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My Chronically Ill, Chronically Fabulous Life

Hello!  My name is Marie Brown.  I’m 35 years old, originally from Indonesia, and currently, live in sunny Southern California.  I’ve been happily married for 7 ½ years, have a fat cat who’s practically famous on his own, and am obsessed with running and performing on the trapeze!  I also enjoy rock climbing, traveling, hosting get-togethers and parties in my home, working as a high school youth leader, wearing bright clothes, and eating spicy food and chocolate.

And oh yeah…  I’m a 70% disabled combat veteran with two serious chronic illnesses.

Here’s my story.

When I was 18 years old, I enlisted in the Army.  I chose Military Police as my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), as I had a keen interest in Law Enforcement.  Like every other crazy teenager out there, I felt I was invincible and could take on the world single-handedly!  Never mind that I was 4’11” and 95 pounds…LOL.  I was an adrenaline junkie with a clean bill of health and graduated with honors from the US Army Military Police School at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.  It was mostly a mind-over-matter accomplishment, and little did I know how much that concept would come into play in my future.

In 2003, I deployed with my unit to Iraq in the very first rotation of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).  We arrived in a wasteland filled with IED’s and hostile people and experienced both sweltering triple-digit heat and freezing winter.  Our very first camp was built in the middle of a landfill brimming with trash heaps, mangy dogs, and unexploded ordinance.  We had to ration our food and water.  It was during this year-long ordeal that I came to the realization that I was actually *not* Wonder Woman.  Like so many other troops in the country, I was more than once a victim of “Saddam’s Revenge”, a term coined for a horrible sickness that swept through, with symptoms including soaring fever, delirium, crippling abdominal pain, vomiting, and explosive diarrhea.  My squad leader, who I highly respected and idolized, was killed by an IED, and then so was another close friend.  I narrowly missed being shot by a sniper at one point and had a mortar round fall no more than 6 feet in front of me (thankfully, it was a dud!).  Explosions constantly killed people (including children), things got destroyed, and there was nothing- absolutely nothing- I could do to prevent it at all.

When I finally returned home, I weighed 75 pounds and was experiencing frequent periods of light-headedness almost to the point of fainting, nightmares, and insomnia.  I was hospitalized briefly due to malnutrition, and my doctor’s orders were literally to “eat as much as possible every day”.  I slowly started to put weight back on, settled into a new routine, and launched right back into my Army career.

However, about 3 years down the line, my health started rapidly declining.  I had always been a very athletic person, but then it became a serious struggle just to move.  Within a year, I went from being able to run a marathon to barely being able to finish a 2-mile run for my PT test.  I started experiencing severe bloating and often found myself vomiting for no apparent reason.  One time I started throwing up simply while standing in a company formation- thoroughly alarming everyone around me, and thoroughly embarrassing myself.

In 2008, it became painfully clear to me and those I worked with that I was no longer healthy enough to keep up with Army life.  On May 13, 2009, after 9 years of service, I was given an honorable discharge, and my dreams were shattered.  Since my only goal in life up to that point had been to be a soldier, I had no contingency plans and no alternate ideas of what else to do.  The bloating and vomiting continued.

Thankfully, there was one VERY bright spot in my life at this point- in 2010, I got married!  My husband and I had a small wedding in downtown San Diego with our closest family and friends and enjoyed a honeymoon in Hawaii.  After we settled into life together, we decided that figuring out my health issues was a top priority.  I had already started the disability claims process with the VA and began seeking out treatment in earnest.

From 2011 to 2014, my life in terms of health became somewhat of a blur.  I was in and out of hospitals, tried everything from group therapy and clinical trials to severely restricted diets.  At one point I was on 7 different medications simply to “see” if any of them would work.  The side effects of all this trial and error included weight gain, serious depression, and on rare occasions, even hallucinating.  During this whole time, the VA kept denying my claim, demanding continuous proof that my original symptoms were a result of military service.  (My medical records from deployment had mysteriously disappeared, but that is a whole different story for another time!)

Finally, in 2015, after more and more evidence of similar symptoms being experienced by troops deployed for OIF came to the surface, the VA had no choice but to acknowledge my situation.  The doctors declared that my numerous and severe symptoms were more than likely the results of chemical exposure while in a combat zone.  For my respiratory, intestinal, and digestive problems, I was given the diagnosis of Gulf War Syndrome (now referred to as CMI) and entered into the official Burn Pit Exposure Registry.  My neurological symptoms (hearing loss, dizzy spells, occasional loss of balance, and deterioration of the cochlea in my right ear) added up to a diagnosis of Meniere’s Disease, with those symptoms being directly aggravated and compounded by chemical exposure as well.  Along with PTSD, I was given a 70% disability rating and my case was closed.

Having my CMI and Meniere’s Disease properly diagnosed has been life-changing.  I am no longer shooting in the dark, looking for cures.  I have come to grips with the fact that there are no cures for these illnesses, and I will be dealing with them for the rest of my life.  Toxic chemical exposure and the havoc it wreaks on the body cannot be undone.  At the same time, I’ve learned- and am continuing to improve on- ways to effectively manage them.  I’ve been able to identify several of my “triggers”, and am therefore able to do what I can to minimize the number of drop attacks, migraines, and pain episodes I experience.  I have never given up on running, and own my own trapeze and rig now.  Performing in Cirque shows is sheer joy.  Last year, I was one of the top 8 finalists in the Women’s Running magazine Cover Girl Contest and completed an Aerial Arts Instructor course, and this year I became a Skirt Sports Ambassador!  Yes, traveling and eating can get complicated, and there are times when I can’t drive.  When I’m in pain, I’m in a LOT of pain.  My husband is an incredibly patient and kind person, and without his support, I have no idea how I would survive.  My life is NOTHING like how I imagined it would be when I was 18, and there are days when I still mourn the loss of my Army career.  People judge me for not having kids, but perhaps if they were in my same situation, they would choose the same.

In conclusion, I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes by Norman Cousins, a political journalist, author, and professor, who suffered from Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) and heart disease:

“Don’t deny the diagnosis; try to deny the verdict!”