Dear Grandmom

Dear Grandmom,

Happy Mother’s Day, a few weeks late. We celebrated with Mom and Rick. I made this coconut chicken she really enjoyed, with special cauliflower rice and sautéed bok choy. We had coconut ice cream for dessert with a bite of cake leftover from church. I didn’t go to church that morning. I know, I should have gone, but I’m holding a grudge against that whole thing. I’m sure I’ll get over it soon.

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They miss you in Rising Fawn, a lot. And I miss you, too. There are so many things I want to talk about with you. Sometimes, some days, without realizing, I’m more connected to you than ever before. Today I got my first Remicade infusion. I don’t really remember you having to take that, but I know you tried everything to relieve your joint and body pain. I was on prednisone for the better part of a year to try to quell the inflammation in my guts. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about a year and a half ago. Chronic diarrhea leaves me with little energy. I feel like I’ve been sidelined from my real life, and that one day the curtain will be pulled back—surprise! This is all really a scheme, some elaborate joke.

But it wasn’t a joke, and I shed a few tears driving to the infusion clinic on a sunny spring afternoon. What I would give to pick your brain about how you lived with arthritis, the reality of waking up in pain all the time, maybe for the rest of your life, and how that changed how you lived day to day. Your decision to go to church. The way you took care of us grandkids and your daughters.

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Clowning around in your apartment

I would also want to share with you the most exciting news—that in exactly one month, I will elope with my best friend, Charles Cole. I think you would like him—he’s quiet, tall and gentlemanly, though with an incredible sense of humor and humility. He makes life worth living as a pair, as a team, and he eases some of the pain of this chronic condition at age 30.

He also found me at a time when I could uncover my niche in the world, or at least for work. I’ve been employed at a public all-girls school near where we live. You would like it—it’s a wonderful place with a lot of heart and soul. I got to teach a class of 8th graders this last semester, and it changed my life. I wish you could feel the sensation of these young lives looking up to you, what it feels like when a young person learns something. The feeling of being able to facilitate knowledge, to expose them to something new and interesting, something about the world, about themselves that they didn’t realize existed before that moment.

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With two other inspirational teachers—Mr. Hansard and Mrs. Walker

Before my infusion today, at school, we had a tornado drill. It’s the next to last day of school, and one of the 8th grade teachers had just announced to her students that she wouldn’t be returning next year. Many of the girls looked shell-shocked, upset, and others were crying, hugging each other. I saw the teacher have a private moment in the hall just seconds before I walked in the room. She was obviously upset and emotional, but wanted to appear collected and calm to her kids.

So we all trooped down the hallway for the tornado drill. The students knelt and curled up against the wall. It was the second drill I experienced, and it hit me the same way. I had to hold back tears. I don’t know why, but seeing these young girls, curled up against the wall, their backs exposed, so tiny and vulnerable, just represented so much to me. Some of them were crying, still upset about the teacher’s news.

As educators, as adults, as humans it is our duty and responsibility to care for them. To ensure they have the best education and are prepared to live in the world independently. When they’re all lined up on the floor, practicing for the threat of natural disaster and catastrophe, it’s impossible not to see their youth, vulnerability and the growth they have ahead of them.

And all this in the face of drastic budget cuts for education, which hopefully won’t be worsened in Tennessee…but I’m realistic. I’m sure we’ll survive, but it won’t be pretty. You wouldn’t like this new president, not one bit. The photo of the first family posing with the Pope (who I think you would LOVE) is laughable. But I’ll save that topic for another letter.

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I write to you as a touch point as I swirl through these days, caught up in my work, my life and unfortunately my disease. Who knows, we may have shared some of the same genetic discrepancies that led to such things like rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. And maybe those diseases, or at least commonalities, will bring us back together again. Mom and I have remained close. I reached out to my cousin to ask her about her health. It’s a new calling, I think, connecting with other people who struggle with similar conditions. It allows me to use my words and language to connect, and hopefully soothe and reassure.

