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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.

sugar

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

Four Mistakes and A Blue Chair

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“I cannot give thee less, to be call’d grateful: Thou thought’st to help me; and such thanks I give as one near death to those that wish him live…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, II, i)

The holiday of Thanksgiving holds some pretty significant memories and anniversaries for me.  Of course the day itself conjures up remembrances of huge family get-togethers in drafty west Texas garages when I was little, and then later, taste memories of my favorite foods that my Mom would cook each year as we grew up (her dressing could seriously win awards).  But it’s actually the day before Thanksgiving as well as the day after it that now both occupy the forefront of my mind when I think of this particular holiday.

Last year at this time I wrote a post about the rainy day I moved to Austin, which was the day before Thanksgiving, five years ago now.  (Read that post here if you missed it.)  It’s hard to believe I’ve been here five whole years now already.  The past year has actually been pretty steady and consistent, which has been a welcome change after the many tumultuous years prior to that.  I’m thankful to have a job that I like, and a business that I’m enjoying building piece by piece, a nice little roof over my head, and of course a family that is both near and dear.  I’ll always remember the day before Thanksgiving as the day I moved to where my family was waiting for me.

The day after Thanksgiving holds a different kind of memory for me, and in fact, part of it holds no memory at all.  It happened in a city with a crazy name – Ouagadougou, when I was about three-quarters of the way through my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African country of Burkina Faso from 1999-2001.  Most of us had traveled from our villages into Ouaga (the capital) at the invitation of the US Ambassador, who hosted an incredible Thanksgiving feast for us at his residence.  Our eyes popped out of our heads at the multiple tables heaving with actual American Thanksgiving food, and, after months of having eaten only tiresome rice and millet porridge, we gorged ourselves silly until we were literally sick (or at least I did).

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

Me & the rest of the 1999 Burkina Faso Peace Corps class, on the day we officially became Volunteers.

The next morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I woke up and made plans for the day – first on my list was to head to the main post office in the middle of the city so that I could 1) pick up my monthly living allowance stipend and 2) mail my brother an African poster I’d gotten for him at a recent local art festival.  I felt good, the weather was great, and I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend at the American Embassy rec center.  I had no idea as my taxi dropped me off at the post office that I was about to experience one of the worst and most traumatic days of my life.

I waited patiently in the crowded customer area of the post office until it was finally my turn to withdraw my money from my account there, and then stuffed the poster into a cardboard tube and covered it with stamps to mail it.  I put most of my money into a small pouch that I wore hidden under my shirt.  Then I put just a few CFA (Burkina money), enough for a taxi, into a larger purse-type bag that I wore slung around one shoulder.  This bag was worn on the outside and was visible – Mistake #1.

I exited the post office onto a very busy roundabout traffic circle and waited several minutes for a taxi to stop at my signal, but none would.  I was trying to get to the Embassy, which was about a mile away from the post office.  It was 12:00 noon at this time & I was looking forward to a milkshake and maybe some pizza from the Rec Center cafe.  After several more minutes I got impatient of waiting for a taxi and decided to just walk to the Embassy – Mistake #2.  And, I was alone – Mistake #3.

The walk to the Embassy was almost a straight shot – mostly down a long, very busy boulevard, then turn left onto a side street, cross a bridge over a large and deep ravine, then take a right for about a block, and then another left, at which point you’d be there.  I’d walked it before with other Volunteers, so it was a familiar route.  It was broad daylight.  I’d been in the country for about a year and a half by this time, so I felt confident and reassured of doing things on my own.  I was an independent woman.

And then I wasn’t.

I’d just taken that first left turn and noticed several vendor stalls set back from the street on my left, merchants selling their wares.  I saw the bridge just ahead of me, with silver railings on each side and a narrow dirt walkway bordering the pavement.  It happened extremely fast.  I heard him before I saw him – running footsteps on the gravely dirt behind me and his rapid breathing, and then confusion and shock as he grabbed my bag that was slung around my shoulder and across my chest.  He jerked downwards, thinking it would just come off, but it didn’t – it had a thick strap, and I instinctively grabbed onto the bag and fought for it – Mistake #4.

