Rising from the Abyss

My Journey into and out of Chronic Illness

By Holly Reese, MSOM, L.Ac.

Chapter One

Day of Decision—The Last Straw

Life and death are balanced on a razor’s edge.

—Homer, Iliad

Day after agonizing day, there is no let up, no respite. Every day is a battle, and every night is a massacre. My enemies surround me, circling in for the slow kill. The fibromyalgia causes my muscles to burn unceasingly, as if I’m suspended in a vat of acid. The chronic fatigue drains my life essence. I have barely enough energy to speak in a whisper.

The scleroderma has contracted and hardened the connective tissue around the muscles in my body. I feel as if I’m encased in an unyielding suit of armor. It’s difficult to breathe, let alone move. I can no longer swallow or digest solid food. For weeks, I have existed solely on cans of Ensure, a liquid meal-replacement formula. My muscles are atrophied, and every time I look in the mirror, I see an emaciated skeleton. I scare myself. It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since my life came to a screeching halt with a rare auto-immune illness known as mixed connective tissue disorder (MCTD).

Another aspect of my illness involves Raynaud’s disease, which is a loss of circulation in the extremities. I need to keep my body warm to hot all the time. If I don’t, my circulation quite literally stops, and my hands and feet turn purple. The previous house I lived in was poorly insulated and cold all the time. When I started turning up the heat to keep my circulation going, my roommate, Brenda, complained bitterly. I wound up spending most of my days and nights with my hands and feet stuffed under a heating pad. The constant fear of losing my fingers and toes made my living situation untenable. When I mentioned this to my good friend Sofia, she graciously offered to rent her extra basement bedroom to me. I jumped at the chance.

I appreciated that Sofia’s house was located in a quiet neighborhood of Oakland, California. However, the best part of renting a room from her was that it came with a bonus: its own wall heater. Since the heat didn’t make it upstairs, she let me keep my basement wall heater blasting on high,

24/7. At least, I was no longer in danger of losing any digits.

Shortly after I moved into Sofia’s house, my beloved Rottweiler Shika passed away unexpectedly. Her death was the last straw; my inner resolve to fight weakened, and on the night of Saturday, July 17, 2004, it crumbled completely.


Months of unabated torment have taken their toll. I’m exhausted and can’t remember the last time I’ve slept longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Sofia’s currently in Australia visiting her parents, and I’m alone in the house. I can barely support myself as I crawl onto my futon bed, dreading the coming night of misery. One last strand of innate stubbornness prompts me to try to sleep. I cautiously prop myself upright with many pillows to minimize the acid regurgitation. It’s difficult to relax. My muscles are severely atrophied, and because my arms are supported only by my tendons and ligaments, my shoulders ache horribly. Despite the torture, I resolve to try to sleep. The lead weights that are my eyelids slide closed.

As I’m drifting off, my whole body jerks involuntarily. My cell phone is next to my pillow, and the movement sends it sliding down to my side, where it bumps into my hand. The resulting explosion of pain nearly sends me into orbit. I roll onto my left side and cradle my throbbing hand. This is a mistake. My arm gets caught in the sheet and twisted, creating a new wave of agony blasting its way through my right shoulder—the same one that was injured when I was in the police academy more than two years ago. I roll back to the right, but somehow the sheet wraps tighter around my arm. I push up on my left hand, but my wrist is so inflamed that it won’t bend or support my weight. My wrist collapses, and I remain twisted and tangled in the unrelenting grip of my own sadistic sheet. I wonder what the headlines might say when my body is discovered: “Martial arts expert brutally defeated in epic battle with homicidal bed sheet!”