One of the first questions I ask patients is "when did you feel your healthiest?" It's a sneaky way of orienting their current state of being to where they are in time. Was it last year? Age 15? Mid 20's? Is it now? When they were pregnant? The question forces them into their memory data bank to pull an experience of health that they can viscerally feel and it gives us something to aim for in treatment.
When I ask myself that question, it's a hard one to answer. I don't remember being healthy. Ever.
I know, I know, I know. Not a resounding testimonial from someone in the health care field where you secretly expect your practitioner to be a paragon of health. But health has eluded me from the moment I decided to make my cameo on planet earth. Raging colic as a new born. Legendary allergies as a toddler. If there was a virus or bacteria or bug in the neighborhood - I got it. In spades. As a pre-teen, St Paul Children's hospital knew me so well that the reception desk staff invited me to create artwork for the waiting room. I had funky feet to boot. So there were club foot braces, physical therapy, casts, and specialist MDs. The middle school years didn't bring relief - they brought a whole different set of problems. I started having fatigue and joint pain that was crippling. Lyme's was suspected, but this was the late-80's and no one really knew for sure. When my period hit, it almost knocked me out. The pain was excruciating.
But when you don't know any differently, you simply work it out.
None of this stopped my parents from trying to provide me with a normal, suburban, Minnesotan life. So there were still swim lessons, soccer, ski club, Girl Scouts, archery, hiking, summer camp - all of it. We were at the lower end of middle class, so as soon as I was of legal age in high-school, I started working. Any luxury items that I wanted (i.e. anything other than a roof over my head or food), I was expected to pick up the tab for. By my junior year, I was waiting tables close to 40 hours a week, attending high-school, and on the varsity slalom ski team. I kept myself busy. Extremely busy. Which distracted me from the over riding sense of fatigue that was always present, the anomalous weight gain, the achey muscles, tired joints, and the ever present depression. It also allowed me to avoid home - which had been slowly imploding into a black hole for over a decade at that point. I was tired of being sick. I was tired of being tired. So my coping strategy was to work through it and glorify "busy" to the point of numbing myself out.
I got accepted to a college 5 states over and had all kinds of mixed emotions about going. One of the pre-reqs to attending was a physical - administriva that didn't really mean anything. I found a doctor covered by insurance and went to a new GP, my very own internist since I was technically an adult at 18 years old. Given that this was 1995, I don't really remember the details of the appointment or even what my doctor looked like. However, about a week later, I came home to a panicked answering machine voice mail containing words such as "thyroid", "dangerous results", and "life long medication". The GP sent a prescription to the pharmacy - and that was that.
However, in my mind - it was just another thing to ignore.
I put the meds in my suitcase, and promptly "forgot" all about them. The college years brought new challenges including penicillin resistant strep, Epstein Barr, a blown back, kidney stones that required surgery, a 40 pound weight gain, and a parental divorce which the judge declared to be the worst he'd seen in 20 years on the bench.
There were multiple reasons for the decision, but I decided to do a semester abroad in Japan. My maternal grandparents had met there after WWII, one of my best friends in high school was Japanese, my brother was studying the language, and I needed field research for my anthropology major. Looking back, it was also definitely an escape strategy. 5 states didn't feel far enough from so home, but maybe a continent and an ocean would. I moved to Kyoto to study for a semester and then renewed my visa to squat, travel, and teach English for another 3 months.
I returned to the US to finish school and applied to the Japanese Education Teaching Programme (J.E.T.). It was a program through the ministry of education and consulate where they placed native English speaking graduates in the Japanese public schools alongside Japanese teachers of English. I was accepted to the program; however, the caveat being that the applicant doesn't choose where in Japan they go - the ministry does. Because I had previous Japan experience, I was placed in a village 3 hours west of Tokyo in a little town called Ojima-machi known for its potatoes, strong winds, and strong women. It was me,14K Japanese farmers, and few car manufacturing plants. It was terrifying and perfect.
Now, this is where the story gets interesting.
