My Autoimmune Illness Journey
I’m going to do my best to keep this story of my journey as light-hearted and brief as possible, but before I begin I want to say that I have had no formal medical or scientific training. Anything I have done to heal the symptoms of my diseases has been based on personal research or recommended to me by someone in the medical field 🙂
This journey starts before I can even remember when I met my lifelong companion: STRESS. I don’t know exactly when stress started affecting me so much, but it was probably around my junior year of high school.
Fall 2009 – Shingles
In the fall of 2009, during my junior year of high school, I came down with a case of shingles. A strain of the chicken pox virus that usually only affects the elderly or those under extreme stress. I wouldn’t call my life stressful by any means, but I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to constantly be the perfect daughter, sister, friend, student, athlete etc. I know now from my research that an autoimmune disease like psoriasis lays dormant in your immune system and can be triggered by a traumatic event that effects the immune system like having a case of shingles.
Fall 2009 – Spring 2010
The theme of perfectionism continued throughout the rest of my junior year. I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Spain. I had a great group of friends and was, by all accounts, a great student. Still, I was ultimately stressing myself out about the SATs and college applications to the point of making myself sick. I struggled with disordered eating at this time in my life and despite how happy I look below and how happy I know I should have been, I was pretty miserable.
Summer 2010 – Psoriasis Diagnosis
I first noticed the psoriasis forming the summer after my junior year of high school. It first affected my scalp and fingernails and then spread to my skin. I tried to play it off like a bad case of dandruff, but the dents and holes in my nails became painful and I turned to my trusty WEB MD 🙂 Never the best place to get medical information, but it did lead me to learn about psoriasis and prompted me to make an appointment with my dermatologist.
The dermatologist took one look at my splotchy skin and pitted nails and said, “Yes, it’s psoriasis.” She then proceeded to inject me with something to take care of the spots I had and then about 30 needle pricks later I left with a bag of topical treatment samples and a list of prescriptions (all topical also).
YIKES – Freshman year at Vandy
Fall 2011 – Spring 2015 – College
During my first year at school, I didn’t worry about my condition too much. I was eating well due to the close proximity to the freshman campus cafeteria which had shockingly healthy options and had a normal workout routine. I didn’t yet HATE my engineering classes and was pretty focused on making friends and getting into a sorority.
When I returned for my sophomore year I had a solid crew of friends and had secured that spot in a sorority. Because of this I was drinking on average 4 nights a week and eating something Vandy called “fourth meal” each time I drank. You can probably guess where this is going… I gained a quick 15 pounds and although I was bothered by the weight gain, it was my psoriasis that felt the effects. I was itchy and inflamed but ignored it for the majority of the year.
Over the summer of 2013, I started researching how food can affect my health. I taught myself how to cook healthy food and Mad About Food was born on my college campus! My weight and my psoriasis continued to fluctuate over the next few years, but I was starting to learn how to heal myself through food and lifestyle.
Summer 2015 – I join the real world
Summer 2015 I moved to Atlanta, GA to start my first job. I moved in with a wonderful roommate and the pup you see above! I loved working out and cooking with my roommate Niki. For a while, it was easy to just live my life and keep my psoriasis symptoms under control, but that didn’t last long.
I was working at a high-pressure job as a software consultant and traveling weekly to the northeast to live in a hotel so I could be with my client daily. On top of that, I was dealing with coming out of the closet and navigating a brand new dating scene. I was lucky to have a wonderful coming out process, but keeping any kind of secret is stressful for me.
Summer 2016 – Psoriatic Arthritis diagnosis
It was evident that the stress of my new job and my life, in general, was starting to get to me when I visited my family in Florida for Easter. I went to work out in the gym and noticed a large bump, or what I thought was a bump, on my fingertip. I remember mentioning to my mom that I thought I had hit myself with a weight. After a few weeks, the bump did not go away, I had another on a different finger and they became increasingly painful. That is when I returned to my trusty companion WEB MD and diagnosed myself with psoriatic arthritis.
I scheduled an appointment with a rheumatologist and was told of my 3 month waiting period. Feeling discouraged I let the pain get worse and worse until it was painful just to get out of bed in the morning and straighten my arms.
Summer 2016 to Spring 2017 – Veganism
About a month before my appointment with a rheumatologist I decided to take my health into my own hands. I scoured the internet for information about people in their 20s with arthritis and came up with very little until I found Dr. McDougall’s starch solution. I read the book cover to cover in a few days and began an oil-free vegan diet. I saw relief in my psoriasis and arthritis symptoms almost immediately. By the time I made it to the rheumatologist’s office I couldn’t wait to share the success I was having by just changing my diet! She told me that there was no research to support my claims and that I would be foolish not to go on the medication.
I decided to remain foolish and stay on the path of dietary changes and no medication for about 9 months. At that point, I was so sick of rice and beans and lentils and potatoes that I just wanted an egg. I ate an egg and slowly introduced fish, then chicken, then other meats back into my diet.
Summer 2017 – Work on a balanced diet with a registered dietitian
I knew I didn’t want to be a vegan forever, but I also knew I couldn’t eat the standard American diet for the rest of my life. I worked with an RD on a diet that would allow me to eat the foods I love and still reduce my inflammation. She had me avoid grains, soft cows milk dairy, corn, soy, legumes, and nightshade vegetables.
The protocol that I set up with my RD worked for me from a disease perspective. I felt really REALLY good physically. I even looked super healthy.
People noticed and made well-meaning comments about how I looked, but mentally I was crumbling. That much restriction wasn’t healthy for me mentally. I wasn’t allowing myself any flexibility. Something had to give and by the winter of 2018 I stopped working with that RD and stopped doing the restrictive diet.
Winter 2018 – Fall 2018
I call this my DO WHATEVER YOU WANT period of life. It was 100% what I needed to show myself how detrimental my restrictive lifestyle was. During this time I was so joyful. I went out with friends, dated a lot and generally lived my best life. The mental freedom, unfortunately, came with physical consequences.
Holiday Season 2018
My health started to take a turn for the worst. I had overdone it on inflammatory foods and alcohol once again. I knew that mentally I could not go back to the restriction that working with an RD put on me, but I also knew that physically I needed a change.
In January 2019 I decided to try my first Whole30 and credit that experience for my current all foods fit, balanced lifestyle. Through Whole30 and the reintroduction phase, I was able to see which foods were really causing me the most pain. If you are looking to try your first Whole30, here are some tips that helped me through mine.
I still eat those foods, but way less frequently. I found that grains, legumes, sugar, and alcohol can be most problematic for me. I still love wine, but I opt for ones without additives (THANK GOODNESS for Dry Farm Wines!) And If I want to eat some bread or hummus, I just allow myself some grace as I work through extra pain and inflammation the next day.
This journey was painful and difficult at times, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. It is the reason I have a career sharing my passion for cooking healthy, simple recipes. It is the reason I have immense compassion for anyone struggling through chronic illness.
I do not take any prescription medications to manage the symptoms of my autoimmune diseases. The most important step for managing my pain and inflammation is first managing my stress. I do this through daily meditation and exercise whenever I can fit it in.
As for my diet, I use the Whole30 like a north star. If I ever feel super inflamed and suffering through pain, I come back to the foods that I knew I could tolerate during my Whole30 reintroduction. This usually looks like a lot of veggies, animal protein, and some dairy.
If you are struggling with an autoimmune disease, the best advice I can give you is to BE KIND. Give yourself a break. Dealing with chronic pain and chronic illness is mentally and physically draining. On those draining days remind yourself that you are doing your best and that is all you need to do.
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