He was Burkinabe, but other than that I don’t know what he looked like.  I do remember screaming – in English, not French, I guess I was too panicked – at the top of my lungs toward the nearby vendor stalls “help me help me help me help me!”  And then, everything just went black.  The next several minutes have been – I hope permanently – wiped from my memory.

I woke up at the bottom of the deep ravine under the bridge.  It was a sewage ditch with running water and raw waste that ran through the city, and I estimate that it was about a 16-foot fall.  I was lying on my back and face up in mud and water and waste and weeds, and the first thing I saw was my attacker’s face as he stood over me.  I would be told later from bystander witnesses that once the thief saw I wouldn’t give up my bag, he pushed me over the side of the ditch that was just before the protective railing, and then he ran to the opposite bank and sidestepped his way down to the bottom of the ravine where I was.  As I lay there stunned, he pulled my bag over my head, or maybe he cut it off, I don’t really remember, but I do remember turning my head to watch him then run with it down a huge round metal tunnel.  I remember several other men were yelling at him and had also jumped down into the ditch and ran after him to try to catch him.  They wouldn’t.

I tried to sit up, and fire ripped through my shoulder.  I remember being very worried for some reason about trying to find my flip-flops, which had fallen off.  I looked up toward the sky, I heard yelling – the vendors had rushed over to the side and were yelling at me to hurry up and climb up the dirt bank.  Their arms were outreached toward me, waving encouragement.  I was able to stand up, but when I tried to lift my left arm to reach toward them, I almost fainted from the pain and stumbled backwards.  I used my right arm and hand to grab handfuls of dirt to climb up the side of the ditch.  I finally was able to grab the hand of a man who pulled me the rest of the way up.  I yelled at him to not touch my other arm.

I asked my helpers to get a taxi to take me to the Embassy.  They frantically flagged one down and told the driver what had happened – he stared at me through the window, and what a sight I must have been.  He drove me the two minutes around the corner and I apologized profusely that I couldn’t pay him…”my money was just stolen, I’m so sorry”…I’d forgotten I had my other bag under my clothing.  He waved me out of the taxi and I stumbled up to the armed guard at the gate – I told him simply “I’ve been attacked, I’ve been attacked, please help me.”  It couldn’t have been later than 12:30 PM by this time – and everyone in the Peace Corps office was out to lunch.

The guard half-carried me inside and the only other person there was a cleaning lady, she was pushing a yellow mop bucket around.  He barked something at her and she ran to meet me with a rolling desk chair.  They eased me down into the chair and while they started making frantic phone calls to try to get the medical team back to the office, I sat there on that blue chair, waiting, shivering from shock, crying.  I remember that I slowly realized I was having trouble breathing – I was taking deep gasping breaths in, but feeling like I was suffocating.  I croaked to the mop bucket lady that I couldn’t breathe, please help me.  Hang on, hang on, she said, they’re on their way, just hang on a little longer.  She asked me if I wanted something to drink; I shook my head no.

The Peace Corps medical officer (MO) would tell me later that when she got word at the restaurant what had happened, that a Peace Corps Volunteer had been attacked and was seriously injured, she literally leapt up from the table and drove back to the Embassy faster than she’d ever driven in the city before.  I was still sitting in that blue chair when she and her assistant burst through the door and into action, asking me questions and taking my vitals and making more urgent phone calls.

I told her I couldn’t breathe, but the pulse oximeter they had on me showed I was getting adequate oxygen.  Eventually she told me she needed me to get up from the chair and into the exam room.  I tried, but I couldn’t get up – I cried out in pain as every muscle and ligament in my back felt like they had been ripped apart (they had).  I couldn’t stand up; she lifted me out of the chair, apologizing for the pain it was causing me, and they shuffled me to the exam room and up onto a table/bed.  It was only at this point that I noticed I was trailing blood from a mangled big toe. It didn’t even hurt, which I thought was weird.  (Adrenaline is an amazing thing.)

