When I was in my twenties and early thirties I considered myself a young woman with amazingly good health. I’d have my ‘skinny’ months, and my ‘slightly chubbier than preferred’ months, my radiantly sun-kissed and relaxed summer months, and my pasty sleep-deprived and overworked term times. I would get into a fitness buzz and attend gym sessions regularly for a few months, then blob around with tubs of Moritz Cookies’n’Cream ice cream for others. But in general, I got sick with a cold just once a year, and I had no other major health issues to worry me.
Then, at the end of my fourth year of teaching, aged 32, I had a full-blown nervous breakdown and my first experience of chronic depression. This was triggered by sustained high levels of stress and exhaustion (occupational hazards common to teachers!) mostly in my professional life. I had a LOT of support from my family and friends, as well as from my employer; and this, combined with medication, counselling, self-discipline, and acceptance, – oh, and my adoption of Truffle, our beloved dog – allowed me to pick myself up and renew my lust for life. While I consider those years to have been the darkest in my life, I also now look back on them with an appreciation for how much good came of my illness. The slow process of recovery kickstarted an awareness of not my perceived or assumed health, but my actual health; both physical and mental. Looking back, I realise I had spent my twenties pretty much oblivious to all the messages my body was trying to send me, as I pushed it around in my pursuit of success. My body just had to tag along with whatever lifestyle my latest ambition drove me to live. If it protested at all, I would figure out a strategy to push it back into line. Headaches? Ibuprofen. Exhaustion? Coffee. Weight gain? Binge exercise. Clothes hanging off me? Eat more cake. Stress, anxiety, exhaustion, loneliness, sadness…? I ran and ran and ran. While listening to Rage against the Machine yelling “Killing in the Name Of” through earbuds at maximum volume, blocking out all my thoughts and feelings. Eventually my back seized up (completely psychosomatic) and I had to stop running overnight. And then I had no other means for holding back the tears inside.
About a year later I met my soulmate and now husband. And a year later again, I was pregnant with our first child. We were both so excited to be expecting a little girl, and although she was breech for most of the pregnancy, I felt healthy and pretty radiant for most of it. The debilitating pelvic pain I experienced late in the pregnancy disappeared after we successfully had her turned at around 37 weeks. Through all our antenatal classes, I assumed I would have a straight-forward birth (as my mother did with me) and that I would – oh joy! – breastfeed, although perhaps I may have an issue with supply, as my mum and sister had had before me. Turns out, we had a caesarean section, as we had foetal distress after twenty-something hours of a labour that failed to progress. The caesarean was complication-free and our little girl was born very healthy. I had a fantastic supply of milk much to my surprise, only I gave up breastfeeding after a mere three weeks of agony, distress, and disappointment. If you can relate to the association of breastfeeding with the words ‘agony’, ‘distress’, and ‘disappointment’, I’m sure you don’t need me to detail my own experience. Just three weeks of it, combined with subsequent weeks/months of disappointment and sleep-deprivation, were enough to send me back into a depressed state. I had so wanted to do everything the ‘natural’ way with my little one, and my body just wouldn’t cooperate! It had totally let me down.
Now little Stella is almost three, and what a lot I’ve learnt about my body since then. Firstly, that hormones affect everything about us: our personality, our moods, our appetites, our energy levels, our hair, skin, nails… what’s left? Two pregnancies left me in no doubt that we are far too free and easy about using hormones for convenience and about disrupting our own for convenience. This was the first thing I actively tried to address in our household. We drastically reduced the amount of commercially prepared cleaning products and skincare products we used, and we started buying our meat and vegetables from the local Farmers’ Market instead of the supermarket. Next up was preservatives. Then numbers and letters (as in, what is E420? – I don’t know, I don’t need to know, and I don’t need to eat it). My New Year’s resolution for 2014 was to have a cruelty-free bathroom by the end of the year (I gave myself a year so I wouldn’t have to throw anything out unnecessarily; I could just use things up and replace them with something else). But that was quickly followed by a commitment to go plastic-free (as much as was practically possible – yes, many many many people reminded me that fridges are made of plastic…). It was actually the plastic-free choice that had the biggest impact on our lifestyle, as it meant we started buying in bulk, making our own cleaning and toiletry products, using hormone-disruptor-free, cruelty-free, preservative-free, numbers-and-letters-free, fair trade, often organic, locally-sourced ingredients as a matter of course. Lastly, I think, was the introduction of homemade fermented food, such as milk kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and currently I’m having a go at pickling garlic.
Well, at the end of all of this, you would honestly think I was so healthy I was invincible! Mysteriously, I was not. For almost the whole of last year (2015) I felt like rubbish. Admittedly, I had a child under the age of one last year, so it was pretty unrealistic to expect I would look and feel radiant. But despite my super healthy new lifestyle, I felt so rotten tired, I had itchy arms and legs, an itchy flaky head, I felt nauseous for months, I had migraines and headaches, I had terrible flatulence (completely uncontrollable after childbirth, how shameful!), and if I had more than half a glass of kombucha in a day I would feel all those things magnified 10 times. It took me months to realise that I was detoxing! Which led me to wonder, “How toxic was I to begin with?”
Prior to this, I didn’t believe in detox, and I thought the candida thing was just a big hype. But the symptoms were undeniable, and when they all eventually disappeared simultaneously and for no apparent reason, it was so clear. I had been sick for all those years, but I had no idea. My body tried to tell me again and again, but I never really got the message. I spent all that time, energy, and money rubbing lotions and potions on my face and body, treating my hair to various treatments, spoiling myself with what I thought was really good food, and all the while I was actually ignoring my body and its needs! Today I feel healthier and happier than I can recall feeling in years and years. I still feel like I’m a work in progress; the stress of being a working mum again has resulted in phantom leg pains, and sleep deprivation caused by teething, growth spurts, full moons, etc etc. is definitely pure torture! But every time my body complains now, I try to hear it and support it, rather than just seek to crush the symptom with a pill, lotion, or tonic. I feel almost embarrassed that it took me 38 years to achieve such a basic understanding of my own body, but surely it’s never too late to feel awesome! And I hope that I can pass my newfound knowledge and skills on to my children so that they can have a head start on me.