I feel as though, if I look at my life over these past seven months, oatmeal cookies are what I see most clearly. Those cookies almost look like a light in the darkness, to me.
For years, I have rather despised cooking/having to cook. It has been a very non-enjoyable chore. I have only done the bare minimum of what is required to keep us fed and have had no interest in baking cookies or making pies from scratch, or anything else like that. Believe it or not, that was something I once enjoyed. But not in the past several years, because, let’s face it – I have not been very happy for the past several years.
I started college in 2013 to change my life because working in bars was making me miserable. But college was work, and while I was happier, I was still not anywhere near being actually happy. I enjoyed the focus and the drive, the goal-oriented nature of education. I learned a lot about myself during college that I had had no inkling of before, even after thirty-seven years of living life. But I was not happy. There was always something more to be done, and something in the near future to keep me worried and stressed.
Then, in 2016, my body began to fail me for the first time. At the round age of forty, a ruptured disc in the spine, a herniated disc above it, chronic sciatica pain, a required hysterectomy and prolapse repair surgery (including a bladder sling for incontinence), and the development of IBS made me feel like my body was like an old house starting to break down, and no one had any new materials to fix it. It could only be bolstered up using old materials that might still fail again and again in the future. The central wall was sagging, the ground floor was drooping into the basement, the plumbing was giving out, and the electricity had a bad habit of flickering. Every few days, a toilet would explode. That’s what it was like, if you look at each of those things as analogies for what my body was doing.
For two years, I suffered with my IBS indigestion/gas/bloating and sciatica pain, eating Ibuprofen like it was candy around the clock, and focusing on work. I put my IBS as far on the back burner as I could, and attempted to finish school before I would allow myself to fix what was going wrong. I graduated college in December of 2018, and within a week, I knew I had better go to the doctor and get on some kind of medication, because I was having diarrhea attacks frequently, with only breaks of about three days in between each attack where I was diarrhea-free. Each round of diarrhea would last three-to-four days, in itself. It was like having the stomach flu constantly, and it had been going on since around September or October of 2018. I had been trying to control it with Immodium and Gas-X, but they really just were not working.
These diarrhea attacks came with fever sensations and rash. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but I would get chills and shakes when having diarrhea attacks, and I would break out sometimes two to three days before the attacks, with rashes on my hands, arms, stomach, sides, thighs, calves, and ankles. I went to my doctor and he put me on Dicyclomine, which stopped me up, and caused my body to rebel at being stopped up by putting me through anxiety, and causing acid reflux. I finally asked to see a GI Specialist, and I quit vaping, understanding that nicotine was a diarrhea trigger for people with IBS-D. I also started myself on a low-Fodmap diet, because of what I was reading online about foods to avoid for people who have IBS-D. My primary care doctor was no freaking help at all. He just said they didn’t know what caused IBS, and kept throwing pills at me.
When I finally got in with the GI Specialist, he began to run tests. Everything came back clear. No H. Pylori. No parasites. No liver malfunctions, blood work issues, infections, inflammatory diseases, or thyroid issues. No high fat in the stool. And so on. Three days before my first appointment with the GI Specialist, my neighbor had told me about how she had had Dysbiosis (a bacterial imbalance) in her gut after multiple ankle surgeries, caused by all the post-operative medications they had put her on that had disrupted the balance of her gut bacteria. She told me they had put her on a probiotic called Florastor and she had gotten well. Everything she mentioned sounded like she was telling my story for me, so when I went in for my first visit with the GI Specialist, I requested Florastor by name, just to try it out. Taking a probiotic couldn’t hurt – it’s good bacteria for the gut.
The specialist agreed to me trying out Florastor – and within eight days after beginning it, I was improving significantly. I took the Florastor for several months, beginning in February. By April, the bowel (diarrhea and constipation) aspects of my IBS were gone, other than when I would stray outside my low-Fodmap diet. I had developed food intolerances, and leaky gut syndrome (from Ibuprofen, of course). So when I would eat something I had developed an intolerance to (onion, garlic, etc.), I would have a diarrhea attack again.
I stopped the Ibuprofen in February, suspecting that it was part of the problem, and switched to Tylenol for my sciatica pain. But my specialist and I had an idea, due to the rapid response of my body to the probiotic, that my IBS was caused by Dysbiosis, like my neighbor’s had been. In March, we interrupted my course of Florastor probiotics for a round of Xifaxan (which irritated my bladder beyond any bladder infection I have ever had – so I also had to take Amoxicillin for the bladder infection it caused, at the same time. The two medications together made me feel just awful. Very sick), for two weeks, and then I was back on the Florastor.
