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Treethanasia

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“I have a tree, which grows here in my close, that mine own use invites me to cut down, and shortly must I fell it…” ~William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, V, i)

A few days ago I had to have a huge shade tree in my backyard cut down.  Not just pruned, but completely cut down.  I still feel pretty bad about it so I thought writing about it might ease my timbering guilt a little.  This is the tale of its treethanasia in pictures.

My house is almost 30 years old; I’m pretty sure the tree, a Bradford Pear, was planted when the house was built or shortly thereafter, because all the arborists who looked at it for me (to assess its health and give me bids on taking it down) told me they estimated its age at 25-30 years.  All of them also said it was at the end of its life span, that Bradfords rarely (and/or safely) make it past that age.  Here’s a picture of it at its full shady glory in my backyard:

IMG_5522It provided a huge canopy of welcome shade for the walkway on the side of my house and a large portion of my backyard ever since I moved in 4 years ago.  It also protected me from some rain when going back and forth to my flower shed.  The tallest part of it was easily twice as tall as my house.  I liked the dark glen it provided to look at outside my windows on that side of the house.IMG_5521As much as I liked the shade, I was equally very frustrated by its continual leaf drop seemingly twelve months out of the year, covering the porch and backyard in leaf litter and clogging my rain gutters, leading to muck and mosquitos.  Branches would rub against the roof and chimney, waking me up during windstorms and allowing creatures such as armadillos and squirrels an easy route to ramble along the roof whenever they wanted.

IMG_5524But then in the fall, it would redeem itself with an explosion of color for a short while, leaving a pool of nature’s confetti to slush through.

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IMG_0304I’ve learned over the past few months that Bradfords are very rapidly-growing trees and because of this, they often grow with many points of instability.  They split into many different joints and trunks and because of this, water and leaves pool in the wells in-between those joints and trunks, causing rot and weakness.  They are often the first trees to fall and/or split during wind or rain storms, especially as they get older like my tree was.  I learned this the hard way a few months ago, when this happened:

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IMG_5193A huge portion of the tree just split at the ground level and fell crashing through the fence into the neighbor’s yard (onto their porch roof).  It was several days before I could get some guys to come remove that part of the tree and repair the fence.  They painted the open-faced wound with “tree scar” tar to try to prevent it from rotting further, but they told me that eventually the whole tree would probably have to come down.

About two months and an arkful of Austin rainstorms later, I noticed a disgusting oozing amber gel-like substance on the other huge tree in my backyard, a pecan tree.  All the arborists who came to look at it said it was a harmless jelly fungus due to all the rain, but they also all pointed out that the Bradford was in imminent danger of now falling again, and that this time it was going to fall onto my roof and house because all the weight was now on that one side.

So, a few weeks later I found a company that would cut the tree down for a reasonable price.  On the morning of its imminent demise, before the worker guys showed up, I went outside to put my hands on its trunk; it was a living thing that had survived several decades, and I felt guilty that I was the one taking away its livingness.  Maybe I should have felt silly saying “I’m sorry, tree,” but instead I just felt sad.  (I knew however that I’d be much sadder if and when it fell on my house and I had to shell out an even bigger sum for my home insurance deductible, so it had to be done.)

The tree guys showed up and didn’t waste any time.  One guy harnessed himself high up in the tree and started cutting branches, which quickly covered the yard and porch; the other two guys would use their own chainsaws to cut the branches down even further and drag them out to the trailer behind their truck.

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Can you see him there in the middle of the tree?

IMG_5528It went pretty quickly after that.  I tried not to watch but I couldn’t look away.  I figured I was the one ending its life…I might as well document it and be there to face it.  The chainsaw whittling continued and the tree got stubbier and thinner.  More and more of the green part of the tree disappeared each few minutes.

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IMG_5533Until finally all the green was gone and only branches were left.

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IMG_5536And then only the bottom of the trunk remained.  When he cut into it horizontally for the very last cut at ground level, part of the huge trunk split in two vertically on its own, that’s how weak it was at its lowest level.  I had made the right decision; it really was on its last legs.

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This part of the trunk sat there for a long time while everything else was cleaned up. I felt a great sense of loss.

30 years of growing into the skies had now been reduced to a large leafy pile in a trailer to be hauled away.

IMG_5541And what was left was a large empty spot, a blank fence, and…sunshine.  So much sun, shining down on my two Mountain Laurel trees and ground jasmine that probably haven’t seen or felt true sunshine like that in decades.  And sun shining through my windows, making my house lighter than it’s ever been.

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IMG_5543I know it was just a tree, and that it didn’t have a brain or nerve endings so it couldn’t feel pain, but did it somehow know that its life was coming to an end?  I don’t know…I also don’t know why I’m worrying about this, I should just be annoyed that this tree has cost me about 40 times what someone probably paid for it back when it was planted.  It had a good life.  And life does go on, from the dark into the light.

IMG_5517And as I sit here writing this, streams of sunlight are shining in my eyes through the window for the first time.  It’s nice.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Shunning Sugar

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“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked!” ~William Shakespeare (Henry IV, Part I, II, iv)

Today is day six of my annual April sugar fast.  Well, almost annual.  For some unknown reason that I can’t really remember now, I started this 30-day torture-fest the first April I was here in Austin, in 2010, and continued it again in April 2011 and 2012.  However April 2013 fell at the most miserable point of my most miserable job of all time, and I remember feeling that I was on such the edge of a breaking point that denying myself certain creature comforts that happened to contain sugar really could have pushed me over that edge (so no fast that year).  April 2014 also escaped the fast; I guess I just didn’t see the point, or maybe it was just a low-willpower year, I can’t really recall.

