“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

04 March 2015

My Yearly Reality Check

After my annual physical check-up last week, I got a call from my physician. This is never, never a good sign. She is referring me to a cardiologist, and I get to add a new diagnosis to my repertoire.

I have high cholesterol. Very high.

What does "very high" mean? It means that, while less than 200 mg/dl is considered healthy, my cholesterol is over 270 mg/dl. My blood is very nearly a solid. (I jest. Sort of.) Additionally, my HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) is under 40 mg/dl, which is extremely low. My numbers are what you might reasonably expect in an overweight, smoking man in his 50's or 60's.

And there's nothing I can do about it except medicate the condition for the rest of my life. This is not the result of my diet or lifestyle. It is not a function of aging. This is just wonky genetics.

(I am counted among the diseases these studies say are caused by food choices.)

Am I the paragon of healthy living? No. I walk nearly everywhere, and I live in a third-floor walk-up, but I don't exercise. Do I make healthier choices than the majority of people in the United States (and the rest of the world)? Yep. I eat very well, pay attention to the chemicals I come in contact with, do not drink, smoke or use drugs, and always take my medication as prescribed.

My doctors consider me a model patient. If healthy living could guarantee wellness, I'd be well. But the idea that a "healthy lifestyle" will result in a healthy person is a lie, and a very hurtful one.

(#45 is "Hang out with healthy people." Didn't you know that you can catch Crohn's Disease through hugs? You've been warned.)

Let me tell you what "healthy lifestyle choices" have gained me.
I am alive. Full stop. That's it.
But for someone in my position, that's a lot.

My doctor's appointments generally do not go well. I have not walked out of an appointment in the last five years or so with good news. This diagnosis is the latest in a long string of medical conditions, most of which already impacted my diet. None of these conditions are "curable," and the combination is extremely challenging to treat. I'll lay out the problem as simply as I can, and these are only the conditions which directly affect my diet...

High Risk of Diabetes: limit your carbs and sugars (bread, cereal, pasta, regular and sweet potatoes, rice, corn, all fruit, and sweeteners)

High Cholesterol: limit your fats, especially saturated fats (most kinds of meat, dairy products, eggs, vegetable and nut oils, peanut butter, many kinds of beans and nuts, and most sauces)

Crohn's Disease: limit your lactose (dairy products), limit your gluten (wheat products, especially whole wheat), limit your veggies (especially beans of all kinds, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and other greens, uncooked carrots, and brussel sprouts), limit your nuts and seeds (of any kind, although almonds are the least irritating), limit acidic foods (olives, many nuts, citrus fruits, coffee, cocoa, any canned or glazed fruits, and tomatoes)

There is nearly nothing I am allowed to eat. I have to limit every food group. It is an impossible task.

I've switched over to as much organic as I can afford, because I believe it is better for me, and I've added a few foods I didn't eat before (like chia seeds and spinach). I limit my dairy and gluten intake, eat one serving of meat per day, and try to gauge how I'm feeling all the time so I can adjust what I take in. I eat whole foods, consume very few chemical additives, and eat small amounts throughout the day to regulate my blood sugar.

But none of this is healing me. It can't. I have a set of complicated genetic disorders and predispositions, and I can't fix that with "healthy lifestyle choices." I'm telling you all of this not because I need to justify myself, but because I think it is important to understand that these conditions we consider "lifestyle choices" are actually much more complex than that.

(It's that simple, right?)

Health isn't always a choice.

In addition to this "healthy living" fallacy, I find the whole idea that "God heals" very offensive. We know that people often don't heal. Babies still die of SIDS. Little children starve to death. This isn't limited to physical ailments either; diseases like schizophrenia and depression claim lives all the time. Young people, adults, old people are all dying of survivable diseases every day, and nobody is healing them. Not God. Not fruits and veggies. Not you or me.

Healing isn't a matter of faith.
It isn't a reward for righteous living.
It is so cruel to say that it is.

Our lives are precarious. We can make all the right choices, and still get sick. We can make the wrong ones, and live long lives. The world is not fair. Justice is a choice we have to make, day by day-- not the natural state of the universe.

If it sounds like I'm belittling people's hope, then I am not communicating well. Hope is lovely. I'm certainly not trying to talk anyone out of their efforts to get healthier-- mentally, physically, or emotionally. But we have to push back against the idea that illness, of any kind, is weakness of character. That if people would just eat the right foods, do the right exercise, stop smoking and drinking and watching TV, pray enough or in the right way, take the right combination of pills and supplements, then they would most certainly heal. We should do our best to care for the vessels we live in; that doesn't mean that those with damaged vessels are to blame for the damage. Illness is not laziness.

(Thanks, insurance company, for that helpful reminder.)

My gastroenterologist is a plain spoken guy, and I'll paraphrase him here: "You should do what you can to live comfortably with your disorders. This is incurable, so don't waste your life trying to cure yourself. A lot of people are so obsessed with finding universal cures that they can't appreciate anything less." I wrote that last part down, verbatim. I carry it in my wallet.

When it is suggested to me that I can "cure" what ails me with essential oils, or eating more fish, or weight training, or meditation... that hurts. That suggests that I am not doing enough, not trying hard enough to make myself better. That my physical condition is my fault. It isn't.

I have a right to live my life with dignity, without the constant struggle to try to "get better." The parts of me that matter aren't broken, and I want to spend my time appreciating and sharing those parts. My vessel is damaged, but my mind, my heart, and my soul are just fine.

I will never be a "well" person. I can live with that.
I don't need to get better. I am enough.