I also had tests done to check for histamines and found that my rashes were not caused by allergic reactions. They were not hives. It seemed that they, too, were bacterial. Sure enough, there are articles out there that talk about Dysbiosis in the gut, and Dysbiosis on the skin, and in other places of the body, as well. It seems to be almost common sense that one could cause the other, as, in the whole body, everything is connected. I began showering with antibacterial soap and the rashes stopped. Things were finally under control. As long as I stuck to the low-Fodmap diet and bathed with antibacterial soap, I had no bowel problems and no rashes. The other issues that went along with them (fever sensations, chills, etc.) all vanished with them.
And then, in June, I started noticing that I had a sensation, when taking my pills, of them getting stuck in the lower part of my esophagus. My GI Specialist suggested an endoscopy. The biopsies they took during that endoscopy in the third week of June showed that I had Barrett’s Esophagus and Chemical Reaction Gastropathy. Barrett’s esophagus is when the cells of your esophagus start changing to resemble the cells of your intestines, and it is caused by stomach acid rising up in reflux. Chemical Reaction Gastropathy is an injury to the stomach lining caused by too much alcohol or – you guessed it – Ibuprofen. NSAIDS, in general, can cause this. It is a step before developing ulcers (which are holes in that lining).
The Barrett’s Esophagus was most likely caused back in January when I was on the Dicyclomine and was having reflux from being backed up. I was also drinking peppermint tea on an almost daily basis back then, because it seemed to calm my stomach some. But peppermint also relaxes the stomach sphincter, allowing acid and stomach contents to rise into the esophagus, so I was really helping this along, without knowing what I was doing. Barrett’s Esophagus does not go away without surgery. You can prevent it getting worse with medications, but you cannot get rid of it without surgical removal of the top layer of the esophagus lining. It is also considered to be a precursor for cancer, even though only 1% of people (mostly men) with Barrett’s Esophagus develop Esophageal Cancer.
It is now July. The Barrett’s Esophagus issue has been put on the back burner for the moment while my GI Specialist tries to treat my Chemical Reaction Gastropathy. I was on Carafate for nearly two-weeks, until it made me super nauseous and my doctor stopped me taking it, as of yesterday. I don’t know what is coming next, but surely, stress has had a contributing role in all of this. 90% of the times when I get heartburn sensations, they are a direct reaction to stress. And I have had so much stress since… well, essentially, since the last year or so of college began, in 2018. If I am being honest, I would say my stress levels really began to rise as far back as three years ago, in the spring of 2016, when I transferred from community college to a university. The pressure just really amped up at that point, in my coursework.
The closer I got to graduation, the higher my stress levels rose in both fear and anticipation. Then I graduated, and I did not know what to do. I was back in the regular world – one without deadlines or homework, and where you are not judged by your academic score, or the quality of the latest paper you wrote. It was a paradigm shift. And when I could not immediately get a job, I began to panic. This was in January, and I was on Dicyclomine: a medication which caused my bowel motility to slow down to such a crawl that my nervous system had to ramp itself up to induce my body to have a bowel movement.
When my nervous system would ramp up, it would give me crazy sensations of anxiety, and it even threw me into two panic attacks during those first weeks of January – and at the same time I was quitting nicotine, too! During the first panic attack, I felt like I was having a heart attack, and I literally thought for a few moments that I was dying. After that, the anxiety that lasted, even though it was entirely caused by my body and artificially slowed motility, caused me to have something of an existential crisis – one that seemed to continue daily for weeks. That moment of horrifying fear while thinking I was dying of a heart attack during the first panic attack just would not leave me alone. It lingered and haunted me. Add that to the stress of not being able to get a job, and I found myself panicking in limbo while also facing down my own mortality; having to face the fact that I could die. Anytime. Anywhere. From anything. And it suddenly dawned on me that this – this, right here – is what a “midlife crisis” is, and I was in the middle of it!
