“You’re out of balance,” the chiropractor tells me after reviewing my x-rays and going over my symptoms. “But I think I can help you.”
I look at the motivational poster behind her head that reads, “Health is not merely the absence of disease. It is the balance of mind, body, and soul.” I desperately hope that she can help me.
That’s why I’ve come to her. I’ve hit a wall with traditional medicine. I am fortunate to have good doctors and an excellent medical plan. Getting expensive prescriptions without a deductible is a privilege few Americans enjoy. However, despite years and years of medical treatments — otherwise known as “pharmaceutical therapy” — I am still living with almost constant pain.
And I cannot live like this anymore.
* * *
My first headache. I’m not really sure when I began suffering from headaches. I just remember that I did get them when I was very young, usually around the holidays. While everyone else would be involved in the festivities of decorating the Christmas tree, I would be in my bed, feeling as if my head were about to explode. It didn’t help things that I’d hear my mom whispering loudly and indiscreetly to my father that “kids don’t get headaches.”
I was convinced that I had a brain tumor. And I’m fairly certain that my mother, who always had a way with doom and gloom, was one direct source for my brain-tumor anxiety. The other influence on my imagination was Hollywood, of course. Back in the seventies, there were all those medical dramas and movies-of-the-week in which a vibrant young woman or man went to the doctor’s office complaining of a headache. One minute they were healthy, and the next minute they were bald, on their deathbed, and saying their long, dramatic goodbyes.
“We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun . . .” was the cheesy seventies song that would play in the soundtrack of my mind every time I suffered another headache. I was freaking Ali MacGraw in Love Story, whose life, youth, beauty, and Ivy League degree would all go to waste because of the unfairness of her unstable biochemistry.
Luckily, I managed through the headaches because they were infrequent, just popping up now and again, as if to remind me that my imaginary brain tumor was still silently and insidiously growing inside. In college, my headaches began appearing with much more frequency, triggered by things like lack of sleep, too much alcohol, and skipping meals. And even though I eventually became a writer for the college health department, I still failed to recognize that I was a migraine sufferer. It wasn’t until after I became a mother that migraines became a more frequent part of my life. I began having them several times a month, during which time I could barely function.
Many people don’t understand that a migraine is much worse than an average headache. When you have a migraine, you feel as if you are dying. It is the most excruciating of all pain for what is more or less a benign medical condition. And until the 1990s, there was little relief for migraine pain. Most over-the-counter pain medication was ridiculously ineffective. Sleeping in a very dark room to minimize outside smells, sounds, and light was the best defense at hand.
I read somewhere that Elvis Presley suffered from migraines. Knowing this, I have a better understanding as to why Elvis became addicted to narcotics. He had no other alternative for pain management. Ouch.
Pain Management. Management of Pain. Isn’t that what our Western doctors are trained to do, armed as they are with an arsenal of high-tech pharmaceuticals? They don’t just throw drugs haphazardly at their patients anymore, as they did when Elvis Presley was overmedicated, do they?
Doctors keep prescribing pills, and occasionally one will ask me a few questions, trying to get to the cause of my problems. But rushed appointments in overscheduled doctors’ offices and the complexity of my symptoms usually get the better of us, and once again I walk out of the waiting room with a prescription slip in my hand. Why can’t they get to the cause of my problems? I have a laundry list of symptoms besides the migraines — depression, fatigue, allergies, chronic sinus inflammation, TMJ, and weight gain.
I also have pills: Zoloft for my depression, Imitrex for my migraines, Allegra D for my allergies. I pop Naproxen on an almost daily basis. The medications alleviate the symptoms, at least temporarily. But I’m still in chronic pain, and it has begun to wear me down — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Unlike Quincy, Dr. House, or other TV doctors, my physicians are not trained investigators who passionately wish to solve the intriguing mystery of my health or lack thereof. They mean well. They want to ease my physical pain. They even want to help me help myself. They encourage me to live a life of balanced exercise, nutrition, and sleep. However, they know and I know that I don’t come to them for a lifestyle prescription. I’ve come for my pills.
Like most Americans, I have become accustomed to taking drugs to “fix me.” I came of age in the me-eighties, after all. And for all of the “Just Say No” rhetoric, we are a generation that relies upon lab-engineered drugs in order to feel good. It’s a Brave New World, and we all want our utopian wonder drug, soma, to dull our physical and mental pain. Don’t we?
For the third year in a row, at my yearly physical, I complain to my doctor about my unexplained weight gain. I am told it is a consequence of age, metabolism, and lack of mobility. The doctor doesn’t have a pill to help me with this symptom of whatever it is that is wearing my body down. So, I am stumped. How do I attack this unwanted symptom without the aid of pharmaceuticals? The notion of liposuction enters my mind. Isn’t cosmetic surgery the drug of the new millennium? I want an instantaneous fix to this latest speed bump in my life. Why not take the plunge?
I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s too unnatural, too extreme. Who’s to say the fat will stay off once I unceremoniously have it suctioned out? And what if I die from the anesthesia? How shallow would that make me — dying in my quest for thinner thighs?
Instead, I drag out the South Beach Diet book for the third time in one year. As I begin thinking about what I put inside my body, I suddenly realize that it doesn’t have to be this complicated. In fact, it’s pretty simple. If I want to feel better, I have to put better fuel into my body. “Junk in, junk out,” as the saying goes. It’s insane to feed our cars better than we feed ourselves.
I stop skipping breakfast and living on snacks and diet cola. I begin eating fresh fruits and vegetables, premium meats, and high-protein foods. I find that with healthy eating, I no longer crave sugar or chocolate as much as I used to. With my blood-sugar levels back in balance, I tackle my caffeine addiction and cut back to one diet cola a day, sticking to caffeine-free if I can. I am determined to break the habit of running my body on the chemicals and preservatives that are polluting it.
Which is easier said than done. My mind and body love chemicals and preservatives, having spent a lifetime building all kinds of emotional attachments to them. But I can’t deny that that the dietary changes I made are working. I don’t lose drastic weight, but I lose the bloat. And my skin, hair, and nails, which had looked dull and lifeless, suddenly seem fresh and alive. And I no longer need to top off each meal with an antacid chaser.
I get off my butt and start moving, too. I take a 40-minute walk each afternoon before I pick up my daughter from school. The activity feels good, as does getting out into the sun and soaking up the Vitamin D. It also forces me to take a break from my computer — to step away from the writing, the deadlines, and the constant pressure I have been putting on my mind and body to “produce” nonstop while the kids are at school. Until I got up and took a break, I hadn’t realized that I was working myself into the ground, depleting rather than replenishing my limited resources.
The chiropractor tells me she can help me. But she doesn’t promise to “cure” my headaches or even treat my symptoms. She explains that health is about balance — not just the absence of disease.
Within a couple of weeks, I’m already feeling different — not perfect but better. The adjustments are relaxing so I look forward to them. It’s also natural, without side effects, and even kind of fun.
My kids, who have accompanied me to the chiropractor’s office, begin asking for their own adjustments. So I sign them up, too, eager for them to see health as something you actively pursue. I don’t want them to accept illness and pain as something they must endure or mask with an extra-strength pill.
As I slowly regain balance in my body and my life, there is still a part of me that is impatient for quicker results. But I remind myself that I have nothing to lose by trying alternative medicines as well as continuing with my regular doctors. I still have access to the finest medicine and medical treatments should I need them. I just don’t want to be sick anymore or approach my life as if wellness is a state of being that I’ll never achieve without pharmaceutical intervention. I want total health — mind, body, and soul — and I’m willing to work for it, no matter how long it takes.