Friday, July 29, 2016

Find What Feels Good: Nicaragua

I walked briskly around my gate at the airport, unable to be still. My mind was racing… honestly I cannot even remember a single coherent thought. Just… I need someone to pray for me. I took a photo of my airplane and posted it to Facebook as quickly as I could so many would see and perhaps say a prayer for me. For my safety. 
Dad took this photo of me as I went through security. I was crying.

Photo of my plane

For a split moment, I looked back from where I came and thought, “I am going to run out of this airport as fast as I can.” I looked back at the line of passengers waiting to board our airplane. “No, no, no, no, no. I can’t do that now. I’ll never forgive myself. You’ll be fine. Get in line.” I walked up toward the front, cutting in line, trying to get myself onto the plane as quickly as I could. 

I made my way down the narrow aisle of the plane and found my seat. I was here now and there was no going back. 
“If you need to disembark the aircraft, this is the last time.” 
“…but what if —- Shh.” 
“The cabin doors have been shut.” 
Okay, I’m doing this.” 

The thoughts dissipated and I just accepted. I was on my way to Miami, then to Managua, Nicaragua. My first international trip and I was alone, though I didn’t feel alone. I frantically purchased the on board wifi so I could send messages to my family throughout the flight. “What if I get nervous? Anxious? What if I feel unsafe?” I thought that perhaps just telling them how I was feeling would ease my frenetic mind. 

Earlier that morning, I had woken feeling oddly confident. I felt ready to conquer some fears, to trust that all is well. I say that as often as I remember, “All is well.” For months and months prior to this trip, I was tormented with anxiety. The fears, the what if’s, the irrational thoughts, and the never-ending racing of my mind. For most of my life, I thrived on my alone time, but for the last 6 months, being alone was a source of stress, anxiety, and panic. I lied and manipulated just so I could feel safe and minimize my alone time. This trip was a test. It was a step of faith. It was a great healing journey. 

The flight was smooth as glass. God held the airplane in His hand. I don’t remember a single bump. I began to feel excited. A friend was waiting for me in Miami. We landed gently and I exited the plane. I already started to feel excited and less lonely. Sarah was waiting for me at my gate.
Sarah waited for me at my gate and took this photo as soon as I appeared 

Sarah and I on our flight to Managua, Nicaragua

The flight to Nicaragua felt so short. Sarah and I chatted the entire time. I had known Sarah for a couple of years, but we never met in person. She is one of those people who I want to be like: she’s beautiful, kind, genuine, sweet, nurturing, gentle, creative, nerdy, with a touch of goofy. She’s one in a million. A beautiful wife and an awesome Mom of two. (I cant sell her enough). She doesn’t know how much I needed her this trip… how God blessed me with her. 

Sarah, my inspiration
I felt safe. I felt protected. When we arrived, Sarah and I walked confused around the airport, nearly forgetting that we couldn’t leave the airport until we went through customs. Once we stepped out of the Managua airport, the impossibly hot, sticky, humid air hit me in the face. A nearby storm was darkening the sky. The airport felt so small. The buildings nearby were short, the houses were open shacks made of aluminum. There was color everywhere. 

Sarah and I were on the noon pickup along with a big handful of other ladies, all headed to the same place: Maderas Village. During the first hour and a half, all of us were so overstimulated, eyes wandering everywhere. From horses, carriages, cars weaving in and out of traffic, colorful school buses, greenery as far as the eye can see. A deluge overtook us on the drive. Lightning flashed in the distance and the day of travel and flights began to wear on us. We all grew very quiet and fatigued. After 3 hours of driving, and a transfer to a truck in order to climb the rocky dirt hills to the village, I realized how far away I was from the normal ‘civilization’ with which I was comfortable. “But what if something happens…” … “Not now. There’s no time to think that way.” 

All in all, I didn’t feel so far away from home. It was about 6 hours of flying, and 4.5 hours of driving. I felt that, “Well if something were to happen to me, at least my family will be able to make it here… But, what would happen?! TRUST.” 

