Hey friends, as most of you know, I struggled with an illness this past year. It’s been a long road to recovery, but I thought I would share some things that I learned from my experience. I hope you enjoy.
In all leans of spirituality you’ll find types of Truths. In keeping with spiritual tradition, I will be referring to the little nuggets of wisdom I picked up along the way as, The Seven Noble Facepalms.
Noble Facepalm #1: The universe whispers, then it yells, and then it body slams.
We receive messages every day. The most dependable, honest, valid source of these messages is our body. It houses all of our physical, mental and emotional stress. It tracks each time we make a deposit and a withdrawal. It always knows the score. It doesn’t pussyfoot around and it’s never passive-aggressive with you. I personally managed to ignore all my body’s whispers (and most of the yelling) in order to make withdrawal after withdrawal. The overdraft fee for burning my Roman candle at both ends was a big, bad, beautiful body slam. When I came to I was, literally, on the floor. I had fainted in front of a restaurant while on vacation in Scotland. I was alone and scared to death. My body was like: “Girl, you gave me no choice.”
Passing out in a foreign country, believe it or not, ended up being very helpful because it provided me with some much-needed information. A body in motion will remain in motion until it is acted upon by a force and my body had been nonstop for a long time. You see, I had been experiencing symptoms and feeling generally unwell for at least two years before I passed out. It started with whispers in the form of fatigue. The fatigue ranged from general feelings of malaise to, at its most severe, the inability to hold up my physical; body. It became harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. I sought advice from doctor after doctor. At first, I was misdiagnosed with sleep apnea. After sleeping many a night on a sexy, sexy CPAP machine, it became clear that apnea was not the issue. As time marched on the symptoms worsened. I started having heart palpitations, digestive issues, and severe brain fog. And, every day, like clockwork, between 3 and 5pm, I would crash. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I would fall into a narcoleptic slumber. It was mind-boggling and my doctors didn’t seem to have any idea why feeling like total hell had somehow become the default setting on my body. The universe and my body were tag-teaming me like the gorgeous ladies of wrestling. They had upgraded their whispers to a yell, but I didn’t hear it because I was on the stair master watching the West Wing trying to climb my way back to 2001. That’s right, even though I was inexplicably exhausted all day, every day, I would still drag my ass to the gym. I would actually fall asleep on workout equipment. No, really. If you worked out at 24hr Fitness Hollywood, there’s a good chance you have seen me passed out on the abs machine next to you, snoring from a non-apnea related issue. No really, I have the abs to prove it.
Passing out in Scotland was most likely from low blood sugar. The day after I fainted, I had an episode in a restaurant where I felt faint again. I started sweating and was having trouble catching my breath. I also seemed to have developed super-sonic senses since I really thought I could hear and feel a man’s fork repeatedly scrape his plate from three tables over. Unbeknownst to me, these were telltale signs of low blood sugar. This is the irritability part; it’s where Shelby needs her juice. When I returned home from the trip in August of 2017, I was a shell of a person. My battery life would range from 12% to 20%. I experienced an all-consuming exhaustion that could not be relieved by sleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night with heart palpitations so intense I felt like I was being electrocuted. I went to a Rheumatologist, Endocrinologist, Gynecologist, Psychologist, Nutritionist, and Acupuncturist. I had a gazillion blood tests. They were stumped. I took inventory of my symptoms:
- Difficulty getting up in the morning
- Regular and unexplained fatigue
- Cravings for salty foods
- Numbness in your fingers / Poor circulation
- Mild depression
- Extreme tiredness an hour after exercise
- Frequent urination
- Joint pain
- Loss of muscle tone
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood sugar
- Lower back pain
- Weight gain
It was incredibly frustrating to experience such persistent and debilitating symptoms that general doctors and specialists could not explain. The symptoms were real, so why wasn’t there a diagnosis? I started to get very worried that if I wasn’t diagnosed, I wouldn’t know how to get better. So, I did what anyone in my predicament would do-I made an appointment to see a psychic medium. Western medicine sure as hell didn’t have any answers so here I was. Amazingly, Delphina (yup, that’s her name and she’s awesome) was able to pinpoint the source of my sickness almost immediately. “It’s your Adrenal Glands,” she said. “ They are kaput. You are running on empty and it’s messing with your hormones, big time. You need to get a DHEA test to measure your Cortisol.” So, I scheduled the test. I had had multiple readings with Delphina before. She has been incredibly accurate and helpful to myself and many of my friends. She also told me that a big life change was on the horizon. I was not looking forward to changing. When the test came back, it showed severely depressed levels of cortisol. This was Bad News Bears because Cortisol is a hormone essential to the maintenance of homeostasis in the body. It’s referred to as “the stress hormone,” because it influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress including, but not limited to:
- Blood sugar (glucose) levels
- Immune responses
- Anti-inflammatory actions
- Blood pressure
- Heart and blood vessel tone and contraction
- Central nervous system activation
This explained a lot of my symptoms. I had never heard of Adrenal Fatigue before, but the more I read, the more clear it was that this is what was happening to me. I researched everything I could about Adrenal Fatigue; there is a lot of information out there. Most of the literature said that the recovery time for someone with symptoms as severe as mine was a daunting 12-18 months. I joined an online support group. I also learned that the mayo clinic does not recognize Adrenal Fatigue as an illness so many western doctors have a hard time treating it. I can’t speak to this, but what I can tell you is my symptoms were real, as are thousands of other people’s. This is the story of how I got better.
