You are not a tree
In the last year of my doctoral program, I started waking up exhausted. I had a cold sore after a cold sore on and around my lips. I became anxious and depressed. I first went to a psychiatrist but after he tried getting me on antidepressants, I switched to a naturopath. For a year I took several plant-based tinctures but with no improvement.
Thinking it was the food, I first switched to the paleo and then vegan diet. I started practicing yoga and meditation.
After finishing the degree, I traveled to Uganda where I had two food poisonings. Then, I traveled to Belarus for my wedding. I was so bloated, I had to suck my stomach in so people wouldn't think I was pregnant. I became extremely irritable and had the first major fight with my husband just days after the wedding.
After the wedding, we moved to Alabama. I became even more bloated, constipated, and depressed. A few months later, at our American wedding, I stood in front of my husband reading my vows and wondering why in the world I bought such a tight-fitting dress. I was mentally and physically exhausted from sucking my stomach in.
In 2019, I traveled to Uganda again. There, I had my first panic attack - I thought I contracted ebola from shaking hands with the people from a Congolese tribe living across the border in Western Uganda. Back in the U.S., I had one of the most severe food poisonings I ever had after eating at a vegan restaurant - I bloated so much I couldn't zip up my pants for days. Then, I went to Europe again. I couldn't control myself around food and, even though I was "strictly vegan", I devoured Romanian papanasi and Georgian khachapuri with an appetite of a starving person. At the end of the trip, my bloating subsided but my skin became worse than ever.
Thinking again it was the food, I eliminated even more items from my diet: corn, soy, gluten, milk, oil, and sugar. But I kept getting only worse. I became so brain foggy and lethargic that the summer of 2020 I spent on the couch staring at the ceiling.
That summer, my stomach protruded so much I looked at least six months pregnant. I decided to stop eating until my stomach would reduce to its normal size. It took only two days to achieve it. It was then I knew my problems were digestion-related.
I researched the heck out of the global net and self-diagnosed myself with the small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
When I told my Alabama family physician about SIBO, he, first, didn't know what it was and, then, said it was all in my head. "You are the healthiest person I know," he said before I left in tears.
Upon my request, he sent me to a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist prescribed probiotics and told me to come back in a month. The probiotics didn't help and I didn't come back.
Finally, I decided to overlook the cost of holistic medicine and seek help of a functional medicine practitioner. More than five thousand dollars and half a dozen lab tests later, I found what was wrong with me.
I had SIBO (yay, I wasn't crazy!) which caused leaky gut, inflammation, depression, anxiety, brain fog, and hormonal misbalance. I also had a genetic mutation that didn't allow me to metabolize plant-based vitamin A.
I ditched veganism.
I couldn't understand how I got so sick leading in overall a healthy lifestyle. Was there anything I could have done differently? Yes, my doctor said, I could have.
First, I should have reduced stress. I was chronically stressed for so long I didn't even know I was stressed. Second, I should have eaten foods free of chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones. The toxins in food kill the good bacteria in the gut and ruin the intestinal lining leading to a host of chronic diseases. Third, I should have avoided hormonal birth control.
I started thinking about how I could reengineer my life to build a healthy body and mind. My husband and I started with a concept map of our dream life. A house with a garden, chickens, a dog, a cat, alpacas, and an orchard. A river in the backyard and benches along the river for meditation. Mountains and forest on the other side of the house for hiking and foraging. A small town with a food cooperative, an organic coffee shop and deli, a yoga studio, a park, a small college for me, and a physical therapy clinic for my husband.
Drawing the map didn't take any imagination - I drew it from my memory.
I used to live in a place like this.
I lived in Belarus in a village sandwiched between a river and a forest.
I lived in a house with a garden, an orchard, chickens, pigs, bees, and a dog and a cat. My family lived almost entirely off what we and my grandparents produced. We drank raw milk from the cows raised on a pasture. Grandmothers made cheese, kefir, sour cream, and bread. Our pigs ate kitchen scraps and leafy greens from the garden that was never sprayed. We slaughtered all of our animals by ourselves and made our own sausages and bacon. We wore sweaters and socks knitted by my grandma from the wool of her sheep. We drank birch-tree juice produced by my grandpa from the birches around his house. We foraged for wild berries, mushrooms, and herbs.
It was a sustainable way of living and it made us move a lot. I walked everywhere and on weekends I rode my bicycle to the river, the woods, and my grandparents' villages. In my school of more than a thousand students, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of overweight children. The biggest health threat was the radiation from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
We were healthy but also exhausted. We spent most of our time cultivating, harvesting, foraging, picking, slaughtering, canning, fermenting, and smoking. My parents dreamed of buying all of our food in grocery stores and having weekends to themselves. Mom dreamed of having clean finger nails and I of heels that weren't cracked. We saw our subsistence lives as backwards and wanted a way out.
When we moved to the U.S., we didn't know there was organic and inorganic food as in Belarus everything was organic by default. We didn't know about antibiotics and hormones in animals. We didn't know about glyphosate, GMOs, or vegetable and fruit waxing. We didn't know the fruits in grocery stores weren't ripe even though they looked like it.
Everything tasted like grass but we never questioned the foods' quality as we now lived in the richest country in the world. It never occurred to me that the most powerful and richest country would knowingly poison its own people.
Sixteen years in the U.S. turned me into another statistic - I'm one of the 130 million Americans living with a chronic disease caused by food and lifestyle choices.
Back to reengineering my life.
I'm slowly reversing the damage I have done to my body by first investing in my health (functional medicine is not covered by health insurance) and then moving to a place where I can imitate my life in Belarus minus the working-all-the-time part. I want to grow my own food, move naturally, have a community of like-minded people, and become more connected to the universe. For us, this place is Sedona, Arizona.
When my husband complains about something that is within his reach to change, I often say, "you are not a tree, use your arms and legs to do something about it." Many of us feel stuck in our lives but there is always a way out. It doesn't have to be as dramatic as moving to the other side of the country. It can be as small as educating ourselves on what we are putting in our mouths.
Just remember - you are not a tree!