How I Stopped Obsessing About My Illness and Started to Live, Again

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The Specific Carbohydrate Diet. The Low-Histamine Diet. The FODMAPS Diet. The Gluten Free Diet. The Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Soy-Free, Sugar-Free, and everything but salmon and spinach free Diet. The eat whatever you want diet, because no matter what you eat, you’ll feel sick anyway. The supplements. The activated charcoal, the peppermint capsules, the L-Glutamine powders, the mastic gum, the DGL licorice tablets and digestive enzymes, the apple cider vinegar and the probiotics… it never ends!

I’ve messed with all these diets, all these supplements in hopes to solve my five-year bout of undiagnosed and misdiagnosed stomach ailments. Combined with trips to naturopaths, gastroenterologists, acupuncturists, rolfers, and psychiatrists I have been on a quest for self-cure. While some people may have found the magical medicine, how do the rest of us cope with these unsolved pain disorders?

Up until this year, I truly believed I was the sole bearer of these inexplicable symptoms. But one by one, I learned that some of my fellow colleagues and teachers had been afflicted with the stomach curse. The immediate response was to compare notes, to form instant bonds over the chaos that had dragged our lives into uncertainty and hopelessness. I shared all the nitty-gritty details about supplements I’ve tried, diets I’ve experimented with, and the broad scope of Eastern and Western medicine practitioners I’ve seen.

But what I didn’t cover is something I didn’t discover until now. My ability to finally call awareness to a technique that I’ve been practicing for over a year. Tricking the brain out of pain. Last year, I spent three weeks at the Mayo Clinic, and learned that my catch all illness was “autonomic dysfunction” a fancy way of saying that my nervous system was out of whack. This didn’t mean my pain wasn’t real, or even that it was triggered by my mind. What it did mean is that I could find ways to detach myself from the nonstop stomach pains I experienced.

It took a while of messing inside my toolbox, picking out the helpful tools and throwing the rest out. I instantly threw out diets, supplements, and medications because those were hard-tried and unsuccessful. I welcomed in distraction, the fake it till you make it approach, and what I call the “separation of emotional and physical pain.” Ding ding ding!

Distraction. Making a pact to no longer obsess about my illness. No talking about it with my family or friends and no more countless hours spent on health blogs. And this was one of the hardest parts for me to do. It took time to no longer spend 24 hours focused on my body’s second brain. But I wanted to change. I wanted to re-engage with the things in my life that made me happy and passionate, long before my illness. I bought a sketchpad. I began taking acting classes again, after a year hiatus from my rigorous conservatory training program. I did what I could to diminish a stomach screaming out for constant attention.

Fake it til you make it. I wasn’t going to give in. No matter how bad the pain was, I would keep myself active. The activities would demand something out of me, something of who I was and not who my illness was.  An initial attempt at self-inflicted boot camp, you may call it. But it was really about stepping into my “real-human-being-without-pain” persona. I played pretend. I told myself I wasn’t in pain, nor was I going to show my pain. I treated myself differently. I found more self-compassion for the things I’d gone through, which certainly boosted my ability to disengage with pain.

The separation of emotional and physical pain. The pain I experienced over the past few years had put me in consistently low moods, crippling depression, and anxiety. I couldn’t figure out how to break out of this cycle of physical pain triggering emotional pain. So, I started to ask myself–am I feeling down because my stomach hurts or because of something else? Slowly the emotional pain broke off its connection to the physical pain. I maximized the things in my life that made me happy, began gratitude practices, and after a year break, returned to my home; acting school.

You may be thinking, OK…but did your pain go away? The answer is no. Well, not fully. Tricking myself has diminished the pain significantly, but more importantly, has given me back a fulfilling life. If 9 times out of 10, you asked me are you in pain right now, I would say…”What?” Because pain isn’t a thought that even crosses my mind anymore. I’ve wiped it out so that it doesn’t poison my own being. Yes, I’m a human being and every now and then I succumb to the unrelenting feelings of physical pain. But for the majority of the time–I am who I was before, the goofy girl with a true zest for life.