The MO told me an ambulance was on the way so they could take me to the hospital for x-rays; while we waited, she started cleaning up my toe and other skin abrasions that I didn’t even know I had.  She took the hair clip out of my hair and brushed it, smoothing it down…a very kind gesture that I only appreciated much later.  (She would tell me later that before she did that, I looked like one of those pencil troll dolls whose hair sticks straight up.)  I remember Ambassador Kolker came to see me while I was in that room waiting, he’d been informed of what happened and he rushed over to see if I was ok – and to tell me they’d do whatever they could to catch and prosecute my attacker.  I think I cried on his suit jacket when he gave me a hug.

Getting into that ambulance was probably the most physically painful experience of my life – every step was excruciating, and then having to climb up into the back of it and into a chair seat…I was sobbing out in pain and I didn’t even care who saw me or heard me.  A few minutes later we arrived at the back door of the x-ray facility, and then more pain as I was manipulated into unending different x-ray positions.  We were pretty sure at that point that my collar-bone was broken, and I know the MO was also worried about my back and my ankle (I had a pretty bad limp by this point).

The damage tally once it was all determined:  a shattered left clavicle (collar-bone), two broken ribs, a fractured ankle bone, a chipped tooth, the previously-mentioned mangled toe, and severe muscle and ligament damage in my back (which is what had been causing the labored breathing).  The ambulance brought me back to the Embassy, and a few hours later I was then transported to a private French medical clinic for three days of initial treatment.  The MO needed to consult with Peace Corps medical headquarters in Washington, show them the x-rays, etc…and they eventually decided to fly me back to Washington DC for surgery on my shoulder.

But I was to remain in Burkina for five days before my flight out.  Those three days in the clinic are a haze; I remember several Volunteers coming to visit me…one of them, Cristina (a certified RN and an angel), even helped me to use a bedpan on that first day because I couldn’t get out of the bed due to my back injuries – talk about going above and beyond.  I was so grateful for her help and her professionalism.  I remember the French nurses being mean and unfeeling the next day, telling me that if I wanted to go to the bathroom, I needed to get myself up and down to the bathroom without their help; I cried as I slowly inched my way out of the bed and wheeled my IV stand down the hall.  My Burkinabe colleagues came all the way from the village to visit me on my third day there, after I’d made an emotional phone call to them the day before to tell them what had happened.  They held back tears and clasped my hands, these people who had adopted me into their families and village, as we said goodbye – we all knew it might be the last time we ever saw each other if I wasn’t able to recuperate fully enough to come back and finish the last seven months of my service.

On the third day, I was discharged to spend my last night at the Peace Corps house and pack my things for my medical evacuation back to America.  On the ride from the clinic, the MO agreed to stop the van at the site of the incident – I gingerly climbed out of the van and walked over to where I’d gone over the edge.  The police had put up orange barrier tape after the incident report had been filed.  The van driver held my arm as I peered over the tape down into the ditch below; it took my breath away how far down it was.  The MO gazed down as well and then turned to me with a shocked look – she was thinking the same thing as me: I was lucky to be alive and not more seriously injured.  It was the closest thing to a miracle that I personally have ever been a part of.  The vendors from the street side stalls slowly approached us as we stood there – they recognized me and offered their well wishes.  One of them apologized, saying he wished he could’ve done more.  Another said that if the thief was seen again and caught, he’d likely be killed by those chasing him down. 

(They never did catch him, but they did find my bag later that day, emptied of its contents and discarded outside one of the well-known expensive French ex-pat hotels; he’d left my Peace Corps ID as the only remaining item inside.)

I was so grateful that Peace Corps approved and paid for Cristina to accompany me back on the flight, since I couldn’t carry my own bags and was still pretty doped up on pain meds.  The day before I left, I finally called my family from the MO office to let them know that I’d been hurt and was heading back to the States for treatment.  It’s a bit mind-boggling to me now that I waited that long to call them, and when I did, I didn’t tell them what had really happened; instead, I told them I’d been injured in a bike accident.  It’s a long story, but I legitimately feared that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t let me (a grown 30-year-old woman) go back, and I wanted to go back if at all possible.  I told them the truth years later of what really happened as part of my ongoing therapy to deal with the PTSD issues.

