I’m fascinated by the intersect (or lack thereof) between more progressive care and Western, or allopathic medicine.
I studied complementary and alternative medicine a bit in grad school. But it was after my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis in early 2008 that I dramatically changed my stance on health, healing, and our healthcare system.
My diagnosis morphed me into a living, breathing product of a system that puts the onus on the patient to become educated, consult with multiple specialists, ask the tough questions, decipher the differing opinions, and ultimately advocate for themselves for the course of treatment that they believe is best for them.
If you’ve read my book, INFLAMED, then you know that I manage my RA with an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle. I am thankful every day that I am not laid-up in bed with aching phalanges, or looking like a puffer fish from chronic steroid use, or still living with the other chronic conditions (depression, migraines) that resolved after taking a more holistic approach to my condition.
My natural practices expanded into most every other aspect of my life. I am not bathed in patchouli oil or healing crystals (not that I judge), but I am quite discerning with my personal care and other products within my home (no phthalates, parabens, petrochemicals – organic, whenever possible). I use nutrition, acupuncture, physical therapy and/or mind/body work for any minor physical ailments.
I still have great respect for the advances from Western medicine, and you better believe I’ll be racing to the emergency room if any serious medical event occurs. But, I believe strongly in the body’s ability to heal itself. And more than anything, I believe in finding and resolving the root cause of the issue, rather than slapping a synthetic bandage over it.
The Road to Crazy Town
In 2014, however, my life was a wild ride, and I wasn’t always in the driver’s seat. I was battling a back issue that went from an annoyance with no obvious, acute cause, to debilitating pain that limited nearly every aspect of my life.
I went from being confident I could nip it in the bud with a little time, physical therapy, and maybe some acupuncture, to a Mom who couldn’t play with her kids. I couldn’t change a diaper. I couldn’t work without being completely distracted by pain. Even trying to walk or stand for more than 5 minutes was almost impossible. Exercise became a thing of the past.
Yep. This “clean living” girl who never takes prescription medications and feels guilty about the occasional mani/pedi at a non-green nail salon (gasp!) was popping Vicodin every day in an effort to keep from driving my car into a brick wall.
This chronic pain thing is no joke.
It’s an all-consuming, non-stop alarm going off in your body – and there’s no escaping it. Enduring this day in and day out, is sure to send anyone into crazy town after an extended amount of time.
My personal journey to crazy took about 6 months. And at that point, without results from other non-invasive procedures, alternative treatments, or medications, I found myself in consults with orthopedic surgeons talking about cutting my back open.
“How in the HELLLLL did I get here?”
This was the overwhelming thought that screamed loudly in my head. Surgery is not getting at the root cause. How will this ensure I won’t have this issue again? Listening to myself having conversations about microdiscectomies, laminectomies, and the pros and cons of endoscopic vs open, microscopic surgical approaches was like an out-of-body experience. Granted, with my history – a major car accident and multiple sports injuries resulting in months of downtime and intense physical therapy – maybe I shouldn’t have been in such denial.
But. I was the girl who proudly manages her rheumatoid arthritis with diet. I wasn’t even 40 yet. I owned a freaking Vitamix. And used it. A lot.
How was I talking about having back surgery? I have long been drinking the preventative, progressive care, stevia-sweetened Kool-Aid despite a predominantly Western medicine professional background. However, this issue seemed to break me down and have me abandon ship on all my beliefs.
Well, because I was miserable. Because I couldn’t function as a Mom like I needed to. Because I gave a few things a shot – physical therapy, osteopathy, mind-body work – and they didn’t work as fast as I needed them to.
Reluctantly, I tried epidural injections at two different levels in my spine (hoping it would buy time for the osteopathy to work). However, this provided only four days of pain relief (followed by three days of increased pain). And, I went a bit manic for a week from the steroids. One day I was frantically organizing closets despite having a back issue bad enough to NEED AN EPIDURAL, and the next day my husband gingerly offered me a palm tree branch from the front yard on which to gnaw, because I was acting like an angry, cornered animal.
Underneath the frenetic, pissed-off energy, I knew what I really needed. REST. But I also knew that the type of rest required was far beyond what is socially acceptable or financially feasible in this society, especially as a working Mom. Or any Mom. Or Dad, for that matter.
At one point, I was put on disability for three weeks. That provided a little relief, but it wasn’t significant. Because it turns out when you go on short-term disability from your job, they don’t send in a 24-hour nanny to wrangle your two extremely active kids. So for those three weeks, my “healing helpers” were a 25-pound,15 month old capable of scaling a double oven in less than 3 seconds, and a 6 year old who had captivated her fellow Kinders (and their parents) with her moves “she learned at her dojo.” The girl had never had a karate lesson. Suffice it to say complete rest wasn’t on the agenda.
