Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Weight is a Burger Thing

In the past I’d imagined that weight was entirely a burger issue. Too many pies and your trousers won’t fit. All this stuff about big bones, having a clinical dispensation towards fat gain and saying that it ran in the family was just so much excuse and avoidance. Looking like a blimp was something that happened to other people. Not to you. Faces inflated by bicycle pump could be avoided. The real issue was what went in through your mouth and how often. Now I know differently. Some things are genuinely beyond our control.

Prednisolone-driven fat increase, it turns out, is one of these. Fat gain comes with the territory. But there are things, as I’ve discovered, that you can do to help.

To start with the fat thing favours women. This doesn’t mean that men are exempt but it does mean that gain is not necessarily so great or so fast. Most of those I’ve talked to have told me that that a flabbiness about the waist is pretty inevitable but that the much-feared moon face and looking like an advert for Burger king don’t always happen.

I’ve been fighting this for three or four months now. Checking my weight daily, looking at myself super critically in the mirror for signs of face inflation, feeling my back for arriving lumps of water-born fat, pressing my fingers into my stomach to see if the flab is growing. After a while I’ve found that I’ve looked so often that I can’t remember what I might have looked like a year ago nor, even, how things were yesterday. I ask others. Any sign of change? Nope, you don’t look fat to me. That’s the response I want.

In reality the waist flab is there, of course, low key, not much of it, but still more than there should be considering the draconian diet I’ve put myself on. I figured that if prednisolone was going to deliver new weight then I could counteract that by eating less. Go on a diet. Watch what I eat. Keep a record. Know what it is that I’m putting in my mouth. Those things dieticians recommend, the keeping of a food consumption diary, may have their uses after all.

There are certain obvious things to cut back on. Twenty-first century health advice is replete with detail: cut out fried foods, pastries, pies, cream, cheese, red meats, crisps, salted nuts, beer. Eat more veg, more fruit. Stop having chips with every meal.

I began the new regime. Fine when you were in control of the constituents of a meal and were eating at home. Hopeless when others got involved and even worse when you dined out. Dieting is a struggle even on your own. Out there in the wider world it’s so much harder. I’ll have a baked potato, I tell the waitress. But hold the filling. Back it comes, no filling but thick with running butter instead. Can I have a salad. Certainly. But that arrives rich with added thousand island dressing. I’d like to order fruit salad, please. That turns up with ice cream on top. To drink? I’ll have a slim line tonic please. Sorry, we don’t do those.

It’s a battle but I’m equal to it. There’s a learning curve but I can climb it. More on that next time.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011


On the list of side effects contained in the Package Leaflet: Information for the User in my many boxes of Prednisolone is a warning that taking the steroid can lead to weight retention. There’s reference to the developing of what the notes indemonstrably call a rounder face. There’s a note on salt and water retention. There’s another that suggests users will have increased appetite leading to weight gain. When you look into these Prednisolone characteristics they emerge as something you really don’t want to happen. Moon face, humped back, weight inflating your belly. Just how you want to be over Christmas.

I asked the GP what she thought. It doesn’t happen to everyone, she told me. I started checking the mirror daily. Could I see fat accumulating around my neck? Was my face like the moon? Not yet. I’d never been really heavy but was slightly overweight when the PMR first stuck. Slightly overweight in my terms, that is. Friends and loved ones said I looked fine. But I didn’t feel at my best. I needed to lose half a stone. I couldn’t allow the Prednisolone to get in the way. What could I do?

Further reading revealed a number of contradictory theories:

  1. That the weight gain came from an increase in appetite
  2. That the steroid led to salt and water retention
  3. That the moon face was the result of body fat moving around from some other part of the body
  4. That you could fight it and win
  5. That you’d never succeed so why not just keep your head down and suffer

Internet. Hell on a bike, it’s never definitive. It’s ever changing. Looking for a complete answer is like searching for a piece of the true cross.

I visited the chat rooms and read what had happened to others. There were stories of people putting on stone after stone, of developing camel backs and faces so round they could go bowling. There were tales of people who had taken to their beds. Stories of some who’d just accepted it all and carried on. There were also tales of people who’d managed to keep their weight level by dint of healthy eating and hadn’t gained an ounce. The problem was that you never knew where the respondents had started from. Were they unfit elderly and overweight anyway? Or were they super-fit runners without any spare fat at all? Did they have the will power to avoid chocolate and cheeseburger? Or did they eat these things daily just to get through life? You couldn’t tell. You didn’t know. You had to make it all up yourself.