Cristina and I started the long trek home, flying through Paris (in business class no less, so I would have more room for my injured shoulder) and arriving in a freezing cold and snowy DC on the evening of November 29th.  I remember the customs officer who searched our bags laughing at us in our tank tops and flip-flops, no coats, completely unprepared for the subfreezing weather – he correctly guessed we were Peace Corps Volunteers. We were then shuttled to the Peace Corps hotel where all the medical evacs stay – a surreal place of walking wounded, both physical and psychological.  We were thrilled to raid the Peace Corps headquarters travel closet to borrow appropriate winter gear the next day.

The next morning I made my way to the orthopedic surgeon’s office (who by the way was Wayne Gretsky’s surgeon also, he had several signed jerseys on his walls) for an evaluation; he took more x-rays and immediately bumped me to first on the surgery schedule for the following morning at George Washington hospital.  Up until then, my shoulder had just been taped to try to stabilize the bones and injury, but as you can imagine it was very uncomfortable.  On the morning of December 1 – one week after it happened – he opened up my shoulder and put back together the multiple pieces of my clavicle, wrapping them all up neatly with a stainless steel bow that I carry in there to this day (along with its 6-inch scar).  I spent one night in the hospital and was discharged the next day back to Hotel Sickie.  I had a bad reaction to the pain meds and that’s when I broke down and called my Dad to come help me – which he did, arriving that night in heroic Dad fashion to help nurse me back to health.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

A permanent stainless steel reminder.

When you’re medically evacuated in Peace Corps, you’re usually allowed a total of five weeks for treatment and recuperation.  If you’re not healed by that time and cleared for service, you don’t go back to country and your service is terminated.  I was determined not to let that happen; I wanted to get back to Burkina.  I did all of my exercises and followed doctor’s instructions exactly (and got plenty of physical activity exploring snowy Washington every day for several weeks), and on the very last day of those five weeks, I met my doctor in his office and stared him in the eyes to tell him in no uncertain terms that I was ready.  He stared back at me for a long time, finally looking down to sign the clearance forms on his desk.  A few days later I was back on a plane to Africa; my arm was in a sling and my startle reflex was on high alert, but I was back.  I finished my service, and it made me a stronger person to face what had happened and try to overcome it.

So…that’s my day-after-Thanksgiving story.  I’ve second-guessed myself hundreds of times around the whole thing: if only I’d stayed in my village and not traveled into Ouaga for the holiday; if only I’d been more patient to wait for a taxi at the post office; if only I’d been smarter and not worn my bag where it was visible; if only I’d not been by myself.  I know what happened wasn’t my fault, but I am also not blameless.  I also know how lucky I am that I did not die that day – I could have landed on my neck, or broken my back, or hit my head.  I don’t remember anything at all of the fall itself, and when I explored this issue during subsequent therapy, I was told I probably never will; certain brain chemistry happens during such a trauma in order to help the body physically survive, but in the process wipes out memory aspects.  And that’s ok by me.  And despite what happened, I also don’t regret my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer – the good memories outweigh the bad, and in my book, that’s a success.

Just typing the account of this story, I was shaking all over again.  It’s the first time I’ve ever put it all down on paper.  I hardly ever think about that day now, 14 years later – except around this time of the year.  I may not remember the fall, but the vivid clarity with which I can remember everything else that followed that day is astounding to me.  I think that blue rolling office chair sticks in my mind more than anything else – for a time, I really believed I was going to die in that chair.  I was fixated on hanging onto the sides of it, as if I were literally hanging on for dear life.  As I waited there, alone, gasping for breath for what seemed like forever, I focused on the color of the chair, the threads in the cushion, the height of it that left my toes grazing the floor.  That chair is a part of me forever now.  I’m grateful for it, as I’m so very grateful for everyone that day that helped me in all those different ways – the man who pulled me out of the ditch, the taxi driver who got me to the Embassy, the guard that helped me inside, the medical team that took care of me, the friends and family who helped me through the aftermath.  And the mop bucket lady who gave me a chair to sit in. 