When we finally arrived at Maderas Village, I remember feeling a sense of uncomfortable acceptance. I had to just accept - I made it here. Im not leaving for 6 days. Just take it in. “Take it all in. Trust. trust. trust.” What a pleasure and an honor it was to meet new people, to see faces again that I hadn’t seen in a year, and even finally meet people I had talked to online for years! The first thing I did was walk down the rocky hill to the beach. Although cloudy and a bit drizzly, I didn’t want to waste time. I wanted to see and touch the Pacific Ocean. (It feels the same as any other ocean, Im sure). The tide was powerful. The rocks on the beach were colorful and vibrant. It was still quite rainy. 

Trying to sleep was a struggle. Thank goodness for wifi. I watched Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting on Netflix to help me sleep. With the time difference, I knew my family was already sleeping by the time I went to dinner. I couldn’t reach out and it was okay. I knew I was safe. I woke every morning sometime between 3:30-4:30am to the sounds of unfamiliar birds and howler monkeys. Although I was very tired, I enjoyed it. I awoke that first morning with a nervous eagerness. 

Yoga Space
What if you pass out and die during yoga because it’s too hot?! — Not now.” 

I felt oddly nervous during the first morning yoga class. “Oh no, if I’m feeling anxious during yoga, Ill probably feel it the whole trip. What if I have a meltdown? Who can help me? — NOT. NOW…God, thank You for this opportunity. Thank You for this experience. Thank You for this gorgeous place. I know I’m safe. I trust You.” 


Thankfulness quiets it all. 

My favorite moments on the trip were the times that I just sat in the main house talking to my fellow retreaters. I recognized some of their names; some I didn’t, but learning about them was a blessing. We all came with stories, baggage, insight, beauty. These people felt like my tribe, my family, my community. I felt like I belonged. Part of my aversion about the trip was, “Im going to be the only chubby, meat eating faux yogi there.” And, I wasn’t the only person feeling that way. Some admitted, “I thought everyone would think I was a fraud. I’ve only done yoga for a few months and only a couple times a week. And I love beer.” 

Sweet Lindsey hugged me and said, “We were on the same flight from Miami and when I saw you, I thought, ‘She’s so open. I don't measure up to her.’” It was these things that changed me this trip. We learned so much about each other. We all have our trials and shortcomings and none of us are above or below them. We all have pride and all need to humbled in some way. We’re all so similar, and more than we think. 

Then, I got sick. I left the beach one afternoon and as I was walking back, I felt like I was going to faint. My stomach was in knots and I felt weak. I managed to make it back to the room - by the grace of God - and I was down for the count. One negative thought turned into a catastrophe… a snowball into an avalanche. “I’m dying of a weird Nicaraguan disease. What if I need a hospital?! Ill die before I even reach one!” 

It was then that I began to miss my family and want to go back home. “Oh gosh… so many days left… how can I handle this?” The next morning, I was so weak. I knew that a yoga class was impossible for me, so I stayed in. Once I felt the strength, I managed to lay out my mat in the small yoga room upstairs in my communal casa and stretched for about half hour. Everyone was at the yoga hut up the road. It was the first time I was really “alone” since I arrived. Usually a source of panic for me, I was able to ignore most of the irrational thoughts. The, “You are unsafe by yourself” thoughts. I knew I had to just take care of myself. I laid on the porch of the casa and read for awhile. A friendly dog and cat of Maderas Village came and rested next to me. 

Walk to the beach

Beach day

Gentle morning stretch

When I appeared at lunch, I learned that others were feeling ill too. I was given water, a packet of powdered greens, and some tea. Within minutes, I started to find my energy. I felt safe. My roommate Sarah (bless her heart) is a nurse. She gave me some tips to stay hydrated and gave me her ginger tea. 

