amber rahim

Chronic illness: the parts we don't talk about


my burn out story

When I burnt out I was traveling at 100 mph being batman; saving my business world from the bad guys and crooks who appeared disguised as project managers and stakeholders; and in my private life, fighting off the evil villain of my daughter’s chronic illness.  I was working harder and harder and doing it with a smile and sometimes a snarl.

Finally, a message came through.  My body finally broke through the wall I had put up in my mind to avoid the truth.  My body is a dirty fighter and hit me hard  with aches and pains and finally, took my mind.  I was tired, cranky and short tempered.  I was forgetful, I couldn’t even remember how to spell forgetful.  I couldn’t sleep.  I was exhausted, worn out.

I had an epiphany. ” I need to stop, take a break before I break”.  I thought I was so smart and that I had realized in time.  Ha! Could I have been more wrong?

So I parked my bat mobile, got ready for a 4 week timeout and …… just stopped.  Everything just shut down.  I could barely function.  I had used up all my reserves and was empty.

It took a long time to start back up again, 1 step forward, 1 step back, a step sideways etc.  I started making progress, recovering, to function.  However I realized that there were some things that I couldn’t do anymore and I feared I was broken.  I felt broken.

You see, I thought that people are like elastic bands; when you stretch them too much, they break and they stay broken.

With my burn out, these are the “elastic bands” that broke:

– multitasking.  It took all my concentration to make a cup of tea.  I couldn’t have a chat with you at the same time.

– being able to take on the intensive 24 hour care of a critically ill baby with just my husband and I to split the shifts over.  (Of course I had been trying to do this perfectly).  A lot more work fell on my husband’s shoulders (sorry dear) because I wasn’t able to do my part.

– Being a superhero. Batman was gone, suit back in the cupboard.  I just didn’t care to fight the bad guys anymore

– Being helpful: saying yes, I’ll fix that / take care of it, you can count on me.  Gone.  I just wanted to tell people to, well, insert your own swear word here.

I really thought I had lost a lot but something strange happened during this mega timeout. I started to see things in a new light.  Those things I mentioned just now?  This is what I like to call them now:

– ” tolerating being overworked”

– ” being taken advantage of”


-“not asking for help”

Now that I see these “elastic bands” for what they really are; negative, destructive behaviours.  I am glad they are broken.

Who actually wants to be a superhero, working non stop, taking care of everything? (Never mind having to wear your underpants over your tights).

Who wants to do it all alone?

It was with relief that I realized that people are not like elastic bands, we are organic.  We grow, adapt, learn new things.

New things have taken the place of the things I lost.  These are my new things:

The ability to

– say no.  Or “not now” and fit it into a time when I can do it without adding stress.

– recognize if I am becoming overloaded and getting cranky

take action if that happens and get myself back to feeling good: look after myself

And these two are my favourite:

– letting go

– asking for help

Whatever I am doing, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

I can let someone else do it.  I still think there are a lot of things that I can do better than anyone else – I’m not humble, I admit it!.   But if it means that I can take a break, get other tasks done, just breathe, then it’s worth letting someone else do an average job.  I can live with imperfection if I can just breathe.

So did burn out leave me broken?

Actually, it set me free.  Those restrictive bands have burnt away, leaving me covered in a fertile ash where things can grow. I have grown, improved, become a better me.

I can get more done than ever before because I delegate and share the load.  I accept and ask for help.  I focus on what is important and I’m mindful and do one thing at a time (well, ok, I’m not living a zen life but I do it a lot more!).

I feel happy again, I laugh and I experience joy.  I dream and I expect to make some of those dreams come true.

So people, remember this: we are creative, we are resourceful and we are whole.


Planting the seeds of confidence

This post is going to be a bit different.  It’s not about chronic illness and it’s not about struggle.  Something happened this week that made me happy and I want to share it.

In my first ever post I talked about my journey to finding my daughter, seeing the child behind the illness.  Ever since, I have been doing something more consciously and deliberately.

