by Dara Lehrer
This is a story about a universal truth, human suffering. Like all true stories, it doesn’t have a beginning, and it doesn’t have an end. This is a story about pain, but more so it is a story about learning to step outside of the confines pain entraps our bodies and minds in, and to see past that into something greater. This is your story. More precisely, this is my story.
I am sick. Three little words no one wants to hear. Do they make you uncomfortable? Do they make you want to run?
I. Am. Sick. Since as far back as I can remember, I have suffered from…nothing. That is what most doctors have told me. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBS, is a concessionary blanket diagnosis that has been given to me time and time again throughout my high school and early college years. I’ve had more blood tests, stool tests, doctors appointments, ultrasounds, and invasive surgical procedures done than I care to recount that have all amounted to… nothing. “Nothing is physically wrong with you,” I’ve heard, “it’s just IBS.”
Just IBS has drastically altered the course of how I have learned to inhabit my body and mind for most of my life.
Every day I go through hell. In the morning, I am either constipated or have diarrhea. There is always a vacuous, hollow painful feeling in my stomach that demands to be fed immediately. After a few bites of food, it changes to an incredibly bloated, full sensation that induces lethargy. Whenever I walk or run I feel like I’m churning a pot of Diet Coke and Mentos. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few pain-free hours in the middle of the day. Often though, I have a lingering headache that stays with me always.
In the early afternoon is when the real fireworks begin. What starts off as a tell-tale prick in my abdomen quickly escalates into a searingly painful, all-encompassing terror of a feeling that can last anywhere from fifteen minutes to several hours. It’s always a relief when it finally passes through my system and comes out as large clouds of odorless, alien gas, leaving me exhausted and often tear-soaked. Sometimes I’m not as lucky, and the gaseous pain stays with me till I fall asleep at night, which usually takes at least an hour of restless turning.
I’m often sad, withdrawn and anxious. I don’t like talking about the pain I’m usually in, because it makes people uncomfortable. So I don’t. Instead, I pretend everything is okay. That I’m not in searing hot pain while we’re having a casual conversation at dinner. That I don’t have a headache, am faint, or feel so full I need to lie down.
Food is a major source of communion amongst people, and one that I have always felt alienated from. In order to manage my ever-worsening daily symptoms, I slowly and systematically have eliminated trigger foods that I can pinpoint as sources of discomfort from my diet. With each subsequent food comes an increased level of isolation from my family and friends, who don’t and can’t understand what I am going through.
First it was gluten. Then soy. Later came corn. I became a vegetarian. I stopped eating refined sugar. Onions, garlic, dairy, and all fruit have slowly disappeared from the shrinking list of foods I know I can safely eat. Nixing a new food always brings temporary relief, but sure as spit my pain always returns as vigorously and renewed as ever within a fortnight.
On the occasion that I must mention my condition, I am usually met with a few classic responses. The most common is the reassurance that I’ll soon be fine, and that I should really be grateful that things aren’t worse than they are. Another regular is the diagnosis. “Oh you probably just have (insert your idea here), just like my great aunt so-and-so…” Sometimes, people just feel plain guilty. They look down at their plate remorsefully for having simply eaten their food while I, obviously, am unable to exercise the same nonchalantness towards the seemingly innocuous activity of taking in sustenance. Perhaps the utterly worst response I have been met with is the sanctimonious glance coupled with the question, “have you considered that this might just be an emotional thing? That maybe it’s all just in your head?”
Yes, actually, I have considered that, thank you. I have also at some points even considered my pain to be a purely energetic thing— as some sort of karmic retribution for past actions. An externally inflicted atonement for my sins, if you will. I have encountered several individuals who have suffered from unexplained digestive pain for years, some even decades, who have simply enveloped their illness as though it is a part of what this life is for them. Most notably was a rather eccentric girl who spent about one-seventh of her time in the ayahuasca spirit realm cleansing her soul of its impurities, so that her pain might finally go away.
