Yesterday I noticed that a friend of mine wasn't looking too good. She usually looks extremely good, so I was curious. She said that she's become anemic and has a host of side effects from that condition. I've been anemic in the past, so I was sympathetic. We got to talking about our health histories, and when I started to think of the timeline, I realized that I've put myself through some shit, events that I find it easy to forget sometimes. Is this what we all endure, what we consider normal, in the course of a civilized life?
Age 0 - 15:
I was born healthy to addicted, alcoholic smokers. I had asthma throughout childhood, exacerbated by the fact that my parents smoked inside the house. I took corticosteroids and used inhalers on a regular basis, which my dad affectionately referred to as "speed." I began puberty extremely early, and every time I got sick it went straight to my lungs (typical for asthmatics), at which time I'd be prescribed antibiotics. In early adolescence I was diagnosed with depression, panic attacks, anemia, and irritable bowel syndrome, and medicated accordingly for all of the above.
Age 16 - 18:
I came down with a sinus infection that just wouldn't go away. I visited several physicians, all of whom prescribed antibiotics. The infection got worse and worse, until I realized that something seemed to be growing in my sinuses. I had no health insurance, so I ignored it. Plus, I was 16 years old. It just didn't seem that important.
Several months later I was driving my boyfriend's car when the person behind me crossed over the double yellow line and plowed into the driver's side door as I was turning left. I blacked out momentarily. The CT scan showed a minor brain bleed, and I needed chiropractic care for a year, but more interesting to the ER physician were the masses completely filling out my sinus cavities. I saw an ENT doctor, who diagnosed me with precancerous tumors. I needed surgery, but again: no insurance. So he slipped me free "samples" of corticosteroids (for swelling) and antibiotics (for infection) while I waited to be cleared for medical assistance. This took nearly a year, during which time my oxygen saturation level dropped dangerously low. I had no sense of smell or taste and could hardly breathe. I gained 80 pounds in a year from the drug combination.
Finally I received surgery, then another one, then the tumors spread, so I had another one. Then I went on drug treatment. At my peak I was taking seventeen different medications, including several allergy drugs, Xanax, Zoloft, birth control pills, broad-spectrum antibiotics, high doses of corticosteroids, opioid pain relievers, and Meridia, a weight loss drug prescribed to combat the weight gain from the other drugs I was taking, which was recently removed from the market due to its tendency to cause death.
Unsurprisingly, I landed in the hospital with a drug interaction. At that point there was a flurry of activity as my doctors worked to change my cocktail. But I'd had enough. I threw out all of my medications, plowed through the brutal withdrawal, and decided to take a different approach to my health, which mostly centered around a vegetarian diet and getting the hell out of Arizona.
Age 19 - 23:
I got pregnant three months after marrying Jeremy. The pregnancy was essentially normal, but I did not eat well at all, and the labor was complicated. I planned a homebirth but transported to the hospital after 60 hours of malpositioned labor. The drive to the hospital knocked Isaiah's head into place and he was born quickly after we arrived. At the hospital, I caught a resistant respiratory infection that lingered for two months. I had an organ prolapse, and enjoyed PTSD symptoms for over a year. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia when Isaiah was six weeks old.
I switched to a vegan diet after Isaiah was born and experienced a profound shift in my health. Most of the physical problems I had to that point disappeared. I lost 40 pounds effortlessly, my skin cleared up, my cycle normalized, I had tons of energy. As a result I became an insufferably annoying and self-righteous evangelist for the vegan cause. (Many apologies...)
I felt fantastic for a year, then became pregnant with Willow and reverted back to vegetarianism. I was horribly fatigued and nauseous throughout her pregnancy. She was born at home after 9 hours of labor and I bounced back from this pregnancy much easier. I adopted veganism again, but never managed to recapture the good health of the first year. On the contrary, I had begun a steady, relentless decline in health despite my hardest efforts to do everything right.
Age 24 - 27:
I tinkered with my diet and exercise program constantly, but I just didn't feel right. I was in college, majoring in holistic nutrition with an emphasis on plant-based diets, but my own plant-based diet was failing me. Gradually I realized that I'd become intolerant to gluten. I felt sick every time I ate. I gained back 20 of the 40 pounds I'd lost. My cycle became very short. I had incredible fatigue. My blood sugar was out of control. My joints and muscles ached. My recovery time between workouts was impossibly long.
So I had my blood and urine tested. I had no discernible vitamin D level, my cholesterol was too low, protein and fat utilization were nil, I was both hypo- and hyperglycemic, my numbers registering just under the limit for prediabetes. My doctor encouraged me to eat meat and back off the grain-based diet, and I was desperate enough to try. I felt better for a while, just eating fish, but not good enough. I started eating chicken, pork, and beef, daily, and that's when I saw real improvement.