Later that evening, I was feeling well enough to join the group in a short (but insanely uphill) walk to the neighboring hotel for “Taco Tuesday.” As I journeyed up the hill with my comrades, I was hoping that I had the strength in my body for it. Nervously walking up one foot in front of the other in the hot, humid sun, it occurred to me… an epiphany of sorts: “I’m here for a yoga retreat celebrating my practice while walking up a steep hill. Yet, it’s thanks to yoga that I am even ABLE to climb this hill.” I walked a bit faster. A bit more pep to my step. I walked to the front of the group. That evening, we danced and sang. I was not myself at first - (in all the videos of me from that night, I have my arms crossed while dancing: obvious sign of protecting myself) - but I loosened up a bit later. 

Hulakai Hotel for Taco Tuesday

Dance Party
This was the first trip where I felt like I didn't have to force myself to do anything. I could finally just be. If I wanted to do something adventurous, I could. If I wanted to do something uneventful and silly, I could. I finally felt like I could just be… and no anxious thoughts could distract me. 

On our final morning of yoga, I remember the devastating feeling that I wouldn’t see that yoga space again - perhaps ever or for a long time. I looked into the lush jungle surrounding the space and tears welled up in my eyes. “I needed every moment of this place.” The tears came and I just let them come. If there’s something I learned in my yoga teacher training, it’s that we are so boarded up. We apologize for crying, for venting, for feeling a certain way, but we are being genuine. Open. We should be bearing our souls to each other. I believe that this bottling up, being closed, and allowing walls to be built so high is a symptom of our pride. We can’t be weak, we can’t be emotional, we’re better than that. It’s a plague in our society. An epidemic. 

The final afternoon and evening of the trip, the retreaters and I traveled in a yacht up the coast of Nicaragua with Costa Rica’s shadow behind us, a looming volcano in the distance, a high surf, spying the disappearing beach every time a wave rolled in. I’ve always been frightened of deep water where the bottom can’t be seen. And I actually swam in the ocean, unsure of the feet of water beneath me, and actually felt safe. Next time, I want to swim out farther. I can be brave too! 

FWFG NICA on a Yacht

Sarah and Me
Adriene and Me
San Juan Del Sur

Me, Adriene, Sarah
My tribe

I couldn’t sleep that night. Anxiety from the next morning's upcoming flights and trips was gnawing at me. I was up all night. I kept washing my face in the bathroom, convincing myself that all will be well. "All is well." I watched more Bob Ross and finally dozed off. I was happy to be on my way home. I missed my family, my boyfriend, my own bed. I was sad to leave Sarah in Miami. My dear friend - a Godsend. My security blanket. 

Nicaraguan jungle
I left Maderas Village at 7am and made it back to my home at 1am the next morning. I slept like a baby. I woke feeling different. I was different. I was changed. 

I was happy to discuss the trip with my family, but I began to feel down. The down lasted for weeks. I felt low. I thought I was sick, but now I know, it was post-trip depression. I realize after being in Nicaragua, even for such a short time, I hate the way we live here. We are closed off, private, uncomfortable around our neighbors, unfriendly, and GOD-FORBID the doorbell rings. Everyone fights over who isn't going to answer the door. In the village, I knew what was going on with everyone: who was anxious, who was homesick, who needed alone time, who had traveler's diarrhea. This openness among the village, with people who truly just want to wake up every day as a better person - THIS is what I want for my life. I want openness. I want freedom. 

