I’m a big believer in colorful fruits and veggies, a vibrant spiritual practice, and the power of herbs to balance the body’s systems.
– Melani Schweder, Certified Health Coach, Reiki Master/Teacher, and empowerment guide
Life Before Illness
If someone had asked me if I thought it was possible that I would get profoundly sick at age 23, I would have laughed. I hadn’t even heard of Lyme, chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia! When I turned 20, I was in the best shape of my life. I was training for a triathlon and my life was heading upwards. Graduate school was set to begin in a matter of weeks, I was embarking on a promising career as a molecular biology and immunology research scientist, I had a committed partner, a home that I loved, and all was well in my world. I had no idea the kind of destruction that was lurking under the surface…until it all exploded on July 16, 2009.
I had a childhood like most other average, white, middle-class Americans. I grew up in the quiet suburbs of North Denver, had loving parents, did well in school, played outside, ate the standard American diet of chicken nuggets and chocolate milk, and got sick only every now and then. Overall, I was a happy and healthy kid, content to read books, annoy my little brother, and wander the backyard in search of cool bugs. I remember catching a pretty severe bout of mononucleosis in my teens that wiped me out for several weeks, but I had no idea it would, or even could, resurface many years down the road.
In the years leading up that hot July day, I’d noticed a few twinges off and on, inklings of something amiss, like occasional dizziness and increased fatigue, but nothing severe enough to truly catch my attention. I was too busy trying to keep my A average, running 10Ks, and taking road trips, after all! I wrote off the dizziness and fatigue as normal college student overwork. The university doctors just told me to rest more, and so I slowed things down a bit. And nothing worse happened. Until, of course, it did.
Strange, Unexplained Symptoms
I knew, upon waking, that something didn’t feel right. My head felt slow, like it was submerged in molasses, and I had reduced sensation in my legs and feet. Walking down the laboratory hall felt like walking into one of those fun house mirrors you see in amusement parks. By the end of that day, I could barely string together a coherent sentence, and both my partner and I were terrified. Our trip to the local ER that night yielded no results and no answers – just some overpriced meds and a dismissive medical staff.
It felt like a bad dream I couldn’t wake up from. One day I’d felt just fine, and the next, I was imprisoned in bed. Within a week, it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to continue working or start the graduate program as planned. And so, with a head swarming with fear, shame, and confusion, I dropped out of life altogether, and focused what little energy I had on resting, staying hydrated, and trying not to spiral into despair.
The one beacon of hope I clung to at the time was my physician at the community clinic. While she was not a specialist, she listened to me and validated my concerns. She ran all the blood tests she could think of, but even abnormal results from the Epstein Barr (EBV) titers didn’t elicit much hope for treatment. The rest of my workups looked normal, and so, according to clinical standards, there was “nothing wrong with me.” At the time, I placed a lot of hope in clinical testing, but later realized that there are no reliable tests for these kinds of mystery illnesses. Testing is full of errors, and results are dependent on how/when the samples were collected, and the current medical guidelines, which are often outdated.
Many Diagnoses, Few Solutions
The collection of symptoms that derailed my life have taken many names over the years. After seeing dozens of doctors and specialists, I was diagnosed with chronic (aka “persistent”) Lyme Disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME), Adrenal Fatigue, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Fibromyalgia. Even with “diagnoses” in hand no one had solutions, so I was left in charge of my own care. My partner did her best to support us, bringing home fresh food and helping with chores, as much of my time was spent wandering around the house in a daze.
On the occasions when my brain fog momentarily lifted, I put my research science background to good use. I scoured the internet for case studies and clinical trials about CFS/ME, chronic viral infections and treatments for fatigue. I read everything that I could, and ordered every pill and powder under the sun. For a while, it felt like I was making progress. The brain fog, dizziness, and exhaustion seemed to lift slightly. At one point I was taking 8 medications and more than 30 different supplements. I spent minimal energy on food…meaning I continued to eat lots of processed and packaged convenience foods.
After a few months I felt good enough to return to my laboratory job part time. But the fight was far from over. While I attempted to piece back together what was left of my social life, my self-esteem, and academic career, my body still struggled. Violent dizzy spells, muscle and joint pain, brain fog, and headaches were a daily occurrence. I no longer had the energy to exercise, and I struggled to get any amount of restorative sleep. I continued to see doctors who couldn’t find anything wrong with me, and with each “normal” test result, my hope began to fade. Perhaps I really was cursed to live a sort of half-life from now on. Many of my friends had fallen away, unsure of how to react to my situation, only adding to my dwindling self-confidence and social support. And while I felt like I’d missed the boat with my previous graduate program, I was determined to take one class at a time, regaining my intellectual bearings and working towards a second chance, no matter how long it took.
