I was watching PBS recently, as I often do, and caught a special about Gothic churches and how the pointed arch and flying buttress allowed for
construction to great heights.  It’s amazing—before these advances, castles, churches, and other structures needed big, thick, stone walls with very small windows to support upper floors.  The pointed arch was the iron girder of the day, allowing building techniques to leap forward, almost overnight.  Amazing structures like Notre Dame, The Church of St. Denis, and Canterbury Cathedral couldn’t have been built without this simple advancement – a change of just a few degrees in the stones at the top of the arch.

The more I watched, the more I became aware that something so seemingly insignificant allowed for such a large advancement in construction – a quantum shift that defined an entire age.  It got so popular that sometimes three generations of builders worked on one project, and some of the most impressive Gothic churches took over one hundred years to complete.  Unfortunately, as with everything, the system wasn’t without its dangers.  As the program went on, it began to detail how some of the Gothic churches that still stand today are beginning to develop cracks and other structural damage.  No one could understand why this was happening, so the researchers did scans, took measurements, and, most importantly, made models, to attempt to determine just what was causing these wonders of the ages to crumble.  It was a painstaking effort with no detail ignored, and it took many months, but the scientists and engineers eventually discovered the problem.  It turned out that some medieval builders had a better understanding of Gothic architecture than others.

The pointed arch and flying buttress building system, while almost infinite in its power to build high when done correctly, had a powerfully opposite effect when used incorrectly.  If the stones are placed even slightly wrong, the result can be catastrophic, and there certainly are examples of Gothic churches that crumbled – some more than once.  The engineers brought out a model and set up an arch and buttress without any cement to hold it in place.  To show how easy it is to bring the whole thing down, they removed one stone, and the entire arch and support setup crumbled to the ground in seconds.  It was a powerful demonstration.  As I was watching the program discuss just how easy it is to place the stones wrong, I realized something – the way that everything can topple to the ground with the simplest of catalysts is not unlike autoimmune illness.

God, if I had a nickel for every time a mild cold or small fall or mishap caused the beginning of a downtrend in my health I’d probably be rich enough to pay someone else to have rheumatoid arthritis for me.  The four-year adventure I had a few years back is a perfect example.  A simple fall outside of my physical therapy office triggered a series of events that ended up with me on 40mg of steroids per day, which led to a weight gain of almost 90 pounds.  This weight came on so fast that not only do I have stretch marks like a zebra, but the pull my distended belly put on my spine caused spinal fractures.  I’m much better today, but the injuries I suffered are a constant reminder of what one fall can do to someone like me.

It is so easy for someone with autoimmune illness to be pushed out of balance that we sometimes irrationally fear simple procedures like pulling a tooth or getting an appendix out or even something as mundane as changing medications.  There have been times in the past when simply swapping one medication out for another resulted in a series of events that set me on a downward spiral.  These freefalls usually take many months or years to reverse, and by the time I am able to relax and take a breath again, I feel like I lost all that time, sometimes years.  I am almost 38 years old now; I can’t afford to give up any more blocks of time to the whims of disease.

Another thing I noticed, much to my chagrin, is that I fear this looming collapse of my house of cards more and more each day.  I have a wedding coming up in mere months and to go with that I hope there will be children and a house and all the other trappings of modern-day white-picket fence living.  While I desperately want these things and would go to the ends of the Earth to obtain them, I also have to acknowledge the darkness that always looms just outside the frame, ready to consume everything I’ve worked for and crush it without remorse.  It’s something people with illness, and especially those with autoimmune disease, must find a way to live with.  While it’s not readily evident, we live our life inside very small tolerances, just like those Gothic builders.  If we miss the mark by even a few degrees, it can start a chain reaction that could lead to a full-blown flare up.  Just one little block out of place and the whole church could come tumbling down.

Luckily, living on a knife’s edge is something that many people will never know.  Sure, we all have our problems, but not being able to buy the latest TV loses its sting when facing off against the possibility of not being able to pick up your kids.  Like me, though, most of those who are ill learn to live with it and, to be honest, almost every one of those I’ve met with autoimmune disease never seem to sweat the small stuff, as it were.  I suppose that when you live in a church that could tumble down at any minute, you have to find a way to let most things roll off your back.  Just like those medieval builders, though, even if everything collapses and burns to dust, we just start again, even if it takes one hundred years.


Happy New Year from Dan…

It’s 2015, can you believe it?  According to a certain movie trilogy, right now we should all be driving hover cars and wearing self-tying sneakers.  Great Scott!  That would be cool if it really happened, right?  Oh well, there are still plenty of advances to marvel at.  Just yesterday, my doctor told me about a stem cell trial they are running to see if heart tissue can be regrown after a heart attack!  That’s good news for me, as those who follow me know, because twenty percent of my ticker doesn’t “tock” so well any more.  I’ve been told that it’s almost a lock that in my lifetime I will be able to take advantage of this treatment to rejuvenate my heart to perfect condition.  Imagine that!