Becoming Well(-er)

Five years ago, I was getting ready to transition away from a job I loved and a beautiful home in a community that had forever re-shaped us. One of several reasons for all of this change was my health. I had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis after a series of symptoms — extreme fatigue, skin outbreaks, and joint pain — had led me to a rheumatologist. I was depleted. I could no longer sustain the demands of teaching and staff development, let alone maintain our home or do any level of caring for our family. Something had to change.

I began this blog in the midst of that transition because I needed a space to process all that was happening. Our oldest son and his wife were expecting our first grandchild. Our oldest daughter was graduating from college and moving across the country. Our younger son was in the military, and our youngest daughter was heading off to college. My husband was in a new position, and I was just going to focus on getting well for a while. While everyone else was moving, I was going to be still. (You can find the very first post from this blog here.)

A lot has changed since that first blog post. My husband and I were talking yesterday and it became clear that I don’t always articulate the changes that have happened inside of me — partly because they have happened slowly over the last five years and partly because I talked and wrote about my physical health so much in the first few years of my blog that I’m kind of over it. Certainly every one is sick and tired of hearing about me being sick and tired!

But here’s the thing, I’m not as sick and tired as I was five years ago. So perhaps it’s time to explore that reality. Maybe putting words to the ways that God has provided for my recovery will be an encouragement to me and to you. Shall we see?

First of all, I no longer have the psoriatic arthritis diagnosis. Bam! It’s gone. I used to be angry about this. When the doctor told me that I did not have psoriatic arthritis, I felt dismissed. Certainly I still had pain, and psoriasis, and fatigue, and the HLA-B27 genetic marker often associated with certain autoimmune diseases. And I had also had two rounds of scleritis, an autoimmune affliction of the eye. I thought the doctors’ removal of my diagnosis was a denial of my symptoms. However, over time, I have come to feel emancipated. I don’t have psoriatic arthritis, so, in some ways, my symptoms feel less permanent, less limiting; I feel hopeful for improvement.

Second of all, I am no longer taking medications to treat pain or inflammation. In fact, other than a daily pill to inhibit the growth of herpes in my eyes (a result of some of the psoriatic arthritis treatments), I take only supplements — Vitamins B, C, and D, fish oil, and magnesium. Occasionally, I have to take some ibuprofen if I’m having a particularly difficult day, but mostly I am able to manage pain with movement, ice, epsom salt baths, and (a surprise to me!) peppermint essential oil. This is also quite liberating. In addition to the side effects from taking daily medication, I also experienced the feeling that I was some kind of invalid, particularly when I was injecting myself when Enbrel or Humira or Cosentyx. And since none of these drugs really benefitted my physical symptoms, I was actually getting an overall negative impact. Eliminating each of them, over time and with doctors’ supervision, was further removal of that permanent diagnosis.

Next, I have been blessed by a fabulous team. I first wrote about them here. I have found that the best way to improve my health is to regularly attend to it, so I see a specialized physical therapist twice a month, a chiropractor once or twice a month, and I recently added monthly visits to a structural medicine practitioner who specializes in Hellerwork. This regimen, along with my daily practice of yoga have worked together to strengthen, care for, and realign my body in ways that decrease my pain and increase my ability to participate in my daily life. I feel stronger, more flexible, and more capable. Imagine my joy last summer when I was able to have a daily plank challenge with my students — me, the oldest member of our staff, on the floor in full plank with a room full of elementary school boys.

Do you hear it? The sound of healing and hope? I do! That alone is worth writing about. The mental shift from “I have a chronic illness,” to “I am getting stronger,” can not be overstated. I have written often about how this “illness” has actually been a blessing for me. It gave me a reason to slow down, take stock, and re-configure my life in a way that supports physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And that process — that slowing, that experimenting, that shifting — has allowed for miraculous transformation in my thinking.

