Part II: Crohn’s is a Gift.

*Disclaimer: No aspect of this post should be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor, if you don’t like him, get a better one.

Welcome Back

It’s been a while since I first debuted this blog back in June. For those of you who are returning readers thank you for your continued interest. It felt great to finally share with some of you the inner workings of my mind. As I touched on previously, I have been wanting to do something like this for a very long time, so it really felt like a break through to finally publish something. I knew I wanted to start something like this project years ago, but i was never able to overcome the resistance to just sit down and do it. Since June I’ve wanted to return to my computer many times, but have, until now, failed to overcome this resistance. I even contemplated taking that first post down at many points, even doing so for a couple of days before re-posting it. I don’t love the way I came off in that piece – like a victim. I may have a diagnosis, but I refuse to be a victim, at least not anymore. What I want to talk about in this post is how I arrived at a greater understanding of this resistance, and how I overcome it to sit before you today. Ultimately, I don’t want this blog to be about me or what ails me, but I would like to share my story of 2018.

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Going with Your Gut

Last January, amid growing frustration with the medical system, I made the decision to take charge of my health. I resolved to stop being that victim. I didn’t yet understand my health problems to the extent that I do now, but somehow I knew that my medication, and the accepted narrative surrounding Crohn’s disease, weren’t serving me. So, without so much as consulting my doctor, I stopped. I stopped taking my meds, and I unsubscribed. I would strongly advise you not to do this, but it’s what I did.

A couple of years ago I was prescribed Humira – a biologic injection that suppresses immune response (Crohn’s symptoms manifest through immune system malfunction). At the time Humira was the most prescribed drug in America, billed at $4,000 per month. Yeah. To say I’m privileged to have good enough insurance to afford this is an understatement, and choosing to turn away from that was harrowing. The months that followed this decision were absolute hell (hence the inspiration for my last post). Between then and July, I lost nearly 20 pounds. Having just quit my PhD program, I had little to do with myself – not that I would have been able to do much anyways. I spent most of my time between the bathroom and struggling to eat enough. My symptoms caused an anal fissure (look it up 😉) around February – which continued to bleed and went untreated until late June. *This is strongly not recommended, I should have seen a doctor after a few days. I reiterate, this was very stupid. Nonetheless, it’s what I did – I think I couldn’t bring myself to face that system and admit I needed it.

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Until we meet again Pacific Ocean.

If you’re still reading, great! You’re probably wondering what happened after that, cool, because for me this is where the story gets much more interesting. For those of you who are more inclined towards conventional medicine than myself, this is probably where you should get off, as things are about to get a little mmm fluffy, but I’m unapologetic about this – it’s worked for me. I’ll begin by talking about how Crohn’s and many other chronic ailments have long been theorized by some to be connected to psychosomatic factors.


psychosomatic | ˌsīkōsəˈmadik | adjective (of a physical illness or other condition) caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress: her doctor was convinced that most of Edith’s problems were psychosomatic.


This isn’t terribly controversial. Many doctors acknowledge things like stress as potential factors in symptom aggravation for many illnesses. Needless to say, I think there is a bit more to it than this. What happened in mid July, not long after my first writing was I got better. I don’t know how much more I can give you than that, I just woke up one morning and I wasn’t sick. My bleeding had healed, and my pain had disappeared. January 2nd, 2019, and I still haven’t experienced a single symptom outside of some mild indigestion when I stray from my preferred diet. Crohn’s is known for being sort of like this, most people fluctuate in and out of remission, but in the five years since I’ve been diagnosed I’ve teetered between the agonizing flare ups I described in detail in my previous post, to pretty mild stages of stability, albeit with some moderate symptoms sprinkled in. Since this moment I’m referring to, I have been on zero medications, and not experienced a single symptom. I’ve gained back all the weight I lost, and for the first time since 2013, it looks like I have a real shot of reaching my ultimate target of around 175 pounds (165 & counting!) – look at me! I have arms! (legs in progress).

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Let’s get into the weeds, what’s changed? Why the miraculous recovery? More importantly, what caused all this in the first place? To begin to understand, we need to go back all the way to fall of 2013. My girlfriend of over 2 years had recently shipped out to the peace corps, and I was starting a new job in the little town of White River Junction, Vermont. It wasn’t my ideal situation, but I was feeling pretty good about it regardless. I had little idea what kind of reckoning I was in for. In hindsight a couple of things were going on, factors that I now believe were primarily responsible for my illness. For the first time really ever, I was truly alone. Not lonely, I was friendly with my coworkers, and I met a really great roommate that I connected with as well, but for the first time in my life I didn’t have a group of friends and a social life around me to distract me from the inner workings of my mind. We all have these, most of us refer to it as our subconscious or our gut-feelings, but the majority of us only pay a small amount of attention to them. Sure we know when something is really wrong, but how well do you really know yourself? What do you really want to do in this life? You sure about that? I’ll save the psychotherapy for another time, but what I’ve realized is that before this moment, I  really didn’t know myself very well at all, and as a consequence I wasn’t living true to my nature. My body, apparently, was not very happy with this either. I was somewhat content in my new situation, but even my conscious mind knew my needs weren’t being met. My life was not challenging, and more importantly, I wasn’t accomplishing anything I perceived to be valuable or worthwhile. My spiritual growth had stagnated.

