#4: The Great Immuno-Boost

Part of a series of ten segments, checking the progress of my 2017 New Year Resolutions.

Right at the start of the polar vortex two or three Januarys ago, I got under the weather. It was just a little head congestion and a cough, but being it was the start of the new year, I wasn’t going to mess around with a lingering illness. I had a tendency to run myself ragged and let illness drag on longer than they should. But not this time. This time, I was going to nip it in the bud.

We have a health clinic at work, so I went after a couple of days and they gave me an anti-biotic to help deal with the issue. It didn’t work so I returned and they gave me a different regimen to try. No deal.

A visit to my primary care doctor didn’t solve the problem either, nor did a weekend trip to the urgent care. Several weeks went by over all of these visits, with no fever and no more congestion for that matter, just an increasingly severe and extremely loud cough. I finally saw an ear, nose, throat specialist who couldn’t help me and suggested that I visit an allergist. I rolled my eyes in total skepticism: “I don’t have an allergy!”

Yet, I went through with the appointment because at this point, my breathing was becoming wheezy. Coworkers stopped by my office to express concern that I wasn’t getting better, not to mention the fact that they dealt with my piercing cough for, get this, FOUR solid months. At one point, I had to step out of an audit committee meeting with the entire board of directors of my company to cough up a lung in the hallway. Nothing like walking back into the room and having 20 or so people agape at the pitiful sound of you.

I had to quit the church choir, and eventually broke down crying every Sunday because I began to think maybe something was very seriously wrong with me and maybe, just maybe, I was dying. What the HELL was wrong with me?

The allergist crossed the threshold of the examination room and I immediately wagged my finger at him and got to business: “This is my 8th doctor’s visit for the same thing. We need to figure this out pronto as I can’t keep taking time off work to figure it out. I cannot stop coughing and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m scared and I just want it to go away.”

Hallelujah, the man knew what was wrong immediately. He explained that he could run an expensive test to prove it or he could just treat me and if it worked, it worked. I picked the latter. He diagnosed me with cough variant asthma. He couldn’t tell what triggered it – it could’ve been the extreme cold outside – but basically, the muscles in my throat were spasming which caused a tickle and the resulting cough, which created more spasms. It was a vicious cycle that wasn’t ever going to stop. Had I not taken the steps to get it treated, it could easily turn into real asthma as I suspected, given the wheezing I already had in my throat. An inhalant cough suppressant and steroids to calm the inflammation were prescribed, and he said it would be gone in a month. He was right. In May, five months after it started, my cough was gone. I’m a believer in this particular doctor, let me tell you.

The whole episode was frightening. How did it take eight doctors visits and four months to get to someone who understood the issue?

This wasn’t the only time my immune system seemed to fail me, though.

The first time I clearly remember was the day after Barack Obama was elected president for his first term. My chin broke out in a massive, itchy rash, like a severe case of acne which I never once had in my life. Believe me, I feel a lot of compassion for people whose whole face breaks out…that’s gotta hurt! So yes, this rash hurt so much I wanted to claw the skin off my bones. That’s not normal, right?

I was glad Obama won, so if the rash was anxiety related, why did it appear the day after the election? I was happy…so what was happening?

I bought some drugstore pimple cream which made it hard and dried out, essentially  10x worse. I visited a nearby dermatologist who was more interested in coaching her intern than speaking to me, and she explained to her (gotta love that!) that I had a case of adult acne. It didn’t matter to her how I explained that I was 42 and never once had acne. Maybe a single pimple now and then, the total number of incidents I could probably count on one hand, but adult acne was not my problem. She gave me a steroid cream which helped a little and I vowed to avoid her in the future since she seemed to have a problem talking WITH her patient.

Over Christmas, the rash seemed to clear up a bit but when I returned to work in January, boom! This time it spread to my ears, neck, chest, shoulders, and forehead. Every blister made my skin crawl. I felt like a leper. The blisters would often bleed. You couldn’t hide them, really…certainly not with makeup. The only time it cleared up again was in June when I spent two weeks in California and then 10 days immediately afterwards on vacation. However the day I returned to work? Boom! It reappeared.

