MY WELLNESS SAGA.
Gold sippy cups.
Here’s the thing, I’ve been talking about starting this wellness blog for quite some time now. I wanted a way to share what I’ve experienced and learned over the years of my wellness journey, I mean saga, so I could help others lead lives free from all the struggles that come with subpar health. Free and able to fully experience all the beautiful things in life like love, creativity, and adventure. But I hesitated to start it because I believed I could only successfully share what I’ve learned after I had it all figured out. I thought I’d reach this destination with my health where I could look back and say, “Yea, I’ve made it,” and drink from a heavy gold award the way Jay-Z did in front of all those photographers at the Grammys after he held up his trophy and said, “Hey Blue, Daddy got you a gold sippy cup”. But that’s not how it works. I’ve made a lot of progress, but health isn’t a destination. It’s an ongoing process that requires dedication, compassion, and a whole lot of patience.
But my patience for sharing the story that has evolved so far has run out and I’ve decided to start here, on the first day of 2018, as I sit quietly on an airplane 3,000 feet in the air in that transient space between one place and another that somehow tends to stir up all of my deep thoughts on life, and apparently today, health.
I’ll take the red one.
I could date this story all the way back to my infancy, but though this flight spans the width of the US from one coast to another, I don’t think we’d have time for that. So I’ll start by saying that if I ever did have a moment where I touched the pinnacle of perfect health, it was many years ago. Before I knew what the hell kale was or ever saw a Victoria Secret looking woman bent into a pretzel-like yoga pose on a screen that fits into the palm of my hand. Perfect health existed when I wasn’t aware there was any other state of existence. I already possessed it in the form of summers running barefoot through the thick grass in our backyard with my brothers and the neighbors next door. My hair was long and wild, streaked with golden highlights from the sun, and freckles spattered across my nose. My biggest decision of the day was what color Ice Pop I would choose from the freezer when we went inside (usually red because it was cool to have the inside of your mouth look like blood - I was a weird kid). I didn’t think about what I would have for dinner that night, or when I would have dinner, I didn’t have a reminder in my calendar ding when it’s time to close the laptop and head to the gym, I never thought about taking the time to stop and live in the moment, because the moment was all there was.
But that state of bliss (for better or for worse), and the ability to completely disregard how I treated myself and my body, carried into my young adulthood. Despite my parents effort to put milk on the table and convince me to eat my veggies, I now prided myself on the ability to consume a BK double cheeseburger, large fry with chipotle BBQ sauce (obviously), oversized Sprite, and a Chocolate Frosty from Wendy’s on the reg. Cinnamon Sugar Pop-Tarts were my go-to breakfast as I ran out the door if I didn’t have time to scarf down my usual two bowls of Fruity Pebbles drowned in low-fat skim milk. I played 3 sports in high school, so though I remained active, I frequently (and by frequently, I mean 9/10 times) stopped by the local Italian pizzeria before practice, grabbed 2 slices of pepperoni pizza, then proceeded to Kmart to buy multiple bags of Skittles and Starburst to snack on during practice. When I wasn’t practicing a sport, I worked at Subway and after learning how to cheat the system to have more than the allotted 6-inch sub during my shift, frequently consumed several Chicken Bacon Ranch foot-longs and started limiting myself (I repeat limiting myself) to 5 sugar cookies a shift.
On top of all the solid garbage I was consuming, I added to the assault in the form of liquids when I started drinking alcohol at age 14 in the summer between 8th and 9th grade (sorry Geno and Mary). I continued to subscribe to our culture's glorification of alcohol throughout my vodka-soaked college and post college years, and with it came a steady diet of late night hot pockets and double chocolate Dunkin’ Donuts.
Since I never struggled with weight, in college when girls started to worry about the Freshmen 15, I continued to wear the badge of honor that came with the ability to eat anything and everything, whenever I pleased, without noticing any differences in my physique. Though, I was struggling with a host of other issues; including horrible cystic acne, painful menstrual periods, constant sinus infections, and debilitating migraine headaches, in which all doctors assured me had absolutely nothing to do with my diet and lifestyle.