The first three months after my Scottish collapse I would sleep over 12 hours a night and still nap midday. Now, I pride myself on being somewhat of a nap artist, but this was extreme. I was pulling over on the side of the road after work to pass out for 30 minutes. Then, and I consider this the worst, the brain fog became so severe that I couldn’t focus enough to compose an e-mail. It was getting damn near impossible to mask the symptoms at my job so I had to take a 3-week medical leave from work, a decision that I grappled with because it did not jive with my rigid belief system about what “work” meant to me. I felt extremely ashamed of having to take leave from my job. Growing up, my father, a former boxer, would often say: “ You’re never tired. You’re never hurt. You’re never scared.” It’s funny, but I think I internalized his mantra and made it something of a core belief. Now, I’m in no way blaming my father. I’m grateful to both my parents for instilling a strong work ethic in me. However, the anguish I was feeling about the potential of leaving work was very tied up in my personal beliefs about work and illness which, you guessed it, only compounded my stress further. I equated being sick with being weak. I suddenly felt very ashamed and embarrassed of how sick I had gotten. The fact of the matter was, I was tired. I was hurt. I was scared. The fact that my initial reaction to having to go on a much-needed medical leave was to mentally berate myself was half of the problem.
Through a friend, I finally found an integrative MD who had experience successfully treating patients with Adrenal Fatigue. While on bed rest I was only allowed to walk 20 minutes a day and some days I couldn’t even do that. This was a far cry from the active lifestyle I enjoyed prior to getting sick. I became so skittish and sensitive that I could barely stand to be out in the world, and I’m a big fan of the world. I felt like an exposed raw nerve. It was awful. The doctor advised me to limit all stimulation, meaning I should avoid activities where I would get excited or angry. I needed to be so gentle with myself to recover. That month I had eight friends come out to visit, I turned 35, the Cubs won the World Series and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Sooo, there’s that.
I lived in constant fear of having low blood sugar and passing out again. Ask any diabetic and they will tell you it’s one of the worst feelings ever. So, in order to avoid said terrifying experience, I ate. Consequently, I gained about 20/25 pounds which is super fun especially when you live in a culture that has no problem body shaming a fit-ass diva like Lady Gaga. I couldn’t work, exercise or go out. I had trouble reading and concentrating. I start getting depressed, like really, really depressed. This shell of a human was so far from “me” that I felt like I barely existed. And then I did the worst thing I could do which is to not tell anyone out of fear of being a burden or a downer. I felt like I was in jail, like a literal fleshy prison that was my body. I did jail like a mobster. I just wanted to do my time- no visitors. I’ll see you when I’m free again when I’m me again. All this did was exacerbate this sense of isolation. What could I do with my time that would help me feel better and require little to no energy?
As coincidence would have it (and there is no such thing) a meditation studio opened up down the street from me called the Den. It’s a beautiful, serene place that offers an array of meditation classes. I went every day. I took every class. I started calling it the “bar” as it became my hangout on the weekends. Now, I’m not going to tell you how to meditate or try to convince you that you should because this isn’t Goop. All I can say is that it helped me get better and guide me through chronic illness and some very big lifestyle changes. Meditation gave me the space I needed to pay attention to my body, my mind and my feelings. Turns out, if you ignore all of these things long enough, you get body slammed.
Noble Facepalm #2: The Second Arrow is a Mutha.
An arrow is pulled back in a bow. It’s aimed directly at you. The string is released and the arrow hits you in your chest. You hold your wound and look up to see who shot it, but there’s no one there. Then, a second arrow is pulled back in a bow. Again, it’s also aimed directly at you. This time, you can see the faint outline of a person. It flies through the air and hits you in the same spot. It hurts worse than the first one. You hold your wound. When you look up to see who just shot you, you are shocked to see that the person holding the bow… is you.