In the past two years, most of the health problems I've experienced throughout my life have improved. My skin is clear, my cycle is normal, I have a decent amount of energy. I'm never anemic, my digestion is healthy, my weight is stable, my hormones are normal. I no longer experience PTSD, depression, or clinical anxiety. I require no prescription drugs. I take very few supplements. I have perhaps one asthma attack per year.
Still, I am human, with an imperfect body and an imperfect understanding of my changing needs. Two issues have not budged. One is a blood sugar imbalance, and the other is a sleeping disorder. They may be connected, since hypoglycemia can cause spontaneous night wakening. I have identified dietary factors that contribute to my being hypo- or hyperglycemic, and they are all carbohydrate-based. My heart races when I eat rice, potatoes, and bread, regardless of whether those foods are "whole." Sugar, needless to say, is poison to me. When I eat meat, eggs, some dairy products, and vegetables, I can go hours without eating and suffer no ill effects, and my blood sugar doesn't rise abnormally after eating. So that's my focus for now.
Just as important is overall lifestyle. I cannot be inactive. I maintain a regular yoga practice, work my ass off on farm projects, and hike regularly. I commit myself to healthy relationships and dismiss those that are toxic. I express my emotions and look for opportunities to be creative. I keep my priorities straight. I try to avoid rigid ideologies or damaging self-concepts. I keep that window open, in all aspects of my life. I have a multidimensional understanding of health that views diet as just one point on the spectrum. So even when I'm sick, I think of myself as healthy.
But I have this history, and it's a curiosity to me, and an embarrassment. I'm only 28 years old and I've run my body through the wringer. Some of the things I've experienced have been out of my range of control. I didn't have a choice about what I ate as a kid, and very little say in my activity level. I didn't decide that my parents would be smokers. The car accident wasn't my fault. But for most of the rest of it, I had nobody to blame but myself.
I didn't have to take all those antibiotics. I could have researched the issue and realized with one quick Google search that antibiotics are useless for 98% of sinus infections. I turned over my will to another authority -- always a dangerous choice.
I didn't have to let that disease get as bad as it did. I ignored it for too long.
I didn't have to take all those drugs. There are many, many other ways of handling the conditions I suffered, that do not require the consumption of pharmaceuticals with serious side effects.
I didn't have to become vegan. More importantly, though, I didn't have to become so fanatically vegan that I ignored all the signs pointing to the diet failing me. And I didn't have to focus on diet to the exclusion of all other health parameters.
Similarly, I didn't have to become so ideologically pro-homebirth that transporting to the hospital for completely legitimate medical reasons resulted in a traumatic event. I have a nasty history of black & white thinking.
Above all, I didn't have to somatize the circumstances of my life into ill health. I do believe that's much of what I was doing. Sickness was the way I expressed the traumas I was too lazy or unconscious to confront. Being sick was one way I expressed how very tragic I felt. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me!
I can't say that I'm over it. When I get the flu I want to curl up in bed and be waited on hand and foot. That's my shameful reality. But in the rest of my life, I am goddamned bored with being sick. I can't spend any more time in bed, expressing my fucked-up history through joint pain and indigestion. I have to be conscious and present enough to certify that I'm not repeating that fucked-up experience for my own children. I have to be strong, and I have to believe that it's acceptable to be strong, that I don't have to apologize for it. I'm not there yet, but I've identified the need.
The situations I outlined above are receding for me. When I described some of this to my friend (I promise it was a seriously abbreviated conversation by comparison!), I felt like I was talking about another person. I felt like I was outlining a case study, a clinical trial, some sad sack who couldn't get her shit together. I felt angry at that person, because she wasted so much time, and so much life, feeling sorry for herself, when the answers for healing are so simple, it's possible to simply fall into the practice. But I felt conciliatory, too, because I know this story isn't over. I'm doing things right now that are wasteful and misguided and miserable.
This is not to say that I'm a hypochondriac, or that everything I experienced was a result of "creating my own reality" or a similar New Age concept. Many of the conditions I've experienced have concrete, definable causes -- and solutions. I don't believe in "blaming the victim," and I would never point to another person's ill health and say, "That's because you haven't dealt with your traumatic history." But in my case, I can trace the whole of these experiences to psychological deficiencies, as well as physical ones.
And I'm admitting this here because I know I'm not the only one with this sort of history. I am comfortable with the finality of death, but I believe in healing in the meanwhile, and I believe we heal through Truth, with a capital T. I don't have it all figured out, but this is some of mine.