‘It could be worse’ is what I told myself; however, in retrospect, ‘it’ was pretty bad.
I began getting sick about 3 years ago. At first, I disregarded the warning signs, figuring I was just insanely overworked (going for 2 undergrad degrees in 4 years, working/volunteering/school clubs/activities/interning 70+ hrs/week) and needed to pull back the reins. Mid 2009 was when I began realizing that ‘pulling back the reins’ wasn’t cutting it, and perhaps there was more than met the eye. Despite this realization, I continued to brush everything off for another year or so. Looking back, it was a bad decision, I know. But when you’re in college, insanely busy, and invincible (ha), thoughts like this don’t necessarily cross your mind.
Until about six months ago, I’d feel better one day and horribly worse the next. One month I’d feel great, followed by 3-4 days of feeling like garbage. Such as in that one time last year when I got horribly sick at a hotel in the middle of nowhere Michigan. It took an insane amount of effort to walk down the hall for ice chips and open my laptop to Google the nearest urgent care. You know, just in case.
What does ‘feeling sick’ entail? I have a hard time describing the feeling, but here’s my best shot: It felt like: A. I had been punched in the stomach 947 times & B. My body couldn’t regulate temperature, fluctuating between intense chills and feeling hot/clammy. Sometimes this happened after eating/drinking, other times out of the blue.
When I finally went to the doctor, she pressed/poked my abdomen without finding anything glaring, so she ran a blood test to rule out ‘anything else’. When the blood tests came back clear, she recommended I see a gastroenterologist.
The gastro. recommended an ultrasound as well as a HIDA scan – an imaging procedure that tracks the production & flow of bile from the liver > intestine. You lay on a table as a tracer (a radioactive chemical) is injected. Over the next hour, a gamma camera takes pictures of the abdomen as the tracer passes through the body. It wasn’t painful in the moment, but it did leave me feeling sick for the rest of the day and into the next.
Neither the ultrasound nor the HIDA scan produced abnormal findings, so the gastro. took a stab in the dark, suggesting gallbladder removal, ‘to see if it would help’. I was actually pretty shocked by this, as we had not come anywhere near determining the cause(s) of the issue(s), yet she was suggesting I have an internal organ removed…? I felt like she was treating me like a number/science experiment, which I obviously was not cool with. I questioned the recommendation and her response was: ‘Well then, try eating really well, take care of yourself for a month and see how you feel. Either way, let’s just go ahead and set up an appointment with a surgeon.’
‘Oh, haaiiiil no.’ is what I thought. There was little to no logic behind her recommendation and I already did eat really well *thanks for asking*.
This is more or less what I wanted to tell her:
Instead of the surgeon, I opted to get a 3rd, 4th, 19th, and 437th opinion a la other doctors, specialists, and nutritionists. They all had a variety of interesting theories/diagnosis: Sounds like a peptic ulcer. You were just in Argentina? Maybe you picked up H. Pylori. Celiac. Gallstones. Liver Failure? Leaky gut syndrome. Ovarian Cyst. Gastric Lymphoma. Gastritis! Hyperthyroidism! Kidney stones! Cholecystitis!
As interesting as the theories were, various tests proved them all wrong.
At this point, let me just say this. Years of phantom sickness is, ummm, not fun. I’ll admit, it was hard going to a new doctor every 2 weeks. It was hard having doctor after doctor completely stumped. It was hard not knowing what was going on or how long it would last. It was hard to feel helpless. It was hard to think about a potential life of chronic pain, of not understanding it, and not being able to manage it. It was hard to be “healthy” on paper, but be dealing with this mystery ailment.
Here’s one thing that helped keep me in check – a quote. Thank you, Haruki Murakami:
‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that.’
I kept as much as I could on the DL to the general public, mainly because nothing made sense and there were no answers. There were, however, instances when I did need to offer a bit more detail and well, these moments were the woooorsttt. Why? Because there was almost always a suggestion/
You probably have a gluten allergy. One time I had a friend in college who was allergic to sulfates – maybe you are too. Maybe you’re allergic to wheat. It sounds like you have an ulcer. Awwww *sad frowny face* I hope you feel better soon! You should try meditating. Have you gone to the doctor? What about acupuncture? Maybe you should pray about it. This drink is easy on the stomach – just try a sip! I know of a great body cleanse – want the recipe? I’ve heard acai berries do wonders. How about a multivitamin? Tums!