Sure, I have struggled with anxiety since I got back home. The thoughts still happen. The fears still gnaw at me. I have moments where I can't sleep, where driving alone is uncomfortable, where I can't figure out why I'm nervous. But - I talk about them. I'm open about them. "It means you're growing when you feel fear." -Hillary Larson 

I must REALLY be growing. 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Hear my prayer, O Lord;
    listen to my plea!
    Answer me because You are faithful and righteous.
Don’t put Your servant on trial,
    for no one is innocent before You.
My enemy has chased me.
    He has knocked me to the ground
    and forces me to live in darkness like those in the grave.
I am losing all hope;
    I am paralyzed with fear.
I remember the days of old.
    I ponder all Your great works
    and think about what You have done.
I lift my hands to You in prayer.
    I thirst for You as parched land thirsts for rain.
Come quickly, Lord, and answer me,
    for my depression deepens.
Don’t turn away from me,
    or I will die.
Let me hear of Your unfailing love each morning,
    for I am trusting You.
Show me where to walk,
    for I give myself to You.
Rescue me from my enemies, Lord;
    I run to You to hide me.
Teach me to do Your will,
    for You are my God.
May Your gracious Spirit lead me forward
    on a firm footing.
For the glory of your name, O Lord, preserve my life.
    Because of your Faithfulness, bring me out of this distress.
In your unfailing love, silence all my enemies
    and destroy all my foes,
    for I am Your servant.”
Psalm 143,
Written by King David 

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Butterfly in my Throat : Empowerment

Nighttime yoga in pjs

The long awaited slump. 
Post-treatment, I was seeing a lot of progress in a short amount of time. For a few weeks in late February, I was feeling pretty tired and unmotivated, though it was nothing compared to the side effects of radiation. For the first time in my life, I had absolutely no appetite whatsoever. I had a feeling that my thyroid hormones had finally dipped under normal, so I played it safe and got some blood work done. To nobody's surprise, I was hypothyroid for the first time (since the one month of medication induced hypothyroidism in 2008).

I spoke with the endocrinologist's office and when they asked for my symptoms, they laughed saying, "You're clearly hypothyroid. Don't worry though, we'll get you all fixed up. You're not going to balloon or anything. You're not in danger. You don't even have to come to the office. We'll get you on a small dose of Synthroid (synthetic thyroid hormone) as soon as possible."

They explained that one of my thyroid hormones was just under the normal range and the other was in the low-normal range. Patients who are diagnosed with hyperthyroidism for a long time often suffer tremendously when their hormones dip to low-normal ranges. The symptoms can be very severe. I was warned of this, and the possibility that the hormones would drop so suddenly that I'd be slurring my words and forgetting my name. Thankfully, this was not the case. I was simply tired and didn't want to eat.

My thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) was still suppressed, but this is typically normal for a few months. It takes months for TSH to regulate. *Quick, easy science lesson: Thyroid stimulating hormone is released by the pituitary gland in the brain and tells the thyroid whether it needs more hormone or less. When TSH is low, the pituitary gland is telling the thyroid to slow down production. When TSH is high, the pituitary gland is telling the thyroid that more hormone is needed. A patient with Graves' Disease has an antibody that mimics TSH. So, the antibody tricks the thyroid into thinking it needs to produce more hormone. Anyway, my TSH has been suppressed from day one of my diagnosis. It has never changed.
The relationship between the pituitary gland and an overactive thyroid.

My endocrinologist's office sent me a packet with information on hypothyroidism and Synthroid (aka Levothyroxine). My doctor ordered a low dose of Synthroid (50mgs a day) for me and wanted to monitor my blood work after a few weeks. I was asked to stop taking heart medicine. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, "Okay, the doctors didn't hit the sweet spot, Ill be on pills for the rest of my life. I have to be okay with this. This is for my future and my current health. You can do this." I had my moment of disappointment, then let it go. "I am healthy."

My Synthroid pills
I decided to eat a vegetarian diet temporarily while my metabolism was low, consuming less calories than normal. For a couple of weeks, I ate very small portions and I surprisingly didn't gain any weight from being hypothyroid for that short period of time.

I was instructed to take Synthroid as soon as I woke up in the morning with a big glass of water and wait half an hour to an hour before breakfast to allow it to absorb properly. I woke up so early every morning worrying that I had to take my pill. I obsessively took it and drank a bottle of water, then waited 90 minutes to 2 hours for breakfast. I knew that after time, I'd learn to get used to it. The hypothyroid symptoms slowly faded.