My physical ailments have led me down a number of paths I’m not sure I necessarily would have gone down on my own. Thanks to my years of unexplained pain, I have been pulled towards yoga, meditation, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, massage therapy, naturopathy, and other important healing modalities such as actually chewing my food thoroughly that I might not have otherwise had occasion or motivation to explore.
My pain has become my biggest source of inspiration and wisdom throughout our years of constant companionship. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons it has taught me is compassion, both for others and for myself—it has shown me a specific kind of pain, and has taught me about the inherent truths that lie behind all pain in general.
The first noble truth in Buddhist thought expounds an unavoidable facet of reality—in life there is discontentment. The original word for this discontentment in the Buddha’s language is dukkha, which can be translated in a variety of different contextually appropriate ways. Dukkha spans from the gross to the subtle—from the bodily pain we all experience to the existential pain in the search for meaning and a sense of lasting fulfillment in our lives.
In my particular case, dukkha has nestled itself deep within the recesses of my being; both its physical and metaphysical crux lie at the epicenter of my body-heart-mind. Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, all of my dukkha is potently concentrated in my gut. Upon close inspection, there is no meaningful distinction between our bodies and our minds. Where one ends and the other begins is purely a conceptual distinction that has been created by our intellect. Getting to the real root of my physical problem therefore has invariably led to insight into the root of all other problems (not to say I’ve necessarily solved any of them).
The gut is, by no stretch of the imagination, responsible for much more than our brains might like to give it credit for. The vagus nerve, one of the central nerves in the body, is responsible for conveying somewhere between eighty and ninety percent of all information from the body to the central nervous system. This nerve interfaces with the automatic nervous system, meaning it regulates unconscious actions, and runs through both the heart and the digestive tract.
The nervous system conveys messages from the brain to the body, and from the body to the brain. In the specific case of the vagus nerve, however, that ratio is far from equal. Over ninety percent of the fibers in the vagus nerve carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. The implications of this are enormous—the state of our gut holds a lot of sway when it comes to affecting our perceptual and emotional state.
Even more shocking still is the fact that nine-five percent of the body’s serotonin, the hormone responsible for maintaining mood balance, is produced in the gut. If one has a gut-related problem such as IBS, the gut’s ability to produce serotonin becomes seriously compromised. It is no wonder that many naturally oriented health professionals look first to diet and nutrient absorption when treating patients with depression.
The bottom line is that the gut is hugely influential in determining the state of one’s heart and mind. For me, that truth runs painfully deep. For many years, I have been caught on a roller coaster of physical and emotional pain, despair and confusion as a direct and immediate byproduct of my unexplained GI ailments. Only in the past month have I really and truly come to terms with just how much of my life has been completely and utterly controlled by what, until recently, I thought might be a life-long struggle with chronic IBS.
About a month ago, while driving a long stretch of road alone on my way back from a trip, an epiphany struck. Prompted by the consumption of an overly ripe apple gifted to me by my fruit-loving grandfather, the cause of my ongoing struggle struck like a bolt of lightening in a desert monsoon storm: it was sugar. Not just refined sugar, which I had long since cut out of my diet, but all sugar. Any and all carbohydrates I consumed left me pain stricken and increasingly bewildered. Suddenly, my years and years of suffering were illuminated.
The next morning I threw out all my food and bought some eggs, determined to see my hypothesis out to its grizzly end. I cut out everything with any amount of carbohydrate in it—essentially my diet became exclusively comprised of animal flesh, eggs, and oil. And lo and behold, that very day, all of my symptoms, for the first time in literally years, completely and utterly vanished. I knew I was on to something big, and I knew I was going to need all the support and information I could get.
The world of alternative medicine has been, and continues to be, a huge blessing to me. Conditions that, for some reason or another, fall below the radar of the allopathic world are, fortunately, fairly well known within various “alternative” health communities. My particular disease happens to fall squarely into that category.
Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth, or SIBO as it’s abbreviated, is claimed in the naturopathic world to be one of the main, underlying root causes of IBS (SIBO is suspected to be an underlying root cause of somewhere between fifty and eighty percent of all IBS cases). It’s not an esoteric or undiagnosable condition, yet somehow many doctors I’ve spoken with have never even heard of it, nonetheless know how to treat it.
SIBO is a dysbiosis, in other words a microbial imbalance, within the small intestine. A specific kind of bacteria that should properly reside within the colon can, if given the opportunity, migrate up into the small intestine and wreak complete havoc on digestion. If left undiagnosed and untreated, SIBO can cause food sensitivities, allergies, autoimmune disease, malnutrition, and a host of other health problems ranging from fibromyalgia to autism (if you’re interested in the full list of the almost fifty associated diseases, check out siboinfo.com).
The causes that create the proper conditions for SIBO are not fully documented. However, there have been many correlative studies that have linked it to the use of Proton Pump Inhibitors, which suppress the production of gastric acid, as well as to the use of Oral Birth Control, a potent drug that unfortunately is prescribed like candy without any real knowledge or consideration of both the short and long term repercussions that might result from it.
Currently, I am in the extremely long and arduous process of being treated for SIBO. I will have to undergo many months of an extremely strict dietary protocol with absolutely no wiggle room, weeks of intense antimicrobial supplements, and years of recuperation in healing my gut lining. I may yet not know the full extent of the damage SIBO has caused my body—it is probable that I have developed autoimmunity to many foods, excess liver toxicity, vitamin deficiencies, and intestinal permeability.
What I do know is that in the past month, my body and mind have changed dramatically. My acne and rosacea-prone skin has, for the first time ever, cleared up completely without the use of any topical chemicals to mask the symptoms; I don’t get sunburned nearly as easily now. My once-puffy fingers have stopped swelling, my natural odor has shifted to a less pungent smell, I don’t get ravenously hungry or irritable without food, it is easier to go to sleep and I wake up better rested, my daily emotional spectrum is more balanced, my hands and feet do not get as frigidly cold anymore, I’ve lost a few pounds of inflammatory retention, and my mind does not create nearly as much anxiety as it once did.
The past couple of days have been extremely challenging for me, as my naturopath has requested that I delve back into the world of inflammatory, SIBO-feeding foods so that we might better know which foods trigger my autoimmune responses. Even this short venture back into my past life has provided me with that much more insight into how ensnared I was by my own physiology. I have used the past couple of days as a way to observe the full spectrum of the emotional, mental, and physical turmoil SIBO causes me that I once considered to be unquestionably normal.
What I have come to realize is just how integrated body and mind truly are, and how, really, neither of the two defines who I truly am. Buddhism defines mind as a sense faculty, operating in the same way as our other five senses do. Just as we would never stake our personal identity on, say, the sensations that pass over our tongue and into our cognitive faculty, Buddhism would assert that that same principle should apply equally to the thoughts and emotional states that pass through the mind.
What I have come to deeply and viscerally understand is that my thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and feelings have absolutely no bearing on what I truly am. Being thrown back into my habitual mode of existence for a few days after having been away from it for about a month has shown me just how completely causal factors determine the course of my embodied experience, thoughts and, by extension, my perception of what I construct to be true.
The second noble truth Buddhism extols is the cause of suffering and discontent— attachment. This does not mean, as is commonly misinterpreted, that the remedy to suffering is detachment. The remedy is, merely, nonattachment (the third noble truth). That means that in order to overcome the discontentment and suffering caused by my SIBO, I cannot identify with it as me. Which is a good thing, because I don’t want SIBO to be me. Seeing clearly now the extent to which SIBO influences not only my physiology, but my psychology as well, it is very apparent that none of this, even in my SIBO-dormant state, can possibly be me.
Does this seem totally radical? A hard pill to swallow? Let’s think it through—surely it cannot be any other way.
