"You need to call me."
It's amazing how you can read into your mother's text messages. It wasn't necessarily the curt nature of it, that's fairly standard in texts from my parents -- it's a generational thing. It was the period at the end. The word "need." The directive -- you.
As I walked back over the Williamsburg Bridge from my Sunday night yoga class, I hit Mom Cell from my phone's favorites list. Her voice was deeper. And very authoritative. Shit. She was in Mom-Mode.
"He's okay..." she started.
"What." I spat out. Knowing that "okay" is a spectrum state of being and not sure yet who "he" was, immediately my arms sprouted goose bumps. My body braced for the worst.
Honestly, I'm not exactly sure how the rest of that particular conversation went. I heard "Dad," "Hospital," and "Heart," in the same sentence and it was like no other words existed in the English language. It's amazing how the whole world disintegrates in moments like that. As I walked home, the city backdrop chipped away and my universe solely consisted of the thin air that surrounded my body and the voice on the other end of phone.
The next few days were a series of text messages and calls -- good news, bad news, good news, bad news... It was a terrible week.
But now, after the fact, I can happily say that, at the end of it all, my family really lucked out with this one. After a few procedures and a lot of stress, my dad really is pretty far right on the Spectrum of Okay. But, it could have been bad. I don't even want to think about it, but if they hadn't gone to the hospital, that initial phone call with my mom would have started with very different words...
I get asked ask all the time why I'm so into health and wellness. And I've touched on it before, but I've been reluctant to tell my own health's story. Mostly that's because of fear and self-consciousness -- scared of taking the personal, too personal. But after my family's recent scare, I feel that it's more important to be transparent about it than ever. So...
If you look at my Instagram feed, you see swing sets, blues skies, and cityscapes. I'm smiley. I'm young(ish). I take pictures of broccoli and document my love for odd and challenging workouts. When you meet me, I've been told my energy is "up front," and "intense," and my hands have been known to knock over a wine glass or two in fervent explanation of something I'm passionate about. You'd never know it, but the truth is, that I haven't always been this annoyingly energetic.
My own health's decline was steady. Looking back I can see the writing on the wall -- it started slowly, years ago, with random illness after random illness. Frequent digestive issues and odd internal temperature fluctuations. Eventually, my stomach began waging war on every bite I put in my mouth. A long time vegetarian, I was known in my circles for being an incredibly "healthy" eater, but by June of 2012, every meal invoked a battle in my intestines. Somehow, even salad became the enemy. I loathed every time I had to eat.
And I was tired. Holy hell, I was so tired. My body felt heavy. Usually agile and very adept at physical challenges, my limbs became like lead on even a single-mile run. It was unbelievable. I was 28 and couldn't get up my three-story walkup without sitting on a stair to take a break.
I sat in lobby after lobby of doctors offices and specialists. Outwardly I looked fine, and every one of them said the same stupid thing -- "Look at you! You're healthy!" I would come in and face the doctor with a list of possible ailments (candida, fructose malabsorption, lupus, celiac), and, very literally, I got laughed at. It was infuriating. After a basic blood work-up would come back normal, they'd tell me it was in my head and try to put me on antidepressants. Upon my refusal to take prescription drugs without a diagnosis, time after time, I was shown to the door.
At the urging of a nutritionist, I went on the FODMAP diet, eliminating lactose and gluten and my mainstays like garlic, onions, apples, stone fruits, artichokes... most vegetables, really. My friends became reluctant to ask me out to eat because they would feel awful as I sat there food-less while they enjoyed their meals.
My mystery illness soon took over my life. My days were shortened. I would go into the city for one audition or a meeting and would drag my body home to lock myself away and recover from the outing.
I knew something was wrong. My body felt like someone else's, but over and over, I heard the same thing: "Sorry. Don't know what to tell you. You're fine."
I was so deep in different diets trying to figure out my problems on my own. Eliminating food groups systematically, wondering if I was allergic to eggs, or tomatoes, or maybe it was something less apparent like black mold in my apartment, or toxins in old paint. I looked into so many possibilities and was left confused and completely disheartened.
