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The Mind-Gut Connection Is Real, and It Almost Destroyed Me

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One spring day, I lay down in bed feeling nauseous and didn’t get up for a year and a half.

At least, that’s how it felt. I was a senior in college, and what I thought was an impending stomach bug turned out to be a debilitating force I couldn’t find a way to overcome. All of a sudden, I could barely eat. I could barely go to class, and I started falling behind from all the absences. The thesis I had been writing fell by the wayside. I couldn’t keep any of the plans I made.

For over a year, I spent practically every waking moment feeling an incapacitating level of nausea. Did I mention that I have a lifelong fear of throwing up?

The doctors I saw were no help. They ran tests, did scans, told me to take Prilosec, and — after I begged — gave me a prescription for anti-nausea pills. I had to take three of them a day to function at a level approaching basic.

Other than that, I was on my own. I survived on ginger beer and plain pasta. I worked a few hours a week, willing myself not to throw up the entire time. I kept to myself and stayed mostly in bed. I didn’t tell people what was going on; to this day, even my college roommates don’t know the extent of what I went through. Through it all, test after test came back negative, and I fell into despair. I didn’t have a parasite, I didn’t have a tumor in my stomach, and I didn’t have an answer.

What I did have was an emotionally abusive, cheating partner who had spent the better part of the fall and winter gaslighting me so severely that I had truly believed I was losing my mind. When the truth about his manipulation came out, I did what anyone who is complacent and insecure does: I stayed and told him not to do it again. He swore not too. Things had been better for a month or two, and I thought I was taking it all in stride. So when spring rolled around and I suddenly became bedridden with a mystery illness, it never occurred to me that these two parts of me were connected.

It took me years — and a long-overdue escape from the relationship — to realize what had actually happened: I had developed severe anxiety unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I hadn’t processed what I had gone through, and my body and brain were in crisis.

It didn’t help that I didn’t meet a single doctor who took me seriously. To be fair, I could have looked harder for more doctors, but my energy level and health kept me from giving my all to anything. And the doctors I did see gave me vague, patronizing advice:

“Eat oatmeal.”

“Practice deep breathing.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried deep breathing while on the verge of throwing up, but let me be the first to tell you it’s not the answer.

Years later, I found a doctor and a therapist who both listened to every word of my story with sincerity and seriousness. They understood, and they affirmed what I had recently figured out on my own: that my brain had tried to destroy my body from the inside out. Even though I was much better by then, I still had my bad days, and my year-and-change of mystery still haunted me. Hearing that affirmation was life-changing.

Stories like mine happen every day, and they only get more common at the intersections of gender, race, and mental health. It’s why I believe that every medical professional should be trained on the devastating effects mental illness can have on the body, and how to respond to these cases with respect, compassion, and determination.

In addition, I believe that the United States as a whole needs to acknowledge our tendency to dismiss mental health. Until that conversation happens, supporting one another in community is the best tool we have. I wish I had known back then that I wasn’t alone. Hopefully, by sharing these stories, we can help ease the loneliness of anyone suffering now.

Have you gone through a similar experience? I would love to hear about it. If you’re comfortable sharing your story, leave a comment and let’s connect!

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

Originally published: May 9, 2022
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