I have been acknowledging my daughter.  It’s kind of like a compliment but I don’t praise what she has done, I acknowledge who she is.  It goes something like this:

” You know, you are smart, you figure things out.”

“You are funny and cheeky”.

“You are intelligent”.

“Even when you are scared and nervous, you try new things”.

“You know what you want”.

When I first started doing this I was met with shyness, a shake of the head and often an embarrassed “stop! why are you saying this?”

It seemed too much for her and she got embarrassed.  I think this is something we all do when the attention is turned to us and who we are.  It’s so personal and we are not used to it.

As time went by she starting getting used to me doing this.  Then she started to ask me, shyly, to “do that thing, when you say stuff”.  She would smile, my heart would melt and I would oblige.  I was happy, she was happy.

I have been working a lot lately so this last Sunday when I was helping her get ready for the day I took the opportunity to acknowledge her.  It’s been a while.

I started talking and she started smiling.  Confidently.

The she spoke and blew me away.

“I know” she said.

We both grinned and hugged.

I thought “this is beautiful”.

So I have new definitions of beauty (to add to my collection).  Beauty is someone glowing with the confidence of knowing who they are.  Beauty is the connection created between two people when they share this knowing.

And I know that with a simple acknowledgement, by saying “you are …” you can help build self worth.

Yes of course she gets insecure or disappointed in herself but she also knows that she is smart, funny and brave.


If the illness doesn’t get you, an arrogant doctor will (try)

I just want to preface this post with a statement: the majority of the doctors and health professionals I have met are good.  My daughter’s team are fantastic and are one of the main reasons I will never move away from Amsterdam (and maybe they don’t know this but they are not allowed to move house or change jobs either!)

This post is about that rare health care professional who leaves an impact, who just blows you away.  But not in a good way.  So here’s my story.

The first time that I ever felt defeated it was not because of the demands of the illness, it was because I was face to face with the most idiotic doctor that I have ever met.

At 14 months my daughter had her second operation; to place a PEG feeding tube.  A hole is cut through the  stomach to the outside and tube is inserted and held in place (by the plastic triangle you see in the picture).


The operation went well and a week later they removed the plaster that was placed underneath the white triangle (I only know what it is called in dutch, plaatje).  It all looked good, no infection so we went home.

At home I noticed that her clothes kept on getting wet.  At first I thought she had spilled something on herself but two clothes-changes later I realised that she was leaking.  It was like a magic trick: her clothes were dry, she drank from her bottle and abracadabra, her T-shirt was wet.  I did all the checks: triangle in place, not too loose; clamp was closed; no holes.  The PEG was ok but she was leaking directly from her stomach!  It is bad enough that her kidneys are leaky but now everything she drank just came straight out again in seconds!

Leaky bucket

How could we stop her dying from dehydration if nothing stayed in?  I know that this cartoon and these words don’t really go together but this illustrates what was happening (and I use humour to deal with almost everything).

I took her to hospital and she was admitted.  It was the weekend so we had to wait hours for the gastro specialist to come.  (A piece of advice – if you are going to get sick and go to the hospital, don’t do it at the weekend.  It’s like a ghost town).

Finally the gastro doctor came to see what this obviously crazy mother (me) was getting her knickers in a twist about.

I explained.  She looked at me like I was a moron and told me “they always leak a little bit in the beginning.  It’s normal.  The hole needs to close a bit and that takes a week or so”.

She wouldn’t listen to me; that is was a flood, not a drip.

She didn’t listen to my explanation about Bartters; that my daughters condition means life threatening dehydration and she can’t afford to “leak” for a week or so.

She patronised me some more and I cried.

She walked away.

I had no words.  I had been dismissed as if I was a panicky, neurotic mother who jumped at her own shadow.