Do I still have pain? Yes. I have persistent pain, predominantly in my right sacroiliac joint and low back; the intensity of this pain varies depending on activity — how much I sit, stand, move, stretch– and how often I receive proactive treatment. (In addition to the work my team and I do, I occasionally get a steroid injection in that joint to reduce inflammation.) Do I still have fatigue? Yup. However, I’ve been amazed that since last summer I have been working 35-40 hours every week. Although this is do-able, it does limit my ability to interact with friends and family. (I need to sleep anywhere from 8 hours on a typical night to 12 hours when I’m really wiped out.) Optimally, I would like to work 30-35 hour weeks so that I can still have the energy to go for a walk and have dinner with my husband, develop friendships, and travel to see family frequently. Do I still have psoriasis? Very limited. I call my psoriasis my “barometer”. If I am doing too much, the palm of my right hand becomes inflamed — that’s my first signal that I need to slow down and attend to self-care. If I ignore it, I get more outbreaks, but even then, they are much easier to manage than they were five years ago. Do I still have issues with my eyes? Yes. Like my psoriasis, my left eye will become inflamed if I am overdoing it. I have learned to take that signal and slow down to provide extra care. In this way, I have avoided major issues.

Do you see it? Do you see how God has used these signals to transform my life? Probably more than any other topic in this blog, I have written about my soldiering ways. I was really good for a really long time at doing whatever needed to be done. I was constantly in motion — driving, teaching, cleaning, shopping, directing, running. I thought I was getting it right, but I was getting it all wrong. I was missing all the critical moments — the seeing, the listening, the caring, the holding. So rather than letting me continue in that fashion, God slowed me down. First, He sat me flat on my butt and got my attention. He has since re-instructed me in how to live a healthy life. And, because He knows that I am bent on going right back to my old ways, He allows a few signals to remain — to remind me, “Hey, Kristin, you’re doing it again.”

That’s how much He loves me, guys. He created a plan just for me to specifically address my particular learning needs.

I remember the flood of emotion back when I got my initial diagnosis — anger, sadness, helplessness. Now? I am so thankful for this journey. I am forever changed by my experience. I would no longer say that I am ‘sick’, but that I am becoming more well every day.

I know that my story is not the same as everyone’s story. Some people experience chronic illness very differently than I do; some people suffer terribly. And certainly, my route to healing is just that — my route. However, I pray that you, too, may experience whatever kind of healing you most need and that you would be aware of how God demonstrates his deep love uniquely for you. Your journey may not look like mine, but I am confident of this: like me, you are being carried in the palm of His hand.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8
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Controlling and Carrying, revisit

Some messages bear repeating. This one gets rehearsed in my life over and over.

Next Chapter

This post, first written in June of 2017 and polished a bit in March 2019, reminds me of one of the most powerful life lessons I continue to learn.

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school! As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life. My college years brought more maturity. I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled my body through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and…

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Being Sick

Day 9: I’m on day nine of sore throat, cough, sinus pressure, and fatigue. It’s just a virus — perhaps the common cold, certainly nothing to write home about. Yet, this annoyance has driven my decisions for over a week. It has kept me home from work and church. It has forced me to cancel plans. It has diminished my appetite. Both my husband and I have searched stores for relief — homeopathics, over-the-counters, and all sorts of home remedies such as soup, and tea, and popsicles. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to greatly impact this bug; I have just had to endure the seven to ten days that the doctor told me to expect.

This morning, when I woke up to a new symptom, I thought to myself, “That’s it! I’ve had it!” I jumped through the shower, took a second trip to urgent care, and heard the doctor say, “These things usually start clearing up in seven to ten days. Since it is persisting, we will try an antibiotic.” I was momentarily encouraged. “Yay! An antiobiotic! I’ll start feeling better!” However, on the ten minute ride back home I deflated quite quickly. Hadn’t I thought several times over the past week that I was getting better? Hadn’t I almost willed myself to health with positive thoughts? And yet hadn’t I crawled into bed dosed with cold medicine, clutching tissues, and sucking on cough drops every night for the last nine nights? Why did I think one little antibiotic would change anything. I’m doomed to be sick forever!

Melodramatic? Certainly. Authentic? Absolutely.

It’s just a cold. This, too, shall pass! It’s not like I have a ruptured spleen or a broken arm or even an infected tooth. I have survived countless colds in my life. So have you. But, you know, that isn’t much comfort to me right now, because I don’t see myself surviving. I see myself suffering. And although my husband is doting and my employer is understanding, I’m not looking at the positives right now. I can only focus on the fact that my sinuses are dripping front and back, I have gunky clogs in my throat, and I’m running a low grade fever. I’m not even mildly comforted by the fact that I’ve got a reason to wear yoga pants and a sweatshirt on Sunday morning.

