Expat life: Managing a disability while living abroad

So yesterday I visited local island Villigili, a short ride from Male, and tried out wake-boarding with my friends. Bare in mind I’m only twenty-one years old, today my body is in absolute agony.

Wakeboarding_in_the_Sunset_by_Elindomiel
Not my photo but you get the idea

Living with Fibromyalgia

Before I decided once and for all to quit England and live abroad, fibromyalgia was beginning to be a serious problem. What is fibromyalgia? A pain in the ass, literally. It’s a muscle condition, nervous condition, to be honest I don’t really know what it is and neither does the Doctor.

Sometimes my muscles got so tight that I couldn’t lift my arms to get dressed, or bend down to sit on the bloody toilet. I couldn’t do the housework, and I certainly couldn’t sit in a lecture hall for an hour. It’s not just agonizing muscle stiffness, it affects almost everything. Fibro fog is the killer, and makes you lose your coordination and feel light-headed/dizzy/confused/forgetful/fatigued… the list goes on.

The doctor said the most important thing is a positive outlook and healthy lifestyle. Knowing that I couldn’t get that in England, I left for a job in Maldives. I didn’t take any pain killers with me, because by then I was sick to death of them- taking 8-10 pills a day and constantly rubbing myself with deep heat.

I’ve been in Maldives for almost 7 months now and it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve learnt how to dive and explored several different resorts and local islands- including Himmafushi and Maafushi. When I lived in Male’ and commuted every day to Hulhumale, the fibromyalgia was certainly at its worst. It was too sweaty and crowded on the boat ride over, and by the time I was teaching at 9AM I was already exhausted. I used to cook when I lived in Male too, and by cook I mean try out different sauces with different variations of pasta. Vegetables are expensive and are usually pretty gross and rotting.

So, when I moved to Hulhumale earlier this month, living with Fibromyalgia got a hell lot easier with the daily commute being replaced by a short stroll. I also realised it was cheaper to order take out every night, and it’s not take out like we have back home. These are decent restaurants with good quality ingredients. Now I’m eating the correct amount of fruits and vegetables, I’ve cut out all the coffee and red bull and – probably the best thing, my body naturally adapted to the warmer environment. Now I can walk down a road in the afternoon heat without dying from a painful and foggy flare up. I’m sure my diet has helped a lot.

I’m writing this post because I’m annoyed. My muscles have been doing really well the last 3 weeks or so, just an odd day here and there of pain but nothing crippling. I’ve been happier than ever and actually going out in the evenings instead of wrapped up in a blanket with a hot chocolate by 8PM. Unfortunately I forgot that all these days of no pain means a build up and one of these days my body is going to crumble under the pressures of living like a normal twenty-one year old. Today was that day.

Yesterday I had a wonderful day out on the sea with my friends, learning how to wakeboard. At the time, my body was feeling good. And wakeboarding didn’t look that painful. And it wasn’t.. at the time. But now all day I’m paying for it. I won’t be surprised if it’s still stiff tomorrow, but I’m teaching 3-6 year olds so I reaaaaaally hope it cools down.

How can I describe the pain?

From Facebook support group "being positive with Fibromyalgia"
From Facebook support group “being positive with Fibromyalgia”. This is EXACTLY how my body feels right now.

Well, lets just say before I got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia I didn’t know half of my muscles existed. Today it’s as painful as it was back in England, although back in England I hadn’t even done any physical activity. At least now I’ve actually done something. And I’d do it again, wakeboarding was so much fun! I kept falling down over and over, but eventually I was able to stand up and balance, keeping most of my weight on my back leg. Woohoo!!!! Wakeboarding in The Maldives!!!

But I woke up this morning about 9AM after a night of a bit of the old herbal medicine, and knew today was going to be a bad day. I can’t lift my arms over about 35 degrees, so I’ve stayed in my pyjamas, not able to take a shower. It’s too uncomfortable to sit on my bum because all of the muscles on my ass, lower back and thighs are bursting with pain and stiffness. I’m completely inflexible, I can’t even cross one leg over the other. The tiny muscles in my fingers all ache as do the joints in my knuckles, wrists, elbows and shoulders. My biceps and triceps feel like I’ve been lifting weights for hours on end and my pecs (girls have pecs right?) are so painful I keep having to give myself boob rubs, except it hurts to move my arms so I’m at a loss really, whatever I do. My ankles are tight and the heels of my feet are incredible sensitive. I think the only part of my body that doesn’t ache is my head, which is very strange because I suffer headaches almost daily.

Fibromyalgia is barely recognised as a disability in the UK so it’s hardly going to be recognised here.

I just have to be a big girl and get on with it, tolerate it. I don’t cry anymore like I used to- and I don’t wish I had friends or family here to look after me. I love living abroad and far away from it all. When I have a flare like this, I need to be on my own I think. I need to sit in whichever weird positions feel good, listen to the right music to distract my mind a little, and get lost in something like in writing or reading a book. I’ve gotta forget about the fact I haven’t done the laundry and have nothing clean to wear for work tomorrow, or that I need to take the trash out, or the little kids I gotta slap on a smile for tomorrow.

The important thing with a disability like chronic pain is to allow yourself time to recover.

Don’t see these days as a waste. I used to get so mad at myself for watching movies all day and not really getting out of bed, especially on a really sunny day. But now I realise that my body needs time to recharge, like my laptop. And my bed is the power pack.

The other important thing is to keep those positive thoughts, positive.

I live in Maldives so, I live in Maldives. Positive thoughts are everywhere. I have good thoughts about where I am now and where I’m headed- I’m excited for next year because I’ve got a couple plans lined up and a special boy coming meet me. I still have your old regular problems- living abroad doesn’t escape everything (well unless you cut ties with almost everyone). And I feel guilty for leaving my nephews at home, who are like sons to me. Sometimes just guilt can cause a flare up, so I do have to be careful what I allow my mind to think about.

Sometimes I imagine β€œwhat if I hadn’t moved abroad because of my disability?”

It makes me thankful to myself for not letting it rule my life. Whatever your disability, if you have one, accept that you have it, but remember that it doesn’t have you. No matter how debilitated Fibromyalgia makes me, it’s just a shitty thing and can’t be helped. I’m never going to be able to have a good day doing something mildly active and not have to pay for it later. If I go out drinking and dancing one night, it takes me on average 5-7 days to get over the exhausting agony. I don’t even wear high heels! Ah, viva la vida and all that. It could always be worse.

you have your disability but it doesn't have you

Hi! I'm Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I'm an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I'm using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

4 Comments

  1. You are a brave warrior, and I hope to leave the dreary skies in Ireland to be where my body and mind are happy. Keep well. Can I write an email to you Sara ?

  2. I have friends and family with Fibro, my disability is a bit more as a para in a wheelchair. I’d like to move to South America, with 2 racehorses and a parot. I was able to walk a 1/4 mile with PT help but recently fell crushing my ankle and its been a VERY SLOW RECOVERY! A person with my current means could live in Montevideo as a family of 4 at the middle class level. Uruaguay is encouraging horse importation making that part of the move viable.

    YOUR THOUGHTS WOULD BE HELPFUL! Jill

    JilLanfordrn@aol.com

    1. Hi Jill, Ooooh South America! What makes you want to move in particular? I personally don’t know anything about Montevideo or Uruguay, I’ve never been. All I can say from my experience is that the warmer climate helps my body so much. Let me know if you decide to move and how it goes!

What do you think? Let me know!

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