Diagnosing, managing, and treating an autoimmune disease or chronic illness can feel like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle with your eyes closed.
It’s easy for pieces to get lost in the chaos, or to not even realize they weren’t in the box to begin with. And sometimes you may feel like the people helping you are actually on the opposing team.
By being open-minded to factors you never considered – including the connection between mental and physical health – and to lifestyle change and new, safe approaches, you may find a path to healing.
In the following story, Aubrey describes her experience of sudden, unexplained symptoms that were never diagnosed, and the journey to heal her chronic issues.
I was born into a multicultural family, as my father is Chinese-Indonesian and my mother is Caucasian. My three siblings and I all grew up as California natives and spent our childhood hiking, camping, and being outdoors as much as possible. My family traveled A LOT, exposing us to other cultures, traditions, and languages.
I was raised in an environment that was active, wholesome, loving, and extremely open-minded towards various outlooks on life.
Around the age of 25 , I discovered a newfound sport called ultrarunning, which consists of completing any distance beyond a marathon, otherwise known as ultramarathons. These can take place on roads, trails, or both – but mainly on trails. The sport itself is brutal, downright depleting, and super tough on the physical body. But it had the opposite effect on my heart and soul.
You see, when I started becoming more involved and meeting like-minded friends in this community, something inside of my heart began to change. I saw my relationships with others and my relationship with the universe in a more holistic light.
I realized that everything was connected – from my body, diet, and thoughts, to destiny, mother earth, the universe, and the surrounding energy from people I was meeting. I was having what one would call a “spiritual awakening” and knew it was the height of my existence.
“My high came crashing down when I experienced severe, autoimmune-like symptoms”
Like many things in our lifetime, not everything can be perfect or last forever. My high instantly came crashing down when I suddenly experienced severe, autoimmune-like symptoms.
It started with waking up to red, itchy, scaly, irritated eyelids after going out to celebrate Halloween the night before. Within a week, the discomfort spread to my entire face and neck. Within 30 days it had spread to my scalp, shoulders and chest.
Eventually, within 2 months, this reaction spread all the way down to my toes. I started experiencing even more symptoms that I can now identify as brain fog, slurred speech, dizziness, joint pains, blurred vision, memory loss, high/low body temperatures, hair loss, heart palpitations, digestive issues, bowel issues – the list goes on and on.
Of course I went straight to my PCP. She referred me to a dermatologist, who confirmed that it was just eczema. Well, duh! I knew I had eczema; but how do you explain ALL of the other symptoms?
“I felt defeated, lost, helpless, powerless, and like it was all my fault”
This tale is as old as time. I was prescribed a steroidal cortisone cream, some steroid pills, and wished “good luck!” I felt defeated, lost, helpless, powerless, and like it was all my fault.
About four months and a few more frustrating doctor visits later, the universe stepped in. A friend suggested I see her Acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner (TCM) to calm down my stress levels, but it turned into much more than that. The TCM performed acupuncture and treated me with herbal medicine, while simultaneously expanding my views on health, wellness, and medicine.
“I did not believe in holistic medicine, but I did believe in my will to heal”
I did not believe in this man’s remedies. I did not believe in holistic/natural/Eastern medicine. But I did believe in my will to heal, so I started opening my mind to treatment and alternative medicine.
I learned to heal my body from the inside out by using food and herbs as medicine, incorporating real, whole foods into my diet. I started practicing gentle movement such as Vinyasa Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong (pronounced “chee-gong”), walking, and hiking. I put my beloved ultramarathons on pause until my body felt strong enough to restart.
I started journaling and addressing some deeply rooted traumas and underlying stress triggers in my life – relationships I had to let go of. I started speaking up and defending myself in uncomfortable situations, as well as having very difficult internal conversations. I frequently asked myself, “Am I happy in this job, relationship, home, life, etc.?”
“I had to learn that everything within our bodies and surrounding environment is connected”
What I had to learn (and I hope you all are learning as well) is that everything within our bodies and surrounding environment is connected! The food we eat, physical stress we endure, mental and emotional stress, our level of happiness, and the thoughts we allow to come into our minds and hearts. They are all parts of a whole.
This experience led me to the world of Eastern-inspired, alternative medical disciplines, including functional medicine. Here, the ultimate goal is finding the root cause rather than addressing individual symptoms. Other similar disciplines include integrative and naturopathic medicine.
I decided to incorporate both Western (a.k.a. allopathic or conventional) and Eastern (a.k.a alternative or holistic) medicine by making one cohesive medical team. While my attempt was successful, in the end, it took me two years and four different Primary Care Physicians (PCPs), to find one who had a more open mind and holistic approach. Even still, I had to work with a Functional Medicine Doctor to order certain tests confirming I had Candida overgrowth. My allopathic practitioner had no idea what I was talking about when I first brought it up testing for Candida, SIBO, and H. Pylori to that team.
The doctors were able to conclude that my symptoms were autoimmune-related, but without further testing they could not confirm a diagnosis. Truthfully, I was starting to feel better by changing my diet and lifestyle so I did not feel it was worth the risk of feeling sick again just to get a diagnosis.
“I can confidently say that I was able to reverse my autoimmune condition”
After 4.5 years, 38 different doctors, no confirmed diagnosis, countless supplements, years of agony and anguish, endless recipe testing, and more self-healing work than I could ever imagine, I am finally healing.
I can confidently say that I was able to reverse my autoimmune condition – to about 97% remission.
I live well and manage my condition every single day based on all of the tactics I’ve mentioned:
Growing up in a multicultural, open-minded family – one that introduced me to diverse worldviews and instilled a love of the outdoors – helped set me up with tools to heal.
My friends, if I can leave you all with one piece of advice, it would be to focus on your thoughts and that inner voice inside of your heart.
We are all going to have moments of despair and doubt, but it is how we break free and overcome those moments that matters most. This is when the REAL work begins. If you believe you can overcome your struggles then it may come true; but it takes patience, love and true self-reflection.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Global Autoimmune Institute. The experiences and health outcomes described in this article are unique to the author and do not serve as medical advice.