Guys, I am focused on my misery.

Why is it that such a temporary minor situation can toss me to the depths?

To be fair, I hung in there like a champ all week. On day one, I wouldn’t even really admit I was sick until around 5pm when I finally admitted that, “gosh, my throat has been hurting since yesterday and my whole body kind of aches.” On day two, I missed church, but had every intention of making it to work the next day. After calling out on day three, I thought, “I’ll be able to kick this if I can just stay home one more day.” On day five, I trudged into work, fueled by alternating cups of tea, water, and cold medicine. Day six and seven I soldiered through, and even when day 8 found me falling asleep on the couch in the middle of the day, I thought to myself, “just one more day of resting and I will be able to function normally all next week.”

And today? Today I just can’t rally myself. I buried myself in blankets and slept for a while. I rehearsed all my miseries and the fact that nobody likes me, everybody hates me, and I might as well go eat worms. I started a new book. I ate a popsicle, and I am finally acknowledging that no, my throat really doesn’t feel any better. No amount of positive thinking is going to change that. It’s just gonna take more time.

My students used to say, “it be like that sometimes.”

Day 10: I came to a realization about 2:30 am when I woke up coughing and dripping, having already notified my employer that I would miss yet another day of work. I groaned audibly as I pushed myself to sitting and trudged to the kitchen for the next round of cold medicine.

In that semi-conscious state I heard myself saying, “Kristin, you can’t do anything about it. Just be in it. You’ve been pushing back and trying every treatment you know for nine days. How about today you just lie in bed, read a book, drink your fluids, and wait for the healing. It’s gonna come.”

And something shifted. I started this journey in denial, “I’m not sick,” and quickly moved to pragmatism, “I’ll kick this bug with the old rest and fluids regimen.” Then I donned my positive, “I’m feeling better every day,” for as long as I could until I found myself slunk in misery muttering, “I’ll never be well again.” But at 2:30 am, when I acknowledged that there was nothing more I could do, I just had to be, I relaxed. I slept soundly until 8:30 this morning before crawling into a warm bath. Then I had a little breakfast and cuddled up next to my dog.

And now that I’ve chronicled this very mundane journey, I’m going to climb back into bed with my book. I’ll be there the rest of the day.

The Lord sustains them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness.

Psalm 41:3

The Essential, re-visit

Some messages are worth re-visiting. Every Thursday, I re-post a previous blog that still resonates.

Next Chapter

This post, first written in September of 2016 and polished just a bit in 2019, resonates with Monday’s post, Body Signals, and its message of balance and self-care.

I rushed into yoga this morning, grabbed my mat, found a place on the already crowded floor, and assumed the position — lying  flat on my back. The instructor likes us to begin supine. We spend several moments listening to our breath and quieting our minds.

I noticed right away that my mind was a little extra frantic this morning. I heard her voice in the background saying, “Quiet your mind….Connect to the breath…” but I heard my mind saying, “But…but…but…what about the bills that need to be paid? What about the fact that I did such a mediocre job teaching yesterday? What about the election? What about our children?”

“Connect to the breath.  If it’s helpful, repeat to yourself, ‘inhale, exhale’.”

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Body Signals

The physical body is uniquely designed to send us messages that help us take care of ourselves. For example, I have a ten year old student who has beautiful long eye lashes. These eye lashes serve to keep dirt out of his eyes, but occasionally one, rather than staying where it belongs, pokes in and causes irritation. His eye begins to water, and my student does everything he can to get that lash out of his eye. Feeling the irritant, the eye signals my student to make eye lash removal a priority.

Similarly, our bodies signal fatigue at the end of a long day, prompting us to go home and get some rest. They signal hunger so that we will be sure to eat foods that fuel our many activities. They tell us when we are cold so that we’ll put on more clothes, and they signal pain when we have an injury.