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I think at this point you would insert either some Italian phrase or anecdotal story, about how that’s life. And you would remind me to not take for granted the gifts I’ve been given, and the positive things I have going for me. I’m thriving professionally, I think; I’m marrying a wonderful man whom you would approve of; and overall I’m quite satisfied. But you would also appreciate the connection, the stories and shared wisdom I glean, not yet as a mother, but as a teacher. As an adult. As a woman.

Thank you for your genes, for better or for worse. Thank you for the gift of life, for your levelheadedness and love. I miss you dearly. I wish you could have met Charles, and I wish you could be at the wedding next month. But I’m sure you will be—we’ll leave a tiny glass of wine out for you, and make sure everything is salted just right, and never “too sweet.”

With all the love in the world,
Your granddaughter,

Laura

Polishing the Mirror in Argentina

Thursday, June 2, 2016 • 8:42 p.m. EST

Nearly four years ago, I sat quietly in my room on Christmas Eve about to take a trip that would ultimately change the course of my life. My family was taking this 2012 Christmas off, so to speak, as I was flying out the next morning for my first trip to Cordoba, Argentina.

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My sister and best friend Wendy has lived in Cordoba for more than five years. Back in 2012, I had no idea what kinds of adventures I had in store for me. After that fated Christmas trip, not without its own interesting twists and turns, I found myself making major life changes. Three months later, after completing yoga teacher training, I moved to a bus in Miami where I spent my days writing, reading, making and selling pottery, traveling and experiencing a different way of life. I’d move back to Chattanooga and create a different space for myself, surrounded by loving people and places. In many ways, I like to think that Argentina—and the decision to take that two-plus week trip out of the country and in the Southern Hemisphere—was my tipping point. It led to a beautiful adventure. It showed me colors and cultures and experiences, as well as different ways of thinking and living, that I allowed to influence me in positive ways.

Any sense of traveling and experiencing other cultures reminds me of the importance of that exposure; something to make you feel small, to minimize the damages or wounds (or wonderful things) that seem overwhelming day in and day out. It helps me shape my life and affects what I choose to fill my space with, figuratively and literally. Since those initial seeds were planted, it’s incredible to see what richness I’ve invited in.

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Tonight I sit quietly in my room, a different space, one that I share, and prepare for my third trip to Argentina. This time I will ring in a different solstice—just as I was getting accustomed to the shaved legs and shorts that these hazy, Tennessee summer days require, I’ll be headed to a sunny but brisk winter. Whereas before I travelled alone, I get to bring Charles on this grand adventure. We’ll be visiting for June, with a weeklong road trip to Jujuy and Salta with Wendy and Fer. It will be my first experience outside their province. I’m eager to witness the geologic wonders that these lands hold. Some salami, wine and cheese won’t hurt, either.

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Goodbye for now, creek days!

The build-up to this trip hasn’t been completely smooth, though we’ve managed to survive with the incredibly strong support system we have, offline and online. Charles and I found a sweet little apartment and combined spaces in a matter of two weeks. He completed his school year, both at UTC and CGLA.

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I’ve been on a health rollercoaster since early spring, of course. In a last-ditch effort to pull my guts through an ulcerative colitis flare, I had another scope three weeks ago, and I was admitted to the hospital for a round of IV steroids.

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While there I felt in many ways like an undercover agent, or an undercover patient if you will. Volunteers and nurses would ask where the patient was, laughing after they saw my IV. The ‘roids helped immensely, and I think I’m getting over the hump of a flare. Learning to live with this disease has been a huge, slow learning curve that’s shown me how resilient I can be. Daily I work to maintain patience, confidence and strength, and belief that the steps I’m taking will heal me. My most recent scope did show that—lots of great healing since my diagnosis in October!!!—but there is still work to be done. 25 centimeters, to be exact.

Through meditations, yoga, reading and the wildly funny and loving friends and family of mine, sometimes I choose to see ulcerative colitis as the gift, or lens, that allows me to more truly see people’s hearts. While I know a month-long adventure really isn’t just what the doctor ordered, I believe a vacation, the desert, and a sweet reunion with my sister and brother-in-law in their home is very powerful medicine.