I met my now boyfriend in late February and we began our relationship in early March. I started going out of the house more, nearly every day. It was something I wasn't accustomed to at all, being so home-bodied and always so anxious about whether or not I would feel sick. A few times in the first couple of weeks, I would feel weak enough that our fun plans needed to be changed to something relaxing and closer to home. Slowly however, the anxiety dissipated and I was able to push through weakness and discomfort.

My "I'm finally healthy" vacation. 
My parents gave me a trip to Florida as a gift to celebrate my health and overcoming years of sickness. I was excited to have my Grandmother and cousin tag along. The 3 of us flew to Orlando and stayed with family. I had never been to Florida. I was finally healthy enough and I felt confident to travel. When I stepped off the plane and felt the heat and humidity, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. The half hour drive to my Great Uncle's house was beautiful, full of greenery, palm trees, and flowers.
The palm trees outside my Uncle's house
Our trip was 8 days long. The first thing on the list to do... DISNEY WORLD. OBVIOUSLY! My cousin and I went to Magic Kingdom. It literally was the most magical place. I felt like I was a 5 year old all day, wide-eyed and unbelievably happy. Not once did I think about my disease. I didn't think about anything all day except my desire to meet Mickey Mouse, which I did!
Disney World
The days after were spent enjoying time with family, eating a lot of food, shopping in Orlando, trying aerial yoga for the first time, heading to the lake at night with flashlights to look for alligators, participating in Paint Nite at a local bar, and going to the beach.

I enjoyed myself so much. The flight home was bumpy, but I felt refreshed, even stepping outside in the freezing cold. I felt ready to take on the world. I wanted a job, I wanted a life. This trip was the confirmation that my race was finished, and a new race was about to begin.

New tests.
I only felt good on Synthroid until about 2 weeks after my Florida trip. I had the strangest feeling that it was not the right medication. I did a small bit of research and found that many hypothyroid patients feel better with natural hormone treatments (like Armour Thyroid which contains sources of T4 AND T3 hormone replacement, unlike Synthroid which is just T4). When I had an appointment with my endocrinologist to discuss it, I went with boldness. I have experienced situations where doctors and specialists have bullied me into doing exactly what they prescribe, with no conversation. At first, my endocrinologist was tough, but then he relented. He spent a lot of time in my exam room, coming up with ideas. He got very quiet and pensive. He then sat at his computer and stared at my blood work results from the most recent and went back years in his files. "Your TSH is still suppressed and always has been suppressed from day one. Let's do nothing for awhile. Get off Synthroid. Let's wait to see if your TSH goes up and then we will put you on replacement hormone." He gave me a script to have another thyroid uptake and scan at the university hospital, just to see what was going on.
May's uptake results show hyperthyroidism
Radioactive scans of thyroid from May

I was pleased, despite the results of the thyroid uptake and scans. I got off Synthroid, and within a few days, I started to feel better. From then on, I've been feeling better and better.

If I ever doubt that I'm healthy, the proof is in my amazingly eventful spring and summer.

During my spring and summer, I was in two nasty car accidents that I walked away from without a scratch, I received a promise ring from my boyfriend, I've been on overnight and day trips, I've visited planetariums, casinos, museums, explored wineries and hiking trails, spent time with friends, enjoyed food at new restaurants, celebrated by 28th birthday in Mystic, CT, been to weekly public yoga classes, practice acro yoga often, bike 3-4 times a week, and am currently planning future trips.

