A few years ago, I had a truly dreadful battle with some kind of gastrointestinal virus. It attacked me suddenly and within a few hours I found myself puking up blood into a garbage can at the triage desk of my local emergency room. It provided rather dramatic evidence that something was very wrong. I received some iv fluids and anti-nausea medication and by morning, I was completely wrung out, but feeling better. I was surprised that while waiting for the doctor to release me, the duty nurse said that she’d felt so bad for me the night before, seeing how sick I’d been. It shook me up a bit, this expression of sympathy from a nurse. Aren’t they supposed to be hardened to the worst of human suffering? I didn’t care for this version of myself that was so pathetic a nurse felt sorry for me.
Fast forward a couple of more years, and I’m back in the same emergency room, this time with chest pain and heart attack-like symptoms and the medical staff has decided that I am suffering from an anxiety attack. As I had no history of anxiety, attacks or otherwise, and had no particularly difficult stressors in my life at that moment, I was sceptical of the diagnosis. On the third visit with similar symptoms one nurse who’d been on duty each time suggested that “unconscious anxiety” was the source of my troubles. I really didn’t care for that version of myself that was so easily dismissed.
As I schlepped from specialist to specialist in the months that followed trying to find the source of my pain and fatigue, which turned out to be microvascular dysfunction, I would look around the waiting rooms and see other fat and tired middle-aged and older men and women, all with chronic conditions that limited their ability to fully engage with life. Some of us were seeking a diagnosis that would explain our illness, and some had multiple diagnoses, but nobody had any real hope that their health would ever be restored. And no one received any sympathy from nurses.
One of the more difficult aspects of having a chronic illness in middle age or older is that you join a club that no one wants to be in and whose membership rewards include patronizing attitudes from medical personnel and inordinate amounts of time spent in doctor’s offices and pharmacies. Female members get the added benefit of dismissal of their complaints as relating to hormones or lack thereof, and therefore of no particular concern to anyone.
These attitudes seep into your psyche and you start to believe that you are of no consequence. You’re old and you don’t matter, and your complaining is getting tiresome.
And so it went. Until I saw Forks Over Knives one evening and decided then and there to try this radical approach to reversing disease. Within a few weeks of changing to a whole foods, plant-based diet, I felt so much better, and had so much more energy that I found myself reading articles about improving athletic performance, rather than reading patient support forums. I started rowing on an indoor rowing machine and researching how to improve my fitness and speed, not just rehab from heart disease.
I stopped seeing my doctor every few weeks. The tracks on my inner arms from all the blood draws went away. I uninstalled the pharmacy app from my phone. I started to feel strong and fit and started to look it too. Men started smiling at me for no reason. I think they might be checking me out (or I’ve got green stuff stuck in my teeth so often now, and I’m completely misinterpreting – either is possible).
The thing is, in a remarkably short period of time, I started to feel like my old self again. Or, more precisely, my young self again. I didn’t see myself as a patient, but as a whole person who had taken control of my health. I wasn’t dependent on a doctor to adjust my nitro dose so I could exist without pain. I didn’t have to record symptoms in a log for the next doctor’s appointment. I didn’t have to worry about wearing myself out before I had prepared supper. I didn’t have to spend hours with Dr. Google wondering if there was some other interpretation of my test results.
Nope, in the time it takes to run through a typical course of antibiotics, I became the kind of person who is optimistic about the future. The kind of person who tries to figure out how to fit more exercise into a day, rather than how to minimize the number of trips up and down the stairs.
I guess I wasn’t sick long enough to develop the kind of empathy for myself that is required to successfully live with a chronic illness and if I ever get sick again, I will try to cultivate that quality. But quite frankly I like this version of myself much better. This version that doesn’t require any extra compassion or understanding from anyone. This strong and healthy version of myself that doesn’t let me down.
I’m a little unhappy about the last paragraph. I feel like I read so many articles and books about loving yourself and self-care and acceptance that I shouldn’t say out loud that I didn’t like being that middle-aged sick person. But that is advanced-level emotional awareness stuff which isn’t really me, so there it is. It’s just so much easier to change your diet and be well, than to learn to love your disappointing self.
I can’t promise you’ll see the same dramatic results that I did, just by changing to a whole foods, plant-based diet. But if feeling better will make you feel better, then I can’t think of a better way to go about it.