Derry author Claire Allan is coming to terms with a diagnosis of the condition fibromyalgia, the central symptom of which is chronic pain
Maureen Coleman13 February, 2020
Claire Allan – I’ve learned to work with it. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
WHEN Derry author Claire Allan began experiencing pain in both her hands four years ago, she initially put it down to a flu-like virus working on her. A newspaper journalist at the time, whose work entailed taking shorthand notes and typing up stories, having sore hands was an huge inconvenience.
But when no cold or flu developed and the pain continued to cause problems, the mum-of-two sought the advice of her doctor. Blood tests showed her inflammatory markers were slightly raised but everything else appeared normal.
After developing pains in her legs and her hips which hindered her mobility, Claire found herself having to walk with the aid of a stick. Fed up and frustrated, she was referred to a rheumatologist who diagnosed her with with fibromyalgia, a condition which causes widespread pain throughout the body as well as sleep problems, fatigue, brain fog, depression and digestive issues.
Now a full-time author, who published her fourth psychological thriller, The Liar’s Daughter, just last month, Claire (43) is still coming to terms with the diagnosis and adapting her lifestyle to help her cope with the ongoing symptoms.
And yet, she considers herself fortunate; all too aware that things could be a lot worse.
“When I first got the diagnosis two and a half years ago I was relieved because it wasn’t rheumatoid arthritis, which I’d been so worried about,” says Claire, who lives in the Waterside with husband Neil and children Joseph (16) and Cara (11).
“Then I got angry. I’d been really looking after myself, I’d lost four stone and was feeling healthy so I couldn’t understand why I was getting sick now. I spent two years being angry but I’ve worked my way through that now and I’m not going to let it overwhelm me.
“I’ve learned to work with it, to listen to my body and, to be honest, I’m pretty lucky. If it hadn’t kicked in I wouldn’t have changed careers and started to work towards my own goals. And I can work from home and set my own pace. If I’m exhausted I can go and sleep for a few hours. My publishers have been amazing; they’re so protective of me. At least now I can work it to my advantage and set my own agenda.”
A year prior to Claire’s fibromyalgia diagnosis, she had been in hospital for surgery and had developed sepsis. She believes the fibromyalgia may be be linked to either the surgery or the physical trauma her body went through with such a serious illness.
In addition, she had just lost her beloved grandmother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 12 years previously, and that loss had a profound emotional impact on her. She was also dealing with work stress and, with hindsight, is convinced all these factors contributed to her developing fibromyalgia.
“It just seemed to me that every week, there was a new part of my body that was aching,” Claire says. “And I was exhausted; bone-achingly tired.
“I was still covering courts at the time and I remember struggling to hold my pen – that’s how bad it was. I was so frightened that it was rheumatoid arthritis and that my hands would be permanently affected. That was a very scary thought for someone who makes a living out of writing.”
Claire’s symptoms all pointed to fibromyalgia and while there is no specific blood test for the condition, doctors can normally diagnose based on 18 tender points throughout the body for at least three months. Claire was suffering widespread pain, particularly in her forearms and above her knees. But she also had other symptoms which are often associated with fibromyalgia – stomach upsets, migraines, endometriosis and chronic depression, which she has lived with for many years.
On a day-to-day basis Claire feels low-level pain, which she has become accustomed to. But flare-ups can be debilitating, knocking her off her feet for days. Her muscles go into spasm and the pain spreads into her feet, making walking difficult. Then there’s the cognitive symptoms; brain fog, forgetfulness, fatigue.
“When things are bad, it’s so difficult to live a normal life,” says Claire. “I don’t have the energy to cook or go shopping. Not being able to do little things like that really feeds into my mental health. Often there are times I can’t do things with my children or I end up cancelling plans at the last minute and then I feel really guilty. It’s such a life changer.”
Claire takes a combination of pain relief, medication to aid sleep and vitamin supplements to help her manage her condition. She also pays heed to her body and practises self-care. If she needs to rest, she takes time out and is lucky to have a supportive husband and family members to rely upon when she’s in the midst of a flare-up.
A recent trip to Dublin to promote The Liar’s Daughter was preceded by a few days’ rest to prepare her for the rounds of signings. Afterwards, she had to block off two days to recover. Her schedule is busy – another book, a romantic comedy which she has written under the pseudonym Freya Kennedy, is due for publication in the next few months and she’s also working on her next thriller. It is therefore vital that she doesn’t over stretch herself physically or mentally.
“Fibromyalgia can be worsened by stress so I really have to look after myself well,” she says. “It’s likely that I’ll always have it and no one can predict its progress. My hope is that I’m able to control it.
“At the end of the day I’m 43 not 93 and as long as I continue to work at my own pace and rest when I need to, then I won’t let it stop me from achieving my dreams.”
WHAT IS FIBROMYALGIA?
FIBROMYALGIA is a chronic complex disorder that causes widespread pain and tenderness to touch.
The central symptom is a chronic pain in the muscles, joints, skin and tissue that may wax and wane over time. However, there are also several associated common symptoms including moderate to extreme fatigue, sleep disturbances, sensitivity to touch, light, and sound, and cognitive difficulties. Symptoms are often exacerbated by stress.
Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions. The disorder is most prevalent in women (75-90 per cent) and is often seen in families, among siblings or mothers and their children.