I recognize the distaste many people have for this word. Spiritual. I’m unapologetic about this too, but I understand the feeling. Like many things, superficial utilization of this term has kind of blunted its significance, which is really a shame because I’ve come to recognize it as a tremendously important concept. For me, spiritual growth is anything but superficial. It is about extending yourself, finding purpose in your life that actually motivates you to work hard and enjoy it – a continuously evolving meaning where you embrace the full power and potential you possess. We all stagnate on this front from time to time, but many of us run into serious dead ends like the one I found myself in 2013, and indeed – many of us are very sick.

The body and the mind are connected, we are only just beginning to understand how, but the traditional dichotomy between them is certainly a false one. Your brain and your conscious and subconscious mind are physical things (I believe), residing in the physical space that is your body, likely interacting with the rest of your organs and tissues in ways we would have never thought imaginable. I’ll leave any further speculation to others but this much I am sure of. While it’s entirely possibly we may never fully understand the mechanisms at play here, I’m convinced that my spiritual dead-end played a large part in my disease. To be clear, I don’t embrace the idea that illnesses like this are entirely in our heads, I, like most, believe other contributors include genetic factors in combination with environmental factors such as exposure to pollutants, poor diet, lack of exercise/sleep etc. But many if not most of us are living pretty unhealthy lives, so why do some get horrifically sick at the age of 23 while others are resilient?

These suggestions might sound a bit ridiculous but you can interpret however you feel comfortable. You might consider my symptoms an “act of God” or some other “divinely” significant sign, meant to steer me towards the right path. Or, if you’re feeling a little less imaginative, you can just understand that an unhappy mind is unlikely to be efficiently operating the controls for the rest of your body, opening it up to a greater risk of any number of illnesses, including other psychological ailments. Either way, don’t get hung up on details like this, as I’m not sure there’s very much of a practical difference anyways. I don’t know that returning to a path of spiritual growth “cured” me, but you won’t convince me that it didn’t help. We really don’t know why people enter remission, but of all the people I’ve heard speak about how they conquered chronic illness, this seems to be a common theme. Here is what changed for me.

My Gift

We tend to regard symptoms as the beginning of our troubles. It makes sense, this is when most of us first realize that something is wrong. I think however, that they often represent the tip of an iceberg that has been growing for far longer. In this respect, I’ve come to regard my diagnosis not as the beginning of my problems, but instead as the point at which I began to heal. Symptoms might suck, but in a very real sense, they are a gift. An indication that you have taken some wrong path. Whether it be physical, personal, professional, relationships, etc. symptoms should be recognized as indicators, not problems in and of themselves.

When I got sick, I quit my job in Vermont and moved back home to Connecticut shortly after. It was a really tough time for me, I had no idea why I’d gotten sick or how to make sense of the situation. I don’t have any food allergies, and I was already eating pretty well for your average American, and like I said, I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until many years of reflection had passed. I got a part-time job, but I really spent most of my time in bed reading. It was around this time a good friend of mine recommended a book to me – The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. I was skeptical, I’ve never been drawn to what appeared to me to be a get-rich-quick scheme. The book, and Tim, are now recognized to be among the most important and influential publications/people of our time [1, 2]. This book blew my mind, it shattered everything I thought I knew about time management, hard work, and your ability to live your life how you want to. Suddenly I realized that while there are many jobs out there I could be happy doing (I actually have a great 9-5 right now), few if any would give me everything I need in the sense of this greater spiritual growth. My gut has always indicated to me that I have contributions to make beyond what would be expected of me in any predetermined role. This book showed me for the first time that this actually might be possible. The effect was anything but flipping a switch for me. The next 5 years (2014-2018) would be characterized by erratic indecision, wrestling with the preconceived conventional notions I held about what a career ought to be, and bouncing back and forth between the inspiration to rise up and do something like write this blog and shrinking back from it in the face of that ever-present resistance.

Nevertheless, I did move forward through this journey, and as I did I begin to embrace these possibilities, I slowly began to get better, albeit with some major setbacks likely associated with these moments when I defaulted back to my old programming. 2018 was a big year for a lot of reasons. As I outlined at the beginning of this story, it was the year I finally resolved to grab this situation by the horns, but not just in terms of my illness, but my ambitions as well. I’m not someone who can ever be fully satisfied living under the whims of any major “system”, whether it be the medical system, the university system, the government, corporate America, etc. Systems do what they do, but as an individual, whatever system you subscribe to, I believe we all have a responsibility to define our own path beyond our basic responsibilities. So I am proud to finally announce what this is. I’m excited to introduce to all of you – The Drop Off.

