After a week in California with family, I am taking some time to reflect on the state of my health and life as the calendar inches closer to my 30th birthday. Health Update 1 from July can be read here.
It Started With Nightmares
In January, I started prolonged exposure treatment for PTSD with a Psychologist who specializes in pain psychology and post traumatic stress disorder. Since my diagnosis, I’ve written a lot about my journey through PTSD treatment and why I write about PTSD. Prior to diagnosis, I was experiencing migraines, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks on a daily basis.
Prolonged exposure therapy involves remembering and re-experiencing the traumatic event, as opposed to avoiding them. My treatment plan: in-depth trauma writing, talking about the trauma to my doctor, and getting to know the mind-body connection (somatic experiencing) of PTSD. The mind-body connection is something I knew about, but I didn’t really know.
The mind, body, spirit, and emotions are connected to each other. The stress of emotional and traumatic events affects the central nervous system and can cause changes in the body… which is how PTSD happens (at least I think it is… I am not a doctor).
During an “exposure session” with my doctor, I would recall the events of the trauma in detail. My doctor would make a note of how my body language changed: my hands behind my back; my posture slouched; I would stop breathing.
At home, I would have panic attacks after journaling, my wrist heavy and cramped from writing pages of my hands being held behind my back while I was violated. Sometimes I would have panic attacks or dissociative episodes in my doctor’s office, my head spinning in a whirlwind of blues and flickering yellow incandescent lighting, unsure of whether or not I was in the past or the present.
Like most things in life, it was really hard at first, but then it got easier. I got better at noticing the subtle physical cues that my body was giving me: full-body chills or trembling, a buzzing-itching-tickle feeling on the top of my skull, my breathing changing, my vision adjusting. These were my body’s fight-or-flight response controlled by my autonomic nervous system: an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
The goal of prolonged exposure treatment is to be exposed to triggers (like the memory of his gun going off at my feet) as just a thought, and to be able to move on unfazed.
A few months in to our every-two-week sessions, the prolonged exposure was working and I was having little-to-no physical responses. I was ready… or so I thought. But my body had other plans.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in July. Since then, I’ve been undergoing treatment under the care of a variety of gastrointestinal doctors through Kaiser Permanente of Washington. By the time I had received my diagnosis, the disease spread to two areas of my large intestine and into my small bowel. I also had chronic bronchitis, which my doctor thinks is related to Crohn’s symptoms.
I was immediately put on 40mg of Prednisone to reduce inflammation, a steroid, which made me feel like a combination of ‘The Old Me’, ‘The Happier Me’, and ‘The Me That Wants To Do Stuff’. Prednisone can cause feelings of intense euphoria and manic behavior, but I wanted to soak in that feeling as much as I could. In the light of day, I rearranged four closets in my house, finished a few larger projects, and spent time meeting friends for coffee. In this time, I’ve socialized more with new friends than I have in the last year.
Except I couldn’t eat. The Crohn’s disease had spread to the point of causing me excruciating abdominal pain while my body digests food. At night, I couldn’t sleep (steroids do that to you). I would lay bed in pain, unable to concentrate on writing, editing photos, or reading.
Crohn’s disease has no cure. There is only management of symptoms and attempting to slow the progression of spread of the disease.
I’m currently taking Methotrexate, Uceris (Entocort), and Humira injections to get my symptoms of Crohn’s disease under control. I can barely get through a day without napping. I struggle with food. The only things that don’t cause excruciating pain are simple carbohydrates. I struggle with vegetables (aka not a lot of veggies). I’ve been having a lot of green juices to compensate, but even those make me queasy.
With Prednisone, I saw the worse sides of my mental illness rear its head. I’ve never thought about dying as much as I did on Prednisone. It also caused my face to puff up (colloquially referred to as “moon face”) to the point where I could barely recognize myself in the mirror. One afternoon, I texted my sister, “I hate my face.” Reading those words back, I felt sorry for myself for feeling that way about physical appearance when my insides were in so much turmoil. Looking back at pictures of myself pre-diagnosis, I see so much more beauty than I did at the time.
Sometimes I Let The Bad Thoughts In
I’ve said this before when referencing issues with my vagina: I can’t help feeling like it’s my fault. I know that’s irrational to say, but if my mind-body connection caused so much stress inside of my body that it started to attack itself, then how can I not feel like that? I wish there was no connection, but I fear that there is.
The larger implication here is that many health issues are rooted in trauma. The PTSD treatment, which I was undergoing due to sexual assault, domestic violence, and cyber harassment, put so much stress onto my body that it made the cells inside of me diseased. The trauma I experienced at the hands of men caused this. Again, I am not a doctor, and this is just the interpretation of my own experiences.
Some days it feels like my life has no purpose anymore. I thought I would have a substantial career. I was on track to make 6 figures. I was on my way to building a successful business as a digital strategist and graphic designer before I got sick.
But these are just thoughts. These thoughts have no bearing on reality and no real consequences. They are just thoughts, and then they can go away.
It’s Not All Bad
For years, people have been telling me to think positive, and to have a positive mental attitude (I prefer using the acronym PMA). I have always sucked at it, but I am trying. Some days are a lot worse than others, but that means that some days are a lot better than other days too.
I’ve been focusing on pleasant activities and completing small goals like going on short walks or doing the dishes. I even made dinner for Gus and I. I’ve been trying really hard to write as much as I can during this time. Knowing I have helped thousands of people with my article about mental illness made my heart full. I know eventually I will feel good enough to be able to work again, even if my job might change from what I had in mind . I know I am a great writer and I can write from anywhere. I know that I am more than what I do, but instead my character is defined by how I treat others. Right now, I am focusing on being good to the people around me: especially to my incredible husband, sister, and family.
five things helping me right now:
reading Joyful by Ingrid Fettell Lee
watching Jane the Virgin on Netflix
the sparkling coconut water & yuzu from Trader Joe’s
listening to my favorite band from Chico, CA, Surrogate
the amazing friends I’ve made through instagram and blogging
Thanks for following along on this journey. If there is something specific you want to know more about, feel free to ask in the comments.