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My April enemy.

But here we are one year later and I decided to give it another go.  The rules of the sugar fast have changed somewhat throughout the years…the first year, it was simply to avoid any and all foods that had the word “sugar” in the ingredient list on the food label.  I wasn’t very savvy then about other forms and wording of sugar that food manufacturers were using and so I’m sure some evaporated cane crystals slipped through the fasting cracks.  I also allowed myself any artificial sweeteners that first year, as well as honey.  The main focus was avoiding added, refined sugar.

The second and third years, I did my research and made a list of several dozen names for sugars and sugar alcohols that can be found on nutrition labels, and avoided any foods with them as well.  I also cut out artificial sweeteners but made a sole sweet allowance for honey, as it is a completely natural sweetener source.  But now I’ve given honey up as well because of its extreme acidity (the dietary regime streams have been crossed).  I do allow myself melons, pears, and plantains, which contain naturally-occurring fruit sugar.  Otherwise no added, refined, or artificial sugar of any kind at any time for 30 days.

It’s hard.  It’s really hard.  Going on the pre-fast grocery shopping trip is always a little depressing.  You have no idea how many everyday foods contain sugar in their ingredient list.  Try finding bread without sugar – bread, which for no good reason should even contain sugar, but 99% of the options do.  The only bread I’ve found that doesn’t have it is sourdough, or you can make your own sugarless variety.  The only breakfast cereals that don’t have sugar of any kind are Shredded Wheat and Fiber One, both of which are akin to eating bite-sized tree branches.  Read the label of that milk or peanut butter or salad dressing or yogurt or spaghetti sauce you just bought; chances are they also contain some form of sugar.  Even many kinds of pretzels and crackers have sugar in them, which is just ridiculous but not surprising that the packaged food industry has added that addiction factor to even the least-suspecting foods – to get us hooked and then keep us coming back for more.

It’s the first seven days or so of the fast that are really the toughest, waiting for the sugar cravings to subside (which are very real…I either have to throw out or stuff way back in the unseeable part of the pantry anything with sugar, because if it’s just sitting around then it’s too tempting).  I really miss my morning tea with milk and sugar.  I buy and eat a lot of plain roasted nuts during the fast, since they are high-protein and fill me up for a long time (I miss my vanilla-roasted almonds though, yes they have sugar in their coating).  I eat more vegetables and fruits during the fast than I normally do, and always hope the habit will last past the fast but for some reason it never quite does.  I also tend to overcompensate with salty foods during the fast, so I’m working on balancing that out as well.

I suppose I do this sugar fast in hopes that it will somehow cleanse my system, a mini-detox and healthy shock to the system.  It’s not like I go overboard during the other 11 months, I’m not eating mountains of chocolate bars in search of the golden ticket; I actually am usually pretty controlled when it comes to avoiding downward sugar spirals.  I seriously can’t remember the last time I had a donut or a milkshake or a soda or even real ice cream; it’s not that I don’t like them, of course I do, I guess it’s just the nutrition degree in me (and the propensity for those calories to be instantly turned into jiggly pounds and artery-clogging solids) that keeps me away from them most of the time.  I do allow myself indulgences when not on the sugar fast – I love Twizzlers licorice, and a perfect mug of rich hot chocolate on a cold night is one of the definitions of happiness, I’m pretty sure.  But it’s those hidden and unsuspecting sources of sugar that we eat every day all the time even in “regular” foods that also cause some damage, and so cutting them out for a solid month has to be a good thing, right?

I also do the 30-day sugar fast just for the challenge of it.  I dread it when it’s time to start, but I like the feeling that I’m still capable of doing something tough and out of my comfort zone (yes I know it’s all relative).  They say it takes 21 days to either solidly form or break a habit, so I could cut it off at three weeks and be done with it.  But somehow those extra nine days of added deprivation really make a difference.  After the fast is over I feel like I’ve really accomplished something, and have proven something to myself.  Just surviving those 30 seconds of a Hershey bar commercial on TV (without then running full speed to the store to get one, or ten) is a victory in itself.  Shouldn’t we all do something from time to time to shake up our routines and remind us what we’re capable of so that we can then celebrate our determination and perseverance?

And I know this is pretty much a first-world endeavor, going on a sugar fast.  I’ve lived in a place before where people had very little to eat, surviving literally on only what they could grow or hunt or find or scavenge, and they would’ve been grateful for anything in the way of food whether it had sugar in it or not.  We’re so spoiled for choice and easy access in America – and we’re sadly so used to accepting empty sugar-to-fat calories that food manufacturers put in virtually everything – that we’re slowly and literally eating and drinking ourselves to death as a nation.  It’s possible to re-train our palates, but it’s not easy.

Well.  I’m off to go “enjoy” my bowl of non-frosted shredded wheat now.  Those of you enjoying your Lucky Charms or Cocoa Krispies, please spare a thought for me.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Cocoa Lamentations

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“To be forbod the sweets that seem so good, for fear of harms that preach in our behoof.” ~William Shakespeare (A Lover’s Complaint)

It’s been over four months now since I last had any chocolate.  I can’t ever remember that happening in my life, ever.  Even when I was in the middle-of-nowhere Africa in the Peace Corps, I could find chocolate cookies or make a chocolate cake in my dutch oven or I’d get chocolate chip energy bars in my care packages from home every so often.  I’ve done sugar fasts for a month at a time when chocolate was off the menu, but after the month was up, I could indulge again.  And no, I haven’t developed an allergy to chocolate – I’ve voluntarily eliminated it from my diet because it’s pretty much at the top of the acidic foods list and therefore a major red flag for my no-acid regime that I’ve been instructed to follow by my doctor .

