I’m sometimes told I look younger than I am…
Which is a compliment any woman would love to hear. I’m at my pre-baby weight, have full hair and clear skin (I’m told). Sounds great, right? Except there’s a tinge of sadness behind my grateful smile when I hear this. Because beneath this surface a war rages on, and every day from the moment I wake up, I feel twice my age. Achy, foggy, and generally averse to morning light. I used to lightheartedly chalk this up to my Transylvanian bloodline, but it’s just not funny anymore. I’m tired of it. Tired of waking up in a deep fog instead of greeting the day with a rested stretch. Tired of complaining about being tired when stumbling down the kitchen steps in the morning. (Daring Dada is more tired of this.)
This blog represents my quest to purge illness, self-pity and negativity from my damaged body and to take back control of my everyday life. And I realized in order to truly begin taking back control, I needed to chronicle the events leading up to this battle’s inception for both my readers and for myself. This post was inspired by the gripping personal health story of Lauren Geertsen, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and mastermind behind the beautiful and informative Empowered Sustenance blog. Her blog is one of the inspirations behind deciding to unleash my voice on the digital frontier, and she is a virtual wellspring of knowledge around women’s health and healing nutrition.
A quick word of caution: you’ll gather from my tone that I am a bit skeptical of Western or “allopathic” medical practitioners, or more fairly, the American medical system. As you’ll see, my whole medical history has been one head-scratch to the next; my traditional doctors always attempting to treat my symptoms with endless pharmaceuticals, rather than understanding and fixing the root cause of the problem. If that makes you uncomfortable, I completely understand and you can skip this post. I can only promise you the whole truth behind my health ordeals and the road to recovery I am embarking upon using integrative and holistic wellness approaches.
Without further adieu, here is the first chapter of my wellness story:
In the beginning…
Birth: I am born a month early via C-Section due to my mother contracting preeclampsia, a little-understood preganancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to another organ system, often the kidneys [source]. My mom develops full eclampsia after the birth, and falls into a coma after a seizure. I spent my first weeks of life in an incubator at a meager 4.7 pounds; my first meal is a bottle of conventional formula, and my first warmth is an incubator lamp. After an extremely difficult recovery and attempt at supplementing, I am fully weaned at 2 months.
Age 2: I suffer repeated bouts of ear infections and am consequently treated with antibiotics every few months. Probiotics are a foreign word during this time period. Typical meal: Cheerios with conventional milk, mac and cheese.
Age 7: Upon changing grade schools, I begin to endure constant bullying from new classmates and experience extreme ongoing stress. I catch every cold, virus and plague and begin developing subsequent sinus infections that require more antibiotics to treat.
Typical meal: boxed mac and cheese, Corn Pops with milk and honey.
Age 8: I contract mononucleosis. NO, I’m NOT that kind of girl. My doctors scoff at my tremendously talented orthopedic doctor / grandfather when he suspects that it’s mono, until test results come back positive. Who’s laughing now?? Oh…not me.
Age 9: One morning I wake up and I feel like I’m being punched all over my abdomen from the inside. Then it comes the next morning…and the next after that. For 2 years. My parents bring me to every gastroenterologist they could find and I am subjected to a host of uncomfortable medical procedures. This includes a barium x-ray after drinking a half-gallon of liquid chalk, and going to school with a tube stuck up my nose and down my throat attached to a wheeled monitor to measure the acid level in my esophagus. As you may imagine, this greatly improves my already stellar social life. The gastro concludes that my pain is due to stress, and prescribes lots of video games and generous amounts of lollygagging. I rejoice and warm up my Mario Kart hands, while my mother delivers her Romanian Stank Eye Special to the gastro as he hands her the bill.
Age 11: I contract the chicken pox, and getting it this late means every inch of skin is covered in pox and I feel like I’ve been mummified in hot wax and raspberry crazy ants. I miss three weeks of school. My mom tries to make me feel better with a motorized stuffed alligator, which causes my cat to jump on my swollen, pocked head before flying behind the couch. The cat part of this story is merely included for entertainment purposes, because cats do rule the interwebs.
Age 12: One night after a wolfing down an entire bag of microwave popcorn, my chronic abdominal pain suddenly concentrates on my lower right side. My tired, overworked mother comes home to me writhing in pain on the floor, and rushes me to the hospital. The doctors realize I have had appendicitis for 2 years, and my appendix was now about to burst. They operate at 2 in the morning, leaving me with three scars that would eventually come to haunt me. But hey, no more belly pain and hospital jello for a week!