TheDropOff_Logo1The Drop Off is a podcast, which I will begin recording in early 2019. The theme of the podcast will not be Crohn’s disease. Like I’ve said, Crohn’s is not my intended point of focus here, it was simply my catalyst. I’d like the podcast to be eventually be about a lot of things, but given my expertise in the environmental field, I think that is as good a place as any to start. Conservation is a pretty hot topic right now, but as I articulated in my first post, probably still not hot enough. I still think this issue and how it is raised in the public arena has a real fundamental flaw that has hindered its momentum, that being the continued separation of people and nature. We often refer to the “human world” and the “natural world” as distinct entities. Like the body and mind, this is a false dichotomy. They are one in the same. Human well-being is something we must recognize as intricately intertwined with the well-being of our environment. The mission of this podcast is to draw this connection. I will occasionally return to this blog for a long-form piece when I have the itch, but I would primarily like this to be about conversations. Over the next year or so, I’ll be reaching out to many of you to invite you to join me on the airwaves to discuss your careers and your perspectives on these issues. If this sounds interesting to you already, please drop me a line! I’m open to having anyone from any discipline join me. I’m currently based at a remote outpost in the Big Cypress watershed of South Florida, so  any face to face meetings will have to wait until later this year, but I plan to host as many conversations as possible via remote conferencing software.

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first sunset in the sunshine state

One of my favorite nuggets from one of Tim’s podcast [3] hearkened back to his inspiration for writing the Four Hour Work Week, among other books. He said that he wrote the book because he couldn’t accept living in a world where this contribution didn’t exist. He was already a tremendously successful entrepreneur selling random products online, but it would have stymied his own spiritual growth to just sit on his wealth and not share his insights from his process. The result was numerous New York Times bestsellers, a top-10 podcast, a massively successful blog, all in a topic where he found profound personal meaning. Needless to say, I can no longer accept living in a world where the sorts of conversations I’m envisioning are not had, so, let’s do this.

Inspiration

Why is it that so many of us it find it so hard to pursue our dreams, or to simply be our best selves? Why do so many of us prefer to shrink away from our potential, and resign ourselves to less than optimal physical and mental health, scrolling through our phones instead of picking up that book we bought months ago, cracking open a beer instead of going for that bike ride, staying in our stable but unsatisfying job instead of starting that business we’ve always wanted to or pursuing that riskier/less lucrative career? I’ve come to recognize the driving force behind this resistance as one basic thing – fear of responsibility.

Starting a project like this means assuming a much greater responsibility. Its much easier to take on a role predetermined for you by someone else and leave it at that than it is to accept the fact that you actually owe the world more than that. This may not be a creative project or a business for you, it could be something like rescuing a dog or being a better father/partner/coworker etc. Or even just assuming more responsibility in your current job and taking more initiative – even if your job is not something you’re “passionate” about, it’s important to do the best you can and find ways to grow. The point is you are extending yourself. Without trying to sound too full of myself –  as this applies to anyone who decides to accept this responsibility – doing these sort of things means becoming a much more powerful person.

The terrifying aspect of it is not the fear of failure, I’ve wrestled with this concept for a while. I thought I was afraid to fail, and that if I could just increase my degree of confidence in success enough to try, if some TED talk or some other nugget of inspiration could light my fire for me, then  I could progress. But when it came down to it, I realized that failing wasn’t scary at all. Failing doesn’t mean anything, it just means you didn’t do something, you didn’t get somewhere. Its depressing perhaps, but the place you remain is a safe one, you already know you can hack it at what you’re already doing. Succeeding – now that is terrifying. Succeeding means you now have to go forth and prove that you can actually dig deeper than you ever have before. Making the NBA means you now have to go up against Lebron, Durant, Steph, Irving, and Davis. Landing that job at a prestigious law firm means that you’ll finally have to put your skills and grit to the test. The intimidating nature of these kinds of arenas is enough to dissuade most people from even considering that they might be capable. Whatever your highest path is, deciding to follow it means you finally have to take on the responsibility that you owe to the world, and assume the power that is waiting for you, and that – that is what truly terrifies us.

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Until next time…

 

Footnotes

1 – 4 hour work week

2 – tim.blog

3 – tim ferris show

 

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2 thoughts on “Part II: Crohn’s is a Gift.

  1. Hello Joe! Glad you are writing. Have you considered gut microbiome/fauna transplant? I have been following it for awhile when a friend had Colitis about 8 years ago. It sounds pretty remarkable.

    1. Hey Phil! great to here from you – I have heard of it and am definitely interested. thankfully I have been doing well this past year! I think intermittent fasting has been the most helpful thing

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