I’m pretty cranky about it.

Like most rational people in the world, I love chocolate.  One of my nephews told me once that he doesn’t like chocolate and I looked at him like he was an alien from another planet.  Not like chocolate?  How is that even humanly possible?  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the chocolate concoctions that I miss the most, even though it’s a form of self-torture:

  • My mom’s hot fudge brownie cake (a gooey warm pile of chocolate indulgence);
  • Plain M&Ms mixed with white cheddar Smartfood popcorn (sweet & salty perfection that got me through every college all-nighter study session);
  • A steaming hot mug of creamy hot chocolate with marshmallows (comfort in a cup);
  • Warm chocolate chunk cookies right out of the oven;
  • Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Miniatures (cold & crisp out of the refrigerator);
  • Dove salted caramel dark chocolate squares (these should be illegal);
  • Dove chocolate ice cream bars (yes there’s a Dove pattern here);
  • Pain au chocolate (the best French invention ever, a croissant with chocolate inside).
Sweet samples from my Chocolate Tour of London last summer. (*sob*)

Sweet samples from my Chocolate Tour of London last summer. (*sob*)

I can’t bear to think of any more examples.  The other day I had to buy several pounds (yes pounds) worth of chocolate for a work event that I was hosting: brownie bites, Snickers, M&Ms (yes students will attend any event with free chocolate, and no I don’t feel bad about bribing them with sugar, they can eat healthy once they graduate)…the smell alone emanating from my bag as I carried it to the event was enough to elicit a distinct Pavlovian response from my salivary glands.  I stared at the students as they ate their chocolate in innocent bliss, feeling incredibly envious (and hating them just a little bit).

Sweet elixir.

Sweet elixir.

I know it’s healthier for me to not eat chocolate, I know that in my mind…and I know I’m lucky that this is a voluntary choice and not something more serious that is literally forcing me to not eat it…but my subconscious that dreams of swimming in a chocolate river is telling me that this substance brings me joy in some form or fashion and that I really, really miss it.  Almost as much as I miss cheese.  And peanut butter.  And chocolate WITH peanut butter, I forgot to put that on the list, that’s a good one.  (And don’t get me started on cheese…)

Someone last week told me “I’m sure it would be fine if you just had one little piece of chocolate once a week or every other week.”  What they don’t know is that I’m actually afraid now of trying that – I’m pretty sure that one piece would unlock the fudge flood gates and I’d then be drowning in an ocean of Oreos.  Hey, that’s going to make for a pretty good dream tonight!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

Steady As She Went

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 “Quiet yourselves, I pray, and be at peace.” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry VI, IV, i)

I was just re-reading a few of my posts from this past year.  I didn’t write as many of them as I’d hoped, as I originally set out to make this a weekly blog.  But some weeks there just didn’t seem to be anything of import to write about, and I felt better once I lifted the expectation off of myself and just wrote instead when I felt like it (I also am happy to report I finally replaced my ID bracelet tag that used to read “Practice Makes Perfect,” so that expectation is now not always staring me in the face either).  Re-reading my posts from a year ago also reinforced the sensation of time passing at warp-speed – who was it that said the older you get, the faster time passes? 

Looking back on 2014, it was mostly a “steady-as-she-goes” year, I’d say.  The high point would definitely have to be my trip back to England during the summer – a solo sojourn around ancestral lands and a Yorkshire depart that gave me memories to last a lifetime.  The low points have been several months worth of annoying and nagging illness that I’ve already written about, so I won’t rehash it here, but feeling not-great for six months out of the year (or more) is not something I hope to repeat. 

A return to the mother land in 2014.

A return to the mother land in 2014.

The biggest change of 2014 for me was the self-imposed drastically revised diet that I’ve undertaken in order to improve my health; I’m still trying to get used to it and after three months, it’s still pretty difficult.  I used to love food and looked forward to a satisfying breakfast or a fun weekend treat…but now eating just seems more of a necessary chore, with not much joy in it at all unfortunately.  My revised regime is low-acid, low-fat, no-caffeine, no-tannins; this means very little tasty is left.  Not allowed is anything containing citrus or citric acid; tomato base of any kind; onions or garlic; carbonated drinks; cheese; chocolate; 99% of teas; anything with a cream base; the list goes on.  I’ve even had to give up most fruits except for melons and pears, and no juices are allowed.  I haven’t had one bite of pizza or chocolate or cheese, Mexican or Italian food, ice cream, queso, anything spicy, etc, for over 3 months now.  Office potlucks and family dinners have become uncomfortable and depressing.  Going out to eat is near impossible – so much is cooked with something that I can’t have. 

The good news is that these diet changes, along with my medication and lifestyle changes, are making a difference I believe – slowly but surely I have been feeling better, in terms of the symptoms I’d been having when all of this started in August.  It also helped that President Obama was recently diagnosed with the same issue I’ve been having (silent/airway reflux, or LPR in medical terms = laryngopharyngeal reflux); it made it more real somehow, that it wasn’t just a made-up thing I’d invented for myself. 