And if I’m really being honest, it’s time to admit that part of the reason surgery was on my lips was because I got drawn into the drama and the validation Western medicine provided me.
Back pain (and many types of chronic illness) is a peculiar issue. There is no cast for people to ogle at and no bandages that proclaim, “I am injured. I need help. With everything. All of the time.” So your choices are either to suffer silently, or get all victim-y and complain about it incessantly. I have practiced both approaches. Both suck.
When there are people close to you who don’t acknowledge your pain, it’s frustrating and deeply hurtful. But, the Western medicine route provides validation. Western medicine says, “I understand, and I can help with my strong drugs and invasive procedures.” Western medicine can stick needles in your spine to inject heavy-duty medications and if that fails, they upgrade to a scalpel. All of this brings with it a validation to your suffering. If something that invasive needs to be done to your body, you must really be hurt.
Western medicine is also really good at giving you a lot of important-sounding labels – ruptured discs, severe stenosis, bone spurs, degeneration, radicular pain, nerve damage – and sometimes putting a name on your pain can provide a certain level of comfort. When your internal dialogue is mostly “What the hell is wrong with me?” and “Why isn’t this getting better?”, it feels good to have someone give you the “answer.” And while these labels play a necessary role in our current system, they can also be a double-edged sword, where an answer can also feel like a defense. As in, “See? I told you my back is hurt – I have RADICULAR PAIN.”
I was aware of the lure of becoming attached to, and defining your identity around such labels or diagnoses (thank you, Eckhart Tolle), and that sometimes, you are really not ready to let it go because even though it may be subconscious, those labels are serving you in some way – excuses, attention, or finally a validated reason to rest. But, I still got sucked in.
Was I Getting in My Own Way?
Convinced there still must be something that could be done to aid my body to heal on its own, I consulted a respected medical intuitive that I confer with regularly (if you’re rolling your eyes at this, I invite you to put down the glass of Hater-ade and consider there may be more for you to discover regarding the emotional-physical pain connection). I realized the primary issues and limiting beliefs inhibiting my healing were:
1) BURDEN (working Mom of a 1 and 6 year old, wife, crazy travel schedule, moved across the country twice in two years (in a job I despised for 1 of those years…). Did I mention my symptoms just came out of nowhere one morning? Coincidentally, my husband had been traveling all week and the pain began just before he started a new job with a commute that left me taking care of the kids solo about 3 additional hours a day. And thanks for asking but no, I didn’t get to reduce my work responsibilities in response.
I know, cry me a river, right? I realize we are all burdened in some way, and many far more than I. But my resistance (fear?) to ask for the help I needed was the real issue. THAT was my root cause. I was offered more disability by my doctor, but didn’t take it. I should have. And I should’ve asked for more help with my kids, and life in general. I should have been a better advocate for myself at work – reducing my travel schedule, refusing certain activities. I shouldn’t have waited for permission to rest, I should have rested because I knew it was what I needed.
2) NOT FOLLOWING MY PASSION. At the risk of stating the obvious, my passion is nutrition and health. And while I have since made the transition back to my roots, at the time I had for the most part set it aside. I was working tangentially in the space, but what I really wanted to do was share insights on the power of progressive health and nutrition practices (and have more time with my little ones) – whether that meant finishing INFLAMED, releasing regular blog posts, or working directly with clients to ensure they were getting the proper care (whether that be from me or someone else). However, I was in a place in life that made that kind of transition difficult. Or so I believed.
My medical intuitive didn’t sugar the donuts when she asked me, “Why do you believe you have to be crippled to write?”
Years prior I had also put my Clean Cravings food business on hold indefinitely and re-joined the corporate world to provide a more stable life for my family (and better mental health for myself). While I was happy to take one for the team and I was proud of supporting my family, my heart still broke into little pieces of shame, regret and missed opportunities every day.
Those insights were very powerful for me and I did do some work with them. Did I commit fully? Probably not. I never fully let go of my attachment to my “important” labels. If I did, would my back have healed on it’s own? Hard to say. Regardless, the realization was immensely helpful to me as I moved forward in my progress and prevention of future issues.
Finding (and Accepting) the Balance
Ultimately, I decided that I needed a jump start. And if that jump start had to include a trip to the OR, and the “surgery shame” that I knew I would (and did) receive from my peeps in the progressive health circles (and also other allopathic MD’s in various specialties), so be it.