This is the Buddhist concept of the two arrows. The idea is that the first arrow represents misfortune, pain, and unavoidable negative occurrence in your life. In other words, shit happens. But, the second arrow represents our reaction to the pain. If we rage and blame and anguish, we turn hurt into suffering. For you math-minded folks out there here is an elegant equation I dreamed up/ probably stole from somewhere:
Pain + Resistance = Suffering
The fact of the matter is that most of the things that happen outside of ourselves are neutral. It is our reaction that determines what the effect will be on us. For example, five different people could get the same parking ticket and you would get five different responses. These reactions could range anywhere from throwing a full-blown tantrum to just laughing it off. For some people, it’s just a parking ticket and for others, it’s evidence of a vast cosmic conspiracy to make their life hell. The difference is confusing a problem with a circumstance. I heard this on NPR (donate!). Most people think they have a lot more problems than they actually do, and this is because of their misconception of what a problem actually is. It is only a problem if it is actionable. So, if you cannot take action to find a solution, then it is not a problem, but a circumstance. We can’t do shite about our circumstances. They are a given. The parking ticket was a given. Me being sick was a given. Blaming yourself for parking in front of the fire hydrant is not going to pay your ticket. Blaming myself and feeling ashamed of being sick was never going to get me better.
The second arrow is made up mostly of the way we talk to ourselves. Now, we say lots of things to ourselves at any given moment. Some of those things are from a positive place, a place of love, our higher self if you will. Some of them come from a negative place, a place of fear, our lower self, our Ego. I will be referring to my higher self as Whitney (as in Houston, RIP) and my lower self as simply, a Basic Ho. For example, when my Basic Ho is talking, she sounds like this: “Oh, I can’t do that. It’s too risky. I’ll probably fail and look stupid. Plus, it’s super scary. I should park my ass on the couch, have some wine and some cookie dough and let Netflix wash all over me until I forget I ever wanted to do that big, scary thing.” Whereas when my Whitney is talking, she’s all, “I’mmmm every womannnn. It’s all in meeeee. Anythang ya want…” you get the picture. My Basic Ho is crafty AF because she claims her whole goal is to avoid suffering. She is also very good at repressing emotions and blaming others. It operates from a sense of scarcity. It judges others. It is fueled by pure fear. It’s essentially the Fox news of your mind.
In order to get better physically, I had to figure out what needed healing mentally and emotionally. My first step was taking a good, hard look at how I was talking to myself. As it turns out, my Basic Ho sounded like a mixture of Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest and the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. You get the picture -it was way harsh. Now, this was news to me, this idea that I should be kind to myself. Prior to this, I had considered myself to be a fairly self-confident individual. Oh boy, was that wrong. You see, I had been mistaking self- confidence with self-compassion. If someone had asked me last year if I loved myself I’d probably say “Yeah, sure. I’m alright.” But, lying in bed for the 3rd month in a row, clouded with mental fog, feeling sick in my body, I did not love myself, not even a little. It turns out I was only nice to me when I was being productive, successful, active, etc. It turns out my love for myself was purely conditional. This was a hard pill to swallow because it meant changing who I was at a very deep level. We can get away with a lot of self-harm when there is only the audience of us. But, I had to change; I had to learn to love myself unconditionally. This meant rewiring a lifetime of programming. The only way out was in which meant I was about to go spelunking in my soul. One arrow is enough.
Noble Faceplam #3: Deal with your shit before it deals with you.
There is one positive side to pain. Pain demands to be felt. Pain exists to get our attention. I vividly recall laying on my couch on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October sobbing, rocking back and forth, writhing in pain because I was so furious that I was too sick to leave the house. I had been bedridden for almost 3 weeks. I pictured my friends out having an epic Sunday Funday, sitting in a bathtub full of champagne laughing and enjoying their glorious lives. I cursed my stupid body and my stupid adrenal glands for walking off the job. I proceed to, in full-blown Lt. Dan style, offer to throw down with any deity willing to step up to the plate. “This is my life and I will fight like hell to get it back. Who wants a piece of this?”
I was basically shooting a military-grade semi-automatic assault rifle (which civilians do not need to own, btw), full of arrows at myself. I had turned my pain into the Coachella of suffering. Granted, tons of people have been through much worse and I have tremendous empathy and love for those who have. The problem here was my thinking. I wanted to “fight” to get better when what I need to do was surrender. Suppressing our inner cries for help does not stop our stress hormones from mobilizing in the body. So the practice I needed to master was not to fight or suppress my emotions, but acknowledge them, cradle them and then let them go. Most of us were not raised like this and it’s not as if we are taught it in school. I had to learn to allow my emotions to come and go. Emotions are meant to move through us. We were never meant to dwell in them. Think of how a baby experiences emotions. The emotions come, they cry, they scream, then a second later they laugh and smile, they make a cute poopy. It’s natural. They do not obsess or judge themselves. They simply feel it and get on with their day.
