MY HEALTH JOURNEY
I’m Carrie Eckert. I have two children, a husband, a creative career I love, and an active family and social life. Why on earth did I choose to go back to school and ultimately change my career path?
Because my life depended on it.
The tale of my health was relatively uneventful until recently. Then in 2011, the plot got complicated. Here’s my story:
A "QUICK" HEALTH FIX
It all started with an attempt to “clean up” my health in preparation for possibly adding a third child to our family. I had been plagued with dozens of colds and bugs every year since my second pregnancy in 2006. During the winters, I usually caught a few viruses. In the spring, I fell victim to the Florida pollen season. When summer came, I’d cross my fingers (and use ridiculous amounts of hand sanitizer) that I wouldn’t have a bug or allergies while on vacation. By fall, I was catching every little cold my kids brought home from school. Though nothing catastrophic was going on, I was tired of not feeling great and wanted to be in stronger overall health.
My nurse practitioner advised me to pay more attention to my nutrition, so off I went on a get-healthy-quick kick. A friend introduced me to a “pH diet” book. True to my personality, I dived headfirst into that way of eating, sure that all the acid in the foods I was eating was the cause of my weak immune system. It didn’t offer a whole lot in the way of exciting, tasty food, but I figured I could live without the joy of cooking and eating if it meant that I would be “healthy” and feel good. I started drinking lemon water every morning (which, as it turns out, is the only part of that diet that I’ve stuck with to this day) and avoiding acidic meats.
It wasn’t long before the pH diet turned into a full-fledged vegan way of eating. I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives and became enthralled by the idea of a plant-based diet. I actually did feel really good for a few months after I made these changes. (Looking back, I suspect that had more to do with the elimination of processed foods and sugars than the lack of meat.)
A LITTLE FAMILY EXPERIMENT
Meanwhile, my husband and I had been spending months taking my son from specialist to specialist trying to figure out the cause of his cyclical vomiting episodes. They happened every 12-14 days and were often seizure-like. Once major medical causes were ruled out and we were still stumped, I decided to try an elimination diet. With my limited knowledge of food intolerances (and absolutely no direction from his pediatrician), I eliminated all things dairy from his diet – and joined him in eliminating them from mine, too.
The vomiting stopped. Though I wasn’t expecting it and hadn’t read about the connection at that point, my seasonal allergies also completely disappeared. The sinus congestion that had been a constant part of my life since I was a kid just . . . went away.
So you see how easy it was for me to jump right onto the vegan bandwagon as we headed into 2012. I hadn’t been doing much other than blindly experimenting, but those experiments had turned out well; so I figured a few dietary changes really were the answer to all our problems.
There were signs that there was a lot more healing to be done, but I didn’t notice at the time. I was too busy converting myself and my family into hardcore veganism with our mac n’ soy-cheese, veganase, tofu steaks, and flax-seed “egg”-based baked goods. I had an early miscarriage in December and then stopped having periods entirely. My regular pilates sessions had to be modified because of a weird pain in my hip flexor. I found myself mildly nauseous most days. I had even woken up to intense stomach cramps that left me curled up on the bathroom floor on multiple occasions. At the time, I was able to ignore those problems, because I was so thrilled with the energy I’d regained once those pesky colds and allergy congestion weren’t dragging me down!
A TURN FOR THE WORSE
After a wonderful vacation with my husband in spring of 2012, I came home to a 5-year-old with a nasty respiratory virus. Though everyone in the house got it, I prided myself on being the least symptomatic and enduring only two days of fevers and nonstop sleep. It was from that point on, however, that I never fully recovered my energy.
I had to cancel spring break plans several weeks later, still too fatigued to manage houseguests. As weeks went on, I found myself nodding off in the afternoon carpool line and sticking my kids in front of the TV as soon as they got home from school so that I could take my nap. My hip flexor pain got so bad that I was no longer able to ride my bike with the kids, much less keep up with pilates sessions. I started seeing a physical therapist, then a chiropractor, then another PT. I had an MRI. Many months and thousands of dollars later my mysterious locked-up hip was still in pain. I felt like I was falling apart, and no one could figure out why or how to stop it.
My fatigue hit an all-time low when I fell asleep at the dinner table on our wedding anniversary in July – without even a sip of wine!
ANOTHER APPROACH... AND ANOTHER
I was working with a local nutritionist at the time and she suggested that I think about more of a “Paleo” slant to the way I was eating. Add back all the acidic meat? Eliminate the oatmeal, pasta, and bread I had grown accustomed to? It felt like a reversal. I had actually been eating eggs and fish in moderation, but the thought of red meat now made my stomach churn.