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On a lighter note, it’s the gift that keeps giving. I almost fit all of my clothes and goodies for the trip in one bag; but alas, my new tailpipe medications really do require a suitcase of their own. I’m happy to be laughing about it at least, and I know I’ll look back and giggle at these odd, turbulent times.

Tomorrow begins 24+ hours of travel for Charles and me, hopping through Miami and Santiago, Chile, before a Saturday morning arrival in Cordoba. Three and a half years ago, on that memorable Christmas morning, even a huge transportation slip-up couldn’t slow my journey to South America. Nothing, not even broken guts, can stop this trip.

Wendy, Fer, Argentina… I’ll see you soon!

On Ulcerative Colitis and Saying YES to Health

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 • 6:35 a.m. EST

I haven’t known what to write here over the course of the past few months. I’ve experienced the full range of emotions after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Excitement at knowing what it was, discouragement at understanding that it’s an uphill battle to remedy, frustration at the mindset of modern medicine and it’s prescription-based approach to care…the waves of emotions and feelings come in cycles, just as my gut health comes in flares.

Ultimately, though, I adopted one of the more radical approaches to managing my symptoms by adopting the specific carbohydrate diet. It’s like super paleo, plus homemade (delicious) yogurt, to starve out the bad bacteria in my gut and allow the lining of my colon to heal. While it sounds simple enough—OK, so maybe it doesn’t sound simple—it took me two months of fighting to admit that I should at least give it a try. Taking 40mg daily of prednisone was the dealbreaker. It finally pushed me over the edge…as I watched my relationships suffer from the effects of my dramatic mood swings, my mental health suffer from the extreme feelings I experienced, and my physical health felt… well, just off. Shitty. Shaky. Achy joints after walking for more than 20 minutes. Poor sleep. Oh—and taking at least two more medications to counter balance and offset the effects of taking long-term steroids.

…yeah.

Being diagnosed with any condition certainly changes your outlook. For me, it was a huge wake-up call. I couldn’t see until recently, as I’ve slowly started to heal with the help of my support system and SCD, how sick I was. For YEARS. How underweight I was for the entirety of 2015. That my body was eating itself, or not digesting anything. I was malnourished. I was torturing myself, too, in the ways I was eating and drinking. I had no idea.

Managing a “chronic” diagnosis helped me realign my priorities. In the past three months I’ve gotten better sleep than I likely have in years. I’ve been able to narrow my day-to-day focus down to three things—exercise, health and family. I practice yoga four to six days a week and I started doing kundalini in the morning with Charles. I spend a LOT of time cooking and preparing food. I normally cook three meals a day, as processed food is no longer a part of my diet and eating out is nearly impossible (or just really expensive and not so healthy). I’ve had to let go of things and people and experiences that no longer serve me, or just don’t fit. I’ve said no, or flaked out, on more social engagements than I can count. I go to bed at 9:30 every day, and I don’t make time for much else beyond my relationship, my closest friends, my family, cooking, yoga and my job.

  

If I didn’t take these steps, I probably would have been hospitalized again and losing total control of my gut, mental and physical health.

Writing about those restrictions feels negative, but really those actions and changes in my life have been some of the most positive! I feel lighter. I feel more FREE. I feel like I’m back in control again after years of spiraling out of control. I uncovered some of my deep-seated stressors that are tied to stability, financial well-being and security, and I’m taking steps to mitigate those toxic stressors. Taking control of my diet—which at the time felt like one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made—allowed me to see that I can do anything. I can make any change.

There is no limit to what I am capable of. Anything is possible.

I feel like I got a chance to start over fresh, with a clean slate. The mental haze and fogginess is lifting. I’m getting really clear about what I want to attract in my life, a habit a dear friend introduced me to through the Desire Map—if you haven’t read about it, then you should. I put a lot of care and attention into my food practices, thanks to the same friend who recommended the UnDiet book, authored by a woman who reversed the symptoms of Crohn’s.

