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My Journey with Autoimmune Disease

To read the original article published (July 6, 2015) in Indian Country Today, click on the link below. 

The Beginning
My life started to unravel in 2008. I was tired, bloated, reactive to food, irritable, anxious, and at times depressed. From the outside, I had it all. Inside, I knew something was very wrong. Western doctors started their rounds of testing, but were dumbfounded. I took a workshop on naturopathic medicine and was mesmerized by what was considered an alternative form of healthcare, which is what I now call indigenous ways of healing.

Within 24 hours I completely changed my diet and lifestyle. I started seeing a naturopathic doctor. Many of my symptoms improved within months, but deep within I knew something still wasn’t right. After a week-long 30th birthday binge-eating celebration in 2012, I knew that my mystery issue was cyclical and dependent on the foods I ate, my sleep patterns, and overall emotional health. One month later I was diagnosed with three autoimmune diseases; I was crushed.

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To
The Internet can be your best friend or worst enemy. For me, it was the gateway to the future hell I thought my life would become. Autoimmune sufferers talked about their teeth falling out, hair falling out and, in extreme cases, death from complications. Many individuals diagnosed were over 45 and here I was at the age of 30, believing all my dreams were over.

So what did I do? I had a party, an invitation for one. Did I have a cry fest? You bet! I cried every day—most often in the corner of my closet so my roommate wouldn’t hear me. What if my disease got so bad I couldn’t do art anymore? What if I have to quit my job because the fatigue gets too bad? Who would want to marry me? What if I slowly die?

Autoimmune is when your body gets confused and starts to attack itself—not only real foreign invaders, but the healthy tissues and organs as well. My body was so reactive there were days when I couldn’t get much food down. I would go to bed hungry. Other days I was too tired to care.

Getting Dumped
No, my boyfriend at the time didn't break up with me, he actually took a second job as my nursemaid even though I tried to convince him to leave me. Food broke up with me. I was told to cut out dairy, gluten, corn, soy, grains, sugar, coffee, and at one point fruit. It was easier to tell people what I could eat. I took the breakup hard, really hard. It was like seeing an ex three times a day and my friends brought him around all the time too. 

I isolated myself. I was in full post food breakup depression without any comfort foods to make me feel better. Who wants to eat a celery stick mid meltdown? The disease was wreaking havoc on my internal and external being. Looking at myself in the mirror became a painful ritual—I did just enough to be presentable. My hair started to thin and that bothered me more than any other side effect of the disease. I loved my long hair. 

One evening my boyfriend found me crying on the floor holding the hair straightener I had just broken—welcome to rock bottom. I looked at him and said: “Why do you love me, there isn’t anything beautiful to love anymore.” Without hesitating, he said, “I love you for the person you are on the inside, and I still think you’re beautiful.” I realized that I didn’t really love myself. I didn’t know how to accept the things about myself I wanted to change. It was then that I realized my disease was connected to the relationship I had with myself, which needed some serious nurturing.

Medicine Wheel
I was determined to get better. I have always been an overachiever, which ironically was part of the problem. My greatest strengths were also my biggest weaknesses. I refused any over-the-counter medication, which made people nervous, but I knew that healing wasn’t going to manifest through quieting the symptoms. My body was screaming at me, and I was ready to listen.

At first, I thought I could get my disease into remission through diet, exercise, and sleep. However, my progress eventually plateaued. I was then drawn to the Native American medicine wheel that balances the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of our lives. I was avoiding addressing the emotional issues in my life because, let’s be honest, that’s uncomfortable. Who wants to enter those dark places we work so hard to control, ignore, or cover up with food or substances. My spirit said: “Diet and exercise aren’t enough, let’s go there. You know you have to Tessa, and I know you’re scared.” I went to that place. Many times. Traumas and emotions I never knew existed magically appeared during my inner work. I couldn’t believe such things had been trapped within the walls of my body for so long. There were times I cried so deeply, I just knew I was releasing something profound, something that was begging to be released. 

My life has dramatically improved since hiding myself in the closet with a celery stick. As challenging as living with a disease can be, it has brought many blessings to my life. I believe in the power of naturopathic medicine and holistic health care. The medicine wheel has become the foundation in which I keep exploring and fine-tuning the various aspects of my life that need attention. My physical space is strengthened through diet, sleep, hydration, and exercise. My emotional space is nurtured through journaling, music, poetry, art therapy, meditation, and yoga.

Mentally, I challenge deep-rooted belief systems and replace them with beliefs that are in alignment with my true self. My spiritual space has been dedicated to a self-created sanctuary where I pray to Creator, smudge, set intentions, and express daily gratitude. I do not take prescription medication and strongly believe in the power to heal my disease through preventative and natural means. I eat organic food, use natural cleaners, and wear non-toxic makeup. And yes, it is expensive. Any excess income I have is gone. Would I rather be spending money on vacations and new clothes? Yes. My budget is tight, and that’s because I have made a conscious choice to put my well-being first. Any shot I have at pure remission is dependent on the work I put in every day.

I have embraced the concepts of letting go, accepting, trusting, and forgiving. I still have hard days—I sometimes cry. I am human, and I’m learning to accept that I don’t have to be perfect. I believe that as I continue to work through my physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being, my disease will be something of the past. There are days when I don’t feel well, which means I have to examine the world around me and inside me to figure out what needs nurturing, what needs attention. I have more days that I feel amazing and grateful. I love myself more than I did seven years ago.

You Can Heal Too
Lifestyle changes are overwhelming because they require us to explore the caverns within us that hold vulnerable wounds, many of which are from childhood. They say belief systems take hold before the age of seven and are reinforced by the environment around us. Emotions are energy, and energy cannot be destroyed. They hide and poison our beautiful bodies, creating stress, illness, and unhappy people. Until you dedicate time to exploring and processing trauma, it will keep you hostage. Reach out for support and surround yourself with those who encourage you to follow your own path. It takes great courage to look within.

Our society often looks externally for answers, validation, and for others to fill the voids within our hearts. The answers are always within you. When you take the time to heal and love yourself, you are not only giving yourself an amazing gift, but the people around you as well. If you ask yourself the right questions, you will find the answers, the willpower, and guidance to come back to the person you have always been. It is a journey of self-discovery that never ends. You will never be perfect. But I promise you will be happier, healthier, and more loving than you ever thought possible.

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