There’s no doubt about it, life throws us a lot of curveballs. Things are going along swimmingly and then suddenly, hello, a new problem pops up that throws your life off-kilter. Our job is to deal with these little gifts from the universe so we can get our lives back on track and moving forward again.
Sometimes, however, the root cause of the problem is elusive. We can fling our energy at treating the symptoms, but until we discover the cause of the problem and deal with it, we won’t truly be back in the game. So what do we do when the source of a problem isn’t apparent? That’s when it’s time to get in touch with our inner Sherlock and become a detective of our own lives.
I’ve mentioned having “tummy troubles” a few times here on the blog over the past couple of months. I downplayed it because I wanted to keep things here as upbeat and positive as much as possible. Plus, I kept expecting it to play out and I’d get back to my normal, happy self again. That hasn’t happened.
The reality is that I’ve been pretty sick since mid-March. It hasn’t been a constant, sick in bed kind of illness. Rather, it’s been a roller coaster of really bad days, a few good days, and lots of days in-between when my energy was so low it was all I could do to drag myself to work and make it through the day. Thus the low number of posts here on the blog lately.
It began right around the time that I launched the Mojo Lab and migrated my blog over to this wonderful new online home. One of the side effects of this illness has been a difficulty focusing on anything for very long. It’s not surprising given how drained I’ve felt. What writing I’ve managed has been squeezed in with what little energy I could muster after work and normal home chores.
The hard part was that I didn’t know what was making me so sick. At first, it seemed a medication I was taking was the culprit. After being off it for the past six weeks, however, it’s clear that it was just the catalyst that brought an existing background problem roaring to the fore. The cute nomer “tummy troubles” doesn’t begin to describe the endless days and nights of constant nausea, my stomach rejecting everything I ate, bloating up like a balloon, and running for the ladies’ room every five minutes. I was eating, but I wasn’t able to keep myself nourished. I soon became depleted and exhausted. Not surprisingly, I also felt out of control and became depressed. I lived on Pepto Bismol, Immodium, Gas-X, Saltines, and electrolyte drinks for longer than I care to admit. I was just treating the symptoms and wishing the problem away.
My whole system was in revolt, but what was the cause? Treating the symptoms and hoping it would pass was getting me nowhere. After a month of being miserable I finally got in touch with my inner Sherlock and launched my own investigation to try to figure it out.
I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve experienced stomach problems, but it’s not. I’ve had a history of tummy troubles since picking up a nasty stomach bacteria while doing archaeological fieldwork in Mexico in 1994. The docs couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and so kept me on high doses of antibiotics for almost a year and a half, trying the scatter-shot approach to killing off whatever had infected me. I had a hard time keeping down anything I ate. I was sick constantly, became emaciated, and barely had the energy to get out of bed and deal with my graduate school studies. That continued until I got fed up. I started researching it myself and eventually was able to diagnose the problem.
My doctor was resistant, but I insisted on being tested for what I suspected I had. Bingo, I was right. She finally got me on the right medication and I started healing. My faith in allopathic medicine took a big hit that day and I decided that going forward, I was taking more responsibility for my own health and wellness.
After a year and half taking that many antibiotics, my system was shot. I quickly became lactose-intolerant (still am) and have had stomach-related problems off-and-on ever since. If I get stressed out, my tummy goes off. Docs have given me the lovely label of IBS, which is nothing more than a catch-all name for chronic digestive problems for which the medical community does not know the cause. Oh yay. Needless to say, I’ve taken a ton of probiotics over the years to try and restore my gut health.
Lately, however, something more is going on. It feels like a ship that’s been on the horizon for years, but is now finally coming into port (AKA my guts). A myriad of little symptoms and stress-triggered stomach upsets have expanded into a full blown illness that isn’t letting go. I finally hit the wall with it a month ago and went into full research mode again to try to identify the cause of my digestive problems. This time I had my amazing and supportive hubby, Grant, to help me. We searched the web, I read everything I could get my hands on, and we’re finally getting a handle on it.