I was convinced they were right and nodded my head in acceptance as they prescribed birth control, antibiotics, harsh creams to slather on my skin, more antibiotics, migraine medications, steroids, more antibiotics, medications to counter the effects of the other medications - you get the idea.
My brain hurts.
By the time I was a Sophomore in college I was on at least 6 medications at any given time and started to add to the fun by passing out in class several times, experiencing what I now recognize as anxiety attacks in the middle of the night, and was so badly constipated I could go 7 days without going to the bathroom (I realize I’ve only written two blog posts and mentioned my bowel movements in both but I’m trying to keep it real here).
The moment I started to question all of that PhD authority was after I got invited to a fraternity social by a cute guy in my dorm, but had to cancel last minute because I had what felt like an extremely high fever. I had that delusional feeling that comes after waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat wondering why the room is moving. Thing is, when I measured my temperature it was a steady 98.6 degrees.
That feeling passed after a few long hours, but would creep back in after a few weeks, then again after a few days, and eventually daily. Daily to the point where I would muster all of my physical and mental strength to sit at the dining hall with my friends, all the while repeating to myself in my head where I was and what I was doing in effort to appear on task. It was like being drugged for many of my waking hours when all I had was a few beers the night before and a bowl of cheerios for breakfast. Because I was well aware these symptoms could file me fit for a mental institution, I was somewhat reluctant to tell anyone, nonetheless go back to the doctor. After passing out again in class, I went to the Syracuse University infirmary where the nurse asked me in 3 different ways if there was any chance I was pregnant. After answering a solid no in the same way each time, she ordered a pregnancy blood test and sent me on my way. During midterms, which I struggled to study for, I showed up in class to take an exam, stared at the blank test for a few minutes then walked up to the front of the room and handed it back to the teacher. She looked at me amused, like I was being a wise ass for handing her a blank test after a previous track record of straight A’s. But when I didn’t say anything she slowly reached her hand out to accept it and said, “Really?” to which I responded, “I can’t do it,” and walked out of the room.
Though I had disclosed much of the other health symptoms to my father up until this point, that was the breaking point where I finally divulged something was seriously wrong with my mental health and I needed help.
*Side note because I feel a bit of anger brewing in me as a write this but what the fuck is wrong with our culture when a 20-year-old college student has to stumble around campus and forgo any quality of life because she’s too ashamed to tell anyone she’s experiencing a host of serious mental health issues. I know those barriers are starting to slowly break down, but we have such a long way to go.
I drove the hour and a half (kind of scary I’m still driving at this point) from Syracuse to my hometown in Endicott, NY and went to our family primary care doctor for some blood tests. After several weeks of tests with near perfect results, one of the physicians at the same office mentioned they should run a calcium level. I remember walking through campus on a cold night when my Dad called to say that my blood work results had come in, but this time instead of showing perfect numbers, my calcium level was off the charts. I silently cried on the phone because I was so overwhelmingly happy to know that maybe it wasn’t all in my head. I was referred to an endocrinologist (who is essentially a hormone doctor) and after ruling out everything from diabetes to cancer determined it was Hyperparathyroidism.
Hyperparathyroidism, ever heard of it?
Hyper-what? Yea, that’s what I thought. Hyperparathyroidism, in its simplest definition, is an excess of the parathyroid hormone due to an over activity of one or more of the body's four parathyroid glands. These glands are about the size of a grain of rice and sit on top of the thyroid gland in your neck. In my case, I had a benign tumor about 40x the size (so now we’re talking one of those large Greek olives vs a grain of rice) on one of my glands. Because these glands maintain calcium levels in the blood, hyperparathyroidism results in too much calcium in the blood. Where does it get all that calcium? Our bones. The highest source of calcium in the body - causing brittle bones and osteoporosis if left untreated. All of that lovely calcium this Greek-olive-sized parathyroid is now pulling from my bones is responsible for everything from hormone regulation, to neurological transmission, and electrolyte balance. So, it’s a pretty big deal. And it can cause everything from depression/anxiety, heart palpitations, extreme muscle/joint pain, constipation, chronic fatigue, and in my case feelings of confusion, forgetfulness, and mind-numbness (not a medical term but it should be). The only way to solve this joy-ride of symptoms is to surgically remove the tumor. It’s a tricky and rare surgery, so of course I agreed to have it done with a general surgeon in my small hometown of Binghamton, NY then proceeded to have multiple emotional breakdowns leading up to the surgery about all the things that could go wrong. Blaming the calcium.
