I almost missed giving my high school graduation speech.
I was chosen by my peers and the administrators to give one of the speeches to the Class of 1990 in Kent, Ohio (the other speaker was the Valedictorian, which I absolutely was not). My words about abortion access and living life to the fullest almost didn’t get heard that June. I was laid up with what would become a lifelong battle with sinus infections/colds/congestion/sinusitis.
Since that fateful illness (which brought me to my small-town Ohio doctor and hospital in search of answers) I have suffered from a constant cough, sore throat, and recurring “cold.” Because these symptoms manifest most severely or commonly when my stress level or workload or travel schedule is the busiest — I blamed myself.
And everyone else blamed me, too.
I am a born and bred hippie at heart, from a family who eschews leaning on medical doctors and their pharmaceuticals — which turns out is easy to do since we didn’t have too many MDs to choose from and lacked access to specialists. I have seen more massage therapists, talk therapists, Reiki masters, yoga instructors, acupuncturists, and herbalists than I have seen any other kind of provider in my life. I searched the aisles of Whole Foods for homeopathic remedies and paid for the upgrade to the Calm phone app before I made any doctor’s appointment.
I thought it was all in my head.
I believed that I solely had the power to heal myself, that I just needed to conjure the internal strength to combat my sinus problems. I can list the events, talks, and stress that seemed to trigger my sinus issues, resulting in laryngitis or staying in bed completely. This was caused — I was told — by my being too “type A” or “needing to learn to relax” or because “I take on too much” and should quit my job completely. I was ready to live in the woods and raise bees to curb the constant colds.
But I’m not going to quit my job or blame my inability to meditate anymore. After six months and four major doctor consultations, I finally learned for the first time that I do indeed have serious underlying physical issues that manifest in my constant sinus problems. My years of under treating my allergies (to dust mites and outdoor mold) and an undiagnosed deviated septum are to blame — Not Me.
My immune system doesn’t need to be strengthen by more vitamins or sunlight. My immune system needs to be given a break. It was overtaxed. It was working too hard all the time. My adrenal system was in overdrive because of the constant onslaught of allergies. My sinus system couldn’t drain the over six cups of mucus a normal person produces well enough. And even the tiniest inflammation (or in my case the major inflammation) meant my immune system never got to rest. I didn’t need to strengthen it. Heck, it was already getting a major work out. It needed to rest.
Why am I telling you all this dear reader? Because I literally am winning an award next month for being a healthcare advocate. I literally am paid to preach the importance of accessing and building strong relationships with clinicians. But I always thought this applied to more serious health conditions — not my monthly cold or constant cough.
Those regular “colds” were debilitating.
I finally went to see my primary care doctor after I had ruined a major speaking engagement due to the worst laryngitis of my life. I cried and cried with her and pieced together the long, long story and details of my sinus problems. I hadn’t really said enough was enough before. Because, she too knew my busy workload and high intensity personality. Heck, she is the one who told me download the Calm app in the first place! So, together we had to push each other to find the underlying physical causes.
She had to push me to put to words the years of trying everything and name the symptoms in more precise ways. What did my throat really feel like? What about my ears? What about my sleeping? She put me on three different drugs (for the first time) while I waited to see specialists. The drugs took some getting used to and I could hear my mother in my ear worrying about long term effects and side effects and shouldn’t I just really clean my house more? (I love you mom, but a clean house isn’t enough.)
I live and work in the greatest medical system in the world. I am well-known and well-liked among hundreds of doctors. What did I finally piece together after two specialists and four visits within six months?
There are indeed underlying physical issues that cannot be just wished away. My deviated septum and severe dust mite allergy cannot just be treated with meditation and bee pollen. My body was never at baseline, so regular daily stressors or viruses floating around planes and my office had easy access to push my whole system out of whack. I was already on the edge.
I’m a few months into my new regime of pharmaceuticals and fancy sinus rinses and I’m never going back. I’m never blaming myself again for having a body that can’t handle all the shit coming its way. It’s not my fault that I can’t fight off dust mites or every virus floating in the air. It’s not my fault that I was born with a nose that isn’t perfectly aligned. I can’t wish any of those things away. But I can treat them and give my body some help in coping with the world.
We all deserve a doctor who doesn’t think it is all in our head.
We all deserve a doctor who doesn’t think we have brought these symptoms onto ourselves. We all deserve access to every specialist on the planet, the kind of specialist with a camera that fits up our noses to reveal scientific truths — no matter where we live and no matter how much money we have. And most importantly, we deserve to find out exactly how our bodies work and to have a team of doctors who are willing to do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of it and explain it to us.