Up until I was 20 years old, I was pretty much your average young adult. I got the annual cold, but other than that I didn’t have any serious health problems.
The summer before I turned 20, I ended up getting so sick I was unable to be out of bed for more than two hours at a time, couldn’t keep food down or in, and extreme abdominal pain became my “normal”. That summer of 2013 I experienced the worst physical and emotional pain I had ever had, and the worst part was that my doctors had no answers for me.
After three months and 35lbs stripped from my already slim frame, the lack of answers started to be “We don’t have answers now, but whatever is wrong with you, it’s very serious”, and I was terrified. I had to quit work, quit school, and my relationship was deteriorating daily – I had just moved in with my boyfriend at the beginning of summer, and no 20 year old boy expects to be a caretaker and sole provider for a household.
Finally, they figured out that I had celiac disease. It’s an auto-immune disorder that means I cannot ingest gluten, a protein found in what, barley, and rye. If I do, it kills the little protrusions in my intestines that help absorb nutrients from food. For one, this means that I can’t get the nutrients I need from the food I eat, but it also means a whole host of unpleasant symptoms that can last from a few hours to 3 weeks.
My recovery took almost a full year, and also came with a completely new reality post-diagnosis. That first year was full of a lot of trial and error, especially when it came to eating out and re-learning how to cook at home. I also experienced a lot of anger, frustration, and feelings of “why me?” whenever my illness would flare up from the trial and error. I hated the way I looked at 90-something pounds and standing 5’8″ tall. I was afraid that I would never be “normal” or “healthy” or “beautiful” again. This anger, fear, and frustration took a huge toll on me over time, and I remember the first two years of my illness being pretty dark. The feelings inside made it difficult to succeed in other relationships – I withdrew from family and friends at an alarming rate; I did not want to be cared for and would become angry with people for even trying. I dressed in over-sized clothing and hid my body as best I could and not only could I not take a compliment, I was extremely sensitive to comments about my weight and it affected my ability to stay calm in public for fear of someone saying literally anything about my weight – positive, negative, or neutral.
I don’t remember a specific moment where I was like, “Enough is enough I am better than this”. Instead, I remember the moment where I thought “This is my way out”, and that thought hit me when volunteering at a Spartan Race. Simply put, Spartan Races are these obstacle courses where you complete obstacles, run through mud and water, throw spears, jump over fire, and earn a medal. There are some finer details, but I remember in February 2015 I didn’t care about the finer details – I just knew that if I could run one Spartan Race, I would feel like I had truly beaten my illness.
I didn’t end up running my first Spartan until the following February, but it was exactly what I had hoped. I crossed the finish line after 2 hours of the best experience of my life, and immediately burst into tears. That was the first time I have ever experienced that level of overwhelming joy – there was no way I could hold anything back. For the first time in three years, I finally felt whole, capable, and healthy, and after finishing that first race I committed myself to running two more races that year, including a 15 miler through the mountains in Lake Tahoe. To go from bedridden to crushing mountain terrain, I felt beyond grateful for a second shot, and I had an unquenchable fire in my soul to go out and get those other two medals. I truly believed that all the fear, anger, and frustration were behind me, and during that year I was right.
I had an incredible first season in 2016, but everything fell apart last year. You cannot rest on your laurels – that is to “be so satisfied with what one has already achieved that one makes no further effort”, and you bet I learned this the hard way. I did the bare minimum amount of effort required to run three races, and every single one of them failed to give me the same amount of joy and satisfaction that my whole first season gave me. I also started to neglect my health, and dropped 6 pounds of muscle I couldn’t afford to lose. My lack of training resulted in a couple lasting injuries that I am still dealing with this year. My mental state began to deteriorate as a result of me losing my grasp on my fitness, and I could feel myself sliding into the same dark foggy area that I existed in immediately after my diagnosis.
Now, in my third season, I am working very hard to correct the mistakes I made last year, and build a toolkit to help me stay on top of my mental and physical health. Because the only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten free diet, it is really easy for me to forget that I have an auto-immune disorder, and that I need to make rest and recovery a higher priority than the average athlete. I also know that I have an anxiety disorder and that my mental health is equally if not more important than my physical health, and that I need to fully accept that I have anxiety. I am still working to convince myself that I am not less awesome or less capable because of that.
Re-evaluating this year and making my mental and physical health my top priority is helping me to rebuild my happiest life, but it is not easy. I have had to learn how to reframe my perception of failure, and when to ask for help, two things that do not come naturally to me but help me bounce back and achieve goals much faster than when I allow myself to be a toxic lone wolf. I have learned how to own my reality without making everything about my illness – something that could not happen until I got on top of my health and could count on symptom-free days. Sometimes, I find myself convincing myself that that all this self-improvement work is a pain in the ass and a waste of time because things “weren’t that bad before”, but now I have the strength to be honest with myself, point out that things WERE that bad before, and accept that I am a work in progress. Strength isn’t how well you perform when things are easy, strength is how you perform when weaker people would have already quit – your illness weakened your body, don’t let it make your spirit weak too.