I am on the same path to reversing my disease. That’s why it feels funny to say that I live with chronic disease. Just over one month ago, I was back to shitting 12-15 times a day. I was totally out of control again after a period of being stable and on new medication. I was on super-powerful antibiotics and scared that I would end up in the hospital again. I protested, I kicked, I screamed and I cried about not wanting to start SCD. It would take too much time and be too expensive, I said. I couldn’t live without grains and sugar and starches, I said.

Turns out, you can! And you’ll feel fucking great in about two weeks. Who knew?

Charles read the book for me and presented the science. I bought the expensive groceries and ordered my yogurt maker. I then spent HOURS, DAYS, probably WEEKS researching and obsessing over recipes, reading different perspectives, pouring myself over the internet to learn as much as I could about the diet. I did eventually read the book. My dear family members cooked food I could eat during the holidays, and they tolerated me talking about nothing but what foods I couldn’t eat. I dreamt about being able to eat cookies again.

  

Eat eat eat. Food food food. I had major undoing of deep emotional ties to food. Maybe it’s my Italian heritage. Maybe it’s our culture. Maybe it’s an unexplainable connection to all of those things combined. Either way, I feel like I made it to the other side. I’m learning my boundaries about when I talk about my special diet. I’m OK showing up at activities where I know there are no suitable foods for me to eat. I can even make SCD-friendly cookies.

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When I met my new GI doctor in the hospital in October, I demanded to know how I should change or alter my diet. He mumbled something about a book that one of his patient’s had found success with, but that there was only anecdotal evidence that showed a connection between diet and improving symptoms. (Ha—OK, “modern medicine.” You keep tooting your own horn and taking my money for dangerous prescriptions and procedures. I’ll go with the anecdotal evidence.)

In December, I was in his office again the week I started SCD. Even after a few days my gut health was changing quickly. I told him I couldn’t believe that among all of his patients, only ONE was on SCD. One patient! I understand it’s a hard decision to make—it requires a big commitment upfront, but it quickly becomes easier to manage—but really.

If someone told you could you POSSIBLY, MAYBE, JUST BY A CHANCE reverse the symptoms of a disease that keeps you from enjoying and living your life to the fullest—that affects your gut, your brain, your emotions—wouldn’t you do it?

He said that if he was given the option between a major lifestyle change and taking a pill, that sure, he’d want to take a pill. And really, I couldn’t be angry at him for answering that way. But that isn’t me, or it isn’t me right now.

That major lifestyle change showed me I could do ANYTHING. I could overcome ANYTHING. And really, I believe ANYBODY can do that if they tap into their drive and willpower. I don’t think it even matters what the change is, whether it’s one particular dietary shift or another, like whole30 or going vegan or vegetarian (though eating mostly vegetables, limited or no sugar and no processed foods is certainly the best). It just requires that you “practice” and practice discipline. When you have no other choice, those become a place of comfort.

It matters that you SHOW UP. It matters that YOU DECIDE how you’re going to live your life. It matters that you LISTEN to the signs and symptoms that your body is telling you. If you don’t listen when your body is whispering, trust me, IT WILL START YELLING. Because at the end of the day, your health is about all you have. As an adult, no one else is responsible for your health, and no one else will care as much as you do. Stop asking other people—especially doctors—what you should do or looking to them for answers, and take the initiative to DO SOMETHING for yourself. Otherwise you will continue to suffer. You will continue to hurt. You will continue to rely on the prescriptions, procedures and support of a broken “health”care system that doesn’t have YOUR HEALTH and well-being in its mission at all.

I can’t express myself and share my experience without writing those words. I’m not perfect, my health journey isn’t perfect, and just because I made the shift to a healing diet doesn’t exclude me from slipping up and sometimes not showing up for myself or for other people. I just hope that by sharing these words someone, anyone, can see that they, too, have INCREDIBLE willpower, strength, and the ability to make BIG changes in their lives.

Because you do. You can. And I believe in you.

Amen.