Each time I had an appointment with a new doctor, acupuncturist, or naturopath, I told the story of my colitis the same way. Symptoms started in October; I was diagnosed in March. My gut had always been healthy before this. I had always prided myself on my iron stomach, even living for years in Africa with no undue problems.
Sometimes, in these conversations, little episodes from my history would emerge. No, I had never been hospitalized…but actually, I had once been rushed to the hospital via ambulance for heat exhaustion. And I had once spent a miserable night in a remote village health clinic in Ghana. Yes, I had always felt well-nourished and been physically active…except, come to think of it, I had fainted twice in my life and been light-headed many times before that. Why yes, I had once had thyroid problems. And actually, yes, another time I had been low on Vitamin D as well.
The more I told my own story, the more confused I became. I’d always thought of myself as healthy. Was I?
I have always been skinny, energetic, and active. Mom sometimes mused aloud about what might make me so skinny, and I wondered too. I was the skinniest member of the family. Even doctors sometimes advised me, growing up, to eat big desserts and bowls of ice cream.
But I couldn’t have been malnourished. I always felt vital and enthusiastic, and had more energy than most people around me. Too shy to play team sports, in high school and college I was instead a devoted martial artist, studying Kung Fu for seven years and practicing nearly every day. I owned a punching bag and sparring gear, cross-trained by jogging and weight lifting, and sought quiet backyards in which to practise my forms. The Kung Fu tests lasted for hours, with no food or water permitted. At age twenty-three, I entered the brown sash test with a fever and a cold, but finished six hours later feeling clear-headed and healthy. I had sweated so much that the illness had been purged from my body.
Even before discovering Kung Fu, as a kid I enjoyed creating training regimes for myself. This was a secret game my sister and I played. We wanted to live up to the picture Dad painted of himself in his youth, the superjock that set push-up records in high school and led boot camp workouts in the Navy. Jeannie and I made up rules to boost our own strength. Ten push-ups every time we went to the bathroom. Five pull-ups from the low-hanging branch of the cherry tree each time we crossed Mom’s front yard. Later, in college, when alone in the bathroom I would stand in horse stance while brushing my teeth to strengthen my quads. I co-led backpacking trips for freshmen in the Wallowa Mountains. I took physical jobs, spending two college summers on a landscaping crew, working in the sun all day then practicing Kung Fu at night. “You look swarthy,” Mom said once as I sauntered in the door, my arms unusually tan under my city uniform. I felt swarthy. I was strong for my size, which wasn’t saying much, but my natural endurance helped me keep up with the rest of the crew.
In Peace Corps, I gave up Kung Fu, but life in my Tanzanian village was physical, too. I carried buckets of water up a steep hill in the dry season, washed my clothes by hand, took bucket baths. Without electricity and running water, cooking and cleaning took a good three hours every day. I walked everywhere–Ron and I once walked thirty miles in a day just to visit a remote village we were curious about. When the rainy season began, I tilled my whole farm myself, standing barefoot in the field and swinging the hoe over my head to break the earth, mimicking the villagers’ method. I tilled a little patch every morning before the daily rain began, working my way across the whole area until the entire half-acre was black and soft. When Jeannie visited, she and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. By then our knees were both deteriorating, and we were hobbling like grannies by the time we got to the bottom, but we had made it to the top.
In Madison my lifestyle changed once again, but again I found ways to be healthy and active. Ron and I became devoted ultimate Frisbee players, joining teams year round to play two to four times a week. It was the first organized sport I had ever played. I was never exceptional, but loved running and improving my field sense and my ability to throw under pressure. We also biked a mile or two to classes each day in grad school, then the same distance later to our jobs at the Department of Natural Resources. And for three summers, we worked together on a field crew, surveying streams across Wisconsin, donning waders and hauling heavy equipment up and down streambanks, walking miles each day through cobble and mud.