I decided that it was time for me to take my eating and drinking in hand. There would be things I’d need to avoid and substitutes I’d need to learn to love. I already owned a set of Wi-Fi scales (made by Withings, a brilliant invention). These would transmit my weight to a special web site where I could keep a recorded track. Stand on the glass top in the morning (recommendation: do this at the same time daily and, preferably, naked), check the resulting graph on the computer later. I’ll beat you weight. That’s three battles I’m now engaged in. PMR, Prednisolone and heaviness. Nothing like fighting the world on all fronts.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


One of the things that literature does not seem to be dotted with is references to nose bleeds. There are no great nosebleed poems. No stage plays. No Great British nosebleed novel. The best I could come up with is Gary Alexander Azerier’s collection of short fiction, Nosebleeds From Washington Heights, which I haven’t read and is criticised on Amazon for being a “series of apparently pointless reminiscences of the author's relationships with his family and childhood friends” and having very little to do with Washington heights. It probably doesn’t have much to do with nosebleeds either.

I’ve never been a sufferer. In childhood I guess there were a few episodes. I can remember my mother’s new hand-made rug getting dotted with red and her being right annoyed but not wanting to show it because my distress was clearly worse. My father had put a big key down my back to stem the flow but I don’t think this had worked. Or maybe I’m mixing this memory up with the one about stopping a daylong session of hiccups. That had blowing into brown paper bags in it and drinking lots of glasses of cold water. I don’t really recall those techniques working either.

The current manifestation is another Prednisolone wonder. Start on the steroid and experience virtually no side effects and then , three weeks in, they all start arriving. The nosebleeds began as a mild handkerchief splattering while out walking. They’ve now developed into a day-long series of episodes that never really come to all that much but are troubling nonetheless.

I’ve now stationed boxes of tissues in every room and never leave the house without a supply in both pockets. The GP tells me that Prednisolone acts a little like Aspirin does in this respect. Thins the blood. Reduces its ability to clot. There’s no cure other than get the Prednisolone dose down. The workaround – and life seems to be increasingly full of workarounds – is to use a nasal spray that contains Oxymetazoline. The one I’ve got is Galpharm’s Nasal Decongestant Spray – Acts in Minutes – Lasts for Hours. One squirt and the epistaxis retreats. Epistaxis? That’s the condition’s formal name. There are always new things to learn at Adventures in Prednisolone.

How much of this stuff might I get away with if I were, say, sitting next to my friend Dave in the local pub and repeating it all to him between sips of drink? Would he have any interest in nosebleeds? I doubt it. But he’d listen, for a while, out of politeness. Then he’d change the subject back to politics or history or something like that.

In creative writing classes I’ve taught I’ve always been careful to mark out the distinction between stuff you write for an audience and stuff you write for yourself. The former needs to have a real information or entertainment value while the latter can just be therapy. Therapy is fine, I’d tell the class. Get life’s problems sorted out by writing them down. See how they look, how they turn out, where they go. Just don’t expect anyone else to be that interested. Keep it to yourself. And here I am, today, not taking my own advice. Blogging the problem.

But these are post-modern times. And maybe this is the post-modern way.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Fractured Sleep

They’re churning round in my head. The reading I’ve recently done, the future in front of me, the way the days are so different now from anything like I’d imagined they would be. Thoughts that won’t lie down. Although that’s just what I’m doing. Trying for the Prednisolone sleep, this new thing. It’s something with which I’ll have to come to terms.

Everyone has had periods when they can’t sleep. I can recall desperate times years back when worry about life keep me up for hours. I ended up trying out the whole range of devices to make me sleep: herbal calm you downs, long walks just before bed, no caffeine after four pm, no food in the evening, warm room, massage, think your way through your entire body muscle system relaxing techniques, chanting, tai chi, singing, smelling things, rubbing on oils, playing soft music, having the windows open, having them closed, having a serious talk with the neighbours about getting their teenage son to stop playing his Stone Roses records so loudly, hot milk at dusk, tapes of elderly ladies trying to talk me into slumber, ambient sonics, recordings of the sea slowly sloshing onto the shoreline on some distant beach where sheep leap in slow streams over gates and white paling fences. None of this ever worked. I always ended up as wide awake at 2.00 am as I’d been at 10. Hopeless.

