'Against all odds' is a phrase I can too easily relate.
I look at my life and cannot help but feel blessed because, "Wow, I am still here...despite a ton of adversity." There are many factors that lay a foundation for disease--it is rarely just one. However, in my case, I had blow after blow. Any one of the individual blows had the potential to do a lot of damage to my physical and emotional body; therefore, the cumulative blows placed me at a much greater risk for disease and made the act of recovery much more difficult. While some of my physicians (including leading experts in Crohn's disease) predicted decades ago that I would lose all of my intestines if I didn't die of sepsis beforehand, I forged ahead, "against all odds." After I found my voice in my own healing and a fusion of approaches that represented my individual healing wheel, I didn't progressively worsen (also a prediction by some of my physicians): My quality of life improved. Arriving at this point was not possible without honest reflection on my history. It was within my own history that I started to find solutions to my problems as well as an understanding of why I was so sick. I had to go back into my history and ask questions starting with my life in my mother's womb. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy, but it was up to me to get to know "me." I had to be clear that this process wasn't about BLAMING--it was about me taking responsibility for my life and learning how to be an expert on me. It was an EMPOWERING PROCESS.
Life in the womb
The foundation for a disease process began before I was even born. I had my first home in my mother's womb. This was a good home--my mom ate well and received prenatal care. But while this home kept me physically safe and prepared me to enter the world, there were things happening in my environment that still placed me at risk even while I was in the womb. Stress causes chemical reactions in the body. Stress hormones are shared between the mother and the infant in the womb in much the same way as food. Therefore, when my mom was stressed, I also experienced a surge of stress hormones . Studies confirm that even while in the womb, an infant's nervous system, brain development, and immune system are impacted by the mother's response to her environment. After all, the infant begins to learn about the environment through his/her mother's perceptions and visceral responses. Therefore part of getting to know "me" meant acknowledging that before I was even born, I was exposed to stress and learned responses to the environment that began shaping the way my brain and body were programmed.
Trauma is damaging on many levels
There is no doubt in my mind that the stress in my environment hurt me in ways that were difficult to see on the surface. Instead these stressors silently burrowed and trapped themselves in my cells and psyche, gradually weakening my body. My parents had their fair share of adversity which contributed to a stressful environment: high-conflict, poverty, and economic instability. These stressors had some impact on me while in my mother's womb AND continued to impact me once I was born. I witnessed domestic violence and suffered from physical and emotional abuse. I learned at a young age to FEAR my environment, protect myself, hide my feelings, and to disconnect from my body. Fear feeds the stress response in the body and I marinated in stress hormones. These stress hormones were harmful to my immune system and my fight-or-flight response stole energy away from vital growth and development.
Casey's Explanatory Model for autoimmune disease
As an adult, my perceptions of stress were heightened. I didn't have the ability to filter out real threats from ones that didn't exist at all. My perceptions labeled everything as stressful--even good things. This presented a barrier to healing my gut and immune system because it kept my nervous system in constant fight-or-flight or hyper-activity. Thankfully, I am always learning about how trauma negatively impacts the immune system. Education and knowledge have been life saving. The research on the Mind-Gut Connection showed me how trauma impacts the formation of the gut microbiome. Stress can cause bacteria to be more aggressive in the gut. Not to mention, negative emotions and stress impact digestion and the composition of healthy microbes in the gut. Gut health is key to a healthy immune system and given that I have Crohn's disease (a disease in the gut), this information "hit home" for me . This knowledge made my attention to my body's stress response not something I merely "considered," but something I had to be proactive about on a daily basis--I needed to reprogram my perceptions of stress. Fortunately I am learning about the neuroplasticity of the brain and there are many ways to reprogram this response in the body.
