Updated: 5 days ago
Chugging right along through my introduction. We're briefly going through all the ways I've learned to feel like a pre-determined invalid. Let's talk about getting mysteriously ill in your "best years of life!"
It's time to chat about stress versus body versus food versus stress versus body versus food versus stress.
Overachiever: The flight and the crash
Not talking eating disorder here, though that’s always a smoldering ember in my brain. I’m talking about when chronic stress finally catches up with you and forces you to stop running.
That’s what happened to me near the end of my undergraduate degree. I had a lot of plates in the air at the time; finishing my bio/chem degree in a 2 year transfer program, working at the cancer cell lab damn near every day, figuring out what advanced degree to pursue next, struggling to afford to eat, trying to be less alone.
Well, it all got to be a lot. More specifically, I think my 23 years of unaddressed past trauma, depression, and anxiety combined with all the new, mid-twenties career and relationship stressors, got to be a lot.
Physical illness; mysterious chronic sickness
With everything going on, I felt myself slipping mentally. First it was the fixation and anxiety, then the depression…. then everything falling apart because I couldn’t fucking sleep. I felt scattered. I was exhausted all the time. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t care. I ached every moment. Soon, I found myself getting sick in weird, unpredictable ways. Like the many severe sinus infections I suddenly had for the first time in my life, three in a row. Those which resulted in many rounds of antibiotics. Great. Or the time I had a random gum infection (???) that burst in my mouth at work and smelled like cow shit? (Jacqueline took me to the local urgent care when I walked home and told her about my fucking disgusting day) It was something new, all the time.
Pretty soon, I was more than just random-assorted sick… I was suffering from consistent symptoms on a daily basis. After that, life slowly became pretty small.
I rarely felt up to getting out of bed. I couldn’t think or see straight, let alone move with coordination. I ached everywhere. I had horrific tension migraines with blinding auras. I had daily acid reflux and brought me to tears. My stomach was extended to the point of looking pregnant. My guts felt like they were going to burst out of my body. My eyes itched and burned all the time. My body was swollen everywhere and my movement became stiff. I became sensitive to touch, as if it was painful on my tissue. I stopped feeling any digestion taking place. My stomach never growled or felt like it was passing food. I was ravenously starving all the time. I did not digest food, which made it hard to deal with everything I consumed in my hunger.
Man oh man, did I lay around and do a lot of nothing but feel miserable. There was nothing else I felt I could do. Every attempt to leave the house left me overwhelmed, exhausted, and panicked to get back to the comfort of where I could lay undisturbed and eat. I felt disoriented all the time. I couldn’t pay attention to school. I barely could make it to my job.
My high-functioning go-go-go life was over, without warning. I looked terrible and I felt like I was dying. Soon, I almost was.
Almost dead in Africa
So, the thing about this time in my life is, it’s right after I had been on a huge upwards trajectory in life. I was going out and getting. One of the things I had gotten was a study abroad tour in South Africa. Of course that was rapidly approaching right about now.
Here I am, not understanding why my body has just… stopped. Everything is falling apart, literally from the inside of my guts out. And my mental illness has just ramped up to level 11.
I’m losing it, rapidly. Not only were my depression and anxiety higher than EVER IN MY LIFE, but I even had a mental break, of sorts. Or I think that's what it was. In short, I couldn’t read or identify words at work one day. Nothing made sense and I had to go sit in a dark corner to decide what was a dream or reality (all of it was reality). I cried and shook, and called my mom until anything made sense again.
So here I am, I’m totally broke and having crazy shit happen left and right... but I’m goddamn terrified and trying to get help. Most doctors are poo-pooing me left and right, including the free clinical health care at my school where they simply told me “you can’t keep coming in here” for my third debilitating sinus infection of the spring.
Most doctors are telling me my basic blood levels look fine, so “Iunno,” hand me some bullshit sleeping aid prescription, and send me along. Then one day I’m talking to a doctor one day who thinks maybe I have a brain tumor. I go for an MRI scan, and a few days later I’m on a plane to South Africa. Yeah, I’m skipping some things, but working on being concise here.
You know what’s awful? Being somewhere extremely remote where you can’t call home and thinking about having a brain tumor. I processed a lot of deep questions that trip. I accepted that I wouldn’t treat the tumor, and decided how to spend my time (was going to write a deeply emotional album, but never got around to it).
You know what else is awful? Eating a lot of bread and wheaty snacks somewhere extremely remote when you haven’t figured out you have a wheat/gluten “thing” yet.
Sooo… I spent nearly a month with my body in full-blown FUCK YOU mode, and no one to consult about the terrifying things happening to me now. On top of all the fun symptoms I’ve already described… just imagine that your body stops emitting wasting. Literally, the pipes just stopped. Not in a dried out, feel the marble but I can’t push it over the edge, constipation way, but in a “my organs do not function” way. Anything that did come dripping out was the equivalent of rotting sludge. Non-digested, spoiling food. My biological processes were not working, and I was basically a septic pool.