Wake Up Call
Just when I thought I had gotten used to this “new normal”, just when I was about to re-enroll in grad school, just when I figured I had my symptoms (mostly) under control, I was suddenly thrown back to square one. Within the course of 24 hours, I was reduced to a shaky, nauseated heap — a shell of my former self once again. And, with this relapse, my quest for answers began again. I was referred to a dozen different specialists, therapists, and technicians. I received another handful of meaningless diagnoses, and even more prescriptions that only provided temporary relief, if any. I sank into a serious depression that stretched for months. As I bowed out of school and work once again, my partner did the best she could to care for me, reminding me to go outside, eat some soup or take a shower. I was forced back into the present moment, taking one day at a time.
An Ancestral Lifestyle Made All the Difference
After about a month, something in me realized that these symptoms were just going to keep coming back, unless I changed course. The latest round of doctors and tests truly broke my faith in the Western medical system, so I began looking into alternative ideas and treatments. I started reading the labels on my food again — a habit I’d learned as a child from my mother who was a registered dietitian but had let slip. I allowed myself to lean into my inner voice as well, relying more on my intuition and less on clinical tests and research. Call it an “act of God” or a spiritual knowing, but something within me woke up again, and decided it wasn’t done fighting.
Looking back, I can see that the relapse was a much-needed wake up call. I had been eating so much junk food, taking so many medications, and not investing any energy in my mental, emotional, or spiritual self-care. I decided to make positive changes on many levels. I started seeking holistic practitioners and taking more herbal remedies. I swapped out the gluten and artificial additives and replaced them with veggies and grass-fed meats. I even remember my first bite of steak, after being a junk-food-loving vegan for over 3 years: I felt a rush of energy and clarity unlike anything I could remember! I took it as a major sign that I was finally on the right track.
I began eating a mostly Paleo diet, and I’ve experimented with many variations over the years, to find what feels best for my body. After reading the work of Anthony William, the “Medical Medium”, I made even more changes, bringing in more fresh fruits and veggies, herbs and spices, and wild foods, and cutting out eggs and dairy. As the months passed, I could feel myself getting stronger.
From various books and websites, I learned all about sleep hygiene, detoxifying my environment, and all types of yoga and meditation. I started going to bed earlier, threw out all our chemical-based cleaners, and switched to natural versions, or made my own. I practiced setting healthy boundaries for myself, so I could save my inner resources for healing, instead of depleting myself for the sake of others. I spent more time outside in the fresh air and sunshine, putting my bare feet in the earth. I devoted myself to spiritual growth, daily meditation (starting with just 5 minutes a day, eventually reaching 30 minutes) and truly working through my grief over the life I thought I had lost. In short, I put my self-care above everything.
Reiki Was Key
A friend introduced me to Reiki. By this point, I had been to acupuncturists, herbalists, massage therapists, and other holistic healers, so energy medicine wasn’t all that big of a stretch for me; still, I was pretty skeptical. But after just one session I knew I had stumbled upon true magic. During the session I could feel so many physical sensations of energy: warmth, buzzing and a mild relief of my pain, along with a deep emotional release. So, over the next year, as my energy improved I studied and practiced, slowly gaining my level 1, 2, 3, and Reiki master certifications.
Within a couple of years of following the Paleo diet and prioritizing my self-care, and now with my new practice of Reiki I decided to become a certified health coach. Now that I could see my illness as a gift, I knew I had to help people who were suffering like I had been.
I’m so thankful that I took the time to develop my self-care when I did, because I was going to need it more than ever come the summer of 2015.
Darkest Days Became Brightest Blessing
Divorce was never something I thought I would have to endure, especially before the age of 30. And yet, my relationship dissolved into a mess of betrayal, anger, and hostility. My then-wife had decided to move on, and I needed a way to get out; out of that house and away from the bad energy that was stressing my delicate system. Thankfully, my family lived only an hour away, and were willing to take me in. The following months were fraught with fear, rage, denial, frustration, and many other difficult emotions, and I leaned heavily into my healing diet and meditation practice. Without a penny to my name, and 6 figures of student loan and credit card debt, I had to file for bankruptcy and apply for government assistance. I was filled with anguish, shame, and hopelessness, and those feelings took a long, slow time to fade into the background.