I have a lot to be thankful for every Thanksgiving when I think of them.  Thank you doesn’t seem like enough, but I do, I thank you.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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

 

 

Friends, Lend Me Your Eardrums

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“True is it that we have seen better days…” ~William Shakespeare (As You Like It, II, vii)

Things I hate:  Spiders.  Moths.  All bugs.  Slow drivers.  When women wear too much perfume.  Cedar trees.  Cigarettes.  And being sick.  I hate being sick.

It’s been 5 weeks since my last post.  I came down with a minor flu on Valentine’s Day, which couldn’t just be the flu for flu’s sake, but had to lead me down a germy path to strep-induced tonsillitis as well as secondary infections of both the sinus and ear.  My right ear was clogged for two weeks and I got so fed up with it that I voluntarily elected to have my eardrum cut open and all the gunk inside vacuumed out by the ENT who now knows me on a first-name basis (due to 3 visits in as many weeks).  At one point my tonsils resembled some weird avant-garde modern art painting of random squiggly bacterial white lines and patches.  An intense coughing cacophony each night for three weeks left me with aching ribs and muscles and a permanent neck crick from trying to sleep at a 90-degree upright.  And then after almost a month, when I was just starting to get better, the strep/tonsillitis decided to play a very unwelcome encore performance last week, so back on the antibiotics I went for a second round.

None of it was really that serious, just more annoying and tiring than anything.  And certainly many people are dealing with much, much worse than me.  I do seem to have pretty bad health luck around this time of the year though; if you missed my post from what happened last March when I called for an ambulance in the middle of the night, you can read it here.  I get my flu shot religiously each year as soon as it’s available, so I was pretty angry it got me this year; luckily I didn’t have one of the serious strains that the flu shot protects against, but the flu is never nice no matter what form it comes in.

And that ear procedure was pretty squidgy.  It’s called a myringotomy and it’s actually very common; my ENT said he’s done 3 or 4 a week, every week, for years now.  Mostly on kids who need tubes in their ears, but also sometimes on adults like me who have mutant sinuses that won’t let us live normal lives (I didn’t get tubes).  I’d never gotten to the point where I needed it before now, and I hope I won’t need it again.  Let’s just say that if you’re afraid of needles or shots, you’re going to have a hard time if you need this procedure.  Because they have to numb up your eardrum before they cut it open, and that means multiple SHOTS, with tiny but still-real needles, right INTO and THROUGH your eardrum.  That’s what hurt like a heckamabob.  I didn’t feel the cutting at all, but it was very weird to be able to hear (in extreme Dolby stereo) the slicing sound of the scalpel on the eardrum, and then the loudest vacuum sucking sound you’ve ever heard.  Some pain about an hour later when the anesthetic wore off, but not much after that. 

ear infection

I pretty much don’t feel like doing anything when I’m sick, even if it’s just with “regular” illnesses like I just described.  It’s why I haven’t written any posts for 5 weeks or really done much at all past just getting through the days and nights and trying to get well again.  “Give people high-fives just for getting out of bed. Being a person is hard sometimes.” Words of wisdom from Kid President (if you haven’t watched his videos on SoulPancake, you’re missing out!).  It is hard being a person sometimes, especially a contaminated and contagious one.

Our bodies do an amazing job of trying to take care of themselves, but when those tiny insidious virus and bacteria warriors attack, it’s incredible how much physical and mental energy they can zap out of us.  Going to the grocery store and back feels like you’ve run a marathon and necessitates a long nap immediately afterwards.  Laundry becomes the equivalent of a hard gym workout.  I lost 8 pounds in the first week of being sick this time; I had absolutely no appetite and the only things I ate that week (the same thing every day) were minimal amounts of scrambled eggs, toast, and soup.  (When the tonsillitis hit, I felt justified in buying frozen double fudge pops and ice cream to sooth my throat, thereby negating my flu-fueled weight loss…but very much worth it.)  A pharmacist friend of mine said “bacteria will outlast humans” and I do believe she’s right.

