I was struggling with recurrent acute pancreatitis. For those of you who do not know, this condition is an inflammation of the pancreas that causes extreme pain and makes it very difficult to eat. Twice, my pancreas became so inflamed that it affected my liver. This problem began for me when I developed gallstones during my pregnancy with my son. After I had my gallbladder removed, I had no transition diet, no plan for re-strengthening my digestive capacity, and an incomplete understanding of how the body's fat metabolism can change when the gallbladder is removed.
The pancreas is an essential digestive organ responsible for processing sugars in our food. In people who have a gallbladder, that organ is largely responsible for digestion of fats in our food. I am really simplifying the process here, just for the purposes of explaining what happened to me and why I got so sick. Normally, the liver produces bile and sends it to the gallbladder, where it is stored. When we eat food containing fat, the gallbladder will secrete a proportional amount of bile to enable us to digest the fat. However, when the gallbladder is removed, the body does not secrete bile in proportion to fat intake. The pancreas will take over the bile-secreting function, but that function is no longer done in response to our ingestion of fats.
What happened in my case was that my body, over time, lost the ability to digest much of anything. At first, sticking to a low-fat diet allowed me to avoid pancreatic episodes. Gradually, more and more foods began to cause pain when I ate them. I got to the point where I could no longer eat more than a few bites of food at a time. Eating any more than that caused me to have severe abdominal pain and extreme bloating.
I was a size zero in clothing at my lowest point, and I typically had to purchase clothing in the teen boys' section. My body lacked any kind of feminine shape and even clothes from the junior girls' departments sagged in weird places. Not to mention there are many styles of clothing that a woman doesn't want to wear past a certain age: think frilly things and lace. Unfortunately, this point in my life at which I was extremely ill was also the time during which I was deemed the most attractive. I literally could not go anywhere without someone trying to get my phone number. It was awful. Imagine going to a café for some quiet time with your favorite book and being constantly interrupted by pick-up lines.
Some people will read this and think something like, "Oh, must be nice to be so cute."
But no, it really isn't. It is a terrible thing to be so sick that all you want is to be able to eat a small meal without pain, and to know that the majority of the world finds your illness to be downright sexy. It is also an uncomfortable thing for an introvert like myself to be given so much attention in public.
In most cases, alcoholism is the cause of pancreatitis. In my case, I was very health conscious and definitely not drinking enough alcohol to cause health problems. I was a vegan vegetarian and ran 2 miles daily. The only things I drank were 1 coffee per day, water, and at most 2 alcoholic beverages when out with friends. I worked too much to have time for clubbing and drinking. After my pancreatitis began, I stopped drinking alcohol altogether for many years.
After undergoing colonoscopies, endoscopies, countless blood draws, MRIs, CAT scans, and many other tests, I was deemed to be in "perfect health" by all my doctors. One of them told me, "Michelle, I have no idea what is going on with you. I have never in my life seen such perfect labs."
This same doctor went on to ask me a question that would change my life: "Are you stressed at all?"
I was, in fact, extremely stressed. I was working so much that I was missing a lot of time with my young son. I was also involved in a very strict exercise regimen because I was training with athletes who were preparing for the Beijing Olympics in Judo. My family spent our time together largely at the gym, playing on the Judo mats, working out, and going to tournaments. My job at the time was also very physical, and demanded a lot of emotional energy.
There came a point in my medical diagnostic journey when I reached the end of what I could achieve. I was told that there was nothing wrong with me and that I had the option of undergoing an experimental surgery that had a high mortality rate and was not guaranteed to help me even if I survived. I should probably mention that, having worked in a prestigious medical practice, I had good connections and access to the best doctors around. So when my "last hope" GI specialist told me there was nothing he could do to help me feel better, I knew I had to find another path. Every pancreatic attack gave me a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer and I was desperate to get well.
For whatever reason, I recalled a moment from my freshman year of college. I was in my dorm's lounge area, studying for a final exam in my World Religions class. I read one sentence in my textbook that said: "Ayurveda is the native medical system of India."
I had always been curious to learn more about Ayurveda. In that moment of recollection, it occurred to me that Ayurveda might offer an explanation about what was wrong with me. Intuitively, I felt like the idea was worth pursuing.
At this point in my cycles of recurrent pancreatitis, I was constantly losing weight. To compensate, I loaded my body with protein daily to keep enough muscle mass to maintain my workout schedule. I was eating a no-fat diet. I had to eat every two hours throughout the day because my body could not handle a full meal at one time. I had been constipated for years and I regularly became so bloated that I looked pregnant. This was certainly not the best time in my life. I needed something to change fast.
I decided to do some research about Ayurveda to see if it was valid. I read clinical trials testing Ayurvedic medicines, textbooks, and academic studies. I wanted scientific evidence that this system was worth exploring and I found it. What I uncovered was a wealth of information about a medical system that went beyond physiology.
I discovered that Ayurveda offered explanations about how my current state of digestive health could have evolved over many years. Not only did the Ayurvedic system explain the biology of my condition, it illuminated how it was created by improper diet, over-exercise, emotional states, stress, and toxic relationships in my life.
Having satisfied my intellectual self that Ayurveda was a scientific system, I decided to dive into treatment. What did I have to lose? I modified my diet according to Ayurvedic recommendations, and I noticed much less pain and bloating after meals. Little by little, I incorporated more Ayurvedic techniques into my life. I began to do therapeutic Yoga. I practiced new meditations and modified my daily routine to reduce stress. I eventually changed jobs. The final piece was to give away all my clothes that were too small as I began to put some weight on again, and to give myself permission to be whatever size my body needed to be as long as it was healthy. I said out loud to myself three times every day, "I don't care what size I am as long as I am healthy."
This affirmation was the key to my finally achieving full health again. What I haven't told you yet is that right before I got pregnant with my son, I had set an intention to lose weight. Having a naturally muscular and athletic body in comparison with most of my waif-like female peers, I had struggled with body image issues my whole life up until I became pregnant. When I set this weight loss intention one month before becoming pregnant, this is what I said out loud, "I am going to be skinny. I don't care how sick I have to be. I will be thin for once in my life."
I said those exact words and I remember them like it was yesterday. Well, I got my wish. I became very thin...and extremely sick.
My healing journey with Ayurveda is what enabled me to realize that I would never be able to heal fully as long as some part of me was holding onto my illness. If any part of my psyche was still hoping to one day fit into those size zero jeans again, if any part of me still wanted to be skinny more than to be well, then I knew I could easily start down the path to disease again.
This is the story of how Ayurveda saved my life. It taught me how to heal. It allowed me to eat once again without pain. It led me on a journey to self-empowerment and confidence. The woman I am today cannot believe that the woman I was preferred to be sick and thin over healthy and any size.
At this point in my life, I feel healthier than I ever have. I feel beautiful every day. I am grateful for my body and all the things it is capable of doing. I have learned to listen to my body and respect what it needs. I have learned how to exercise with self-compassion. Above all, I have learned that health comes by integrating mind, body, and spirit. All three of these must be whole and content for health to exist.
My personal healing journey is the reason I became an Ayurvedic practitioner. I want to help as many people as possible to have the same radical healing experience that I had. Ayurveda truly saved my life. That message of radical healing is what I hope to bring to the world, and to each person who comes to visit me in my office.