However, in the end, this painful experience ended up being one of the biggest blessings in my life, and I’ve grown tremendously. I came to embrace this time to go within, deepen my spiritual practice and recommit myself to getting better. Through things like yoga, meditation, journaling, and working with a fantastic counselor, I was able to re-write my “victim story,” take responsibility for my choices, and stand on my own two feet again.
Through all of the challenges that my life has presented thus far — serious illness, divorce, bankruptcy — somehow, I knewthat I could get better, that healing was possible, and that I had something valuable to share with the world. It was that unshakable faith that became my North Star. I decided to let go of anything that was no longer serving me. That included inflammatory foods, toxins, medications and even toxic people.
Trusting My Own Intuition
These days, I am happier and stronger than I have been in nearly a decade! I’ve transitioned to mostly holistic and self-guided medicine, to continue my journey, and place my trust in my own intuition and my body’s signals, to tell me when I need to re-adjust. For me, endless test results, scans, and exams only muddied the waters, especially since the medical world has a lot to learn about chronic, mystery illnesses like mine! I find my hope and guidance in nature and in others who are following a healing path.
Now, as a coach, I help others reclaim their power after struggles like mine and guide them towards what I call “full spectrum living.” Because, no matter how gray and cloudy life may seem at times, we can make the choice to step into the sunshine again. I love to combine this ancient energy healing modality into my coaching practice.
I could never have predicted being where I would be today, especially when I was so ill. But by staying committed to my self-care and with time, I’m now in a happy, healthy relationship. I feel supported by my friends, family, and a vibrant online community. I’ve built a business that I love where I can serve as a healing guide for others. Waking up each day and prepping fresh fruits and veggies is a joy, not a burden. Life isn’t perfect, and I know there are new levels of vibrant health to reach, but I can’t wait to see where the next few years take me.
As they say, after the storm, comes the rainbow. And I’m living life in full color again!
I believe that our struggles are opportunities for us to reclaim our personal power. We can either allow our struggles to break us, or to wake us up.
My five tips for healing:
- Believe that you CAN heal. You CAN feel better, No matter what the doctors say, or what your friend’s aunt’s sister says. This unshakable knowing can keep you going, even through the rough days.
- Eat the rainbow! Seriously – the more color and variety in your food, the better. And don’t listen to the fruit fear out there today (unless you are dealing with weight, blood sugar issues, cancer or diabetes) – load up your plate with ALL types of fresh, organic produce.
- Find a self-care routine that you enjoy and will do. This can include things like yoga, journaling, bubble baths, seeing a counselor/therapist, meditation, solo nature time…the list goes on. Commit to taking good care of your body, mind, and spirit on a daily basis.
- Worry less about test results, and more about how you actually feel. Modern medical tests are often inaccurate, or give an incomplete picture of what’s really going on. Learn to tap into your body every day and listen to your own intuition.*
- Don’t skimp on detoxification! It’s more than just a health buzzword these days, trust me. When your body is burdened by heavy metals, viral byproducts, pesticides, radiation, household chemicals, etc. you won’t be able to fully heal until you flush them out.
*To tap into your intuition spend time in quiet solitude, practice mindful eating, and do your version of spiritual practice. Work with a mindfulness-based therapist/counselor, a Reiki practitioner, or coach that encourages you to do your inner work, instead of relying on them for all the answers. By reducing outside “noise” from media sources (TV, radio, blogs, books, etc…) you can better hear your inner voice.
My favorite smoothie recipe:
This is one of my go-tos, especially when I’m feeling tired or just need a healing boost! Blend all together and enjoy!
2 frozen bananas*
1 cup wild blueberries
1 orange (peeled, of course)*
1 tsp Hawaiian spirulina
1 scoop vanilla protein powder of choice (plant-based like Sunwarrior, or grass-fed collagen like Primal Kitchen are my faves)
Coconut or almond milk to taste
Image Credits: Melani Schweder
Find Melani @ Abrighterwild
* Note from Palmer: Caution on fruit if you are overweight, have blood sugar imbalances like insulin resistance, prediabetes or diabetes. My advice is to minimize fruit (except coconut, avocado, and some berries) until your weight and/or blood sugar issues stabilize.
So, question for you, what are your symptoms or challenges saying to you? If we get quiet, listen to our bodies, and trust our intuition, we may already know what we need to do. It may not be as dramatic as ending a marriage, but very often there is a call of the soul we need to heed.
Take good care!