My days consisted of teaching English at the local junior high school, moonlighting as an English teacher at a local Subaru plant, and spending time as a "cultural ambassador" at the town hall. I was also involved in general local mayhem inclusive of but not limited to copious amounts of sake, karaoke, tea ceremony classes, deep dives of local history, cherry blossom viewing, taiko drumming, wood block printing, and snowboarding. I dove in head first. Many of the locals at first only knew me as "gaijin sensei" (foreign teacher); however, my nickname eventually graduated to "Ojima musume" - the town's daughter. The town embraced me as I embraced them.
True to form, my body decided to throw a wrench into the works. I'd only been there a few months before my face decided to freeze up, leaving me looking like a stroke victim. After multiple doctor visits, it was eventually the town dentist that diagnosed me with Bell's palsy due to an impacted wisdom tooth. No matter how far you go, your troubles are still with you.
This all happened as the internet was in its infancy - 1999. So there was no googling the answer, or ordering a book from Amazon, or stumbling upon a life changing blog post. If you wanted an answer, you had to source it by hunting down people who could give it to you. And I had to do it in Japanese.
At age 22, I started to explore what "healthy" even meant since I didn't really have a frame of reference. I was eating an almost strictly Japanese diet, despite the gratuitous drinking, I was still up early and physically active. I switched from skiing to snowboarding and found a new passion for a different kind of movement. In the middle of snowboarding season, the Canadian friend who had introduced me to the sport pulled his hamstring. Instead of being the season ender I had assumed, he was back up an riding a few weeks later.
My question was, "how". His answer was, "acupuncture."
I didn't even know enough about it to have a stereotype of what acupuncture was - it just seemed like weird voodoo. I couldn't wrap my head around it. So my friend scheduled an appointment for me and we drove out for my first session. I didn't really have anything I was "coming for" - I was there because I had decided to embrace everything Japanese and this was simply part of it. Kuribara-sensei, the practitioner, looked to be about 25 years old - I later discovered he was in his mid-50's. Kuribara had an insatiable curiosity to him, a penchant for bad Japanese puns, and gentleness that I'd never encountered before or since. I could immediately see why my friend liked him. The acupuncture clinic only had two treatment tables divided by a curtain and the whole office was really just an extension of the front of Kuribara's house. So after our appointments, we went in and had dinner with Kuribara and his wife where we didn't leave until close to midnight. He tried to explain my thyroid situation to me, but I didn't understand medical Japanese and the little dictionary I had didn't either. But he imparted how important it was that, regardless of anything else, I tackle it head on.
I wasn't really sure what I was suppose to be physically feeling, but I knew I liked hanging out with the acupuncturist and just took it on as part of my overall experience abroad. I would go whenever I could and eventually met another acupuncturist locally that I would sometimes trade sessions for English lessons.
And the strangest thing happened. My menstrual cramps disappeared, my fatigue started to dissipate, my weight started to creep down, my back quit hurting, and my allergies didn't leave me debilitated during rice cutting season.
It was the first time I started to understand what people meant when they said they felt good. Could this be health? I had a full year, the first in my life, where my body was coasting without getting sick. It was a god damned miracle. I had plenty of stress, plenty of booze, plenty of travel - but I was doing OK. I didn't really know what to do with myself. By then I had been doing the JET Programme for 2 years and decided it was time to come home. I bought a round-the-world trip ticket and planned a solo journey to visit friends all over the world as I country hopped home with plan to eventually settle in New York City that fall for the next life chapter.
I left Japan in June 2001 and moved to New York City that October.
Yep - I moved to NYC less than a month after 9/11. And yep - there was a boy involved. The rational side of my brain screamed not to do it, in part because I had $250 to my name and I suspected the economy was about to tank. But my heart felt like it would be home. So I took another chance, sent my stuff C.O.D. to the boy and jumped on a discounted flight to NY.
By January of 2002, I had landed a job with a Japanese tea company and started working at their flagship store on Madison Avenue. Seemed serendipitous and right at the time. I wound up working for them for 3 years, slowly creeping up a weird corporate ladder; however, when I hit the glass ceiling, I hit it so hard it knocked me out. During my time with the company, my health went into a dive bomber nose dive and any headway I had made in Japan disappeared. Additionally to everything that came roaring back, I started getting weird rashes and my joints started to become visibly inflamed.
I was talking with one of my colleagues about what was going on and she told me to see her endocrinologist. So I made an appointment and he pulled out