Getting back to the year in review – I think what was really most comforting about this year was the fact that despite some health issues and my ever-increasing debt burden, things stayed pretty steady for me this year.  I didn’t have to quit a job, or go through the stress of looking for a new one.  I like where I work at my part-time job, the people there are nice and I feel confident in my abilities.  It only pays about half the bills but it’s so nice to have an enjoyable job for a change.  Things on the flower front with my business have been pretty slow this year, but I’m not letting that stress me out too much yet.  I’ve had a few flower jobs here and there and I hope to grow the business in 2015 even further.

To that end, I branched out just a little from the actual floral design part of the business to start offering a side item:  floral art note cards.  I enjoy taking pictures of flowers, both ones that I work with when I design but also floral nature scenes or garden scenery seen on my travels.  I like editing my pictures with photo software to make them really pop, and wanted to share them with others in some fashion – so I decided note cards might be a good way to do that.  I started an online handmade craft shop through Etsy, where a LOT of other people also showcase and sell their handmade wares, it’s a great site.  If you’re so inclined, please pop over to have a look at my card designs, I’d be very grateful:  www.Etsy.com/shop/MuchAdoAboutFlowers.

(Here are a few examples of some of my designs:)

iris

“Blue and Blue” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

hydrangea

“Shades of Hydrangea” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

"Pink Hydrangea" Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

“Pink Hydrangea” Note Cards, image © Much Ado About Flowers

I’m grateful that 2014 was also relatively calm and steady for most of my family members, although there were some bitter personal disappointments and some extended family health concerns that are still being dealt with.  The nephews are growing up so fast – with each new week they have gone through another change or struggle or triumph, and it’s interesting to watch.  I think 2015 may be a much choppier year in terms of waves of change for all of us in my little family circle, and I hope we’re able to handle it without too much stress.

And now I’m off to a quiet, and I hope peaceful, holiday here at home.  No travels for me this year (don’t want to add to that debt).  If you’re traveling I hope you have a safe journey, and thanks for continuing to follow me along in my UNunhappy meandering over the past year.  Wherever you are during this holiday season, I hope you also can find a little quite and peaceful time for yourself as well.   

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

LLTMN #5: Courage

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“You are gentlemen of brave metal; you would lift the moon out of her sphere, if she would continue in it five weeks without changing.” ~William Shakespeare (The Tempest, II, i)

[This post is the fifth installment in the series I call “Life Letters to My Nephews,” or LLTMN.]

Hi boys!  I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last LLTMN post, time flies!  Anyway, today I want to talk to you about the concept of courage.  About what it means to face your fears and be brave even when you might be really scared or not sure about something.  Right now when you’re still really young, I suppose it’s pretty easy to be brave about a lot of things…the concept of consequences isn’t quite as daunting as it is when you start getting older.  Bravery and courage are masked by the badges of innocence and naivety when we’re young and for a while, it’s exhilarating.  

But as you start to get older, courage will probably start to become more complicated.  Grown-up feelings like doubt, worry and fear start to crowd out the room for courage sometimes.  And yet it’s those times when we feel worried and scared and doubtful that we most need to be courageous.  It’s not easy to be brave!

Luckily you have many examples of other courageous people in your life to follow.  Here’s one: just two weeks ago, your Dad (my brother) did a very brave and courageous thing that most people will never do – he ran for public office to try to make our city a better place.  For many months prior to election day, he bravely knocked on the doors of thousands of strangers and put himself out there in the public eye during untold numbers of candidate forums, interviews, and debates.  He had the courage to express his opinion on all different kinds of issues, knowing full well that many people might not agree with him.  This is not easy!

He did the best he could and worked really hard, but as you know he didn’t win the race.  We were proud of him but of course he was very disappointed; it’s really tough when you muster up all your courage and hopes into something and that something doesn’t happen.  And then it takes even more courage to pick up the pieces and keep going, which might be the most important part of the entire experience.  Let your courage carry you through a sad or bad situation; it will seem awful at the time, but how you react and what you do to get through it will help shape you for the future.

You have more family examples of courage too.  You have great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents who fought in actual wars – I guess that’s sort of the quintessential kind of courage that we all think of.  They fought in ground trenches and airplanes and traveled across oceans to be part of an effort to keep our country and the world safe and stable.  Their bravery took them away from their homes and their families and they didn’t know if they’d ever get to come back.

Sometimes the courage is a more quiet kind, but the battles are just as important; the courage to fight a serious disease (or help someone else who is), or move to a new city to start a new life, or just to try something new that will make you a happier person.  Even just being your own person takes courage – raising your hand in class when you know the answer (even though other kids may not think that’s cool), or standing up for someone who’s being bullied…that takes a LOT of courage.  Along the way, be sure to beware of courage’s crazy cousin: blind courage.  Blind courage is pretty much leaping before you look – it feels like courage but without the forethought of where you’ll be once you land…if you land.  Real courage has a behind-the-scenes parachute that comes with it – a feeling that you’re doing the right thing, whatever that may be.

Courage also comes in all different forms and shapes and time frames.  Sometimes you might have to muster up your courage for a very long time if you’re going through something really tough that lasts for what seems like forever; other times, you might only need it for a few minutes to just get through a particular fleeting moment.  How much courage you actually have inside you can be surprising…just when you think you might be out of courage, more appears as if by magic. 

Courage often seems to be a kind of magic, come to think of it.  It’s a very powerful thing, courage; sometimes people think that courage itself needs something extra, and so they do things that they believe will “help their courage along.”  But you yourself – the person you are and the strength inside you – is the most important determination of your courage factor.  And it’s also ok to be scared – everyone gets scared of something at some time.  There’s no shame in that – even for boys and men!  But when you feel like you’re too scared to do something that is really important – well, then that’s when you dig deep into that “suitcase of courage” to get you to the finish line (or just through the day!).

