I am an expert at pushing my body beyond its limits. I didn’t set out to excel at this skill. Ignoring my symptoms and pretending that I felt OK when I didn’t was the only way I could function, so that’s what I did for nearly two decades. It seemed to serve me well. I was a good student with lots of extracurriculars in high school and college. I worked then attended graduate school. I had the outward markings of success for a person in her early 20s.
I was also miserable physically and emotionally. I thought becoming adept at ignoring my body’s signals was helping me. It let me get good grades, work, and keep up with friends—how could that be bad? The reality is that it made me sicker and complicated my attempts to improve my health. Pushing so hard left me exhausted all the time. I didn’t know my symptoms or reactions well enough to assess whether treatments were effective. My life was dependent upon exceeding my limits, so I berated myself anytime symptoms sent me to bed.
This strategy proved to fail abysmally when I was disabled by chronic migraine at the age of 27. After a few years of abject frustration and desperation, I stumbled upon the ideas of pacing and balance. Successfully implementing either of these was impossible while I was still ignoring my body’s signals. Learning to listen was necessary if I ever wanted to achieve balance. (Learn how in Learning to Listen to Your Body and Sarah Hackley’s guest post from Monday.)
I am now so acutely attuned to what my body has to say—and aware of how much better my health and life are because of it—that I cannot fathom once believing that disconnection was actually a good thing. The value of listening to my body is apparent every single day. Recently, this connection led me to a realization that is allowing me to liberalize my diet.
A little background is necessary for this to make sense. A medical ketogenic diet requires measuring your food intake down to the gram. Vegetables, the primary source of carbohydrates, have to be fresh to be weighed properly. Otherwise, the ratio is thrown off by too many carbohydrates.
Friday I made a mistake weighing asparagus and ate too many carbohydrates. Following that meal was the first time in almost two weeks that brain fog did not prevent me from writing. I hadn’t eaten asparagus in a while and assumed the food itself was less of a trigger than other foods. But this didn’t track with my reaction to asparagus from a few weeks ago. That knowledge of my body’s reactions led me to important questions. What if the reduction in brain fog (a marker of a less severe migraine attack than usual) was because I accidentally decreased the ratio by increasing my carb intake? What if ketosis, which has only ever been slightly helpful for me, is actually a trigger now that I have a new, effective treatment in place?
These thoughts seemed untrustworthy. I was suspicious they were driven by wishful thinking. I ruminated on them for a day and talked them over with Hart, hoping that giving voice to them would reveal the truth. Nope. I finally thought to check in with my body. I considered my symptoms and compared them on that mild brain fog day to when I ate asparagus a couple weeks ago. I listened to the instinct honed through years of restrictive diets. I reminded myself that I was the expert on my own body. Although I was afraid of losing a Sunday with Hart if my intuition was wrong, my body said that this hunch was more than wishful thinking. It was time to start decreasing the ratio. So far the results are promising, though it will take at least a week to really know what the outcome will be.
I’m grateful for the knowledge that led me here. By knowing how to pay attention to my body’s signals, I’ve discovered that I may be able to reduce the use of a treatment I detest. But the knowledge gained from listening is so much greater than what’s happening this week. It’s how I discovered that eating anything is my biggest migraine trigger. It has invaluable discoveries over these nearly five years of restricted diets. The diets and food restrictions are incredibly frustrating, but they’re also why I feel so much better. All of this led to the new treatment that’s proving to be quite helpful—a treatment I would have never gone through the enormous trouble to try if I weren’t so convinced of the connection between eating and migraine attacks for me.
Pretending I was OK when I wasn’t seemed to be the right and helpful—really, the only— way to deal with illness. In reality, I was jeopardizing my chance to feel better. If I hadn’t switched tactics, I’d still go to bed each night wondering how I’d get through another day. By learning to notice and honor my body’s symptoms and limitations, I now expect to feel good each day and am disappointed when I don’t. That life-changing shift is astonishing and freeing.
Want to learn how to listen to your body? Sarah Hackley’s guest post from Monday provides helpful guidance. I also wrote about it for Migraine.com in Learning to Listen to Your Body.
Enter to win Sarah’s book! Comment on Sarah’s post or email me at kerrie[at]thedailyheadache[dot]com by11:59 p.m. Pacific on Friday, September 23. (The contest has ended. Congratulations to Brian for winning the book!)