I really wish I knew the secret behind those people who seem to have constitutions of steel and rarely if ever get sick.  What are they doing?  Or is it all just in the genes?  My family genes seem to be riddled with susceptibility to allergies, acid reflux and thinning hair – we’re a very phlegm-y family.  I’ve given serious thought to buying stock in Kleenex.  We are allergic to everything.  And on the GERD front, I’m pretty sure that just a handful of my family members could provide enough stomach acid (in a very short amount of time) to fill the vat that created the Joker. 

It doesn’t help at all that we live in the worst city in America for allergy-sufferers.  A day or week of bad allergies can be just as draining as the flu sometimes, and the resulting inflammation can make existing infections much worse.  Cedar fever season is over finally, but now we have the joy of days filled with oak pollen – and there are just as many, if not more, oak trees in this city than cedar trees.  As I write this, I had planned to be outside spraying weed and grass killer in my yard and pulling up the weeds that got a jumpstart on spring, but it’s so windy outside that I know I’d be suffering from oak pollen symptoms for days afterwards…and so once more I’m relegated to indoor confinement.

But again it’s all about perspective.  I know there are so many people out there dealing with so much worse, so I feel pretty grateful that I’m able to go through this crud but then recover.  There are some benefits to being stuck home sick.  The fudge pops, of course.  I’ve caught up on dozens of taped episodes of The Office that needed watching (and laughter is the best medicine sometimes).  And I’ve discovered a surprising fondness for classical music – while app-wandering one fever-filled day I found a wonderful British classical station (Classic FM) and the music they play is so beautiful and invoking (and goes perfectly with a cup of English Breakfast tea).  

But I’m looking forward to being well again.  In the next few weeks (well or not) I’ll be lobbying our City Council for a code and ordinance amendment that would allow me to get started on the primary outlet of my flower business venture.  It’s been a little slow going lately on the flower front, but I’m not losing hope.  It’s not a race, and I have been gradually implementing aspects that will help me move forward.  “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast” has been my  mantra of sorts lately (Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, II, iii).

I hope if you’re currently battling a bug that you feel better soon.  Lots of fluids and frozen fudge pops is my recommendation.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Hulk Headaches & Health Anxiety

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“So sick I am not, yet I am not well…” ~William Shakespeare (Cymbeline, IV, ii)

I haven’t been feeling too great lately.  Nothing life-threatening or too deeply dire, just lots of mostly minor maladies here and there that add up to an overall sense of suckiness.  Headaches, weird muscle aches, earaches, toothaches, overall body aches…it’s getting pretty tiring, both physically and mentally.  I seem to have a few good days where everything seems in pretty good working order, but it’s inevitably then followed by about a week of bad days where I feel crappy…and then the cycle repeats itself.

I know no one likes to be sick or feel bad, and I realize there are many people out there that are dealing with a LOT worse than me, but the fact remains that when I don’t feel good, I seem to just…shut down.  Being sick or hurt for me presents a mental roadblock that is pretty tough for me to push aside.  You see, I have a history of some pretty impressive health anxiety.  It used to be a lot worse than it is now, and I’ve brought it under manageable control with the help of a life-saving therapist – but I continue to grapple with it and have come to accept that it will probably always be a part of who I am and something I have to work to overcome.

For someone with health anxiety, the whys and whens and hows and what-ifs threaten to overwhelm a person when they get sick or hurt, or have any “unusual” symptoms: Why is this happening to me, what’s the exact, specific, pinpointed cause?  (Because if I know the cause, I can then hopefully prevent it from happening again.)  How and when did I catch this cold, or get this headache, or become short of breath?  What if this headache is really the beginning of meningitis?  What if this weird muscle spasm in my armpit is a sign that I have clogged heart arteries?  What if those recurring cramps in my legs are because of life-threatening blood clots?  When we can’t get answers to these questions (which is most of the time), it just makes our anxiety worse, which then leads to more stress, which then causes even more health problems.

