of the immune dysfunction in ME/CFS, my immune system over-responds to viruses, so while I may crash from the immune symptoms when exposed to a virus, I almost never actually "catch" a virus. In my 14 years with ME/CFS, I have never had the flu before and rarely, if ever, catch colds. Oddly, I also just caught my first stomach virus in 14 years at Christmastime. I wonder if this means that my immune system is becoming more "normal"?

Have you had the flu since getting ME/CFS? What has been your experience with infections?

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Bronchitis...Here We Go Again

Unbelievable. I've been feeling pretty good the past few days, but last night while we were watching TV, I had a little tickle at the back of my throat. My husband got me a sugar-free lozenge, and we went to sleep. By the middle of the night, I was coughing and could feel the chest congestion starting. I woke up this morning with full-blown symptoms - chest pain, tightness & congestion, constant wet cough, wheezing. All of this developed literally overnight!

My son and I both struggle with bronchitis several times a year, though immune modulators like inosine and low-dose naltrexone have helped reduce the incidence.

We are not unusual among those with ME/CFS. The specific type of immune system dysfunction in ME/CFS (Th2 dominant) makes its patients more prone to bacterial infections: our immune systems over-react to viruses and allergens and under-react to bacteria. So, we almost never get colds, but the tiniest bit of congestion and...bam! We've got bronchitis again. For my younger son, it's usually sinus infections.

Both of us have albuterol inhalers now, which help, but it still feels impossible to stop this runaway train once it starts. I already made an appointment with our doctor for tomorrow so she can listen to my lungs - fortunately, she has a very good understanding of ME/CFS and our chronic problems with bronchitis. She always treats it aggressively because she knows it could easily turn into pneumonia with us.

I tried, last fall, to get rid of it myself without antibiotics, since (like many with ME/CFS)  I have chronic yeast overgrowth that is severely flared up by taking antibiotics. I used the inhaler, took maximum strength Mucinex round-the-clock, decongestant during the day, allergy meds, and all sorts of herbal antivirals and antibacterials. But, as my husband pointed out, waiting to see the doctor only resulted in my needing 3 rounds of antibiotics instead of 1 and being badly crashed for over two months. I've learned my lesson - better to get in immediately, take those damn antibiotics, and nip it in the bud. The weather is just starting to turn nice this week, and I really don't want to spend the next couple of months in bed!

So, here I sit, coughing like crazy, dialing back my planned activities today. I still feel good this morning (other than the chest symptoms), but I know what's coming  I've been on this train before. I'll see my doctor tomorrow and hopefully get rid of this infection before it has a chance to dig in.

Have you experienced these kinds of chronic bacterial infections?

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

14 Years Ago Today...

Happy Illiversary to me!
14 years ago today, my life forever divided into Before and After, though I had no idea at the time.

On March 2, 2002, I had a typically active Saturday - step class at the Y while my sons were in their swim class, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, and then having friends over for a dinner party. The only sign that anything had changed was that I had a severe sore throat at bedtime and felt more worn out than I normally did.

The next morning, I woke up feeling horrible and figured I had some sort of virus, but we went ahead with our plans to spend the day in Baltimore with our sons. I felt awful through the whole thing. In this blog post from my 7th ME/CFS anniversary, I describe the surreal experience of that trip.

The funny thing is that even though I felt so bad that day, I still had no idea that my life had just changed dramatically...forever. I thought I'd feel better in a few days. And, in fact, I did feel a little better after about 5 days, well enough to go visit my newborn niece, though, of course, I quickly went back to feeling sick in a crazy up-and-down pattern that seemed completely random at the time. It would be a full year before I finally got an accurate diagnosis of ME/CFS (and I know I am one of the lucky ones for diagnosis only taking a year!).

My husband and I in Baltimore this weekend
Coincidentally, my husband and I spent this past weekend in Baltimore again. I'm happy to report that it was much better than that long-ago trip 14 years ago, mostly because I know my illness and my limitations now and have learned to live with my restrictions. I took two naps on Saturday, limited my time at the art museum to under an hour, and wore my heart rate monitor everywhere. We were back in our hotel room watching Netflix in bed by 8 pm! Still, we had a very nice weekend together, and I call that a victory, especially since I can still remember - vividly - how horrible I felt on that trip 14 years ago.
In front of the Baltimore Museum of Art (I'm awful at selfies!)
I used to get upset every March 2, but I have long ago accepted my "new normal," and I am quite happy with my life now. Of course I would prefer to be well, but I've learned to live for today and I still have plenty of hope for the future, too.

I am feeling pretty crummy today, ironically, which is fairly uncommon for me now to have a bad crash day. I suspect much of this crash is due to emotional upset over some family members - you'd think they'd understand after 14 years, but some of them never will. Plenty of treatments have helped my sons and I to improve our quality of life. As we often say, nothing helps a lot, but a lot of things have helped a little, and those little improvements add up.

So, Happy Illiversary to me!

Studies show that about 80% of those with ME/CFS can name the exact date when their illness began.

How do you feel about your anniversaries of getting sick?

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Summary of TV Reviews

After putting together a listing of all of my book reviews and movie reviews from 2015, I decided I should also list the TV shows I have reviewed. All of these lists are available anytime from the tabs along the top of the blog (and will be updated there), but I am also listing my TV reviews here since there aren't many yet (I just started writing TV reviews in September 2015). These are all shows that I or my entire family have enjoyed, arranged by genre. 

What are some of YOUR favorite TV shows?

TV Reviews

KEY: Available for free (or with subscription) from:
AP = Amazon Prime
C = Cable and/or Cable On Demand
I = On network’s own website
N = Netflix
(Offerings from subscription services change all the time, so double-check. Also, some shows are available for an additional fee on Amazon Prime whether you subscribe or not. Most networks offer some episodes of every show for free at their own websites. Check out this post for a comparison of ways to watch TV/services available.)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (also a musical!) (C, I) – The CW
Grace and Frankie (N) - Netflix

The Good Wife (AP, C, I, N) – CBS
Madam Secretary (C, I, N) - CBS
Mr. Robot (C, I) - USA

Dramedy (both Comedy & Drama)
Red Oaks (AP) – Amazon Prime
Transparent (AP) – Amazon Prime
Younger (C, I) – TV Land

5 Days (AP) – BBC
Blindspot (C, I, N) - NBC
Colony (sci fi) (C, I) - USA
How To Get Away with Murder (C, N, I) – ABC
Legends (C, I, N) - TNT
Limitless (C, I) – CBS
The Mysteries of Laura (C, I, N) - NBC
Quantico (C, I) - ABC
The Wire (AP) - HBO