I can’t be the only person like this, so… Hey you, I’ve got your back.
Yesterday as I sat at lunch with my family and attempted to eat lunch like a normal young-thing the realization hit me – something is not right. Four bites in and I could barely breathe, ten bites in and I had an esophageal spasm. I was getting close to giving up on eating entirely when a radiating pain from my side told me clearly that my stomach was very very very angry. I didn’t want to acknowledge the truth, but…this has been happening for two weeks now and I have pushed through it or eaten micro meals to avoid the discomfort.
First off, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t claim to have any medical training. But this I know, in my 26 years I have struggled with some chronic health issues and have worked with countless doctors and health practitioners. I have become increasingly more aware of how chronic illnesses and stress affect the body. And I know that my particular story could be manifesting itself differently in your own life, but I hope that it gives you hope for your own struggles – be they physical, or mental, or emotional – as you care for your body and live the life that you choose.
Like I said, I’m not a doctor, and there’s not much I know about being a doctor. Here’s what I do know: at 21 I was diagnosed (via endoscopy) with a hiatal hernia. For those not familiar with such a condition, a hiatal hernia is when a piece of the stomach slips through the opening in the diaphragm for the esophagus. The diaphragm should be able to move effortlessly up and down the esophagus with each breath, but when part of the stomach decides to hang out there…there are all sorts of repercussions.
During the endoscopy the gastroenterologist discovered that there was much inflammation in my esophagus and stomach and that my stomach was bleeding slightly. Without my permission, the doctor cauterized part of my esophageal sphincter to lessen the back flow of acid and sent me home with instructions to take a PPI (proton pump inhibitor) drug for the rest of my days. That day I was diagnosed with GERD.
G – Gastro
E – Esophageal
R – Reflux
D – Disease.
When you feel a burning sensation or acidic burps after eating spicy buffalo wings – that’s acid reflux. When you have a radiating burning sensation day and night regardless of whether you have eaten or not and it happens day in and day out* – that’s GERD.
That day as I sat breathless in the restaurant with my family I thought a lot about what thoughts I wanted to share with you all. I could offer a “tips ‘n tricks” article for what I have tried over the last 5+ years of what has worked for me and what didn’t. I could offer a retelling of my story to reassure people of all ages that they aren’t alone. All that felt pretty boring, though, so…
- This is a story about what stress does to the body
- This is a story about what happens when you don’t listen to you body
- This is a story about mindless living
- This is a story about a person who cannot accept vulnerability
As you have probably gathered from my previous articles and Instagram mini-posts my life this year has been through some ebbs and flows. Nothing tragical, but I was faced with many many life decisions and challenged by difficult people and situations. There were many long days, physical exhaustion, emotional rollercoasters, and lots of poor eating choices. On top of that, I tend to absorb problems that are not my own and take the stress along with it. In turn, this negativity tends to settle in my joints, muscles, digestive tract, etc. to cause the many physical manifestations of stress. Yay me…
With GERD, doctors will usually run all sorts of tests to determine an underlying cause for the disease. If all the tests come back negative then they say things like “it’s stress” or “change your lifestyle”. I am not a consistent person – it’s one of my many faults. I go through phases. My motivation and resolve waxes and wanes. So when you are like me and have a chronic issue like GERD that means that you often swing from “highly careful to follow all of the dos and do-nots” to “not careful AT ALL to follow the dos and do-nots”. The key is somewhere in between, of course. But, like I said, I’m kinda given to extremes.
Back in the day when I lived in my apartment in the city, I worked a stable corporate job and easily kept control over my lifestyle. What I ate, when I slept, how I exercised, what I did with my time could all be easily scripted and my health improved dramatically from the first day of my diagnosis. I was vegan, gluten-free, organic, yoga practicing, cycle syncing, and following a strict “no allergen” lifestyle. It was during this time that my periods improved, my acne healed**, and my digestion became much happier. It seemed to me that the way to feeling well in life was to live as perfectly as possible. Eat right. Sleep right. Move right. Feel right. I was kinda desperate at that point so I went to the necessary extremes. <—- See?