Stopping that fatalistic self-talk as it begins and trying to not immediately imagine the worst possible scenario is part of what I learned and practiced through therapy, back when the anxiety was at its worst.  I was also not allowed to look up any of my symptoms on the internet, so as to not induce even more panic and feed the medical monster.  I was banned from taking my pulse more than once/day or at times other than during exercise.  Ultimately, I decided I had to quit my job as a health counselor where I talked about horrible health problems all day every day (the worst possible environment for me) and take myself out of that personal mine field. 

(Source: criticalscience.com)

(Source: criticalscience.com)

For the most part, I still am able to enlist those calming strategies and avoid the full-blown panic attacks and vicious worry cycles that I used to incur on a pretty frequent basis.  I remember my therapist’s teachings: to tell myself what the most likely and unlikely scenarios are, and then to logically handle the symptom and situation from there.  To realize that everyone – especially as we get older – has aches and pains as the normal part of life.  To also realize that life doesn’t always come with an explanation pamphlet for every scenario we encounter, and to learn to live with not always knowing why (as crazy as it may drive me).  I’m happy to say that I’m no longer a frequent flier at the doctor’s office, but I also still believe in timely visits for those issues that truly do warrant it and not ignoring what could be serious (like the stabbing/piercing ear pain I had this past week).

But – I am kind of a worrier by nature anyway, something else that was in the genes and I just have to accept and deal with.  Which means, that even when I am able to not panic out loud about an illness or strange symptom, I still quietly and subtly worry about it (for both me and for things happening to those closest to me).  Health anxiety quietly hovers in the corner of the dark room that you usually try to keep closed off, but then sneaks out every once in a while when you least expect or want it.  People tease you about it, or avoid talking to you about any health topic whatsoever, in fear that you’ll just have some kind of fit-like meltdown.  (This just makes us feel worse by the way, when we’re working so hard to improve.)

And I admit that even that subdued level of worry is still enough to cause me to focus on the issue more than I should.  I find myself making more mental room for it and sacrificing attention to other things on my to-do list that get waylaid by the worry.  Every once in a while, I allow myself to guiltily look up a new symptom online, and then usually regret it as soon as I see all the uninformed prattle on the chat boards.  I lose my appetite when I worry too much about what’s going on with my physical failings, but maybe that’s normal?  Being “normal” and feeling “good” are what I wish for every day, so I guess I feel let down and anxious when the opposite happens.

As mentioned above, I also know that worrying about my health – or anything really – actually contributes to a negative circle of physiological health effects in and of itself.  Ten days ago I had a spectacular tension headache across the back of my head that lasted for a tight and burning 48 hours; nothing would make it go away but time, but what was most frustrating for me (in terms of figuring out why it was happening) was that I’d been feeling what I thought was relatively tension-free lately!  I have a job that I really enjoy, and my overt stress levels compared to a year ago are practically nil.  But no one can ever be totally stress or worry-free, that’s unrealistic.  Even minor stress levels over things like money, or the future, or family issues, can apparently cause your cranium to feel like it’s being clobbered by the Hulk. 

So, it’s a work in progress, this tempering of my teetering.  I feel alone in my anxiety journey most of the time, and I don’t usually like to talk about it, but I wanted to shed a little light on it today in case someone else out there is also struggling to get a handle on it too.  It can get better, so hang in there.  Get help if you need it.  Figure out the source and root cause of where this anxiety is coming from, as that’s how you’ll be able to start dealing with it.  I’ve been lucky to have a few friends and family and therapists help me through it in the past, but it’s a constant effort that I have to work at mostly just by myself.  Like Pam from ‘The Office’ said, “Pobody’s Nerfect.”  Definitely not me…and I don’t want to be perfect anymore anyway (or nerfect). 

Bonne santé et à la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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