My Illness/Wellness Journey

Disclaimer #1: Everyone’s journey is their own. What works for me may not work for someone else.

Disclaimer #2: I credit natural approaches to helping me feel better, but I am under the care of a rheumatologist and taking the medications prescribed by my doctor. I recommend taking charge of your own health as much as possible, but I don’t recommend doing so without medical advice.

Today I want to talk about my success, but the story of my success is also the story of my failure. I wouldn’t need to share a success story today if I hadn’t been down to a place I needed to fight my way back from…again…and again…and again.

I have rheumatoid arthritis, and for the past few years, it has had me. I’ve been struggling with pain, fatigue, stiffness, depression, and pretty staggering overwhelm. I’ve gained weight. I’ve felt isolated from friends because I haven’t had the wherewithal to go places after work. I’ve existed, and I’ve managed, and I’ve survived from day to day, but I haven’t thrived.

Today is different. I feel pretty good today all things considered. I’ve worked for this feeling, though. For the past few months I’ve been working on diet, sleep, meditation, exercise, and anything else I thought might help. I’ve succeeded. My symptoms are down by as much as 50%, and some days I would say as much as 80%. I’ve been losing weight. I feel positive and hopeful and ready to tackle my giants.

I would like to share how I got here in case my story helps someone else, but at the same time I feel unworthy. I’ve done this before. I’ve fought my way back before, and I’ve gone down again. It’s a cycle. I would like to say this will be the last time I will have to fight back from such a low place, but I know it isn’t. I have a chronic illness. It can go into remission, but it’s still there. The next time I face a series of unrelenting stressors in my life, it will probably rouse itself to kick me while I am down. That’s what chronic illnesses do. I just hope I remember when it happens that there are ways to come back again even if I grow weary of the fight.

I’ve been reading and listening to podcasts a good bit lately. One podcast I like is called Feel Better, Live More. In it, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee talks about his 4 pillar plan for health. He defines the 4 pillars of health as sleep, diet, movement, and relaxation (or mindfulness). I’ve been working on all four, and I think it is the multi-faceted approach that is helping me feel so much better.

I’ve seen the most dramatic results from diet. I started out in March saying that I was going to eat a lot of soups, salads, and smoothies. That was the only way I could think of at the time to supercharge my diet and blast myself with some nutrition. At the time, my father was in the last few weeks of his life after having been in a steady decline for the better part of a year. I was trying to spend as much time as I could with my parents while holding down a demanding job and juggling my extreme fatigue and pain from RA. I felt like I was about to have a total breakdown, but I didn’t have the luxury of a breakdown. My family needed me. My students needed me. My dogs needed me. I had to do something to keep going, so I went with a radical change in my diet.

That one change pulled me through what would be some of the most difficult weeks of my life, but I didn’t feel like I had truly made a breakthrough until early June–almost two months after my father’s death–when I decided to go on a 10 day green smoothie challenge. At the time, I was off work. I was meditating every day, putting ice on my leg and shoulder three times a day, taking epsom salt baths every day, and spending time just sitting outdoors with my dogs. I basically created a 10 day at home wellness retreat, and that’s what swung the pendulum.

The green smoothies felt like a miracle cure. Maybe blending the whole raw fruits and veggies really does help you absorb more nutrients as they claim. Maybe sipping them slowing throughout the day helped me to absorb more nutrients. Maybe drinking them at the same time that I was able to rest and recover helped me to benefit more from them. I do not know. I just know that I have not felt as good in years as I felt while drinking those smoothies. I had normal energy levels again. With the exception of sciatica in my leg and tendinitis in my shoulder, I had almost no pain. The normal symptoms of RA disappeared. Only the secondary issues that developed as a result of the RA remained–and those improved by a pretty big margin during this time.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to drink a whole pitcher of green smoothie every day for an indefinite period of time. I am drinking one small green smoothie each day now and eating salads and whole fruits and veggies. I’m also on an elimination diet, but that might be a story for another time. It has not done nearly as much as the smoothies.

Since I cut back on the smoothies, I’ve retained some but not all of the benefits I felt during the 10 days of my challenge. I feel pretty good, but I’m not marveling over how much energy I have. My joints are doing okay, but my hands are a little stiff.

Regardless, for me to be able to say I’m feeling better and feeling positive is pretty huge. Maybe green smoothies would help someone else with my same illness, or maybe everyone’s path is different. My main message to others (and to my once and future self) is to keep trying. Don’t give up. Find something you can do for your own health and take charge of it. Start small if you have to. Just keep trying something, and if that doesn’t work, try something else.

If you are interested in the smoothies, check out the website Simple Green Smoothies. They have some great recipes and great advice.

This is only a small part of my story, so I plan to come back to the blog a few more times to tell about where I’ve been, where I am, where I hope to go, and how I am getting there. Maybe my audience is only myself, but if it is, that’s okay. I need to hear what I have to say.

On a Diet Deferred

I had big plans for this week.  This was going to be my time to go on my super-charged, vegan, raw foods, organic, locally grown, vegged out and vegged up diet extravaganza.  Turns out diet extravaganzas are expensive, though, and I am in a state of post-Christmas personal financial recession.

I’ve come to the conclusion that January is a bad time to try to go locavore anyway.  Last January, I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and got all excited about becoming a locavore, but even Barabara Kingsolver said January is a bad time to start.  I am going to try to score some local greens when I visit my parents, and I am going to check the fruit stand near my office for some decent veggies, but beyond that I’m adopting a whole different set of rules for January dieting than I originally intended.  My vegetable extravaganza will have to wait for May.  I have other priorities right now.

I am back on my diet, and for a time at least I will probably try to do a more relaxed version of South Beach than the one I was on last fall.  I want to work on more than just carbs, though.  I really want to focus on healthier eating all the way around.  The reason I wanted to do my vegetable extravaganza was so that I would quit eating things from cans and boxes.  I don’t want the preservatives in my food, and I don’t want the extra packaging that comes with it.  I want to be more earth-friendly and more health conscious at the same time.

However.  However.  I don’t think it is precisely earth-friendly to refuse to eat the food items already in the pantry just because they don’t fit my current diet program.  It certainly isn’t checkbook friendly.  Therefore, my January and February rules are to eat as balanced and low cal and low carb as I can while eating my way through the food I already have.

My cabinet is full of cans of soup and corn and green peas and boxes of couscous.  My freezer is full of cartons of leftover casseroles and bags of frozen snow peas and broccoli.  I’m going to just start there.

I’ll allow myself a small grocery store budget for purchasing salad fixings and fruit.  I do want some fresh items.  I’m just not going on a “no canned foods” diet until I’ve eaten what’s here.  That should help me save on grocery costs through the lean post-holiday times in addition to helping me empty out my kitchen in preparation for changing my diet more significantly later in the spring when the “clean foods” I want to eat are more readily available.

Pictured above:  Black-eyed pea salad

I used about a cup and a half of leftover black-eyed peas, a can of corn, some green salsa, a can of sliced black olives, and chopped green onions.  I think I added a little garlic as well.  That’s it.  This doesn’t fit the diet I wanted to be on, but it was made entirely from ingredients I already had on hand.  It’s also tasty and nutritious.

Don’t knock cheap and easy.  Sometimes that is the best laid plan.