Sleeping tablets were worse. They might have occasionally worked – (but who is really to know? I might have gone to sleep on that occasion anyway) – but the after effects, the fuzzy head and inability to concentrate for hours made the whole thing untenable.

Now I’ve got Prednisolone. My new friend. And what does it do? Fractures the sleeping pattern.

The night becomes a stream of sitting upright in the bed totally awake with very little transition from the preceding somnambulant bliss. This can happen three, four, five times through a typical night. You wake, then you go back to sleep, then you wake again. Eventually it approaches dawn. Dim light. 5.00 am. You wake again and you stay that way. Get up, prowl about. Visit the toilet for another long session. Come back and turn the bedside light on. 5.30 am and you are reading. 6.00 am and you are writing. Time trickles on as the day out beyond the window slowly strengthens. Eventually, somewhere near 7.00 am you give into it and, having heard the milkman delivering and the heavy lorries out there in the distance on the Newport Road and perhaps the bloke next door arriving home after a long night out on the razzle, you get up. Tea and tablets. Food and more tablets. Prednisolone again, another handful, write it down on the back of the packet just to be sure you don’t forget what you’ve taken.

In effect I’ve replaced sleep by lying in bed reading or thinking. The strange thing is that with such a fractured sleeping pattern and so much actual sleep not taken I ought to feel washed out. In pre-Prednisolone times I certainly would have felt it. But not now. It’s almost as if I have become Margaret Thatcher. She was famously able to get through the night on just four or five hours actual sleep. It’s a bonus. Isn’t it? Maybe. But given the other major Prednisolone disadvantages I think that on balance I’d prefer to be tired.

By 7.45 am I’m at my desk writing up this blog. SAD lamp on full blast and the cat watching and wondering why I’m in action so early. She’s going to have to get used to this. And for a time too I predict.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Reading

What’s in front of me this afternoon is a reading. This is what I do. Poetry readings. Down the years I’ve got reasonably good at it. I’ve worked out how to manage an audience, how to pitch the voice and ensure that those at the front don’t get shouted it while those at the back can still hear. I’ve learned some of the things the great striders of the stage down the years have recommended:

Look your audience in the eye. Engage with them.
Try to stand in one spot.
Project the voice.
Know what you are going to read before you go on.
Keep it smart, short and sharp. Leave them wanting.
If people arrive late ignore their interruption.
If they yawn or leave early do the same.
If someone heckles you attempt to sell them a book.
Try to be entertaining.

I’m on as part of the Made in Roath festival. Shelagh Weeks has fixed it. I’ll be reading with Amanda Rackstraw and Sian Preece. I guess they’ll be on first. Organisers usually leave me to last as I make a noise and can get people to laugh. Well, I used to. How on earth am I going to manage this with my confidence completely blown by the rampaging prednisolone? I feel about as sure of myself as a autumn leaf. And about as ready to take on the world. I could drop out. Make an excuse. I could, couldn’t it?

But I don’t like to do that. Something in my professional nature prevents me.

The reading is to be held in Havelli’s Restaurant half way along City Road. 4.00 pm. Sunday afternoon. Most of the Made in Roath Festival is open galleries – the artists of the entire extended neighbourhood all open their studios to the public on the same weekend. They sell things, give things away. People tour the district in droves. The reading is an enhancement. Given its timing – after a day of gallery viewing and before the evening’s musical finale - it should be low key.

And in the event it is. The audience is small. They sit at their tables drinking tea and coke. I’m on third, as predicted. Amanda is marvellously on the button and very entertaining. Sian reads a short story and has the audience all full engaged. Then it’s me. I’m on my feet, wearing my black corduroy suit with my set list in my hand. I stand there and mentally wobble. Shelagh introduces me. I can’t do this. Whereas normally I would bang straight it, engage the audience with something immediate, then tell them a joke, then roar on, this time I start to flounder.

But deep inside, somewhere below the missing confidence and the prednisolone-addled desire to run away, is that old part of me that simply wants to put on a good show. It’s an auto pilot. I turn it on. There’s two of me out here now. The one that wants to lie down and the other one doing the reading. The one doing the reading is in charge.

I do it. Maybe I don’t tell many jokes and I certainly don’t try anything new. I keep it short. I stick to my set list. I manage to stay on my feet. Then I finish. There’s applause. Life is still possible. We go outside, all three readers, for the obligatory photograph. Smile into the sun. Done it prednisolone. Done it.

