The Tale of Supergirl…
Growing up I loved the Superman movies with Christopher Reeves. I used to watch them frequently thinking they were pretty awesome. Watching them as an adult I see how cheesy they are and how bad the graphics are. lol… but, that doesn’t change the fact that Superman is my still favorite superhero. I always joke that Clark Kent is my perfect man… not only is he tall, dark, and handsome, I like his character – he’s quiet, socially awkward, kinda nerdy, and to the outside world he seems weak and incompetent at times, but in reality… he’s strong, smart, and in a crisis, he is definitely someone you want around… Clark Kent may be the reason why I have a thing for guys in glasses to this day. Hmmmm… I digress… 😉 In a way I sorta feel like Clark… minus the tall, dark, and handsome part. haha… Other than that, it pretty accurately describes me. I am quiet (until you get to know me), socially awkward (hence, the quietness), and kinda nerdy. Growing up I was told I was weak and incompetent, so that became my inner dialogue for many years. However, as I grew older and entered the world on my own, I realized that I am strong, smart, and I am a person you would want around in a crisis… this is what made me a good EMT. Occasionally that old dialogue creeps back in from time to time, and I find myself proving that I am strong – physically, mentally, and emotionally… in my job, in the gym, in life. It doesn’t matter what chaos, crisis, challenge, obstacle, weight, or anything else you throw at me – I can handle it. This makes me Supergirl… at least in my mind. 😉
But, my perception has changed in the last few years, and I have realized how mortal I really am. Exactly 2 years ago was my last fitness competition. I trained really hard during my prep. Harder than I ever have before. My physique came in better than ever, and I walked away with 2 First Place wins, and my Pro Status with the WBFF… a goal I secretly wanted to accomplish. All of the hours in the gym, the ups and downs of my prep, had finally paid off. I was proud of what I had accomplished… but I had struggles that no one knew about.
I looked amazing on the outside, but in reality, I was doing damage to my health. I started noticing during my prep that I had unusual muscle fatigue during my workouts. I would want to push myself harder, but my body would not cooperate at times. I started having GI distress. My acne flared up again. I was tired – physically and mentally. I may have looked great, but I was a wreck. After my competition, I trained for a half marathon. It went well. Even though I am NOT a runner, I placed 6th in my age category… not too shabby! When the race was over I immediately started training for a powerlifting competition the following spring, so I switched up my training to really heavy lifts… again proving how strong I am. 😉
In the months following my competition my health continued to decline as I continued training for these different events. It’s normal for me to feel like crap when I’m on a competition diet and cutting, but always in the past I would feel better after it was over and I increased my Calories, even if I continued training hard. But, not this time… I was actually getting worse. I gained 20 pounds within a couple of months, despite the fact that I was eating a clean diet and training hard. My acne was going crazy, and my hair was falling out… these changes in my outward appearance were disturbing, but even more disturbing was how I felt on the inside. I had chronic pain in all my muscles and joints – nothing relieved it. It was hard to do my job at times. Then, I started having memory problems and putting my thoughts together… complete brain fog. I was extremely fatigued too. I didn’t know what was going on. I decided to stop lifting weights for an entire month to see if that would help with the pain. Instead, I did yoga. Nothing else. I continued my clean diet, and I tried to focus on rest… because I was exhausted – ALL. THE. TIME. I would sleep any chance I could get… day or night. Which for an insomniac that normally lives on 6 hours of sleep or less a night, this was completely out of the ordinary for me. Now, I was sleeping 8-10 hours a night, sleeping in between client sessions, taking naps any chance I could get, and yet, I was still exhausted.
After the month of nothing but yoga, I decided to get a massage before attempting to lift weights again. I was still having chronic joint pain, so I thought it would help. When I went to get my massage I had so much pain in my muscles, I couldn’t even let the massage therapist touch some areas of my body… and I have a very high pain tolerance. I don’t take pain medication of any kind, even after surgeries, or injuries, etc. I just deal with it and move on. So, the fact that I couldn’t handle a gentle massage after 4 weeks of not touching a weight was very alarming. I knew it was time to go get help instead of trying to manage everything on my own. I felt like a crazy hypochondiac because I was having a ton of very vague symptoms. I’ve worked in healthcare as an EMT for 18+ years, and anytime I had a patient with the symptoms I was experiencing, I would roll my eyes at them and think they were a hypochondriac. Patient’s with my symptoms were diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, they were put on an antidepressant, and sent on their way because there’s not much a doc can do to make you feel energized or pain free… so, I decided to seek treatment from a functional medicine/alternative medicine doctor instead… and I am so glad I did.
