The following post is part of the The January Project: Chronic Illness. A month long project where I research and write about chronic illness. The information presented in this project is intended for educational purposes only.
I am not a doctor. I am a teacher and writer who, while being afflicted with two chronic illnesses, is just trying to learn how to live a productive and peaceful life
With this project I hope to increase awareness to comfort those living with chronic illness and to offer clarification to anyone who knows a person living with chronic illness.
Why am I sick?
Like a car accident, a chronic illness often comes without warning.
One minute you’re cruising along, windows down, radio up and the next you and your car are cartwheeling out of control through an intersection.
For me, the symptoms of my chronic illness happened overnight. Literally.
One day I was coaching and playing soccer and the next day my vision was blurry, my head was spinning and I barely had enough strength in my legs to climb a flight of stairs.
That was August of 2013.
According to the National Council of Health nearly 50% of Americans have at least 1 chronic illness.
Approximately, 161 million people are currently struggling fears and frustrations of having a chronic illness.
On September 5th an MRI of my brain revealed that I have cerebellar atrophy. In April of 2015 a muscle biopsy of my thigh revealed I have sarcoidosis– a chronic illness that causes muscular and organ inflammation.
And even with a medical diagnosis I wasn’t satisfied. My mind was cluttered with questions. Questions that spiraled from the origins of my illness to the existence of God.
Why did I get this sick?
What could I have done differently to avoid this fate?
Why is God doing this to me?
Hell, is there even God?
The uncertainty of a chronic illness unravels and unnerves you.
When unanswered questions snowballed I grew overwhelmed and experienced a sort of moral freeze. I couldn’t think, decide. I couldn’t, as my old soccer coach would say, “get my shit together.”
These were and still are the hardest moments for me. The moments I’m still ashamed to talk about.
In life we’re taught to be curious, to explore, to seek until we find what we’re looking for. Like a high stakes of hide-and-go-seek.
But what happens when there are no answers?
Even after years of blood tests, biopsies, scans and observations I still don’t know what caused my illnesses.
Five years ago I would not attest that uncertainty is an opportunity for growth and change. But know I do.
I realized that not knowing why I got sick is what inspired make a greater investment into my health.
According to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, patients, of chronic pain and respiratory disease patients and others with disorders that require a lifetime of coping report increased levels of depression and anxiety.
In 2013, when doctors first identified my first chronic illness, I was an active healthy 33 year old man. I was 180 pounds. I went to the gym after work and played soccer and softball on the weekends. I didn’t smoke. Didn’t use recreational drugs. Sure I had an occasional beer but overall I ate a balanced, protein-rich diet.
So why me? What caused the illness? Was there anything I could have done to prevent it?
Almost five years removed from my original diagnosis I still don’t know know what caused my illnesses.
Research has found three potential origins of chronic illness.
My experience with chronic illness has taught me that knowledge is power. And though the origin of your illness may remain a mystery, it’s crucial to educate yourself on the origins of chronic illnesses.
A former student once wrote a heartbreaking poem about how she was doomed to get dementia when she got older because all four of her grandparents had it.
It’s been long believed that since a chronic illness “runs in your family” you’re fated to get it.
And though genetics definitely is a factor of chronic illness, it’s not as determining as once thought. As science has advanced, research has proven that “inherited” is not “destined”.
Certainly genes are important in influencing our health, but there is no such thing as chronic-disease genes.–The Disease Delusion by Dr. Jeffrey S. Bland
This is good news for my former student. She is not necessarily fated to get dementia.
The human body consists of 20,000 genes and if you think of each gene as a lock, it’s a matter of discovering which keys unlock a chronic illness.
Growing research suggests that the “environmental key” and “behavior key” are the two most likely keys to unlocking the chronic illness door.
Furthermore, one key may unlock multiple doors. Meaning that is you have one chronic illness you’re at a higher risk for developing other chronic illnesses.
Environmental factors and chronic illness have a long history.
Historians pontificate that the fall of the Roman Empire was triggered by the high amounts of lead identified in their water pipes and in their drinking cups. More recent research revealed that an exposure to lead can significantly drop a person’s IQ. And a child’s exposure to lead can be fatal. Mental illness spread across Roman. Roman leadership became weak and unstable and mighty Empire fell.
In her 1962 landmark book Silent Spring Rachel Carson, announced that environmental toxicity is one of the leading factors in chronic illness. Her researched centered on DDT and other agricultural pesticides and how they were responsible for an increase in cancers.
Exposure to toxins and chemicals, such as asbestos and mercury can cause inflammatory reactions which often manifest into a chronic illness.
Since modern people are exposed to a multitude of environmental chemicals, it sometimes impossible to identify which chemical is responsible for unlocking a chronic illness.
However, just knowing which chemical haven proven toxic, can help you avoid them.
Behavior (Diet, Stress, Age)
This increase is a direct result to the availability of unhealthy foods, drugs, alcohol and the fact the humans are just now living longer.
A poor diet is one of the biggest contributors to obesity, diabetes and chronic inflammation.
A health diet fuels a healthy immune system which has the strength and energy to ward off chronic illness.
A well-balanced, vitamin rich diet is the most proactive step a person can take to preventing chronic illness.
I was on a moderate dose of Prednisone for 4 years to relieve my chronic pain. And even on Prednisone I was still in pain. However, since I shifted to a total plant based diet, I am completely off of Prednisone and my pain is gone.
You can read a more detailed version of how I overcome my Prednisone dependency in the article, “How I Finally Kicked Prednisone’s Ass.
The connection between stress and chronic illness is a little more unclear however, stress, if not addressed, does suppress the body’s immune system making the body susceptible to developing a chronic illness.
When under stress a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, digestion and muscle tension are all adversely affected.
However, not all stress is permanently damaging. Coping skills can help the body to return to normal rates. Yet when not addressed, stress becomes distress. And if a person has a genomic susceptibility to a chronic illness, the distress key can unlock a chronic illness.
This is why when a person is diagnosed with a chronic illness they are often urged to seek a mental professional help, to learn stress management techniques.
Aging causes changes to our immune system, which makes us more prone to developing a chronic illness.
And though we can not avoid aging we can adopt a healthy aging lifestyle that help delay or deter the onset of a chronic illness. This includes a healthy diet, exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and keeping yourself mentally active.
Research has found that chronic illness is unique to each physical body. One medicine doesn’t heal the masses.
To the veterans of chronic illness and to the newly diagnosed–I learned the hard way that you have to design an action health plan that is unique to your body. You have to conduct research, trust your body and invest in your health.