Why I Had To Get Sick To Get Healthy

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HalloweenCandy_chewyIllustrated By Emily Kowzan.
If I told you what my diet was like, you would think I was a fanatic. If I told you what time I go to bed, you would say I was boring. If I told you what time I wake up in the morning, you would assume that I am a nut. And, if I revealed how infrequently I drink alcohol, you would suspect I didn't have fun. None of those assumptions about me are actually true, but based on my habits, they would seem to be unless you knew me well.

You all know I’m a dentist, but I’m about to reveal to you my other full-time job: staying healthy. For most of you, staying healthy is a lifestyle that you either choose or you don’t. For me, I didn’t get healthy until I got sick.

Allow me to paint the gross picture of how I took care of my body for the first 30 years. I say "gross" because it’s actually embarrassing to admit how poorly I treated my body. I didn’t listen to my body when it was telling me it was about to break down. I ignored symptoms for YEARS before things got bad. I believe that had I listened to my body early on, I could have reversed my illness before it became full-blown, and hopefully, after reading this, you’ll start listening to your body, too.

What does listening to your body mean? It means when you’re tired, closing your eyes and having a short nap instead of that double espresso. Or if you can’t nap, trying to accept how you feel instead of fighting it. It means meditating when you feel stressed out or even when you don’t feel stressed out. Our bodies are extremely good at telling us when something is wrong, and we have become experts at ignoring those symptoms or covering them up.

Growing up in Buffalo (for the record, Buffalo is a wonderful place to grow up and I deeply love this city and the people in it), I didn’t have the best diet. You could have fried a gym sock and I probably would have eaten it (with blue cheese, of course). I have a fast metabolism, which works against me in a way, because I was never forced to eat healthy. I could eat junk all the time and into my 30s, with no consequences (I thought.) I would eat danishes for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and nachos for dinner. Processed foods every damn day — vegetables never. Like I said, gross.

I didn’t work out, and the current soapbox I stand on, stress management, was totally unoccupied. I was a giant, reactive, emotional ball of stress. I clenched my teeth at night so badly that I had a recurring dream I was shattering them into little pieces. I slept three hours a night and during the day, I was bottling any distress up inside and then eventually blowing up. I had no tools for managing my stress. I had no idea how to be calm and no idea how to let things go. I was a ticking time bomb.
HalloweenCandy_DarkChocIllustrated By Emily Kowzan.
The reason my terribly unhealthy lifestyle was even more terrible was because of my family history. On both sides of my family, several women have or had autoimmune diseases, specifically an autoimmune arthritis where the body attacks its joints, wreaking havoc and causing unbridled inflammation and pain all over the body. I grew up watching my mom live in chronic pain with rheumatoid arthritis, yet I didn’t think it was necessary to try to prevent that from happening to me.

After dental school, I moved to NYC to complete my residency at a hospital in Brooklyn. I had never lived anywhere except for Buffalo. It never occurred to me that moving and starting a new job would be stressful, because I just bottled it all up anyway. My first week there I started having stomach problems, mostly digestive issues. It never occurred to me that my diet had anything to do with it. At the time there was a lot less information in the general public about processed foods, GMOs, etc., and I was ignorant. I also never thought that stress could be exacerbating my issues.

I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is a bit of a catch-all when you don’t fit into other categories of gut diseases. The doctor put me on medication that didn’t really work, and I lived like this for two years. The whole time my body was trying to tell me something was wrong. Then one day, after a particularly awful breakup, not sleeping, not really eating, a month of the flu, and a new job, my body decided to SHOUT at me.

I could barely walk more than a few blocks because my hips hurt. I took Advil. It didn’t help, so I took more Advil. You would have thought by now I would have learned to listen to my body, but I wasn’t. My hips got worse, hurt more, and walking became harder. It took me six months (!) before I went back to the doctor, who was able to quickly put me on medicine to help keep the inflammation in my hips under control. But, medicine can only do so much, and I wasn’t doing my part. I was still eating a horrible diet and not managing my stress.

It took me a few years of suffering and frustration until I finally decided that I wouldn’t stop until I figured out how to get better. I read books about toxins in my environment, diet, supplements, yoga, and meditation. I educated myself, I tried different things, and I tweaked them until I became totally dialed-in to what made me feel better.

It’s a lot of work: I need to sleep. I need to do yoga every day. I can’t eat sugar, red meat, dairy, or gluten, and if I don’t follow those rules, I feel like normal people do after a really late night with a bottle of tequila. I miss desserts. I miss steak. I miss having a bottle of wine with my girlfriends. But, I’ve learned the hard way that I just can’t cheat, and nothing feels as good as feeling good does.

Keeping my disease at bay has become my life’s work. It’s the most important thing I do, because if I don’t do it well, I can’t be good at everything else. My hope is that you read this and listen to your body more. My hope is that you’re grateful if you wake up everyday and you’re healthy. My hope is that we can value our bodies instead of being at odds with them, and in valuing them, take better care of them. Sometimes if I’m having a bad day, I’ll get angry with my body, as if it’s disconnected from me. Yoga asks us to thank our bodies always, and I like that much more. So take a minute today to thank your body for everything it does, and if it has something to say, please take a minute to listen.