In the photo at the head of this posting that me on the left, Amanda Rackstraw centre and Sian Preece right. Photo by Sue Ashwell.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Down, Down, Down

Now at home, sitting in the study, it’s all very different. The Polymyalgia, the PMR, might be in retreat but in its stead hang the dark clouds of prednisolone. I’d been warned. Like the market things can go up and they can also go down. Past achievement is no indicator of future performance. Depression. Have I been here before?

For those who’ve never sat under such dismal skies the word depression no doubt suggests feelings of mild discomfort, of vague unhappiness, of dissatisfaction with the way things currently are. You’ll be okay. Just shake yourself. Get up and face the world. Get out and have a breath of fresh air. Come on. You can do it.

The reality is different. You can’t. As anxiety gives way to caves of dark the head, that part of it that carries conscious thought, seems to switch itself off. The fog arrives. The mind slows beneath its blanket of desperation. The author Horatio Clare quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins as describing just how this is: “I wake and feel the fell of dark not day.” That too is how it is for me.

The blanket wont lift. Dark fallen on it. It lies.

Your friends, your loved-ones, and those around you all say they understand. But they don’t. They really can’t. Unless they are there with you, in the midst of the somnambulant and unmoving smog, where sparks don’t light and nothing sounds.

Back at the doctor’s the GP suggests that my own basic underlying anxiety about Polymyalgia and what I’m going through may be contributing as much as the Prednisolone chemicals themselves. She might be right. It matters little. The fog is still real and the blankets don’t change.

I return home and write some of the most dismal poems I’ve ever managed. Will I put any of these in my next collection? Will there be a next collection? Doubt on both counts.

But there is a part of me, somewhere above the dreary layers, that’s taking note. And that’s a good sign. I work out that the depressions rarely arrive arbitrarily during the day. They are either there when I wake or they are not. And often by the time we’ve moved on to the day following they’ve gone It’s also possible to get the blanket to lift, just a little, by going out there into the bright world and walking vigorously about. I take to cycling the three miles to the top of Roath Park Lake and back, to walking at speed round Waterloo Gardens, and, once, to putting my running shoes on and jogging slowly along the lane. Not a brilliant success, that. Too early in the process. But other and milder forms of exercise seem to work. Just a bit.

Listen to your body is the standard advice. I’ve listened to mine and right now it’s not saying much.

But as the Prednisolone dose tapers the incidence of depression should reduce. That’s the hope.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Side Effects, Oh Yes.

“Of course, when you take steroids there are going to be some side effects”. The doctor is saying this but I’m not really taking it in. I’m so overjoyed that the 40 mg blast of Prednisolone has managed to push the polymyalgia out of my life. Well, if not out then at least right down to a trickle of pains running through the backs of my legs now and then, the occasional flicker in the upper arm and throb below the knee. Compared to what was there before this is nothing. The pains seems to have shrunk away to somewhere near vanishing point in a matter of days. The GP told me they would and I simply hadn’t believed her.

“I think I owe you a bunch of flowers”, I tell her. She smiles.

“If you were at 100% pain before where are you now?”


“Let’s keep the dose where it is to see if we can get rid of that as well.”

Prednisolone the wonder drug, the key to the kingdom, the holy grail.

The side effects are listed and I scribble them into my notebook. Most patients don’t do this, apparently, replying on faulty memory and hand-out information sheets. I rely on deciphering my awful handwriting.

The list goes something like: thin bones, reduced immune system, propensity to catch colds, weight gain, sleep disorders, mood swings, loads of energy, steroid highs.

The list is alarming but, of course, I’m on the Prednisolone glory lap and hardly care. The pain has gone. I can get out of bed in the morning without a second thought. I can sit in a car for longer than ten minutes. I can sleep. Heaven’s above, I can actually go to sleep. It’s terrific. What do I care about side effects, anything is surmountable. I look out of the surgery window and there’s a sky up there with bits of blue in it. That’s the future.

“We’ll do some more blood tests, arrange for you to have a flu jab and a pneumonia vaccination and I’m going to put you on these.” I’m handed a prescription for what turns out to Alendronic Acid. You take these things once a week standing up. They fix your bones. Stop you cracking apart when you fall over. Fine. “Come back for another appointment in a week.” I will.