Age 13: While ice-skating, my kneecap dislodges completely from my knee socket and I crumple on the ice. We believe a bicycle accident several years earlier loosened my tendons. Like I needed something else to worry about. At this time I begin to discover cooking for myself; having two parents with challenging jobs and commutes, I had to learn to get dinner on the table for myself some nights. This is my opportunity to perfect my noodle obsession, and the primary ingredients in each meal are refined starch, dairy product, MSG and a pinch of ohhhhh yeaaah.
Age 14: I am now missing almost a week of school every month because of my sinus infections, which cause my vision to black out every time I stand up and be unable to taste any food. I begin to develop a routine that is quite lucrative for the pharmaceutical industry: go to pediatrician, tell him my symptoms. Cha-ching. Pick up giant bottle of pink antibiotic goo at pharmacy. Cha-ching. You know what they say: an ounce of prevention isn’t nearly as profitable as a pound of cure…
Age 16: As I mature, my PMS symptoms drastically worsen and there are days I need to stay home from school. I also have the skin of a Texas horned toad, so my latest school nickname is “Pizza Face”. However I am quite active, attending 5 ballet classes a week and performing in 3 musicals a year. Falling sick during opening night of every show becomes a time-honored tradition. Local pharmacies are now clearing a dedicated shelf of antibiotics just for me.
Typical meal: loaded bagel, pepperoni stromboli, spaghetti mountain, Coke.
Age 17: I discover old-school hip-hop and move away from ballet. My kneecap dislocates again during a class, and I suddenly realize I am not invincible. 17 is much too young an age to realize this truth.
Age 18: My family decides to put an end to my recurrent sinus infections once and for all and brings me to an ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT). He diagnoses me with chronic sinusitis (duh) and a deviated septum, meaning a piece of cartilage in my nose that separates my nasal cavities was “bent” to the left. This was causing repeated blockages and stagnation in my left sinus, which also explains my repeat left ear infections. I agree to undergo an endoscopic laser septoplasty (gesundheit).
When scheduling the procedure, I am hesitant to have it done before two big high school graduation parties. The admin reassures me that “there will be hardly any bleeding and I’ll be swing-dancing that night!” In reality, I left the office completely doped up, a “Walking Dead”-esque trail of drool and a huge bandage strapped across my face with cotton cones shoved up my nostrils. I am lucid enough to attend two graduation parties that weekend looking like a reanimated mummy, leaving a lasting impression on my already pristine social clout. My only regret is not doing it the day before senior prom. The sinus infections abate for a few years, but eventually return full force just a few years later. I consider sending the ENT office my future therapy bills.
Typical meal: veggie burrito with rice and beans, Snickers bar for dessert.
Age 19: I go off to college and discover health-boosting nutrition like college cafeteria food and Everclear punch. I fall completely out of touch with cooking and gain 8 pounds of noodle pooch. Other than the beautiful, fresh fruit and cheeses brought to me by my amazing Grandpa, my dorm fridge contains Slim Jims, Cheerios and a 30-pack of ramen noodles (only 20 cents a pack!). I do cut out soda at this point, though.
My PMS symptoms greatly worsen, and a blood test reveals I am anemic. To counter both of these issues, my doctor prescribes The Pill. Immediately I notice a drastic improvement in my cramps, skin, sinus infections and my anemia resolves, but little do I understand the long-term havoc that various forms of birth control would wreak on my health over the next 15 years.
I begin contracting recurrent, stubborn urinary tract infections (UTIs). If you’ve been unlucky enough to suffer a UTI, you know they feel like you’re peeing coal-fired Ginzu knives, non-stop. UTIs make time slow down to the point where every tick on a clock sounds like a gong hit. The solution my doctor prescribes? You guessed it…more antibiotics. And so would begin a 15-year battle against an angry, angry bladder, where every new infection would get socked with a round of Amoxicllian, Augmentin, Bactrim, etcera.
Typical meal: chicken ramen substance, cafeteria pasta with marinara, iceberg salad with cafeteria ranch dressing.
Age 20: If you thought last year was bad for health, along comes this year. I become depressed from having to leave my private college to matriculate at a state school, and develop severe acid reflux so severe that I vomit after every meal, feeling like hot lava flowing in my chest. My doctor prescribes Aciphex for several months and despite my misgivings about medication, the reflux does vanish.
Later in the year, I somehow decide to give up all fat for a year because that’s what every issue of Vogue and Cosmo says to do to look like its sexy cover models. Because everyone knows fat is evil, duh. No olive oil, butter, chocolate, nothing. I lose 10 pounds off an already small frame, my hair turns to straw and I look like a marsh wraith from The Lord of the Rings. One of my UTIs is so severe that I am hospitalized for a kidney infection. I am also hospitalized this year for a ghastly intestinal infection contracted from an ill-advised decision to purchase pale, questionable sushi from a supermarket.
Typical meal: Pasta Roni instant noodle thing with chicken substance, evil sushi.
