A friend of mine recently began experiencing some frightening health issues. Panic attacks, debilitating illness, the kinds of things that don't typically happen in your thirties. As soon as I learned of the situation, I immediately wondered what my friend's body was trying to tell him.
I've had my own health issues in the past that were, in reality, warning flares shot into the darkness intended to get me to pay attention to what I was doing to myself. Of course, I did not know that at the time. Back then, I simply got frustrated and angry with my body because it was keeping me from working harder. That is, until I read Dr. Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom.
It was 2009. I was working at a major news network in Chicago at the time and under major stress. I was constantly jumping on airplanes, waking up in hotels, working without sleep. Go, go, go. It seemed exciting at first but that quickly wore off. I was exhausted but I forced myself to keep going. And then my health began to fail.
One weekend in January, I woke up with a bad headache. Headaches were nothing new. I regularly had migraines and I took my prescription medication and thought that was that. That day, however, the pills didn't work. My headache got worse, nausea set in, and suddenly I felt the worst pain of my life. It was so bad, I knew something was really wrong. I tried lying down, or taking a nap but that was out of the question. That's when I called my mom. She urged me to go to the hospital but I could not drive myself. I finally reached a friend who, thank god, said she was on her way. I called my mom back to let her know my friend was coming, and asked her to stay on the line with me. The next thing I remember, I was on the floor, the phone on its side next to me. I had passed out from the pain. At the hospital, I was so dehydrated, I was immediately given fluids and morphine. Finally, the doctors gave me a reason for the pain: an ovarian cyst had ruptured.
That was scary enough. And yet, just a couple of months later, I was on my way into work on the L (train), reading emails on my Blackberry when the words ceased being legible, and turned instead into squiggles on a screen. I blinked and blinked but could not read the screen. I looked up and attempted to read the train map above the door. Blurred squiggles. That's when the pounding in my head began. Bam bam bam, it was like someone was hammering the left side of my brain. I started to panic. I didn't know what was wrong. I managed to make it into the bureau and tried to pretend like everything was normal. But when my producer asked if I was okay, I said, "I can't read anything. I can't read. My head is pounding. Something is really wrong." We rushed to the hospital and they immediately admitted me because the staff suspected I was having an aneurysm. I was put into the Cat Scan machine, and thankfully my results were normal. Diagnosis: abnormal migraine. Cause: stress.
That wasn't the last visit to the ER. Just a few weeks later, I was again doubled over in pain. This time, a kidney infection. I was at my wits end and so was my family. After a lifetime of health, I'd now been to the ER 3 times in 6 months. It made no sense. So I went to see a holistic doctor. She examined me, drew blood and asked me many questions. At the end of my visit, I asked, "What can I do?" She looked right at me and said, "You're extremely stressed. Quit your job." But there was no way I was going to quit. I was finally a network correspondent and nothing was going to ruin that.
With quitting out of the question but my health in jeopardy, I was in a rough place. That's when I serendipitously came across Dr. Northrup's book. I finally made the connection between my health issues and my current mindset. She explained that most migraine sufferers are Type A personalities, who hold excruciatingly high standards for themselves. Hello! That was me! She went on to say there was no pill to cure it. Instead, a migraine sufferer had to learn to ease up on themselves. Be nicer to themselves. Be encouraging. That was the lightning bolt moment. I realized I constantly criticized myself, I cut myself down, nothing I did was ever good enough for myself. I treated myself in ways that I would NEVER treat others. And that had to end.
I also realized that my body had been trying to save me from myself. That often when we inexplicably experience health issues, it's because of unhealthy mindsets or extreme stress. And I was unhealthy. I was extremely stressed, overtired and taxing my immune system. This realization changed my life. I finally understood that our health, so precious, so priceless, must be valued above all else. And if something we are doing is harming our health, we must take steps to change our behavior or situation.
In my case, it had everything to do with the unrelenting pace and impossible bar I'd set for myself. The workload. The pressure to be perfect. As I eased up on those ridiculous standards, I became happier. More centered.
Perfect is prison. And I was determined to break out.
Thankfully, I've never revisited those scary days. My health is great and I actively work to keep it that way. Most telling of all, I've never again had a migraine since that scary day in Chicago. I truly value myself these days. And that's the best medicine.
So if you find yourself experiencing physical symptoms that you can't explain, don't be angry at your body. It may be trying to help you, to force you to stop what you're doing and pay attention to areas in your life that may be out of balance. By no means do I believe that all illness is related to what I'm talking about and clearly medical issues deserve medical attention. However, it's worth exploring how your mindset, your current career environment, your relationship, whatever you're dealing with may be affecting your health.
Above all, be nicer to yourself. You deserve it, mind+body+soul.