Go out and see the world, they said. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, they said. Hahaha
This shit goes on for weeks, as I’m surrounded by confused and conceited sorority girls who probably shouldn’t be allowed out of the backyard. NO one to talk to, nowhere to go, no idea what’s happening. Just know it might be a brain tumor. Cut to the plane ride back, which was hands down, the most pain and suffering I’ve ever been in. Not only was all this cool general illness/digestive failure stuff happening, but my body went ahead and threw an unending, untreatable, blinding fucking migraine to the entire travel day(s). I remember it fondly. With all that fun activity in my brain and body, I sat on two planes and multiple airport benches for a few days.
When I got off the fucking sky prison, I cried. She told me they didn’t find a brain tumor. Then I told my mom I might need to go to the hospital anyways, because my guts were about to explode.
I didn’t go to the hospital, but I did go to my mom’s house to recover and cry for about a week. I also cut off more of my hair and dyed it blond? Trauma consistently has this effect on me.
Finding answers and recovering... slowly.
I spent a long while recovering after my grand trip. Things were not good. I returned to my isolated, personal hell in my college apartment and tried to live each day laying in bed. I was even more out of control physically than before. Now I felt like a little sausage jammed into a tight wrapping. Every inch of my body hurt, like it was too much pressure built up inside, stretching my skin until it was sore. I noticed one night that my entire face was so swollen I didn’t have a chin. I had a moon face in the light of the moon.
From that day onwards, I started thinking… maybe this could be an autoimmune thing? My next thought was… grandpa had celiacs disease. And so the googling began.
I’ll say that my results were hit or miss. Some sites say that there are strict symptoms for gluten intolerances and illnesses, some say that the symptoms vary widely from human to human. There was a whole spectrum of information. Despite the fact that this was on the cusp of the whole gluten-free trend, it was hard to find anything very reliable.
Still, I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? I stop eating bread and… definitely don’t feel WORSE than I do right now. So what the fuck.
I cut it out. And I felt better within a week. Not all better... not even close to 100%. But so much better.
Actually, my full digestive recovery would take years after this discovery. It’s called “Leaky Gut Syndrome” and it’s just as disgusting as it sounds. I would spend the next 4-5 years on a roller coaster. Feeling better, eating something, feeling much much worse. It wasn’t even limited to gluten – there are many other foods that can irritate your leaky gut or appear to be glutenous to the body. Makes for fun times.
What I’m really saying is, even after figuring out my BIG digestive no-no, I still felt very out of control and out of touch with my body. I didn’t have the energy or strength I used to. I didn't have the CONFIDENCE in my body that I used to.
Random things would affect me in bad ways. I struggled with my eating a great deal, both over eating and under eating – sometimes due more to mental illness than anything else. I spent most of my time isolated and dealing with how fucking crappy I always felt. I felt like a prisoner in my body.
But it got better, eventually. Many years of careful attention later, and I don’t have to worry so much about my glutens. I don't have leaky gut or respond to strange glutenous substances. Cross-contaminations aren't really a concern. I can even have gluten in small doses without losing my health. Today, I work at a craft brewery, and so long as I stick to sours instead of stouts, I can drink the free beer we're paid in.
It was a long, hopeless road, but I physically recovered.
My illness – “the glutens,” as I still know it – the shitty frosting on the trauma cake - really fucked me. The initial onset, the years of recovery, and the mental illness it stirred up consumed most of my twenties. “Existing” through years of my life being miserably sick and weak was a secondary round of trauma and acceptance. It also dissolved any confidence I had in myself or my physical body - which were the only strengths I ever had. In response to feeling fucking terrible all the time, I disconnected from my body almost completely. It re-enforced my fears that the world is unpredictable and you can be helpless in a moment. It isolated me, worsened my mental illness, and I lost (often proactively) many friends. I found new lows of being anxious and depressed in my ongoing loneliness and agoraphobic fear.
So there you have it, friend. My mental and physical downfall at 23, thanks to unattended trauma, perfectionism, and over-achieving stress.
In my more recent years, I've realized how kinetic and responsive my body is. By that, I mean, if my brain is having a hard time, my body is about to get REKT. My inflammatory pathways are beautifully defined and my cortisol levels are ready to hit 2-3x the "maximum range."
It's no wonder I got sick after 23 years of ignored trauma. This bod is ready to fight for survival.
If you’re dealing with something similar, I’m so sorry. Your health is the most important thing. Take care of you, and I promise it won’t be so hard all the time. Send me a message. email@example.com