At first, I always responded with: That’s a good idea, but I’ve already tried – doesn’t work. Nope, not that either. Yeah, I’ve been to a nutritionist and she was stumped. No, I don’t have a stomach ulcer. You’re right, it IS so weird! No, gluten is not the problem; I eat pasta like it’s my job. Yes, I’ve already had a blood test. Etc. Etc. Blah. Blah. Blah…
After a few months, I changed my default response to these magic 4.5 words:
Thanks, I’ll try that.
And you know what? It worked. At the end of the day, all people want to do is help. Of course it’s appreciated; however, the conversations got exhausting. The topic was exhausting, the situation was exhausting, and attempting to explain something that made no sense was exhausting. Those 4.5 words allowed the person to ‘help’, allowed me to show gratitude, and allowed us both to move on.
Solving the mystery.
The doctors weren’t finding anything and I wasn’t interested in medicating symptoms (not causes) long-term, so, I began scouring every last nook and cranny of the internet, searching for anything that could lead me to a clue. My research led me to believe that food allergies could be the culprit; however, because my insurance would not cover food allergy testing (although they would cover an unnecessary gallbladder removal surgery, figure that one out), I opted for the old fashioned elimination method. One by one, I eliminated the common food allergy sources: Lactose, wheat, eggs, soy, dairy, sugar, gluten, etc.
Unfortunately, none of these were the cause.
Plan B: Food journal. Let me say this: tracking every last ingredient of every last food/drink is one of the most time-consuming tasks. EVER. But I did it. During this time, I read anything and everything I could about the gut, digestive system, autoimmune disorders, and honestly all things gastro-related. I scoured article after article after article after article about all things nutrition – the slow food movement, GM food effect on the gut, etc.
What I learned through this research was CRAY.
To spare the details, I’ll simply say this: Once one learns how food is made and the affects of processed food on the body, it’s nearly impossible to stomach (so punny) 99% of the garbage that’s out there. Processed food is full of insane/horribly destructive chemicals that, over time, damage/ruin the gut lining/your entire body. Needless to say, I immediately eliminated anything and everything that was genetically modified. I made Whole Foods my second home and stuck to meals primarily consisting of veggies, fruits, beans & meat. Oh yeah, and the occasional hamburger, ice cream, and/or pasta. Sorry, just couldn’t give that up. (: (…all organic/all natural though, so it’s ok, right?)
Anyway, after a month or so, I analyzed the journal. The difficulty was that my adverse reactions were not consistent; however, I did find 3 trends: alcohol (ALL types, unless the enthanol was cooked out), Mexican food, and synthetic vitamins. So, I eliminated all alcohol, almost completely elimited Mexican food (minus bland stuff – i.e. rice, beans & veggies – just no sauces/spices), and replaced the synthetic vitamins with the vegan/vegetarian versions.
6 months has passed since these changes and you know what? I feel better now than I’ve ever felt.
While yes, I did revamp my diet to fix the problems, I must say that after learning all that I have about food/nutrition, my entire relationship with food has changed. After understanding the affects of genetically modified grossness, it was almost impossible not to. The majority of what I eat now is all-natural, organic, crunchy granola goodness. I’m hyper aware of everything I put into my body, won’t purchase anything if I can’t read an ingredient listed on the label, and cook as much as I can from scratch.
In case you were curious, my opinion of/relationship with conventional Western medicine has also been completely altered by this experience. I’ll let you take a stab at what this entails. Here’s a hint.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
The long and short of it is this: food allergies can take a long time to surface and cause a lot of damage along the way. Basically, food allergies can & do f-up the entire body for a long time.
While yes, discovering & eliminating the main causes of my sickness was a huge contributor to me getting better, it was only part of the whole. A few additional changes I’ve made: regular exercise, sleeping at least 7 hours a night, and not biting off more than I can chew. Might not seem like much, but for me, the collective changes have made a huge difference.
While it took 3 years to sort everything out, I’m finally back on track *knock on wood*. This type of thing doesn’t happen overnight…it’s an arduous process, to say the least. It took many years, many doctors, and (sadly for my wallet) many dollars, to figure out what was up; however, figuring out/fixing the root cause has been nothing short of a Christmas miracle and worth every last penny.
I’m thankful for everything these past 3 years have taught me, and hope be onward and upward from this point forward!