When I first began this blog late last year, I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about the fact that I have Addison’s Disease. I didn’t want it to outshadow other aspects of who I am and the validity of some content pieces I’ve written. The fact that I have Addison’s is something I’ve kept very private for the past couple of years. However, increasing interest in related topics (e.g. how to be active/athletic/live a balanced lifestyle while managing chronic illness) has come my way from friends and family members over the past few months, and I’ve found that sharing my own personal experiences, rather than hiding them, often gets people listening.
During late 2011 and early 2012, I experienced several fainting episodes, one of which landed me in the emergency room. Doctors–both those at my medical school, who witnessed the first two episodes, and those in the emergency room–automatically chalked it up to stress, fatigue, and the most common culprits for fainting in young women: postural orthostasis (low blood pressure), hypoglycemia, and/or some underlying psychiatric cause. I was basically told I was probably having a mild panic attack, and sent home. The third time it happened, I experienced the worst stomach ache of my life and began vomiting–something I hadn’t done in 15 or 16 years. That was the turning point–the point at which I realized that my low blood pressure wasn’t just low blood pressure. I had the standard battery of tests done (blood tests, an EKG, even an echocardiogram), which came back with the usual “abnormalities” for an endurance athlete: mildly elevated AST, low-ish blood sugar, very high HDL, very low heart rate, very low blood pressure, enlarged heart, etc. Nothing to be too concerned about. Again, I was sent home and told to force fluids, salts, and caffeine, if possible.
All the while, my general sense of wellness deteriorated rapidly from crummy to unmanageable. My occasionally-tired feeling suddenly became a very all-encompassing fatigue. I continued to push myself hard in running and cycling, but my workouts would only temporarily energize me and end up leaving me feeling totally beat a few hours down the line. As a medical student fresh off my didactic units in cardiovascular physiology, the endocrine system, and the gastrointestinal system, I was very wary of trying to diagnose myself–and to be quite honest, I myself was pretty convinced that whatever it was, was probably some nebulous, unnamed, “stress-induced syndrome” of sorts. I was, after all, going through the most stressful moments of my life coincidentally–for multiple reasons that don’t merit detail here.
Disenchanted with the western medical doctors I’d seen, I sought the help of a reputable naturopathic doctor and herbalist in Berkeley, California, where I was living at the time. To her credit, she nailed the diagnosis right on the head from the start–but I didn’t want to believe her. I knew what Addison’s Disease was; I had learned all about it in medical school and from my high school obsession with John F. Kennedy. But for some reason, despite my utmost faith in natural and alternative healing practices, I didn’t trust her diagnosis at the time.
It wasn’t until early 2013 that I was formally diagnosed by an M.D. in Boston: a well-known specialist in Addison’s Disease. Only then could I accept the diagnosis. Before I even felt disheartened about such a deterministic diagnosis, I felt remorse for my lack of acceptance of the naturopath’s wisdom. Being a huge proponent of the naturopathic route myself, I felt like an enormous hypocrite as well.
In time, I’ve learned how to manage my condition using both a blend of western and eastern medicines and philosophies. With trial and error, I’ve learned how to keep endurance sport part of my life. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to read the very subtle signs of my body, and respond to those signs with adequate rest and recovery.
Being athletic with Addison’s is something conventional doctors told me would not be possible. However, I have found a great wealth of knowledge and resources among holistic health practitioners, integrative nutritionists, yoga instructors, and others with Addison’s, all of which lend considerable credibility to the continuation of athletic endeavors.
Managing chronic illness is not always as simple as taking a pill every morning; it can become a lifelong investment in discovering what it means to practice self-care and to experience true wellness. My experiences in endurance sport have prepared me well for this “journey, not destination” mindset. And my continued exploration of whole plant-based nutrition, yoga, and spirituality has unearthed truths about healing and the mind-body connection that modern medicines fail to elucidate.
I’m thinking of writing a few posts on what it means to be an endurance athlete with a chronic illness, so stay tuned. Almost all of us have something we’re keeping an eye on on a daily basis, whether it’s biochemical, psychological, or “biopsychosocial” (that’s the new catch-phrase in neuroscience; or so I’m told). Hopefully I’ll be able to uncover some gems worth sharing.