Believe it or not, the turning point in my health came at the unlikely location of the hair salon. My usual guy, Xavier, shampooed my hair and I sat down in front of the mirror. Gave him the same directions I always gave, "Whatever you wanna do, I just can't look too different because of headshots."
He started chatting, combing my hair, joking that one day I'd let him really do what he wants and chop it all off into a pixie cut... and then he stopped dead. "Hmm." He said delicately. "Sarah, hun, I don't remember this being here..."
"What?" I said, so confused.
"Don't freak out. Okay, hun?"
I remember thinking, uh-oh. He used "hun" twice... He handed me a mirror and spun me around. Lifted my wet hair...
Immediately, I started crying. My body, which had been a confusing puzzle for months was trying to tell me something, and I could not figure it out. I was scared and I was so frustrated. But a part of me felt oddly relieved -- finally, I had proof.
... or so I thought. The next few weeks were a series of incredibly painful cortisone shots and more doctors. Even with a body that was shutting down and a perfectly round bald spot that popped up on the back of my head, "you're healthy," was still the common reaction. I was in shock. Everyone tried to tell me the various symptoms plaguing me were unrelated and there was nothing to be done.
And then I got angry...
I Dr. Housed my symptoms every night, Googling until early morning hours. Finally, late one night, deep in a Google-click-fest, I stumbled upon a holistic dermatologist that, while unconventional, seemed to know his stuff. I sent an email -- a very direct and somewhat desperate one. It was past midnight, but he sent a reply within minutes.
After a FULL health history and major blood work-up, he devised a plan for me. To say that his practices were unconventional is putting it lightly. But, the truth is, that after a year of working with him and systematically treating my situation using only diet and lifestyle change, and supplementation, the improvement is mind-blowing. And you simply can't argue with what works.
People think I grew up with green juice in my sippy cup and kale chips alongside my chicken fingers. But it's just not so. It's been a long-time learning experience for me, too. I came to realize that I needed to stop fighting my body, and start listening -- a lesson that I carry into many aspects of my life.
Many times, now, people don't even believe me when I mention I was sick. And, really, I guess I've done a pretty good job at keeping it personal. Most of my close friends don't even know what I went through. And you certainly won't see most of these pics on my Instagram...
When I say I'm a holistic nutritionist, many expect me to go on a rant about GMOs or tout veganism as the be-all-end-all. What they don't expect is a fervent flow on the importance of an individual's microbiome, the power of neuroplasticity, and how to spot subclinical thyroid issues. When I talk about gut bacteria, and gluten, and meditation, it's not about a fad diet or a bikini body -- I'm talking about preventing another person from being that girl that was curled up in pain, and I'm talking about preventing another person from hearing the numbing sound of Mom-Mode on the other end of the phone.
The body is an incredible machine. I have such a respect for the mechanisms that keep us alive and how intricate and interconnected our systems are. I know what it feels like when it works, and I know what it feels like when it quits.
Today, my hair has grown back, and I have more energy than I've had in my whole life. Every day is different, and it's a constant learning experience, but I'm doing very well. And I am so grateful to my unfortunate situation -- all of it. The fear, the frustration, the mess of probable causes and attempted cures. The whole experience provided me with passion and knowledge that I wouldn't have otherwise. And it has put me in a position to help others.
With the launch of The Wellness Project, I get to talk frequently about other people's health. I get asked random questions all the time about juicing, and the Paleo diet, and food allergies. The fastest way to get me excited is to bring up probiotics or the American food supply. I truly love talking about all of it -- because, at the crux, is my own experience and my passion for sharing that with others.
Illness has so many questions, and the thing is that the answer isn't always what you want to hear. I spent two years on very strict eating plans and a long list of daily supplements. It was definitely not easy. I even cooked myself sugar-free, grain-free Thanksgiving dinner alongside my family's meal of stuffing and pumpkin pie when I was healing. In today's world health is not the simplest choice. Trust me, though, the work is definitely worth it. And popping a pill is very, very rarely the answer.