We had survived 14 months of various calamities such as septicemia, frighteningly high fevers, gastritis, weeks in intensive care, non stop vomiting and I had stayed positive and pragmatic.  Now I felt helpless.  I knew that we were going to lose her.  Not because of the illness but because of arrogance and stupidity.

I was not going to let this happen!

I called the nurse and asked her to watch.  My daughter was sitting up and I gave her a drink.  The nurses eyes widened and her eyebrows shot up as my daughters clothes became drenched.  She looked at me with apology in her eyes and dashed off.

Investigations were done.  It turns out that they had cut the hole too big.  We came up with a plan: gauzes, regulate the rate of fluid with the feeding pump, only little sips for my thirsty baby.

It got resolved.  It often does.  But we need to be more than parents, more than carers.  We need to be crusaders, ready to withstand the lashes of disdain and condescension meted out by that special group of arrogant doctors who believe that just because we are parents, we know nothing.  It only takes one doctor like that to crush your spirit.

Most of the doctors at our hospital are great (please don’t ever develop your career and move on, stay here for us!) and my daughter was alright in the end.

But I will never forget the day when that doctor almost killed my baby because she was too arrogant to listen and too stupid to see.

So to all you good doctors and nurses out there I want to say thank you for listening.  We parents sometimes get in the way, ask a lot of questions, insist that you really do just check that again.  It’s our job.  Thank you for knowing that part of your job is to let us be heard.  We are a major part of the care team.


3 important lessons for happiness in 2014

Happy New Year everyone!  A sincere and heartfelt wish for good health to you all.

I did not expect to write a “new years” themed post but life is full of surprises.

It wasn’t a good start to the year.  By last Thursday (only the 2nd day of the year) it had already become too much for me.

Normally I don’t like to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve.  I’m tired most of the time anyway and it just takes me too long to recover these days.  Plus, there’s something about having to stay up that I rebel against.

I stayed up this year as we were with family (it was a lovely evening) but by Thursday morning I was still recovering.  My daughter woke up around 9am feeling ill.  With terrible stomach pains, she was crying and throwing up.  As I tried to comfort her my mind ran through all the things it could be:

  • Stomach bug
  • Bleeding ulcers
  • All that Piri Piri sauce she ate yesterday
  • Bleeding ulcers!
  • Gastritis …. and bleeding ulcers!!!

I have a bit of a paranoia about bleeding ulcers.  You see, she is on a combination of meds that can cause ulcers.  She has already had severe gastritis because of her meds (age 6 months) and she is on an NSAID that is only for short term use (read weeks) because it causes ulcers and she has been on it for 6 years.  Yikes!

It’s a calculated and managed risk.  It saved her life in the early months, kept her out of hospital in the first couple of years and allows her to have a good quality of life now.

However, it is a ticking bomb that may or may not go off.  If she gets an ulcer she won’t be able to take this or any other NSAID for the rest of her life.  Muscle pain and need Ibuprofen?  No can do.  Quality of life?  Seriously affected.

So while all this is going on in my crazy, tired head, and I am trying to comfort her, my poor little girl is crying and asking for Dad (who was temporarily unavailable).

Brimming with frustration and impatience I just wanted to tell her to “stop it, just be quiet”.  (Well, I wanted to shout it actually and there were quite a few exclamations marks in my head too).

I took a breath, explained that her dad would be back in 2 minutes and that I needed to go to the toilet.  Then I left the room.

I stayed in the bathroom for a long time, much longer than necessary.  I put myself in timeout.  Her dad was brilliant with her; kind, patient, loving.  Just what she needed. I am so grateful to him because last Thursday I just couldn’t do it.

So these are my 3 important lessons for happiness in 2014

  1. It’s good to share the load.
  2. It’s better to walk away than say something you would regret
  3. Accept that Mummy time is never at a civilised time of the day (like 9am on a Thursday).  Kids want their mums at stupid o’clock times like 4am on Friday morning.  That’s when they want you to sit with them and hold their hand.  So I did.