It was bad (see this post to get a glimpse into what was going through my mind – I didn’t write this until March, but I was going through it in January, and had let it stew a while before writing about it.). I went to my nearest Crisis Center in the middle of the second panic attack (in the second week of January, 2019). I could not calm myself down and I needed to talk. My Dicyclomine-filled body was ramped up and would not slow down. I had not had a bowel movement in days. I had quit nicotine a week or so before this, so I was also going through withdrawals, depression, and sleep disturbances on top of everything else. I was hardly eating, too. I felt sick. My esophagus was burning – I had heartburn from my throat all the way down to my bellybutton. For weeks – that burning sensation was there every day. After the Crisis Center, I saw a therapist for a few weeks.
In the course of that time period, I lost fifteen pounds from fearful food avoidance and nausea. The day in February that I got to meet with that GI Specialist, everything began to change – and for the better. Those last weeks before meeting up with him were some of the worst weeks of my whole life. When I got off the Dicyclomine, the anxiety – ALL OF IT – stopped. It ended. I swore I would never take Dicyclomine again. I cannot tell you how great it was to stop the Dicyclomine and start on the Florastor probiotic. When the bowel issues stopped, I felt like I got my life back.
For months, I had not felt safe going anywhere outside the house, sometimes for days at a time, because I never knew when I would have diarrhea; or if not that, then I felt that I needed to lie down all day because my stomach hurt because I was blocked up from the Dicyclomine. I hadn’t been able to wear pants – anything with a waistband – since the summer of 2017. I thought I was facing a future of wearing nothing but Muumuus for the rest of my life. One of the worst things was going through this inability to leave the house or wear regular clothes, and wondering how on earth I was going to get and hold a job when I was continually so ill. So, yes, the Florastor was an absolute Godsend, for me.
Still, I was not happy, of course – even though I did feel better. I was still unwell. I was still on my low-Fodmap diet, and anytime I varied from it, I would still have a diarrhea attack. But those attacks were getting shorter and less watery in consistency when they happened. Still, I would feel like I had the stomach flu whenever they happened. My GI Specialist recommended I try reintroducing foods on my foods-to-avoid list, one at a time, but every time I experimented with that, I got an attack. I finally gave up. But still, even if on a restricted diet, my life improved dramatically once the bowel attacks stopped. They fully stopped sometime in May. And I felt so blessed when I was finally able to wear pants again instead of dresses and nightgowns all the time. My gas pressure and bloating mostly vanished, except when I would eat something that didn’t quite set me off but still caused a bit of gas. I cut more foods out of my diet in response to that.
In June, finally got some kind of a job. I got into an internship in an office setting. I work with a lot of Millennials – almost all of them are around my kids’ ages – and while one might think that that would make me even more aware of my mortality than usual and make me feel stress over it, that is just not happening. The vibe at this office is so positive that it is starting to banish the gloomy clouds that always hang over the corners of my consciousness, since around 2016 or so. And somehow, the youthfulness of the office staff reminds me that each moment is to be lived the way they are living them – not worrying and stressing about how little time we have left to live, but living in the now and smiling as much as possible; finding the little joys in life and embracing them without skepticism or criticism.
The positive glow of this place is soothing me, mentally/emotionally, and I did not realize just how much I needed that! I also did not realize how much it was actually healing me until this past weekend, when I decided that I wanted to make some oatmeal raisin cookies from scratch. For the first time in more years than I can count, I wanted to bake. In celebration of this change, I took three plates of homemade cookies to three of my neighbors’ homes for their families to share in. I did not tell them why we were celebrating, I just felt it – the joy of it, and the happy little spark that was elicited by being able to share something with them that I had made from basic ingredients with my bare hands.
My diet may be more restricted than ever, still being on the low-Fodmap diet, plus the addition, now, of the GERD diet for my Barrett’s Esophagus (which cuts what I was still able to eat after going on the low-Fodmap diet in half, again). I am still not “well,” as I would define it, having these unresolved health issues. However, I am improving and my mood is still rising. My eyes lift toward the light to take in the higher view, and I feel like I can perhaps begin to dream again. And if I can attain and maintain this mentality, perhaps I can cope healthily with whatever comes next with my tummy issues, instead of responding with depression.
If I can brighten my mind, I wonder – will my body follow? Is it partially possible that some of what has been happening to me physically has been connected to the mood degeneration that began to really take effect in 2016? I know that it is not “body OR mind,” it’s “body AND mind,” – the two are not disconnected, they are intricately intertwined – so perhaps if I can lift my spirit high enough, my body might align with that and improve itself.
I will just keep the day I wanted to make oatmeal cookies in mind, and try to mimic that mood as often as possible.