Twainquote

And if you ever need help with finding that courage, or just a shoulder to lean on while you’re looking for it, then know that I’ll be here for you during those times. 

Always.

Love,

Ant Kristi

ant-with-flower

Big Changes for Better Health

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 “Tis not so sweet now as it was before.” ~William Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, I, i)

I’ve been dealing with a health issue for the past few months.  Actually it started many years ago, but has just exacerbated recently.  Before I go any farther, let me just say that I realize many people out there are going through far worse challenges than me – physically, emotionally, financially…one of my former college roommates is going through an extremely tough time right now, having had a liver transplant and then a complete bowel removal & reconstructive surgery (we’re pulling for you my friend!).  A family member of ours has been battling breast cancer & resulting complications for a few years now, and a dear family friend’s father is also waging war on cancer.  My problems seem so minute in the light of situations like that, so I do try to keep it all in perspective.  But maybe talking about my issues can help someone else out there, and it also helps me to just talk about it and get it out there instead of bottling it all up inside.

“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”  I used to say that all the time to my chronically ill patients when I was a health counselor for a disease management company.  And it’s true – everything in life is secondary to the breaths we take over and over every minute of every day.  Without them, we are nothing and we can do nothing.  It was during my second year with that disease management company that I was told I had either asthma or RAD, or reactive airway disease.  I started seeing a pulmonologist (lung doctor); I went through all the tests and started taking several medications to help me breathe better.  I went to the emergency room once, not really for an actual asthma attack but because of unfamiliar feelings of chest tightness and shortness of breath.

About a year prior to that, and just after getting home from Africa and the Peace Corps, I started having acid reflux problems (GERD = gastroesophageal reflux disease).  I rarely had the typical heartburn, but instead I had constant throat clearing (especially after eating) and I woke up a few times in the middle of the night feeling like I was choking and couldn’t get any air (which is extremely scary, but temporary due to a laryngeal spasm caused by acid splashing up into the airway junction).  I started seeing a gastroenterologist (GI doctor) and also went through all the tests for that issue, including endoscopy, a stomach-emptying test, and 24-hour pH monitoring (I only made it 12 hours though before I had to rip the very uncomfortable tube out of my nose and throat). I was told after my endoscopy that I had significant reflux and a small hiatal hernia but that it “wasn’t a problem.”  I’ve also been told I just have “bad reflux genes,” and it’s true I guess, as both my parents have had GERD issues for a very long time.

Over the past decade I’ve been on four or five different reflux medications, and as long as I’ve been on them, those symptoms were held in check.  Eventually my breathing issues also subsided and I no longer needed the airway medications.  However at no time in all those years did any doctor tell me that the two issues – GERD and shortness of breath/asthma – could be related.  No doctor ever told me that taking the GERD medications (called PPIs, or proton pump inhibitors) for years and years at a time could lead to other serious side effects.  And no doctor ever told me that certain foods, drinks and medications could make my GERD worse over the years by weakening my lower esophageal sphincter (LES), allowing my hiatal hernia to get worse, therefore aggravating both the GERD and the asthma.  I had to figure out all of that on my own.

But I didn’t do that figuring out for many years.  For a long time, I just took my daily PPI medication, and ate and drank whatever I wanted without any health symptoms at all – either with GERD or asthma.  And while I wasn’t having any symptoms, I did gain weight, which also didn’t help things.  I’d lost 50 pounds before and just after moving to Austin, but over the past few years I’ve gained 20 of that back.  And then about two years ago, I started having these weird periodic shortness-of-breath episodes where I couldn’t yawn properly or seem to get all the breath in or out at different times. 

These episodes would last a week, maybe two, and they never felt like actual asthma.  It was better at night, with the shortness of breath worse during the day and especially after a big meal.  And then it would just improve and go away, for many months at a time usually.  This happened a few times over the past two years, and I had convinced myself that it was a cyclical thyroid issue.  Shortness of breath can be a symptom of hypothyroidism, and since I had a few other signs as well, I just thought that’s what it was.  I did go to my general doctor a time or two when it happened, but my thyroid tests came out normal; so did iron, so it wasn’t anemia apparently either.

I hadn’t had an episode in quite some time, but a mere two weeks after I got back from my England trip this past summer, it started again – on August 4th.  At first it was just like the previous episodes; it wasn’t that bad, and it would come and go.  A few weeks later it seemed to be gone and I was feeling good again; in fact, I’d started to slowly start running again on the treadmill instead of just walking, interspersing the two.  And then on August 26th, I did a strenuous run on the treadmill, running for a longer distance than I had in a very long time, years even.  And I’ve been paying for that run ever since.  I had what felt like actual asthma starting that same day after that run, my shortness of breath got much worse, and it hasn’t really let up since then. 

I think this is what happened: over the past many years I’ve been eating and drinking many things that have weakened my LES.  I think the trip to England this summer may have been one of the final straws, I drank so much tea on that trip, and tea (even decaf) is one of the main items that weaken the LES (it’s the tannins, which is also why coffee is very bad for reflux).  Then during that strenuous run, I think I jarred my hiatal hernia through that weakened LES and jammed it up into my esophagus and through my diaphragm (where it’s not supposed to be).  When a part of your stomach is sticking up where it’s not supposed to, it leads to even more reflux (which I definitely started having after that run on the 26th, lots of regurgitation) and pressure on your diaphragm and lungs and heart, making breathing difficult.  I think those multiple periodic episodes over the past few years was a precursor of things to come, maybe the hernia is a sliding one and was self-correcting, until this time it just couldn’t. 