I am tempted, as I believe all of us are, to take the good and leave the bad. I could say, simply, that what I perceive to be my less desirable emotions, thoughts and feelings are the ones caused by SIBO, but that certain other characteristics of the twenty-year old girl currently writing this essay are truly what I am. But how can that be? How can I explain away certain behaviors and thought patterns by blaming it on a bacteria that has profoundly affected my conduct without rightly attributing all of my conduct, bad and good, to the causes and conditions that my body-mind are subjected to at any given moment? It just doesn’t add up any other way.
The metaphysical implications of “my” observations are, literally and figuratively, quite vast. Too vast indeed for the purposes of this essay, and too vast, perhaps, even for words to adequately communicate. Suffice to say, I am, at this point in time, infinitely grateful for the incredible array of opportunity, practice, insight, and growth this seemingly horrific struggle for health has brought to every facet of my life.
The fourth, and final, noble truth deals with the path leading to the cessation of dukkha—in other words, the practical means through which one might truly overcome life’s struggles, both physically and metaphysically. My stomach travails have, in a way, been my personal noble truth. In the past, present, and future, my gut has shown me, is showing me, and will show me, the Way.
I see, and indeed have experienced, the value of pain and the lessons it brings about. Indeed, I think it is a crucial part of embodied existence that should be experienced as it is, instead of as something to be hidden, or shoddily covered over with Advil. However, I cannot vibe with the notion of prayer or soul cleansing alone as a viable treatment method. Faith is, in my view, something that should be strongly cultivated, but directed internally, rather than externally. Salvation is brought about through individual effort, not through passivity alone. This human life we’re all living weaves a very fine tension between the necessities both for complete surrender to what is, and active striving for what can be.
I have come to think of dysbiosis not only as a microbial imbalance within my personal bowels, but also as a lack of harmony within the bowels of the universe at large. Everywhere I go I am bombarded by systemic imbalance—in the governmental arena and in the distribution of wealth and resources, in our severely handicapped and nutrient-depleted food system, and in the overt and subtle discrimination and biases held about gender, sexual orientation, and race that still run rampant in the collective unconscious.
I see myself a mere microcosm of the macrocosm, and to be honest, things seems pretty bleak. I am optimistic that I will make a full recovery from the dysbiosis in my gut, but that recovery will take a lifetime to maintain. Like I mentioned in the beginning of my tale, real stories don’t have a beginning, and they certainly don’t have an end. My journey to health will always be an ongoing one—healthy living is a sharply-inclined, uphill battle in the overwhelmingly sick world we live in.
True health and vitality is, in my observation, an incredible rarity in this world. I can honestly say I’ve only met a handful of people in my entire life that can truthfully boast a vibrant natural appearance, an unprocessed diet, a straight spine, and a lack of reliance on pharmaceuticals to get by. One of those people, I am extremely proud to say, is my grandfather, who, at age 88, takes only fish oil pills and can do more than three times as many pushups as most people I know.
Health is our birthright. I believe each and every one of us should have the opportunity to know what it is like to live inside of a human body free from the ill effects of pesticide-ridden food, pollutant-infested air, and toxin-laden products (including deadly chemicals like arsenic, refined sugar, and lead). This change must come about through a massive shift in the way we conduct our worldly affairs, and that massive shift can only come about through individual work.
This is a call to action to you, reader of my story. Reader of your story. This is our story, our journey to heal, both on an individual and collective level. The best kind of medicine, they say, is bitter to swallow. The journey to true health, physically and spiritually, is not easy, not quick, and certainly not microwavable. It is, however, a worthwhile and noble pursuit.
It is not too late to start reevaluating everything and making changes for the better. The time is now. In fact, the time is always now, has always been now, and will always continue to be now for the rest of eternity. That’s just how time works.
I am sick. And I need your help to get better, and stay that way. This is a cry for help and for health, for vibrancy and vitality for all beings. Let’s create something wonderful.
[divider]About the Author[/divider]
Dara is currently a senior in Philosophy at Northern Arizona University. She hopes to continue her education post-undergrad in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and yoga and massage therapies in order to share her passion for true, vibrant health with others. Her interests are an ever-evolving slew of things that at the present moment includes talking to trees, sitting on floors, and looking at pictures of cob houses.