However, unless you live somewhere healthy trendy like LA or unless you were raised with health nuts then you’re probably like me: surrounded by people who live the average American lifestyle. These people abide by the mantra: You’re gonna die anyway. Eat the donut.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my Insta-Girls. But occasionally I’m just a little bit frustrated by their posts about “food freedom” and “not depriving yourself” because if I walk out my door for a donut I’m only gonna be able to find a preservative filled, deep fried, corn syrup infused donut. When they walk out their door they still manage to find organic, vegan, real sugar donuts that, yeah, are still dessert and still high calorie and what-not, but they are like the healthy version of junk food. You hear me?
The key to maintaining health, to managing a chronic condition, to staying fit, to staying emotionally and mentally healthy is —- small course corrections. In the book French Women Don’t Get Fat Guiliano emphasized the importance of small course corrections. She joked (or maybe she was dead serious) that it was American thinking that lead people to embrace the idea of “cheat days” in relation to weight management. In my experience with a chronic condition like GERD the same holds true. I could have avoided two weeks of breathlessly swallowing food if I had paid attention to the less obvious symptoms like: a mucus-y sore throat in the morning (evidence of acid back flow in the night), a burning stomach when my stomach was almost empty (evidence of an over abundance of stomach acid), or acidic bowl movements (too much acid in the stomach means it keeps burning all though the digestive tract). But I’m busy, I’m stressed, and ain’t nobody got time to baby their body at a time like this. So I fed my stomach even when it hurt, and I went to bed even when I was way too full, and I gave my body lots and lots of processed gluten because it was cheap and easy.
My “words of wisdom” to you are these: make. small. course. corrections. Prevention is always better than cure. Your body can heal faster if it’s been dealing with an issue for two weeks instead of 2 years. And your mind can follow new pathways quicker if you’ve only been following the negative pathways for two months instead of two years. And so on and so forth.
What I should have done when I first noticed my GERD symptoms creeping back in was to NOT continue with the binges and loooong “cheat days” and I SHOULD have nailed down TWO things to change that week such as:
- Eat more fiber
- Don’t eat after 8pm
Two relatively simple actions in a week could have prevented me from actually reaching the breathless state. The following week I could have added two more changes:
- Eliminate coffee
- Limit highly processed gluten to one serving per day.
And so on and so forth.
I am given to EXTREMES. I know myself. I have known this about myself for many many many years. This is why I struggle with binge eating. This is why I let pain continue for years. This is why I run myself into the ground. But after spending thousands of dollars on healthcare I can tell you that THIS ISN’T THE WAY OUR BODIES WERE MEANT TO OPERATE. God made our bodies to need consistent (no, I didn’t say constant) care. That’s why we have to eat multiple times per day. That’s why we can’t go for days without sleeping. That’s why we struggle mentally and physically in times of isolation. WE NEED CARE.
So my challenge to you is this:
Look in the mirror and say to yourself: I see you. I hear you. And I’m going to make small course corrections to take care of you.
Believe me when I say that I know you’re busy and you’re stressed and you don’t have the money for such and such. But believe me also when I say that it will be far easier to fix ANYTHING when you make small course corrections BEFORE the issue reaches a chronic state (be that physical, mental, emotional, etc). I know how hard it is. Believe me I know.
Admitting that we have issues and/or weaknesses makes us vulnerable in a world where strength is lauded especially amongst women. We have incredibly high standards placed on us from all sides and additionally from ourselves. We are masters of comparison and we are our own worst critic. Anyone else feel Insta-Inadequate after a scroll sesh? Oh, only me? Kk.
I remember during one of session with my acupuncturist I went on a rant that ended with some breathless exclamation of “Well, if I’m gonna have acid reflux the rest of my life, I guess I’ll just never be able to eat anything good ever again!!!” Well, no, child. You have a chronic condition that we need to get under control. When we get that under control THEN your job will be to listen to your body and make small course corrections so that bouts with acid reflux don’t turn back into GERD. Got it?
Pay attention. Make small course corrections. Avoid bigger breakdowns in the future.
Best of luck! Holla at your girl if you need me.
*there can be a host of other symptoms (and I have many different symptoms – some common and others not-so-much), but like I said… I’m not a doctor.
**I hope to write an encouraging post soon about my journey with acne.