I decided to take things one step at a time and first eliminate gluten. Within a matter of days my energy started to return. I was thrilled but didn’t realize exactly how strong that gluten connection really was. When, after a few weeks, I began to allow myself a bit of gluten here and there – a bite of a brownie made with spelt flour or traditional oatmeal (non inherently gluten-filled, but problematic as well) – I plummeted hard. My energy disappeared, and this time I couldn’t get it back. I finally realized that there was a strong and definite connection between gluten and both my fatigue and those troubling GI symptoms I’d had in previous months.
In September 2012, I embarked on a Gut and Psychology Syndrome (or “GAPS”) healing protocol with a nutritionist in California. I gave GAPS a really good shot (and I was as meticulous a patient as any nutritionist could ask for), but eventually I sensed that it wasn’t going to be the answer I needed. They say GAPS can take 6 months to 2 years to help you heal, but after 6 months my fatigue was actually worse. I feel certain that it allowed for some major gut healing and paved the way for the next step in my healing process. (If your gut is compromised, it’s that much more difficult for other holistic approaches to work.) Now, though, we needed to dig deeper to the cause of my problems.
WHAT TO CALL IT?
I was introduced to a functional medicine internist (once again, all the way across the country in CA) through my brother. She is a doctor who also personally experienced many of my same symptoms and was “lost in the system” for years looking for answers.
With her guidance, I am now getting to the root of my illness. She has designed a specialized diet for me, added custom supplements, and “prescribed” daily relaxation/meditation practices - a combination that finally seems to be helping me recover. (More about that here.)
One thing I struggle with is what to call my condition. It would be easy to say I have chronic fatigue syndrome, but that is such a vague and disappointing diagnosis without a clear path for recovery. The term myalgic encephalomeyelitis (“ME” – which leads to the irresistible joke: What’s my problem? ME!) is used more often in Europe. But what about my other symptoms, which seem to indicate Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, mitochondrial disease or even autoimmune hypopituitarism?
After years of trying to find label for my illness, I’ve finally realized that I really don’t need one. Yes, it would make it easier to describe my condition to others, but it doesn’t change anything. Plus, adhering to a label might make my doctors and me run the risk of becoming boxed into a single treatment path. And don't get me started on the pitfalls of the mind's ability to hold on tight to an "illness Identity" that can actually perpetuate the cycle of symptoms!
FINALLY SOME HOPE
Not long ago, I’d regularly find myself standing at the bottom of the stairs in our house, struggling to find the power to start on my way up. When my husband was in town he would put the kids to bed, but when he was traveling for work it was not unusual for my 9-year-old to tuck my 6-year-old in at night before putting himself to sleep.
Fortunately, those days are few and far between as my body has finally begun to heal. I still take an afternoon nap every day or listen to a guided meditation to reset my parasympathetic nervous system. These 20-30 minute respites work wonders on my energy and mood for the rest of the day. The pain in my right hip shifted to the left hip before disappearing completely, a sign that it was more related to inflammation than an actual injury. I now have more flexibility in my yoga practice than every before.
There is no magic pill to cure this illness. Nutrition, acupuncture, meditation/relaxation techniques, daily sunshine, and a careful increase in my activity level have all been a part of the healing process. They kept me afloat, but I finally realized that years of mental "bad habits" had created a sickness loop in my mind and body that has now been rewired through the power of neuroplasticity.
My long-term goals when creating this website in 2013 were to be able to enjoy the freedom of adventuring with my family, to return to the simple pleasure of dining out with friends, and to be able to rely on consistent energy and mood every day. Not only do I believe that I was on the right track at that time, but I've now accomplished all of those goals and am currently busy dreaming up new ones!
THE FUTURE: EDUCATING MYSELF AND OTHERS
As you can see, many of my attempts to heal myself were shots in the dark, guesses, or pieced-together recommendations from books, friends, and specialists. The more informed my approach became, the better my results were. I’ve learned so much about nutrition, the human body, our nation’s food supply, and the environment; and I want to learn more. I need to know how to best take care of myself and my family.
Now that I’m feeling better, I feel like there’s hope for living life to the fullest again. Part of that, for me, now means helping others who are going through what I’ve been through. That’s why I’m now working toward a dual Masters in Nutrition & Integrative Health and Health & Wellness Coaching.
The journey doesn’t end here.