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Learning How to Heal

by Jo Wilkie

Any good story should have a dramatic entrance. My story is ushered in by the birth of Susanne. One of the happiest days of my life, to be sure. Shortly after she arrived, I began having terrible attacks of pain in the middle of the night. Radiating, sharp pain underneath my ribcage, to the right. I will blame sleep deprivation and nursing-brain on the fact that I did not seek medical care for this right away. In fact, I didn’t even think about it being a real problem until I had some blood work done four months post-partum and my liver enzymes were off a bit. My doctor was unconcerned about the enzymes, but I put the pieces together and told her I thought it might be my gallbladder (my Father had recently had his removed and I was familiar with his symptoms). One sonogram later, I was informed my gallbladder was full of stones. A few weeks after that, I was gallbladder-free and back to sleepless nights of nursing instead of sleepless nights of pain and nursing.

But of course, the story doesn’t end there.

Periodically, over the next two years, I would get similar shooting pains in the exact same place. Often when exercising, it would feel like a stitch in my side, but always right in that same spot. At the time, it was just a vague annoyance and would come and go rather quickly. I was too busy chasing after Susanne to pay too much attention, frankly. I just chalked it up to a post-surgery quirk that would eventually fade into memory. But, I was “doing” all the right things: eating well, exercising, and practicing “small-child-in-the house-Yoga” which means five minutes of dedicated time on the Yoga mat is a miracle. And, along with doing all the right things, I was happy. Really, really, happy.

During this period, we were living in Colorado, in a co-housing community that I simply love (in fact, we still own our home there and plan, someday, to return). I made some wonderful friends in Colorado- more so than at any other time in my life. Really. Growing up in a military family, we moved a lot and well, we weren’t the highest of functioning families, so making friends and keeping them was a skill that I didn’t really learn. I was so happy to be living in community, but to be honest, I complained a lot (a terrible habit). In any case, marrying a military man, I knew we would leave again, but I was dreading it. As in, deep-down, despairing kind of dread.

When the news came down that we were, in fact, moving, and it would be two quick moves in succession- first to D.C. for 7 months of training and then onto Rome for three years, outwardly, I was ecstatic. “Rome? Of course I can’t wait to move to Italy, everyone! This is the greatest thing EVER!!!” Inwardly, I was grief-stricken to be leaving the place Susanne was born, and the community that I love so much. I didn’t WANT to go to D.C. or Rome. And I was scared… scared of what was coming and a more than a little pissed that my future seemed to be completely outside of my control.

The logistics of moving and getting settled in to our life in D.C. kept me occupied and busy enough to ignore all of this emotional darkness for a while. But the perfect storm was brewing in my body with the assistance of the tension, grief, fear, and anger that I was suppressing. In addition to all of this, I had completed the Portland Marathon (I walked it with my Mom) before moving, and had become inspired to become a runner. I began aggressively training for a marathon, doing long-distance running in which the pain in my side would be with me the entire run and after.

But, I ignored it, just as I was ignoring the incredible swell of emotions that was barely below the surface.

The beginning of the second chapter is sharply delineated for me by a particular run, on a particular day. I remember this so clearly, it still strikes me odd. Mark and Susanne were riding the bike and I was running- a long run that day, 12 miles. We were going to meet at a park six miles up the trail, play a bit, and then come back. It was a gorgeous day. I had found myself really loving the D.C. area, in particular, the area where we lived in Arlington. Very walking and biking-friendly, pretty good food choices, a Whole Foods and Trader Joes close by, good schools, good playgrounds… but anyway, I was almost to the park that we were going to meet at and I was so happy! The day was perfect, really. As I approached the park, I remember thinking I wanted to remember this feeling and the day- the sky, the other people, seeing Susanne and Mark playing, waiting for me to arrive. Then the thought popped into my head that this was the last long run I was going to have.

And it has been so.

I don’t remember exactly what happened or how it came to pass. The pain arrived at some point, and didn’t leave. It was horrible and scary. My entire torso hurt at this point. Wearing pants hurt, picking Susanne up and carrying her on my right side hurt- as if my liver were swollen. I felt like I wasn’t digesting food and I was often nauseated. Then, to top it all off, I started having panic attacks. This period of time is cloudy and dark for me. I was trying so desperately to keep it all together- mostly for Susanne- but really, I wasn’t even there. I was submerged in the pain and anxiety.