Mental Health symptoms
A natural result of trauma is to develop mental health symptoms. When it is not safe to express feelings and thoughts or to transition through normal developmental milestones, what else is the body going to do? It expresses these feelings through mental health symptoms: anxiety, depression, panic, obsessive thoughts, distressing images, low self-esteem, to name a few. I had all of these symptoms and many others. I became a queen of worrying. I thought if I worried I would be able to keep myself and everyone around me safe. Worrying fed into a stress response in my body and this was harmful to my growth and development. My lack of connection to my body and inability to safely convey my feelings, hopes, wishes, and desires translated into a painful cry for help and a vivid display of suffering: Anorexia Nervosa-- A debilitating life threatening eating disorder.
My first year of life I was healthy but after year one, I suffered from an assortment of childhood illnesses that impacted all organs of my body. I had respiratory infections, severe food and environmental allergies, vomiting for unknown reasons, frequent rashes, migraines, to name a few. As I approached adolescence I started to have ovarian cysts and other menstrual complications. During my college years I suffered from interstitial cystitis, disabling gastrointestinal pains and bleeding, and a host of neurological symptoms (dizziness, etc). At one point physicians couldn't determine if it was my urinary, gastrointestinal, or gynecological systems. During a routine laparoscopy to diagnose endometriosis, my iliac vein was knicked in multiple places. I had major surgery to repair the vein and suffered from a series of major complications as a result. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and an assortment of other colorful labels which became part of my permanent medical record and unfortunately my identity.
- I am a first generation college student
- Rural community resulting in limited access to resources and geographic isolation
- Survival oriented lifestyle
- My parent's divorce
- Single-parent household
Domestic violence, substance abuse, high-conflict relationships, and stress are common in rural communities and poverty feeds into all of these challenges. My environment was burdened with socioeconomic obstacles which impacted my health and immune system. Knowing how my environment influenced my health was an important step in healing. If I truly wanted to heal, cultivating a current environment that was nurturing and less survival oriented was essential.
- I lived in a residence that contained toxic levels of mold resulting in mold illness
- Had to abandon all my possessions as a result of the mold contamination
- Difficulty maintaining full time employment due to medical complications
- Medical expenses that exceeded my income creating extreme financial burden
- I was a "child" in the middle of my parents' divorce conflict
- Tragic loss of a pet companion
- I am an only child and I felt responsible for my mother's well-being
- I was a "parentified" child: In many circumstances I did not assume the role as a child; I assumed the role as a parent. This was straining on my development as I was jarred into adulthood well before my chronological years.
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Strained extended family relationships as I broke barriers and left the "nest" of my small town community.
Resiliency: There were strengths in my life that helped me overcome obstacles
I know I seem to be mentioning all of the barriers to healing. I am doing this to show that despite having everything appear to be "against" the healing process, even the most challenging cases are capable of turning around. If I was able to turn around the trajectory of my disease process and begin to heal, then I have no doubt anyone else struggling is also capable of healing.
The American Psychological Association defines Resilience as:
The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences (www.apa.org)
Despite adversity and barriers challenging health and well-being, everyone has strengths. These strengths or "assets" can provide protection from the "blows" of trauma and adversity--they help us "bounce back." In fact, adversity is not all bad. Adversity can cultivate strength and resiliency in all of us; when it is redirected in a positive way, it can enhance the ability to adapt, learn and make accurate attributions, and build confidence-- "I know that I can overcome obstacles and reach my goals."
In my life, I had assets that helped cultivate resiliency in me. Resiliency can be built, increased, or enhanced at any time in one's life and many of these assets are free and readily accessible.
There are some of the assets I had available to me as a child:
- My mother encouraged talking, singing, and reading throughout my infancy and childhood. This increased my language skills and enhanced my brain development
- I was encouraged to play--the type of play that involves creativity, imagination, and freedom to explore my interests and sense of self. I built forts, played dress-up, jumped in the leaf piles in my backyard, and had a pet rock family.
- The physical stability of an adult, in my case my mother, gave me a strong "home base" to return. No matter the chaos, I knew she would be home providing me food and shelter
- Relationships with others are one of the most critical factors in building resiliency: I participated in community service programs, built strong relationships with my teachers, enjoyed time with my elders, and loved my pet companions
- Community support: My community, while limited in economic resources, was RICH in emotional support. I was encouraged to fulfill my dreams by adults. I mattered.