Noble Facepalm #4: Everyone in your life is a mirror.
Ugh. I really struggled with this one, which means I probably really needed to learn this lesson. The people that make us angry, that we dislike the most, probably represent something in us that we don’t like about ourselves. This one really irked me because my Basic Ho self was especially good at, and comfortable with, blaming others. Shame researcher, Brene Brown, defines blame as the ” discharging of pain.” It’s never about someone else. And, it’s actually counterproductive when you think about it because blaming others gives them control over your emotions. Anger is just hurt and hurt is just fear. People who make us the angriest are our most important teachers. How you ask? Because they indicate the limits of our capacity to forgive. When you hold on to a grudge or grievance it only diminishes you. Being angry with another person is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. When we lash out in anger it always ends in shame. Angry thoughts make an angry body and angry bodies don’t function so well. This was a long and difficult lesson to learn. In the end, you forgive not for them, but for you.
Nobel Facepalm #5: Food is medicine.
One of the keys to my recovery was food. Food is healthcare. Medicine is sick-care. My first step in healing my body physically was removing any food or substance that taxed my adrenals which included caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, joy, etc. My integrative doctor gave me an allergy test and found out that I had been allergic to dairy, coffee, chicken, tomato, wheat, corn and, wait for it, chocolate. I looked at my doctor with tears in my eyes and said “But, I’m…Italian.” Now, I realize that being allergic to brunch is such a first world problem, but this made it hard to eat. Latent food allergies are pretty common with Adrenal Fatigue and can wreak havoc on your system. In the end, doing my best to avoid these foods made me feel so much better.
One day I walked in one of LA’s 30,000 juice bars and grabbed a non-dairy milky option without looking at the price. The millennial cashier, with the ironic Golden Girls glasses and torn flannel, told me it would be $12:50.
A person in Liberia would have to work in a mine for a week to make enough money to pay for 10 ounces of this designer juice.
“ $12.50 seems crazy,” I said.
“It’s one our nutmilks,” said the girl, dripping with ennui.
“ What is it… Cashew Cocaine?” She was not amused. LA takes its juice very seriously.
Facepalm #6: Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.
About six months after the body slam I finally returned to yoga class. Now, I was no yogi but I did have a practice and it was important to me and, like all activity, was very hard to lose. Now, there’s nothing like sitting in skin-tight athleisurewear in a room full of mirrors that is heated to 107 degrees. It’s especially hard in LA where half of the women are starving themselves and taking three hot-yoga-crossfit-barre-spin-lates classes in order to achieve the muscle tone of their Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Sidenote: The classes in LA can be so ridiculous. I mean, there’s a place where you can pay 30 bucks to jump around in a literal sandbox . Dude, go to the beach. That’s like Chicago having a class where you can pay to scrape ice off of a windshield… indoors. I wouldn’t be surprised if LA class pass featured a class where you ride a stationary bike whilst fighting off a homeless person with a shake weight.
It was hard looking at myself after what 6 months in bed had done to my body. My Basic Ho immediately wanted to throw in her two cents “ Ugh, gross, look at you. Those aren’t pants, they’re sausage casings”. Then I did something I had never done before- I recorded over that ho with a loving message: “ Isn’t it wonderful you feel good enough to be here? You look great for someone who has been feeling so sick. Try your best but don’t push it. ” Treating myself with kindness was a huge milestone for me. Being loving to yourself is not narcissism, it’s necessary. It doesn’t matter if you are a billionaire, ultra-marathoner with 9,000,000 Instagram disciples- you cannot be well unless you treat yourself with kindness.
Noble Facepalm #7: Feed your good wolf.
This noble facepalm is brought to you by the Cherokee Nation.
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.
“One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Oh, and water is life. Duh.
It’s March 24, 2017 and I am happy to report that I am at about 80% battery life. I’m eternally grateful to my wife, Karen, who took care of me every step of the way. I am blown away by her patience, kindness and dance moves on the regular. I feel free of many of that crutches upon which I had leaned so heavily. I am aware of the physical, mental, and emotional stress that caused my sickness. There is plenty of work left to be done. In the end, it’s an inside job and it all comes down to me and my Basic Ho. This time, I’m not going to fight her; I going to let her go. As for my Whitney… I will always love you.
Photo Credit Brigid Gallagher Photography