The doctors were of little use. Although my primary care doctor was nice, she would give me referrals and tell me to have tests done quickly, but it would take weeks, if not months, to get scheduled for tests. Radio-isotope tests, CAT scans, sonograms, blood work… nothing looked terribly wrong. When I finally got in to see the GI doctor at, I wasn’t even allowed to see a doctor, I was sent to an assistant, who then talked to the doctor about my case. The question they always asked was, “Did you get blood work done at the ER during an acute pain episode?” No. I dislike going to the ER and Mark was skeptical, since I was having panic attacks, he thought it was all emotionally driven.

I was so frustrated and angry, and felt like I had zero control over anything. I was still showing up and going to my classes and doing what I was supposed to be doing, but the pain was constant, so it’s all rather blurry. I don’t think I can even convey how bleak everything seemed at this time. In addition to my own pain, I started getting paranoid about Susanne’s health, which just added to my angst and panic. After three or four months of this, finally, my primary care physician put me on Tagamet, after I suggested it could be ulcers. The Tagamet helped with the nausea, which was a blessed relief, to be sure. Mark left for a month during this time, and I began to do some serious soul searching, as well as serious self-care (which, obviously, I needed).

Of course during this whole time, I was doing massive amounts of research on the internet. This was good and bad. Given my state of mind, it was a bad thing, because it fueled my anxiety. On the other hand, I felt informed when I would go and talk to the doctors, which was good. However, when Mark left, I went on a self-imposed no-internet-search policy and also started talking to some people. Up to this time, I had mainly tried to keep the whole thing under wraps- why? I have no idea. But first on my list of people to talk to was a beloved co-housing neighbor who always had sage advice for me.

I called her up one day and barely got a word out before I started sobbing everything out: the pain, the grief, the panic, the fear, the anger… Being who she is, she was completely calm and accepting and also gave me wise advice. She told me that grief and fear morph into illness in our bodies. As a Yoga instructor, this made intuitive sense to me. The next part of her advice was some good medicine, Yoginis. She told me to cry as hard as I could, screaming into a pillow for 10 minutes a day, twice a day, telling me I had to get that toxic stuff out. In fact, she had me hang up the phone and go have my first “session” and told me to call her back. I insisted I couldn’t do it then because Susanne was home with me and she gently explained to me that it would be good for Susanne to see her Mama processing painful emotions, instead of pretending that everything is okay.

I couldn’t really argue with that, and hung up the phone. I explained to Susanne what I was going to do and why I was sad and she sat with me, and wiped my eyes periodically. Eventually, she grew bored, gave me a hug and wandered off to play. After that first cry, I knew I was on the path of healing. I called Pat back and we had a great talk- we set up phone dates to check in every few days while I was doing my “cry therapy” during the next two weeks. As a side note, still now, when I am cranky, Susanne will ask me if I need to have a good cry.

Next I enlisted the advice of my friend Margy, who is a health counselor. She loaned me books about digestion and I went on a quest to find the supplements that might help me feel better. I will not go into that here, but I will say Margy was a great resource for me and helped me find my way on the path of nutrition and supplements for digestive disorders. Suffice it to say, I take supplements and I think they are an important component in any healing regime, however, mine are specific to my particular condition, so it wouldn’t be so useful to give a list here. If you want to know what supplements I take, contact me and I will give you the run down.

I also seriously re-engaged with my Yoga practice at this time. I would get on the mat and it felt like a prayer from my body to the Universe. It was a blessed relief to get on the mat. It was my sacred place, my touchstone. Out of this passionate reconnection with my body and my Yoga practice came serious brainstorming about MY future not as my husband’s wife, but as a stand-alone, vibrant, creative woman. Hence, Everyday Yogini was born.