My best friend surprised me with tickets to see 'Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring' at Lincoln Center in New York City, projected on a big screen with a full orchestra playing the score. Everyone who knows me, knows I love film music, and I always desired to be a film composer. After the show was over, my best friend and I met Howard Shore, the film composer himself. I met my idol!
Howard Shore and me
I went to New York City to participate in International Yoga Day. 15,000 people and I did a yoga practice in the middle of Times Square.
NYC International Yoga Day
In June, I went to an intense 3 day ashtanga yoga workshop led by the famous yogi, Kino McGregor. We learned about the yoga sutras in a lecture, had a two hour class on the ashtanga yoga primary series, a class on digging deep in our core to lift our bodies off the ground, and a class on inversions. It was the most challenging thing I've ever done to my body.
Me and Kino MacGregor
I've been seeing new places, doing new things, and I'm finally being spontaneous - something I never expected of myself. I have found a fabulous balance in my life, of which I am so proud. I keep getting excited to learn and experience new things, since this is truly the first time in 8 years that I am able to do anything. Perhaps it sounds like the rantings of a spoiled brat, but I've never been happier. I'm FINALLY healthy enough to live my life. I'm FINALLY healthy enough to enjoy myself.

I have discovered what is healthy for my body with my diet, my exercise, and my rest. I meet with a psychologist and a life coach to keep my mind healthy and to have accountability. I have a desire to be creative for the first time in years. I have a deeper passion for God and I want to be in His will, and do what is right.

Medical update. 
The last time I saw my endocrinologist, he walked into my exam room, and stared at me with a sarcastic and scornful look. He said nothing. I started giggling. I was sitting in one of the two chairs, he came over, and plopped next to me, sighing. In his thick Russian accent he whined, "I have no idea what to do with you!" We both laughed. He said, "I don't understand how 2 radioactive iodine treatments did not kill your thyroid gland. You have one of the most active glands I have ever seen and it must've been much larger than anyone expected. The treatments worked anatomically, because your thyroid is no longer enlarged, however it should have stopped producing too much hormone. I have asked other endocrinologists what to do, and they have no idea either. Are you feeling okay?"

I truly appreciated his vulnerability. He honestly had no idea what to do with me. It takes a lot of humility for a very highly rated and seasoned specialist to say, "In all of my years, I have never seen this before and I have no idea what to do." He actually cared about how I felt and was trying to come up with a solution for me. I told him, "If it is any consolation, I feel wonderful, so I owe you a big thank you." He apologized many, many times. He said, "If we do another radioactive iodine treatment, it will be enough for a thyroid cancer patient in total. It will throw you into severe hypothyroidism and you will not feel well. If you do surgery, it will do the same thing. I don't know what to do. Do you want to wait and see if anything changes?" I agreed.

I waited 6 weeks and did blood work. The results were abnormal. One hormone is in the normal range, and the other is too high. My TSH is still suppressed. I am technically hyperthyroid yet again. I had an appointment with my endocrinologist scheduled in late August but it was canceled so I could come to an emergency appointment this week. We need to figure out what to do.

Next steps. 
I am just as confused as my specialist. I am not sure why things have worked out this way. All I can say is that I am advocating for myself and the health that I am currently feeling. Why would I destroy this amazing feeling with radioactive treatment that makes me sick and tired for a month and a half OR with surgery that would require recovery and inevitable medication?

I feel good. I feel better than I have in nearly a decade. I have a healthy opinion of myself, striving always to be better. I love myself to the core. I am, in my mind, the pinnacle of fitness, the quintessence of wellness, and the epitome of health. It sounds pretentious, perhaps prideful, but everything I do, I do to ensure that I am healthy: mind and body. It is empowering.

I am ready for the next chapter. In this entire 8 year process, I have learned that whatever is going to happen is in God's hands. If He wants to heal my body, then so be it. If He doesn't, I will still worship Him and my life will no longer be on hold.

I know many people who have said in the midst of death and terrifying diseases like cancer and lupus disease, "It's in God's hands. I don't worry about whether or not I will be sick. If I'm sick every day for the rest of my life, I will still worship God, and I will be content." I always thought these people were lunatics. I never wanted to settle for a sick body. Now, I understand. Whatever happens, will happen, and I will be content (or at least try!) and I will still worship and thank my God every day.

"Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty of little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength." Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)

The Breakers Mansion, Newport RI. July 2015

Be blessed and be well,