If you’re still with me at this point, the surgery was a success and my calcium levels returned to normal. I went back to school a few weeks later with a nice 2-inch incision in the middle of my neck and tried to act like I didn’t notice as people’s eyes darted back and forth from my neck to my eyes as they spoke to me. But unlike the calcium levels, I didn’t return to normal. Though the confusion subsided, my muscles returned to useable states, and my bowels started moving again, I never felt quite right. Of course, instead of having some life changing epiphany, I resumed drinking, partying, and eating all the things.
Shortly after, they found another benign tumor on my pituitary, another important gland in the endocrine system related to the parathyroid. But since my blood levels were fine, I was sentenced to a series of MRI’s every 6 months to “check” on the size of the tumor and make sure it wasn’t growing instead. As a result, I had at least 6 MRI’s over the course of the next few years and developed some sort of PTSD every time I hear Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” because that weird high-pitched sound in it reminds me of the inside of that machine. Odd, I know, but I don’t think Queen B ever had an MRI so I can’t be mad at her.
So though I’m now one parathyroid gland short, avoiding bars that play “Single Ladies,” and going about life with a long list of unpleasant symptoms, no one ever even hinted at a diet and lifestyle change. The doctors would just run the tests, scribble on a prescription pad, and show me the door.
And there were many doctors. Including neurologists, rheumatologists, hematologists, dermatologists, gynecologists, and more endocrinologists. I found some answers, sure. But not the ones I was looking for. Most were able to slap some sort of loose label on my symptoms - chronic migraines, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, cystic acne, PCOS, depression, anxiety - but never took the time to look at the whole picture and ask why. And how could they? My 8 to 10 minute spotlight sitting uncomfortably on that crinkly paper in the office was far from enough time to paint an accurate picture of what was going on. Let alone, leave time for an accurate diagnosis.
My BFF, Google.
As a result, I decided to stop going to the doctors. I also decided to stop talking about my health to friends and family and silently suffer on my own as I endured frequent autoimmune like episodes of extremely painful muscle and joint flare-ups, infections, missing periods, you name it. It’s difficult to understand, but since I couldn’t find someone with a medical degree to truly validate my symptoms and categorize them into a long name I could repeat when people asked why I felt so shitty, I felt like I didn’t have any reason to feel unwell. I also felt like a monumental failure because I’ve always prided myself on being the pillar of our family. Someone who everyone can come to for support and guidance, or at the very least a good laugh. I took this identity into relationships with my friends as well. But being sick wasn’t included in that description, and I felt like if people saw me as sick, I was less worthy of that title. Because strong people aren’t sick right? Strong people are vibrant and healthy.
Silently suffering on your own means that your new best friend now goes by the name of Google. I had already learned the hard way that this wasn't all in my head and was determined to find answers. And though I grew resentful for all the time my health was taking away from my social life and career progression, I started to gain some serious knowledge about treating health holistically from a diet and lifestyle perspective instead of a pharmaceutical one. I realized I didn’t need a label, because that wouldn’t change the way I was feeling. I just needed to figure out what adjustments I could make to improve my health. I was the one responsible for asking why, not the people in white coats with the clicky Lipitor pens.