On a search for serious self-care, I also decided to get some massage (also on my neighbor’s recommendation). On a whim, I decided to have acupuncture instead of a massage and this, Yoginis, was a critical turning point. So, to recap, I was processing my emotional baggage, I had recommitted to a Yoga and meditation practice, I began a tailored regime of supplements, and I was defining my new place in the world according to my wishes and desires- working all three dimensions: body, mind, and spirit. But this wasn’t enough in and of itself, because my body was sick and in pain. The clinic I went to was fabulous. And the acupuncturist, Kate, was wonderful! I expected to go one time, but I saw her twice a week for a month, and then dropped to once a week until we left the country.

Within three weeks of starting acupuncture, I was pain-free and off of the Tagamet. It was amazing. By the time we left the country, I felt strong and full of gratitude. I was ready. I was excited to get to Rome and settle into our new life. I felt like I had overcome an enormous hurdle and was ready to take my new depth of self-knowledge with me to Rome. So I walked away from the pain, feeling confident I had seen the last of it.

But this was not to be so.

After our arrival in Italy, I felt great physically. I had little, niggling pain now and again, but nothing that was of great concern. We were settling in to our new life- looking at schools for Susanne, learning the neighborhood, getting a handle on our job here. I can’t say that I loved it- Rome is a very chaotic city and honestly, at first, I couldn’t be out in the city for more than a few hours without becoming cranky and overwhelmed. Rome is also not the cleanest city I’ve ever lived in and the idea of civic duty is lost on Romans. Everyone lets their dog poop on the sidewalks and garbage litters the streets. I was shocked by all of this, having travelled in the northern parts of Italy (think pristine and beautiful). So, I was not in love with being here when we arrived.

We finally moved in to our permanent apartment in mid-December. We celebrated Christmas and, as New Year’s approached, one evening I woke from a dead sleep, having the most intense pain I had ever felt. It felt as though I couldn’t breathe- the pain that radiated around my mid-section was incredible and I woke Erick immediately, telling him we needed to go to the hospital (seeing as I had been blown off in DC because I had never had blood work done during an acute episode of pain). Honestly, Mark was skeptical and we called an on-call nurse back in the States which proved to be useless. She told us to go to an Emergency Room. Of course. We then called the Embassy doctor and she called ahead to the hospital so someone would be expecting us. A sweet neighbor came to stay at our home with Susanne, so we didn’t have to wake her.

I was scared – of what the doctors might find (or not find), of leaving Susanne, of going to an Italian hospital, but mostly, I was scared of the pain. I felt like my body was failing me in the most basic of ways.

While we were driving out to the hospital, the intensity of the pain diminished greatly, which, in retrospect, indicated to the doctors that perhaps I had passed a leftover stone (from the gallbladder removal) through my bile ducts. In any case, I was admitted to the hospital and, to the credit of the Italian medical model, they took a thorough medical history, ran extensive blood tests and wouldn’t let me leave the hospital. Mark finally left to go home around 4:30 in the morning, and I tried to get some sleep, listening to Pema Chodron on my iPod for her soothing voice- knowing that my anxiety was not helping my body and wishing desperately that I could relax and be okay in the moment.

The next morning brought more tests. Unbelievably, here in Italy, doctors actually perform sonograms and CT scans. The GI doctor that was working my case took me personally to have the tests done and was given results on the spot (therefore, so was I).

Here is the rundown:
My liver enzymes were through the roof. This, combined with slightly dialated biliary ducts, indicated that I had passed a stone and/or the papillae between the bile ducts and the duodenum was dysfunctional. The CT scan showed nothing unusual. I ended up staying in the hospital another night, until my liver enzymes were coming down. The final morning, they finally gave me some weak tea and a piece of bread to eat. Food had never tasted so good, let me tell you!

My doctor insisted that I have an ERCP to rule out the possibility of any other stones in my bile ducts, and, they wanted to take a look at the papillae. This was scheduled for mid-January. Leaving the hospital on New Year’s Eve, I felt pretty good. I felt confident that I had passed a stone and that they would find nothing during the mid-January follow up. At least, that was my hope.

Mid-January came, and, to read my perspective in that moment you should read this. To hear about my hospital stay during the procedure, read this.

By the time I had the procedure, I had been dealing with the pain on and off for eight months and was thinking that the procedure would be the conclusion of this story. I was focusing heavily on nutrition and self-care in an effort to “be better”.

Little did I know that really, the path toward my healing had barely even begun.

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