Now, as a Sick Person recounting my history to my various doctors, it was reassuring to think all this out. I wasn’t remembering wrong. I had been healthy, my whole life until now, likely healthier than the average American–albeit not the average Tanzanian. I had accomplished a lot with my skinny body. It made me proud.
And yet, there were also many memories of health incidents. They didn’t fit neatly into my concept of myself. And over the years, they had begun to add up.
There were the fainting spells. In Kung Fu in my twenties, I never actually fainted, but dozens of times I came close. I would pull Sifu aside and tell him it was happening again: white spots blinding me, a ringing and rushing in my ears. Concerned, he sat me against the wall, instructing me to sip water with my head down until the feeling passed.
Twice in my life, I actually did faint. The first was in middle school. A friend had been in a horrific car accident, and I visited her in the hospital, where she was to remain bedridden with terrible injuries for the next six months. The first time I saw her, I took in her quiet room, her clean sheets, the patient nurse smiling as she moved around, and my friend’s own accommodating, sad smile. And the next thing I knew, I was seated with people gathered around me, holding me and laughing gently. They said I dropped to the floor in one swooning motion, just like in the movies.
The second time I fainted was ten years later, in Peace Corps training. We had to prick our fingers and practice placing a blood sample on a plastic slide, in case we ever suspected ourselves to have malaria. I had pricked myself a few times for biology labs in college, and prided myself on not being squeamish about it. But for some mysterious reason, as I sat amidst the others listening to them squeal and shudder at their own pricks, I stared at the blood on my slide and started feeling light-headed. I asked the volunteer next to me if I could rest my head on his shoulder, and awoke with the Peace Corps doctor gripping me firmly around the shoulders, telling me I’d had something akin to a seizure–I had gone ghost white, lost consciousness, and stiffened.
Add to those incidents the heat exhaustion in 2007, plus yet another mysterious illness just a couple years ago, in 2012.
In January that year I began having strange symptoms–blurred vision, dizziness, racing heart rate, fatigue. I went to the doctor, who tested me for everything we could think of. Celiacs, diabetes, inflammation, anemia. Everything came back normal except Vitamin D, which was low. I began to take supplements. My symptoms continued.
Only after several weeks of worry did my lightbulb go off one morning. I’d awoken feeling dandy, then eaten my usual bowl of oatmeal, after which I once again felt so dizzy that I had to lie down. It occurred to me that the oatmeal might be the key. I always ate it topped with a hearty pile of walnuts, and I remembered suddenly that nut allergies are common. A quick Google search revealed all my symptoms listed tidily–racing heart is characteristic of nut allergies. I ceased the walnuts the next day; the symptoms never returned. Mystery solved.
Then there was my chronic knee pain. And my Raynaud’s disease. And seborrheic dermatitis. And now, my ulcerative proctitis.
It was indeed starting to add up.
Was I sickly, after all? Had I, perhaps, really always been sickly, always weak, and just never admitted it to myself? Had I been pushing myself beyond my limits all these years? Was that why I’d gotten faint so often in Kung Fu–because I couldn’t actually handle my own rigorous training?
And what about Peace Corps, that physical lifestyle I was so proud to have lived? As much as I’d loved it, I returned home with a myriad of health problems. I’d lost weight on the daily diet of rice and beans. I had developed back problems and a hyperactive thyroid, and my knee pain was worse than ever. I saw a series of doctors and nursed myself back to health, and soon I felt good as new, just in time for grad school. But now I wondered. Had I really been able to handle Peace Corps? Or had I come back home just in time?
Being sick was making me question my whole concept of myself. Of my health. Despite what felt like glitches over the years, I had generally assumed I could rely on my body, could keep up with my peers, even outwork them in some cases despite being slender. My own vigorous health was a source of great pride for me–it was part of who I was. That health was gone now. The longer I experienced its absence, the more I wondered if it had ever truly been there.
My Vitamin D test results came back: I was still in the normal range. It was a relief to get a little piece of good news.