I started small. Simple things like choosing an apple over a bag of chips and having oatmeal for breakfast in the morning were enough to create some momentum. I soon discovered there was a whole other world of support out there that included nutritionists, health coaches, and functional medicine practitioners. Most of which, seemed to share my view that our conventional healthcare system is really fantastic at taking Greek-olive-sized benign tumors out, but not so great at treating long term chronic health conditions of people who just aren't feeling so well. I found a nutritionist about an hour from my hometown who ran some blood tests and discovered I was gluten intolerant. I immediately went gluten free and to my surprise started feeling better. That was my first indication that a diet change can shift things dramatically in the right direction. So I continued to experiment. I've gone pescatarian for a while, dabbled in veganism briefly until I realized it wasn’t for me, and eventually landed on a paleo-ish diet. But nutrition was just the beginning. Since the early diet changes allowed me to regain some of my health, I moved to NYC after living home for a year post college. I hadn’t worked out regularly since my high school days as an athlete so I walked the 2 blocks to the Crunch gym in my UWS neighborhood and signed up with a personal trainer for a few sessions. Though it was a slow build to regain my strength, I again started feeling better. Mostly in my moods. So I began to experiment with the way I worked out - strength training, yoga, stretching, etc., and found ways that worked for me. When I had dips in those moods, I started to find relief in quotes, and eventually created my own app to help myself and others find some solstice in the words of others. That’s when I realized the role of psychology is all of this. The effect that our thoughts have on our bodies is profound (I don’t usually use words like profound so this is a big statement).
As a now proclaimed closet health Googler, I continued to research different supplements for my issues and run some of my own tests. Each time I tried something that resulted in some improvement, I would get even more interested in the science behind it. Don’t get me wrong, being your own guinea pig is not for the faint of heart. I’ve definitely had some setbacks, it’s never an upward climb, but I’ve made more progress being my own health advocate than playing the victim helplessly looking for someone else to provide the answers. No one will ever care more about your health and wellbeing than you.
(Disclaimer: I am by no means saying there’s no place in this world for medication. It is not a badge of honor to go medication-free. It was just not a long-term solution for the cluster of symptoms I was experiencing. We are all so different. You have to find what works for you, based on your own individual body. If that’s a combination of medication, diet, and lifestyle then great. My biggest proposition here is that I completely disregarded the last two because I wasn’t informed enough to make those decisions on my own. I strongly believe everyone should have all the information and support they need to make those choices for themselves.)
I eventually decided to come out of the Google closet and enroll in a Functional Nutrition Program this year. I also found something else beyond a love for the science of our bodies and the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle. I found a sense of empowerment. It’s a huge gift to feel yourself grow stronger and healthier as a result of your own work. You realize how much control you really have over your own body. That confidence then starts to spill over into other areas of your life like your relationships and your career.
Fast forward to this flight from Philly to LA (because the seatbelt sign just dinged and we’re starting our descent). I’m still trying to figure things out, and though I went several years without one of those autoimmune like flare-ups, I recently experienced a pretty serious one after moving to LA (unrelated to the ER visit mentioned in my first post). But I’ve learned that it’s always progress. Everything is progress. You just have to keep showing up and doing the work. And more importantly, it’s never just one thing that sets you on the path for great health. It’s a series of small changes in the way you eat, sleep, move, and think. It’s about the relationships you have, the hobbies you enjoy, and your sense of purpose in this world. It’s all connected. It’s a lifestyle, not a trendy diet or a weekly cross-fit class, and certainly not some sloppy handwriting on a prescription pad for a medication to suppress the symptoms.
Illness is a great motivator. And I’m motivated now more than ever to share what I’ve learned, and will continue to learn, about living a life full of all the things health affords us. Because we all deserve to enjoy this life, we didn’t come here to suffer in silence.
Life by Design was born out of a need for my own self-healing after decades of unresolved illness. It wasn’t until finding the courage to look within that I discovered it was my own belief system holding me back from experiencing a truly thriving life. We all have access to that thriving life. We just need to rediscover our power and ignite the healing-self. Only then can we unapologetically live a life by our own design.