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No, My Chronic Illness Couldn't Have Been Prevented With a 'Healthier' Lifestyle

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For over a decade now, I have battled fatigue, weight gain, confusion, memory issues, inability to exercise and many more symptoms. To the outside observer, it may have seemed like I was making “bad” choices and didn’t care about my health. Obviously, I was gaining weight, and appeared “lazy,” so how could I care?

The reality is that for far too long, I was feeling the symptoms of two specific chronic illnesses, neither of which was within my control. I was dieting, counting calories, watching carbs. I cut out snacks at night, ate small portions, but the weight kept packing on.

I tried exercise – I would walk three miles a day for as many days as I could handle, I tried (and loved!) Zumba, I even tried to take up jogging. The problem wasn’t that I was a couch potato, but that gradually, even smaller amounts of exercise would keep me bedridden for days at a time. When people would ask if I wanted to go for a walk, the answer was no, because I didn’t want to feel so horrible afterward.

What I discovered, just this year, is that what I was feeling were the effects of adrenal insufficiency and growth hormone deficiency. It sounded bizarre to me when my doctor at Mayo Clinic told me that exercise intolerance was a real thing, but it also made me feel better to know that there was a legitimate reason I felt so bad after walking only half a block. Three years ago, I could do Zumba, but by the spring of this year, I couldn’t walk around the block without needing a trip to the emergency room.

I know that to the world around us, if a person is overweight (also caused by growth hormone deficiency), they are often judged as “lazy” and “unhealthy.” My truth was that I was not lazy, and I was unhealthy due to hormone deficiencies. Many nutritionists and fitness gurus are quick to jump up and say, “well, if you’d taken better care of yourself, you wouldn’t have gotten sick!”

With some illnesses, disease progression can be slowed, stopped and, rarely, reversed with a good diet, exercise and ensuring you have the right vitamins. However, some diseases have no known cause, or are unable to be altered by diet and exercise. For me, my growth hormone deficiency is due to what’s called empty sella syndrome. What that means is the membrane that separates the pituitary gland from the brain has ruptured, and the sella has filled with cerebrospinal fluid, squishing and damaging the pituitary. This can be caused by a congenital weakness in the membrane, an infection or head trauma. Regardless, the cause was beyond my control, and the result is uncontrollable weight gain, exercise intolerance, profound fatigue and an inability to participate in normal daily activities.

This is compounded by adrenal insufficiency, which adds to the fatigue, and requires that I take medication several times a day, every day, for the rest of my life. I’m on medications not because I choose not to take health supplements and eat a balanced diet, but because without them, I will die. No joke. The typical life expectancy for an AI patient who stops taking their steroid replacement is three to five days. I also take a probiotic, several vitamins and two other hormone replacements daily.

People with chronic illness did not choose to become sick. Even those illnesses which may have been delayed or made less severe are typically not preventable altogether. Nobody chooses illness.

So, before judging people, remember that they may very well have done everything right, but illness is unpredictable, unfair and unforgiving. The fact that you see many of these people out at all is a testament to their efforts to live, despite the pain.

Follow this journey on Spoons and Adrenals.

Getty Image by MangoStar_Studio

Originally published: September 16, 2018
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