Age 22: I move into a college house with an amazingly vibrant and vegan roommate, whose passion for organic foods, yoga and sustainable living completely blows my mind and reinvigorates my love of cooking. We spend many hours devising healthy meals and she teaches me how to care about the quality and source of the ingredients in my food
Typical meal: teriyaki tofu veggie stir-fry with brown rice with a side of savasana.
Age 23: Start my first job at a digital startup in the city and move in with my parents. Ridiculous hours, endless bus commuting and failed attempts at online dating result in high levels of stress and low self-esteem. After finally moving into my own apartment in Manhattan, my energy levels drastically improve. Likely contributing factors are a a nice short 20-minute commute, newfound financial freedom and not hearing “Battlestar Galactica” at full volume until 3am.
Typical breakfast: Whole wheat bagel, low-fat cream cheese and skim milk hazelnut latte.
Age 24: I begin dating future hubby and Daring Dada while working and living in New York City. Happy happy happy. UTIs become more frequent and harder to kill with antibiotics. Unhappy unhappy unhappy. Despite the UTIs, this is one of the healthier times in my life in terms of my energy and fitness, likely due to the serotonin from dating bliss and a very active workout schedule (hip-hop dance, kickboxing and cross-training.) However, I am still catching an annoying number of colds, and the UTIs are coming fast and fierce.
Typical meal: Giant bowl of udon noodles with vegetables, conventional tofu in miso broth.
Age 25: I enjoy the spoils of perk-filled digital agency life with a little too much shmoozin’ and boozin’. My UTIs begin spiraling out of control, and I am having trouble maintaining my composure at work. My own research surfaces a condition called interstitial cystitis (IC), a chronic inflammation of the bladder wall that causes one to experience “flares” or symptoms of a UTI, but without the infection. I locate a well-respected urologist, and ask him if I could possibly have this condition. He says it is impossible for me to have IC at my age, and that he would “check his literature for anything interesting and let me know” (he never does). Thanks for your thoroughness, Dr. Uro-No-Good. As I leave, I notice that of his entire waiting room, I am the only patient who’s female and under the age of 91. Possibly not the right fit for me. I continue to suffer many, many more UTIs…
Typical meal: Whole wheat spaghetti marinara with shrimp and organic spinach.
Age 26: I move out of the city with Daring Dada into the suburbs, taking on crazy long agency hours and a 2 1/2 hour commute each way. My health and mood severely deteriorate, and our relationship becomes very strained.
Despite these setbacks, Daring Dada proposes during our first trip to Greece! He’s a smooth customer. I get bitten 42 times by bed bugs, triggering an immune response so severe, every joint in my body swells like a balloon. My new engagement ring doesn’t fit over my new sausage fingers.
NOTE: This trip is also one of the healthiest times in my life, as were my all of my trips to Greece where my extended family resides. It could possibly stem from the complete lack of wheat consumption, a daily dose of Mediterranean sun and long, languorous walks on the beach. This brief ray of wellness quickly fades upon my return to NJ and a Standard American Diet (SAD) and life of 18-hour stretches in front of a computer instead of the sun. Things that make you go, hmm…
Age 28: We get hitched! And I start a shiny new job in corporate, with a 1-hour commute. Again. But alas, wedded bliss does not cure what ails me, and I realize I need to get help soon or our relationship will suffer further. A sympathetic OB/GYN refers me to a urogynocologist, a medical profession I’d never heard of. A urogynocologist specializes in urinary and reproductive issues. She subjects me to a battery of highly uncomfortable diagnostic tests, but I’m not sure what’s she’s looking for. One of these tests gave new meaning to the phrase “The Shocker”. I react so strongly to one of her tests that they need to end it early and…BOOM. She confirms that I have interstitial cystitis. Dr. Uro-No-Good is proven wrong. Further proof that I manage to break medical molds, wherever I go! Yay.
With this diagnosis I feel a weight lifted, finally being able to give my condition a name and learn of treatment options, but crestfallen knowing this will be a lifelong struggle. I pray that the medication she prescribes will help me. It changes my life; I am now able to live a normal life without fear of flaring, as long as I take my two doses of Elmiron every single day. It also represented the first watershed moment I experienced regarding the medical system: not all doctors and specialists are knowledgeable or interested enough to truly understand the root cause of your condition. If there’s anything this saga taught me to this point, it is this:
Life Lesson: You are your most powerful health advocate, and it is up to you find the right kinds of specialists and ditch the ones that aren’t going to help you truly heal.
Receiving my IC diagnosis was a significant turning point in my life, and it is here where I leave you to take a brief intermission. Come back soon to read the nail-biting conclusion of my health saga to date and the journey I am embarking upon to heal from the inside out!
I would love to hear your own story. What health challenges have you faced and how have you approached healing them?
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