I also think I might be having another type of GERD, called LPR (laryngopharyngeal reflux), which is when you reflux all the way up into your throat either at night or during the day; when this happens, the acid and pepsin enzyme particles can make it into your airways, your sinuses, and even your ear canals.  The pepsin attaches itself to those areas, and can be re-activated over and over by any acidic food or drink, leading to more symptoms.  Those symptoms can include coughing, hoarseness, burning in throat, postnasal drip, congestion, throat clearing, shortness of breath, and many others. 

I did see a new gastroenterologist here in Austin, after not needing one for five years.  I told him all of my symptoms and told him I really hoped he could help me, that I’d been struggling for breath for weeks and had gone through more asthma inhalers than ever before (but that they weren’t helping usually).  He took the predictable (and disappointing) approach of just treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem, and told me to take an increased dose of my GERD medicine twice a day, and that losing some weight would probably help.  He didn’t order a new endoscopy or any other tests but I plan to ask him for them at the next visit to confirm my suspicions above and see if the hiatal hernia needs to be repaired.  He also told me to see a pulmonologist to make sure it wasn’t just an asthma problem, so I did, and they ran all the same tests as a decade before.  The doctor there told me they did see some signs of inflammation and she put me on an anti-inflammatory asthma medication as a trial, to see if it would help, and she said that yes, it could be due to reflux.  She also said that they are starting to see a LOT of patients coming in with breathing issues related to their acid reflux problems.

I’d begun doing research on GERD and breathing issues for several weeks by this time, and was struggling not to let my health anxiety get the better of me (something I’ve dealt with for quite a while, you can read about it in a past post here).  After feeling dismissed and brushed off by the GI doctor, I decided to take my own action by implementing some serious changes in my diet and routine to try to eliminate most or all sources of acid and switch to alkaline items, in hopes that it would help and lead to better breathing and fewer reflux episodes.  To say this was a complete 180 would be an understatement.  In the course of a day or two, my diet changed radically.  I’ve also had to stop taking ibuprofen – which I’d been taking quite liberally over the past year (after not having taken it for five years before that); any anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or aspirin can weaken the LES significantly, making GERD and its complications much worse (which I’d somehow forgotten about).  (And in a vicious cruel circle for people with both asthma and GERD, most asthma medications can also weaken the LES, leading to worsened GERD, leading to worsened asthma.)

What did I stop eating & drinking?  Foods & drinks I haven’t had at all in the past month that I used to have either all the time or on a semi-regular basis:

  • Tea – chai or any black, green or mint tea, regular or decaf – including my favorites English Breakfast, Yorkshire & Peppermint
  • Gatorade or any other drink (or food) containing citric acid or ascorbic acid (including Vitamin C supplements and fruit/vegetable juices)
  • Chocolate or anything with chocolate in it (the theobromine weakens the LES)
  • Cheese of any kind
  • Peanut butter & peanuts
  • Pizza, Indian Food, Mexican food, fried foods, anything with any spice in it – everything good, basically
  • Anything with tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, peppers or garlic in it, or anything made with a cream sauce
  • Other fruits & vegetables: all citrus fruits, strawberries, pineapple, grapes, blueberries, blackberries, mango, cucumber, most corn products or anything with a corn product in it
  • Anything with mint in it (also weakens the LES): gum, breath mints w/peppermint or spearmint, my peppermint tea, etc.
  • Yogurt & other dairy products like ice cream and sour cream
  • All condiments: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, salad dressings, etc.

(About some items not on the list: I stopped drinking soda a few years ago, even diet soda, and I haven’t drank alcohol in years, but these two items also are at the very top of the reflux-causing list and should be considered off-limits for anyone with GERD or a weak LES [along with any carbonated drinks of any kind].  I don’t miss the alcohol at all but I sure do crave a good diet cherry vanilla diet Dr. Pepper every once in a while.  Some cravings are better left unsatisfied I guess…)

All of those items above either weaken the LES or are acidic in nature, and many are high-fat, which also contributes to reflux because they sit in the stomach longer.  The first week or so of not having any of the foods on the above list was pretty traumatic for me.  It’s been a month now since I’ve had any of them.  The last time I went one month without eating cheese of any kind was when I lived in Africa and it just wasn’t available – that was 13 years ago.  I have gone a month without eating chocolate before, during my self-imposed sugar-fasts I used to do each year in April since moving to Austin- but then as soon as the month was over, I knew I could go back to eating it.  It’s probably not going to be that way this time, and it’s pretty tough coming to terms with that.  At this time of the year, walking down the Halloween candy aisle is pure torture!

It’s very hard for me to imagine not having pizza again, or spicy Indian food (which I love), or peanut butter – which I’ve had almost every morning (on toast) for breakfast since high school, and that includes when I lived in Africa.  Life without chocolate or chips and queso from Torchy’s Tacos seems very empty and depressing indeed.  Grilled cheese & tomato soup on a cold winter’s day was the ultimate comfort, how can it be that I won’t have that again? Or cheese enchiladas with red chile?  I love all kinds of cheese, and I’m having a hard time imagining a future without it.

Walking by this at the store now makes me want to cry.

Walking by this at the store now makes me want to cry.  Seriously.

