Six years ago, I was diagnosed with Sjoren's disease, an autoimmune disease. And I brought it all on with my quest to be fit, my competitive nature, and my lifestyle.
Being “fit” has been a way of life for as long as I can remember. Back in the days (whoa, do I feel old saying this?!), we played outside all day until our parents yelled for us to come in for dinner. I grew up racing on the street and beating all the neighborhood boys, playing soccer, swimming in the creek, and going to bed exhausted each night. It was the best!
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t active with some type of sport or taking exercises classes from my Mom at the YMCA. This trend continued through college when I really learned to push my body to extreme limits in collegiate track and soccer. Jumping lunges with a rack of weights on my shoulders? Yes, please.
The term “health” was not a common phrase or concern back when I was growing up. At this time, it was the fat-free food era. I could eat one pound of gummi worms (which I gladly did) and still be healthy because there was no fat involved. I had no idea that sugar was the real danger here. My diet greatly suffered from too little vegetables and too much processed crap. In college, I was at my peak: fast, strong, and eager to beat you in a race. Internally, the cracks were beginning to form, but I was not listening. Not for a minute.
Fast forward several years to the birth of my first daughter when the pregnancy didn’t go as expected and I was hospitalized seven times due to complications and multiple drug allergies. My body had turned on me for the first time and I noticed this shift. Believing in my heart that I was still young, I pushed through the pain that I began to experience. Ignored the creaking in my knees because I needed to show myself and others that I still had “it”. To solve this perceived problem, I doubled down on my amount of exercise. Ran several half-marathons, multiple Olympic triathlons, and spent several years in CrossFit. On top of this, I continued to teach multiple boot camps, kickboxing, and fitness classes each week. Because why would I just take a class when I could teach it? Physically, I was at my strongest level ever and could do 50 pull-ups, if needed. But, I still ate poorly and mentally drove myself harder to achieve.
A very unhealthy balance of health was on display, although my exterior wouldn’t show this. All of this pushing came at a price for me. Chronic inflammation became a common friend to my knees, ankles, and wrists and the throbbing was constant and my recovery time had slowed down. Mentally, I still thought that I could push through this pain, but began to wonder why my body was failing me. What was I doing wrong? Continued to eat high amounts of sugar and balanced this with a lot of protein to stay “fit” with an occasional piece of broccoli or two.
Disease Sets In
When I was in my late 30’s, I knew something was wrong. I’d come home from teaching group fit classes and my whole body would ache for hours. I finally sought out help as the stress on my body and mind was getting to be too much. After taking blood samples, my physician told me that I “just was not young anymore” and this explained all of my pain. A few days later, my doctor appeared surprised when he called to say that I had Sjogren’s, a systemic autoimmune disease that affects the entire body. This disease includes symptoms of extensive dryness, and other serious complications that include profound fatigue, chronic pain, and major organ involvement.
Believe me, I tried to push this Sjogren’s thing around, but she wasn’t having it and only flared up stronger. It was at this point that I knew that significant changes needed to occur to my diet, mindset, and fitness regimen or else this disease would continue to take me down. I no longer wanted to be the strongest or the best. I just wanted to find peace and balance for my mind and body.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, the changes started right away for me. For fitness, I immediately stopped the consistent pounding on my joints. This meant no more teaching and participating in high intensity workouts; walking now replaced running; I began to take yoga. You know, that slow activity where you were supposed to be “mindful” and focus on your breathe. My diet took on a big makeover too. Gluten-free became the norm (which is not as bad as it sounds). I significantly reduced the amount of sugar I ate, limited my meat intake, and doubled up on vegetables.
Probably the biggest shift I experienced was internally. I began to loosen the ties that I constrained myself with for my expectations. I worked on being present in the moment to enjoy my life and my family, and let go of my views that life was some sort of competition. Piece by piece, my well-being evolved into a better version of myself.
In reflection, I have no doubt that I brought on this autoimmune disease due to my poor lifestyle: my excessive exercise, my take no holds barred personality, and my diet lacking in balanced nutritional value. My focus was on my exterior and not true health. While I would like to not have this autoimmune disease that will follow me throughout my whole life, I am not certain that I would have changed on my own recourse. Life slowed me down for a good reason.
If you would see me today, you’d notice a different person from my younger self. I’m still fit and active (due to low impact exercises along with weight training and a few hours of yoga a week), but I’m kinder and gentler on myself. I’ve learned that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Because I know who I am and my limitations, I can pass on the acceptance and love to others more freely.
Don’t get me wrong. I am still a work in progress and could always eat even more vegetables, but I am happy with the wellness that I’ve cultivated across the last six years. It for this reason that I want to share my experiences of losing health and finding it again with the creation of Wonderment.
Although our paths in life may not be same, we all are able to make small choices that cultivate our health. I am grateful for the opportunities to share this knowledge with others through Wonderment and in life.