Most of us respond to these signals. We get sleep when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. We wear warmer clothes in the winter and tend to injuries when they occur. However, the human body is also able to ignore these signals for short periods of time in order to meet immediate demands, respond to crisis, or push through difficult periods. Soldiers and rescue workers have demonstrated this ability to be highly effective for long periods of time without rest or proper nourishment. However, all of us, after a period of ignoring the body’s signals, must take time to recover, to heal, to restore. If we continue in a chronic state of over-doing, the body has to develop some next-level signals — it begins to demand attention.

Several years ago, my body did just that. After years of trying to power through responsibilities without responding to my body’s physical, spiritual, and emotional signals, I began to develop symptoms: skin rashes, joint pain, extreme fatigue, and eye inflammation. At first, these symptoms side-lined me. They were so insistent that I had to take several months of intentional care and then several years of refined practice to move back into the game. These next-level signals forced me to care for my body after a long period of neglect.

Now that I’m off the bench, I’ve learned that these chronic issues can be kept at bay if I work a moderate number of hours, practice yoga, avoid triggering foods, and get plenty of rest — if I make it a habit to listen to my body’s signals. However, if I fall back into old patterns — working too many hours, ignoring my self-care practices, or eating carelessly — my eye begins to hurt, my skin rashes flare, and occasionally I get knocked down. I find myself on the couch with ice packs and fluids, tending to my body after a period of neglect.

For the past month or so, my sessions with one particular online student have been fraught with technical issues. We lose our internet connection, my screen freezes or her screen freezes, or we experience an irritating lag that makes our communication difficult. When I opened her virtual room last week, it was evident almost immediately that we were going to struggle, so I called our IT department. They started trouble-shooting the session, and it became apparent that other instructors’ sessions were suffering, too. Finally, after many attempted fixes and much frustration, IT recommended that each of us clear the cache on our web browsers. None of us had done that in quite a while, and our chrome books were bogged down. They couldn’t continue to function until we gave them some of the maintenance that they needed. It didn’t take long, just a couple clicks, and the efficiency of our internet was restored.

It seems that our habits of hurriedly moving from student to student had prevented many of us from completely powering down our computers, from doing regular computer maintenance, from clearing our cache. Neglected, our computers stopped working.

Similarly, I’ve been pushing my body lately. We’ve been short on staff since the beginning of the year, and all of us have been working long shifts and managing extra responsibilities. It’s hard on all of us. And while I am making sure that I write and do some yoga every day, I’m not taking time to clear my cache. I’m getting bogged down. I have noticed little glitches — I make a sarcastic remark, I run just a little bit late, or I miss a significant detail. Then all of a sudden, I find myself on my couch — unable to function properly.

So what’s going to change? What have I learned from repeating this cycle over and over again? Sure, some things are outside of our control. We definitely are short-staffed, and since I am in a leadership position, it only makes sense that I would be working all the available hours. So what can change in my attitude about work? That’s a good question.

My husband has a saying, “care, but don’t care” —care for my students and their welfare, but don’t own responsibility for them. Love my students, give them my best, but remember that I can give them my best without giving my all. I’m not good at this. I’m an all-in kind of a girl, but I’m thinking I have to find a way to set my idle a little lower. I want to be present with my students and coworkers without owning their successes so deeply, without feeling each of their struggles so personally.

I think my tendency to overwork and over-care stems from a desire to be needed. I mean, I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Let me go pour my whole life into my students so that they will appreciate and value me.” It’s not that simple. Belief systems run deep; they operate in the subconscious. Perhaps I have this thought deep in my core that if I meet all the needs of my students, I will be worthy and acceptable. And that thought, which stems from insecurity, actually masquerades as superiority — they need me, what would they do without me? 

But guess what, when I called in sick today, my agency did not close. All the students are still meeting with instructors. Progress is still being made. I’m an important player, but not so important that I can’t take a beat for self-care. I can pause to clear my cache.

To be honest, I do. In addition to taking time to write and do yoga, I regularly do several other forms of self-care. I just need to not work as though my worth depended on it.

Because it doesn’t.

I am valuable, needed, and appreciated, even when I am in yoga pants and an oversized fleece on my couch. Right now that’s what my body is telling me it needs — at least for today.

I’ll try to keep listening to its messages tomorrow.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Matthew 6:25-26