But perhaps the most difficult was having to give up tea.  I love tea, I collect teapots, I so enjoy the tea ritual in England – and how can I go to England again and not be able to drink their English Breakfast or Yorkshire or Earl Grey?  How will I get through my next cold or flu bug without a soothing cup of peppermint tea with honey?  I stopped going to Starbucks many months ago because it’s too expensive, but to not even have the option of getting their chai tea ever again? I did finally find a type of tea (after much research) that has neither caffeine or tannins (both of which cause reflux), called African Rooibus; it’s a red tea and not at all the same as the other teas I love, but it’s at least a warm cup of something.  (I can’t have chamomile or some other herbal teas due to their natural estrogenic properties, by the way.)

Glorious tea time, I shall miss you.

Glorious tea time, I shall miss you.

I know I’m healthier without the high-fat high-acid foods I was used to eating, but this is a big change that has thrown me for an emotional loop.  It’s got me pretty down, but I also feel pretty strong that I’ve been able to go a whole month so far without anything on that list above – not one piece of pizza or chocolate or cheese, not one spoonful of peanut butter.  I’ve lost eight pounds during the past month on this new regime, which doesn’t seem like a lot to me for the kinds of changes I’ve made, but I guess it’s a move in the right direction.  It shows me that it’s possible and that I can make these changes for the sake of my health.  Not being able to breathe very well is a pretty strong motivator.

So – if I cut out so much of my prior diet, what have I been eating & drinking?  Well, it’s been pretty limited:

  • Water – filtered and/or alkaline (alkaline water higher than pH 8.0 will deactivate pepsin particles)
  • African red rooibus tea
  • Almond milk, soy milk
  • Sweetener:  Honey
  • Proteins:  Almond butter, almonds, pumpkin seeds, tofu, egg whites, protein powder (in smoothies)
  • Rice (brown and white) with black-eyed peas and green peas
  • Rice cakes
  • Cereal – plain Cheerios, plain Rice Chex, plain Grape Nuts
  • Ancient grains bread, whole wheat tortillas, & whole wheat double protein English muffins
  • Snacks:  Oats & honey granola bars (made with only 7 natural ingredients), whole wheat pretzels, plain graham crackers
  • Fruit & Vegetables: Cantaloupe, pears, edamame, kale, avocado, potatoes (regular & sweet), salad (lettuce & carrots)

There aren’t many fruits on the alkaline foods list unfortunately – any melon is allowed, and pears, and sometimes raspberries.  Bananas are at the top of the good/alkaline list but their high potassium content gives me chest pain when I eat them, has for a long time, so I avoid them.  I’ve been eating a LOT of cantaloupe and pears lately; honeydew melon and watermelon would be ok too, but they’re pretty expensive right now.  Oatmeal is allowed as well, I just usually don’t have the time in the morning before work to prepare the slow-cooking kind, so I end up eating cereal and perhaps some egg whites with toast.  I cook a batch of rice with beans/peas, or roast some sweet potatoes, and that’s what I take to work for lunch most days.  Dinner is often a smoothie and some cereal or a rice cake with almond butter, or some more rice or potatoes.  It may seem like a high-starch diet, but apparently whole grains and starches are actually very good for reflux issues from what I’ve read.  (And for you non-vegetarians out there, there are other protein options on the alkaline list.)

Following this new diet did not bring me a ton of relief in the first few weeks, but I’d heard it could take a while to re-set the internal digestive system.  I had to think it was making some kind of positive difference to avoid all the “bad” acidic foods and eating much smaller portion sizes and meals, but although the regurgitation reflux was getting slightly better, I was still having significant shortness of breath, especially after eating anything more than a handful of food.  And then, three weeks after seeing the gastroenterologist MD and starting the twice daily medication, I bought some digestive enzymes at Whole Foods that I’d seen someone mention in a GERD/LPR Facebook forum.  I took the first two enzyme capsules with dinner that night, and within an hour I noticed a pretty significant difference – my shortness of breath was reduced after eating and for most of the rest of the night.

I’ve been taking the enzymes now for about 10 days.  As long as I take them when I eat, I don’t have the same degree of shortness of breath I was having before.  I do still feel it sometimes (it seems to get worse at the end of the day), but now it just seems to be there under the surface rather than a constant and conscious effort for each breath, like it was before.  I suspect that because of being on the PPIs for so long, my own stomach enzymes have been inhibited and I’ve lost much of the ability to digest my food.  So when I would eat, my food would just sit in my stomach for hours at a time, undigested, and pressing up against my hiatal hernia and the adjacent opened, weak LES, regurgitating back into my esophagus and even higher.  Then I’d eat my next meal and the meal from earlier was probably still sitting in there.  (I already knew I had very slow stomach emptying from the GI tests I had a decade ago.)  The enzymes are seemingly aiding with digestion (I had a very uncomfortable “cleansing” GI effect the first few days I took them), but they’re not doing anything to help or fix the hiatal hernia or weak LES – that is still the underlying problem, I believe. 

I am also still waking up most nights after a few hours of sleep with the feeling that I’m not getting enough air, and that I’m breathing shallowly (with my chest rather than with my diaphragm/belly) through my congested nose – I believe this is due to reflux still happening at night and getting into my airway, even though I’m sleeping on a wedge pillow (specially made for reflux) and I eat no later than 4 hours before I go to bed (which means I eat dinner very early and then have a growling hungry stomach again by the time I try to go to sleep). I’ve also had to try to get used to sleeping on my left side, which due to the position of the stomach leads to less nighttime reflux, when for most of my life I’ve been a right-sided sleeper.