The List of Suspects
It appears that I’ve developed another food intolerance or allergy (possibly more than one, but the jury’s still out…). So I put myself on an elimination diet, pulling everything out of my diet that we suspected could be a problem. No nuts, dairy, or gluten. Since becoming lactose intolerant I’d been able to tolerate dairy if I took lactase pills, but was testing the possibility of a new allergy to casein in milk products. So no dairy. I cut way back on sugar again too. The idea was that once I was stable and feeling well, I could slowly add each suspected item back in to my diet one at a time to see how I fared. I started keeping a food journal where I not only documented what ate, but also how my mood was and how I slept. I’ve been down this path before and I knew it was all related.
Slowly, but surely, I started feeling a bit better and we narrowed it down to at least one likely culprit: gluten. I didn’t see this one coming because we have no known gluten intolerance in our family and it tends to be a genetic pass-down But my resistance to the idea began fading as I started to put the puzzle pieces together. I’ve been slowly improving over the past few weeks, but I’ve had several frustrating setbacks. When I looked closer at what I’d eaten beforehand, there was often some hidden gluten in it (like soy sauce).
I knew very little about gluten-intolerance, but being severely lactose-intolerant for the past 20 years gave me a good starting point. If I seriously wanted to avoid gluten, I would need to figure out all the places where it lurked and under all the different names it is used. I needed to educate myself. I picked up several great books about food intolerance and several specifically about gluten intolerance and Celiac’s disease. I devoured those books (yes, pun intended) and each one gave me more information and motivation to nail down the problem as quickly as possible.
From what I’ve read, I seriously doubt I have anything as severe as Celiac’s, but I’m not going to mess around with this. It’s time to test my hypothesis. So I’m scheduling a full physical with my doc and will request (insist) that he run the best tests available to detect gluten issues. I know from my own experiments that I feel much better off of gluten. So I intend to continue without it in my diet. I want to know, however, how sensitive I actually am and if this points to something more serious I need to know about.
I’ve been symptom-free for five days in a row now. It may not sound like much, but from my perspective, it feels like redemption. My focus is returning, my energy levels are improving, and I’m able to laugh and see the beauty around me again. Last weekend Grant and I went on a little adventure together away from home—the first in several months. He took me to a lovely inn in Seaside on the Oregon coast to celebrate my birthday. I admit to being a bit nervous about venturing away from the safety of nearby bathrooms at home and work. The walls of my life had closed in while I was going through the worst of the illness. We went prepared with lots of portable snacks I could safely eat, Grant did homework about restaurants that were gluten-free friendly, and we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
Our weekend away at the Oregon coast worked its healing magic (as did the book on gluten intolerance I found in a Seaside bookstore). Fresh air, gorgeous scenery, and time with my honey were all welcome medicine. I don’t think I had fully appreciated how cobbled the illness had made me. I came back refreshed, feeling good, and with renewed conviction that we were on the right path. I also came back with even more resolve to nail down the root cause of the problem and take back my life.
If I can’t have any gluten for the rest of my life, I’ll deal with it. Life’s too short to feel deprived in the face of so much magic that surrounds us.
The past two months have given me a lot to ponder about how I deal with problems. I’ve learned (ahem, relearned) several important lessons about being proactive about my own well being and tenacious in searching for answers. I got back in touch with my inner Sherlock and it finally put me on the right path.
Based on my experience, the best advice I can give anyone who is struggling with a problem is to own it and get your Sherlock on to figure it out. This isn’t a new insight for any of us, just an uncomfortable one that few of us heed when we’re busy, tired, or simply don’t feel like dealing with problems. I’m guilty as charged. I’d become complacent about my tummy problems in recent years and had started accepting generic treatment of symptoms instead of going after the true illness causing them. It was easier…until it eventually, it wasn’t.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a problem with our health, a relationship, money, work, or any of the myriad of other curveballs life can throw at us. Complacency is easy, but the problem usually just gets worse untiil we shed light on it, get to the root cause, and deal with it. Sometimes the cause of the problem is easy to identify, other times it takes quite a bit of detective work to see past the symptoms and find the root cause.
Wishing you magic and joy (and no tummy upsets).