The first thing they did was test me for food sensitivities. I had a ton – gluten, dairy, soy, corn, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, etc), citrus, peanuts, almonds, and pork. I had developed leaky gut from stress to my body from over-training. Leaky gut occurs when small gaps develop in the normally tight junctions of the GI tract. Because of this, larger particles of food were escaping into my system and causing systemic inflammation throughout my body, and producing the symptoms of joint pain, muscle pain, and brain fog. At this point I had been in chronic pain, with no relief, for 6 months… after a week of eliminating the foods that were causing my body to be chronically inflamed, my pain was pretty much gone. It was such a relief!
Next, they determined I had adrenal fatigue… another complication that can occur from stress – physical, mental, or emotional. The adrenal glands are small endocrine organs that sit on top of your kidneys. They are responsible for releasing our stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol (as well as aldosterone). Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone that is released when you are in immediate danger. It’s what makes your heart beat fast when you’re in a near car accident. Cortisol is the chronic stress hormone. It’s associated with weight gain, especially belly fat, and it’s very bad for your health if elevated constantly. This explained my sudden weight gain, despite all of my attempts to prevent it, and lose it, even though I was doing everything “right”. When one hormone is “off” it creates a cascade effect and can make other hormones out of balance too. I was put on supplements to support my adrenals, which seemed to help, although I wasn’t out of the woods yet…
I seemed to be getting better the first few weeks of treatment, but then I got worse. Much worse. My fatigue became so severe… I honestly can’t put it into words how bad it was. I live in a second story apartment, and everyday when I got home, I would have to sit in my car and rest before I could go upstairs. At the bottom of the stairs I would give myself a “pep talk” to make it up the one flight to get home. I would literally tell myself to put one foot in front of the other on each step, as I pulled myself up by the hand rail. I would have to lay down and rest as soon as I got inside, and that’s where I would stay until I had to go back to work. Along with the fatigue, my brain quit working. I’ve always had a good memory, and I’m pretty quick witted, but all of that was gone. I would forget my client’s names. I would forget client’s appointments. I couldn’t remember exercises! I had to make reminders and notes for everything… even to go to work (because I would literally forget). When I would talk to people, it was really hard for me to comprehend what they were saying at times… it’s like my brain had a 3 second delay. I had to think really hard of a response that made sense. It was exhausting, and it was causing me to do things that didn’t make sense. For instance, I got a speeding ticket after going on a class field trip with my daughter. I was so exhausted from walking with them for an hour or two, that all my brain could do was concentrate on getting home as soon as possible to rest… I saw the cop, I knew I was speeding, but my brain didn’t care. My reflexes didn’t respond to slow down… I just blew right past him… resulting in a $500 consequence. It really sucked.
Due to my fatigue and my brain fog, I became very reclusive. 1) because I was literally too exhausted to get up and go anywhere and 2) I was scared to… I was afraid I would do something stupid like get another speeding ticket, or leave my daughter somewhere in public because I would forget I brought her with me. Anytime I had time away from work I had to dedicate to recovery and rest so I could go back to work and provide for us. I was terrified. I’m a single mom, who is solely responsible for my daughter… what the hell was I going to do if I got worse?! How long could I keep going?
My weight continued to climb, despite doing everything I know to do for weight loss… I would literally gain 4-5 pounds in a day depending on if I didn’t get enough sleep, or if I ate something I was reacting to, or whatever… It was sooooooo frustrating. I had 2 different MDs tell me I was probably just eating too much. No, I wasn’t. I haven’t had a piece of pizza in over a year and a half. My diet has been the healthiest it’s ever been, I quit drinking alcohol, and yet my weight continued to climb. At my highest weight I was nearly 30 pounds over my “normal” weight… just a few pounds shy of what I weighed the day I had my daughter. It really messed with my self-esteem, and I was scared people would judge me for being an overweight trainer/nutritionist. I so desperately wanted to look and feel like myself again. I missed being able to be active. I missed being strong. I missed feeling comfortable in my own skin. I missed my memory…. I missed me. I was no longer able to do it all myself. I had to lean on others. I was no longer Supergirl in any sense. It was humbling, to say the least….
People started noticing I wasn’t myself, and started asking if I was okay. Up to this point I had kept everything hidden pretty well (I thought)… because that’s what I do. As a single mom, you feel like you can’t reach out and ask for help, because you don’t want to impose on anyone. If shit goes wrong, you handle it. Everyday. In every way. By yourself. It’s what I had learned to do, but now I couldn’t rely on the things I normally relied on – a strong body and brain, because they were failing me… So, I told a few friends and family members about what was happening. I got responses ranging from extreme concern (which made me uncomfortable) to nonchalant responses such as… “Well, you’re getting older, and this is just a part of it” or “Maybe you’re just depressed, and should go on an anti-depressant” Neither of these ideas sat well with me. I refused to accept that this was due to age. There was no way in hell I was going to live like this the rest of my life like this until I died. And, I wasn’t depressed… at least in the sense that the depression was causing my symptoms. Yes, it depressed me that I suddenly couldn’t do the things I had always done, like workout, but I wasn’t clinically depressed. I was told “depression is nothing to be ashamed of… it’s just a chemical imbalance” To which my response was “I’m not ashamed, and IF there is a chemical imbalance… why?” I wanted to find the root cause, not just cover up a symptom with a pill. I wanted to be myself again.