I think that as long as I have the hiatal hernia which is forcing my LES open, I’ll have issues and symptoms (if that is indeed the problem).  I can manage it somewhat by following the low-acid and low-fat diet and behaviors as I mentioned above, but I’m not sure what else to do other than pursue surgery to fix the hernia, and I just don’t know if that’s the best option or not.  Then there is the issue of the PPI medication – which I feel is doing more harm than good, but with my “bad reflux genes,” am I ever going to be able to stop taking it?  I hope I can someday, and hopefully soon. 

GERD is an extremely common health issue in the US, with apparently every third person having it in some form or other.  You can’t watch more than a few minutes of TV without being pelted with PPI commercials.  It’s not insignificant, as it can lead to esophageal cancer, which is currently the most rapidly-growing cancer type in the country.  What’s even scarier is that PPI use tends to just address symptoms and not the causes of GERD, so that someone could still be refluxing for years and not even know it, but all the while still suffering damage to the esophagus and other tissues.  PPIs don’t stop all acid production in the stomach, but they do limit absorption of certain nutrients (leading to possible deficiencies like magnesium and B12) and inhibit digestive processes.

Well.  I guess that’s enough talk for now about stomach valves and hernias and breathing and acid vs. alkaline.  I wish I didn’t have the need to know all this.  Everything now seems to revolve around when I eat and what I eat and not eating too much and scheduling my activities around mealtimes.  Yesterday I went to a meeting that was a potluck and there was nothing on the table I could eat – the hashbrown casserole had peppers and onions in it, the cake was chocolate, and the juice had pineapple and spices in it.  If I can’t eat dinner by 6:30 PM, then either I go to bed hungry or I have to stay up until midnight.  Oh, and no more running for me – I’m back to just walking.

Change is hard.  I hope it’s worth it.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

 

Growing Your Wings After You Jump

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“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie…” ~ William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, i)

Welcome to a rare Friday post of operationUNunhappy.  I usually only publish on Mondays, but I wanted to recognize this specific day with a few thoughts.  It’s a special anniversary:  one year ago today was my last day at my misery-filled, soul-sucking, toxicity-laden city government job.  And it was a glorious day indeed! 

I had made the decision to finally cut myself loose from a bizarro world of constant negativity, mind-numbing repetitive tasks, and maddening bureaucratic nonsensical red tape.  Why did I wait so long??  It was one of the best days – and decisions – of my life.

(If you’re a fairly new reader of this blog and want to read more about how I quit that job, click here.)

I didn’t have another job lined up when I quit.  I was giving up an extremely comfortable income, high-level health & dental benefits, and a nice little retirement nest egg.  I own a home, and have bills to pay like anyone else.  I have aspirations and dreams, many of which require a significant source of funding. 

And yet I had no doubt I was doing the right thing by walking away. 

You know that little voice deep inside of your gut that tells you what to do, but much of the time you don’t listen?  Well I listened that day, and I got out.  For my own sanity, for my mental and physical health, for my future – I jumped off the edge of the known into the unknown.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and grow your wings on the way down.” ~ Les Brown

I love that quote by motivational speaker Les Brown (the husband of Gladys Knight).  Some might interpret it as a message of impending doom: that if you jump without wings – without having a plan – your only directional option is down (and then the unavoidable *splat*). 

I think it’s the opposite: if you have the courage and confidence to leave the negative behind, as scary as the unknown future is, your reward can be a pair of anti-splat wings to help you get to where you are really supposed to be.

There was another day, in what seems like another lifetime, that I listened to the urgent voice inside me, so I recognized it this time when it showed up again.  Completely different situations, the two, but similar in the debilitating effect they had on me – and that I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. 

The day before the one-year anniversary of my first marriage, my husband (and I use that term very lightly) yelled curses at me and called me names on his way out the door to work, telling me to not wait up and that he had no idea when he would be home, if ever.  This was not a new trend.  He’d only recently come back to our apartment after a 3-week booze-filled “break.”  And he’d already put a hole in the wall with his fist during an earlier fight we’d had, showing his true colors.

As he slammed the door behind him that morning, I stared at it through tears of anger, hands clenched into tightly-balled fists.  I shook with rage, and slid down against the wall onto the floor.  Then something happened that I’ll never forget: a voice inside me – soft but clear, faint but insistent – said “GET OUT. NOW.” 

And so I did.  I jumped that day.  I grew wings, and they took me and everything I owned out of that apartment in a matter of hours.  I was on a mission, getting on the phone to friends and family, and they came through for me with flying colors.   With all my stuff packed and in storage, family having flown into town on a moment’s notice to protect me, and a safe place to stay, he came home to an empty apartment.  And I started over.

It’s possible.  Excruciating sometimes, yes, but possible.  Screw that courage to the sticking-place already; chances are, you won’t regret it.  I don’t.  (Now go back and read the quote at the very top of this article, including the name of the play.)

In the past year, I’ve had many ups and downs but the positives have far outweighed the negatives.  I started my own business – it’s been a little slow-going so far and there’s still so much I don’t know, but it’s mine (www.MuchAdoAboutFlowers.com).  I found a part-time job that I truly enjoy with kind and competent managers and people who are nice to work with – with no benefits and only earning 30% of what I did before.  I’ve had more time to spend with family and on de-perfectionizing myself.  None of which would have been possible if I’d stayed in that dead-end job.

I started this blog just two weeks after that last day on the job a year ago, so on the approach of my blogiversary, I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me through 45 posts so far!  Thanks for reading and the positive comments and the support.  My wings are stronger because of all of you.

Wings

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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