Everyone had an opinion – back surgery only results in more back surgery, you just need more rest, long-term nerve medications are the better route (really!?), once you cut you can never go back.
I consulted with three of the top spine surgeons in Los Angeles and found one surgeon (and practice) that I trusted inherently, who answered my tough questions, had a comprehensive plan for my healing (long after I got off the table), and that ultimately, my gut decided was the place for me.
I needed to get back to my life and be there for my family. It was time to accept the undeniable structural issues causing my pain and get over the fact that nothing else was working. Not to mention, I’m pretty sure it goes against every principle of holistic medicine to carry around shame and guilt about decisions you feel will improve your health.
However, I made a vow that I would not get sucked into a path made up of only Band-Aids. I would continue to weave in my progressive practices prior to, immediately following, and every day moving forward from surgery.
Perspective From My 3-Month Post-Op Self
I moved past my questions and into a place of clarity and, in June 2014, I had the surgery. My thoughts 3-months into recovery:
“My recovery has been long, and is still in process…but it’s been amazing. Last year, when I was in the thick of the pain, frustration – and now that I have perspective, the depression – things were even worse than I realized. I am now ready to re-enter life in all areas. Frankly, I’m kind of on fire.
I have been doing physical therapy for three months. I napped and meditated almost every day of my medical leave and worked on my book. I am trying to continue that now even while back at work (not the napping of course, I am a Mom and I do live on planet Earth). I have done some energy work with my holistic MD for remaining sciatica, and I have continued my visualizations for good outcomes. I take alpha lipoic acid, omega-3’s and use a lot of ice to avoid NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories – aka Ibuprofen, naproxen) that could exacerbate my intestinal permeability and food sensitivities (that’s an interesting conversation to have with your spine surgeon – in my case, he was surprisingly receptive).
And while I am still not supposed to lift my now 30-pound, 2 year old (the most difficult aspect of it all), and the only approved exercises are walking, prescribed core work, and stretches, I’M NOT IN PAIN. And I’m not on drugs. Prior to surgery, I couldn’t walk (or stand) for more than 5 minutes. Now I can walk – uphill even – for an hour. Most importantly, I can play with my kids (with some back-up – did I mention my kids are WWF prodigies?). And I’m confident that one day I will progress to my ultimate goal of flailing my body around on the beach volleyball court again.
There have been set-backs. Like going back to work. Prior to my first day back, I had gone three weeks with zero nerve symptoms (that was at just 8 weeks post-op). Within the first few hours at work, my back was sore and the sciatica flared a bit – and it continued to get worse in the following weeks. But now I know this is the red flag waving to tell me to reclaim my balance – to rest and to keep following my passion (even if only for minutes a day). And also: to sit in proper spinal alignment on my ischial tuberosity and engage my core muscles, release my psoas and stretch and foam roll almost every inch of my person on a daily basis (my physical therapist would kill me if I didn’t mention that).
Moving forward, I will go see my osteopath to prevent issues with adjacent discs, and I will continue to rest when I know I need to, not just when I think there is validation by others. And I will write and share my insights on progressive health and nutrition and how to make sense of it all when you have 10,000 balls up in the air at any given time, because that is what my soul wants to do.”
Today – three years out – I couldn’t be happier to report that I followed through on it all. I did swap physical therapy for osteopathy for geographical and financial reasons (still a big fan of both); however, I launched my blog in January of 2015 and my book was published in June of 2016. Happily, I’m even flailing my body around the beach volleyball court again.
Consistently utilizing stress management techniques and finding balance is still something I have to work hard at, but I am much more protective of my rest. And I’ve let go of a lot of the guilt around asking for help when I need it. As a Mom, I don’t count on that ever fully going away. And that’s okay, though the need for help gets less and less, especially now that at nearly five and 10 years old, my wild child kids are becoming more independent/less of a hazard by the day.
If there has been nothing else gained from me indulging in my personal back story, I hope that it has served to:
- Validate the insanity that can come from an unaddressed need for help, validation, rest, and chronic pain
- Bring awareness to those that may be so attached to a medical condition or limiting beliefs that they are ultimately preventing proper healing
- Loosen the grip of anyone holding on too tight to either alternative/holistic or Western/allopathic methodologies and bring it back in balance with a focus on individualized, integrative care
- Encourage you all to find your passion and do something to move towards it everyday
- Give the go ahead for everyone to get some well-deserved rest (in case you still need someone to tell you it’s okay)