Since my symptoms were getting worse, I was tested for a few other things… I found out I had Epstein Barr (the virus that causes mononucleosis aka “the kissing disease”) I didn’t actively have mono, but apparently I had in the past. It’s estimated that approximately 90% of people have had Epstein Barr, but most people have it as a child, when it appears as a mild illness… so, they are never officially diagnosed. If you contract it as a teenager or an adult, then you present with the more severe symptoms of mono – fatigue, weight loss, etc. For most people after they are exposed, they will go the rest of their lives without any complications from it, but in a certain population it can act like an autoimmune condition, and go out of remission… which is the case for me. The stress of my competition training lowered my immune function, which made this dormant virus active again. This explained my extreme fatigue. I found out I had multiple nutritional deficiencies, as well… I was eating healthy, but my body wasn’t absorbing everything it should. I also found out I have chronic Lyme which had gone out of remission… much like the Epstein Barr. This explained my broken brain, as well as random joint pain I would still experience from time to time.
I wasn’t thrilled about potentially having these chronic issues, but at least I felt less like a hypochondriac. Now I had some explanations as to what was happening to me… why I was gaining so much weight… why I felt the way I felt… it wasn’t just in my head, it wasn’t because I was getting older, it wasn’t because I “let myself go”, it wasn’t because I was depressed… having this knowledge made me feel empowered to find the solution. It’s hard to fight a battle, when you don’t know who the enemy is…
Though my body and brain had become very weak, my faith in God strengthened the most it ever has. Romans 8:28 states “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I knew there was a purpose for this. Because of my struggles, I educated myself even about more about nutrition… way beyond anything I was taught in my Dietetics degree. I learned about hormones, mitochondrial function, inflammation, gut health, autoimmunity, etc… I’ve learned so much over the past 2 years. Even on my worst days I knew that I was going to get through this. I knew I could heal my body, and I knew I would be stronger, better, and wiser because of it. I knew I would be able to help others struggling with this, or something similar. I knew I couldn’t give up… because there was so much more for me to do… to be a mother to my daughter, and be a health advocate to others… to help them not just live, but to thrive through healthy habits and mindset. So, for that, I am grateful. I am a much better health coach because of this, and I feel so blessed to be able to help others by using the knowledge that I’ve gained.
Because of this experience I stopped dismissing symptoms, and just pushing through life… I started trusting my body to give me signals as to when something was off. I learned how to decipher if something was good for me or bad for me (such as food) by how I felt afterwards.
After some of the inflammation reduced, I could pinpoint symptoms and reactions I would have to different foods or behaviors. When your body is chronically inflamed, you can’t identify these things… instead you just kinda feel crappy all of the time. I think most people live in this state, and don’t even realize it… they just accept the fact that it’s “normal” to feel fatigue, pain and stiffness, brain fog, etc…. but, I’m here to tell you – it’s not normal!
Eventually my Epstein Barr and Lyme went back into remission… I got my energy back and my brain back. My adrenals and hormones still aren’t quite normal, almost 2 years later, but they are better… and I’m continuing to do everything I can to balance them out. I have been diligent with my diet, avoiding inflammatory foods and really nourishing my body with nutrient dense foods. Everything I eat has a purpose. Yes, it tastes good, but it also has a health benefit for me. I’ve learned to incorporate stress-reducing practices into my routine, instead of driving myself to complete exhaustion. I’ve learned to let others help me (although I still struggle with this). I’ve learned to love myself… even when I didn’t like what saw in the mirror. The weight is (VERY slowly) coming off, but I’ve learned to accept where I am right now, and trust that my body will continue to heal if I continue to take the actions necessary for it to do so. I’ve learned so much because of this experience. I’ve learned to just “be”. Be present. Be me… not Supergirl. Yes, I still like to do extreme things, such as Tough Mudders, but I no longer feel like I need to prove anything to myself or others… and I’ve learned how to train much smarter now. This experience has made me more honest, open, and more connected with others. I value myself and my health more. I speak my truth more than ever before, and I live my life less concerned about how I’m perceived by everyone… I’ll be honest, this blog post was difficult for me to write. Before this experience, I would’ve never publicly admitted any of this. To admit weakness of any kind is way out of my comfort zone… but, I believe that I need to share my story, not for sympathy (I really don’t want sympathy), but because I believe it will serve others… whether it’s to make them feel less alone if they are experiencing similar things, or to inspire others to take their health (and their life) back with diet and lifestyle changes… I am living proof that this is completely possible. There is a purpose for my story, and I believe the ending will be happily ever after. 😉