In September (oh yes, 10 months later), my new dermatologist and I tried to troubleshoot the situation because it certainly seemed work-related. I explained to her that I was a consultant, so I was often at a different location every day or every few days as I flitted about to visit my teams at different client sites. I had not changed the products that I used at home, had not tried new foods, wasn’t wearing new clothes or dealing with new carpets or anything.

It hit me as I spoke to her, “The only constant is that I’m in my car every day,” as I nathan-lindahl-253536listened to the health care debate play out on CNN post-election. See the direction of our country and its health care system was something I was very concerned about, and I often caught myself driving white-knuckled while that conversation played out over the airwaves. I bought a new car the year before the election, my first one with satellite radio so I had been listening to CNN far more, trying to be a good informed citizen.

Wide eyed and jaw agape, I was onto something. The only time my skin cleared up all year was when I wasn’t in my car: over Christmas vacation and the 3.5 weeks my routine was different from the California work trip and subsequent vacation.

I turned off CNN in my car that day. My rash cleared up within the week, and never returned.

OMG, I’m freaking allergic to CNN.

I know that sounds ridiculous. Apparently I’m significantly affected by constant bad news. Even if I personally feel like I’m dealing with stress pretty well, my body reveals the truth. Stress has a way to manifest itself in visible form.

My third incident, because apparently I’m a slow learner and all, was also work related. I will definitely write about this in more depth at another time, but I changed jobs at work to one that is far less demanding. I knew the change was coming for a whole year in advance. It was supposed to happen quickly but after nearly a year with no news, no change, I began to think maybe I was being strung along…

The month of the actual job switch brought a sense of relief but was unusual because I felt a level of exhaustion I had never experienced before. Two or three in the afternoon hit, and I could hardly hold my body upright. Not my arms, not my torso, not my head…nothing. I felt I could easily collapse onto the floor… It was so bad, I had to pull over on the drive home to nap, I couldn’t complete the 35 minute drive without severe head bobbing. It was horrifying.

This was extremely worrisome and I immediately saw my family doctor, who said that I was going through something very much like post-traumatic stress syndrome. I worked SO hard to keep it together in my prior role, that once I was finally free of those responsibilities, my body just involuntarily sought the rest it desperately needed.

This news simultaneously pissed me off and crushed me because once again, no matter what I told everyone, or how conducted myself on a daily basis, I had hit my limit.

Believe me there is a huge story around the why this happened that I will eventually get to, but suffice it to say that this incident was the final straw for me.

I was beating my immune system to a pulp with my actions. My drive and ambition, my commitment to excellence in nearly everything I do, my desire to keep my household running smoothly and my family loved and happy, my full-time, professional, “high-pressure” job…it was too much. I had hit a wall. I didn’t want to believe or concede I had found my limit. But there was no denying that nothing about my normal, daily MO allowed me deal effectively with the stress I had been putting on my body which was now rebelling.

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Call it adrenal fatigue, call it autoimmune disorder, call it whatever you want…but my immune system was clearly broken and I had ignored it for far too long.

Not that I’m an expert now in how to boost the immune system! But this past year I vowed to learn more and take steps to heal my immunity. What I’ve learned has been rather eye-opening. I’ve been listening to podcasts and reading about autoimmune disorders, the impact of inflammation on the body, what to do to heal adrenal fatigue, the critical importance of sleep, the effects of vitamin deficiency, and the positive impact of exercise and meditation.

I started flooding my brain with positive podcasts, prayers, and messages. I began a daily meditation practice, which has faltered a bit in the latter half of the year, but it has no doubt helped. I worked with my doctor on what vitamin supplements I needed. I get no less than seven hours of sleep a night and more like nine. I turn off the devices so I’m not subject to electromagnetic radiation while I sleep. I’m learning more about nutrition and what I need to do to boost my immune system.

This journey has just started, and my only evidence that things are improving is the fact that I haven’t gotten really sick in several months. But this focus on my immune system and healing my body is a journey I will continue until my last day. I won’t dwell on why it took me so long to get to this point; the only thing to do is to look forward. And that I will do.