I Was a Teenage Mouth Breather: my life with chronic sinusitis

food, lifestyle, personal, sinusitis, Uncategorized, weight loss

In the moments when I have Facebook activated, (namely during politically neutral times, roughly 2-5 days a month), Facebook likes to remind me (only me, I assume) of my “memories.” On this day last year, I decided to embark on my first round of Whole 30. In the fall of 2016 I had suffered with chronic sinusitis and had completed 5 rounds of different, powerful, and increasingly gross, antibiotics. I mean it wasn’t all bad, it’s not everyday you get prescribed Anthrax-killing-strength Cipro and live to tell the tale. To be sure, I have had increasingly difficult sinus health since college, and every year it seemed to be more pronounced and unmanageable than the last.

I rationalized different causes for my mucus-defined life for a long time. I was a smoker from my junior year of high school til I turned 25, so that could’ve been the culprit. I have allergies to pet dander, and I was a cat owner for the better part of my early 20’s, so that could’ve been the culprit. I lived in Iowa, with excruciating cold and wind and a team of speech students who took turns getting sick, so that could’ve been the culprit. If you keep up with Greek mythos, Hippocrates would say I was of a phlegmatic temperament, and my body just produces an excess of (you guessed it) phlegm, so that could’ve been the culprit.

Needless to say, there were a lot of potential culprits for my constant congestion. By November of 2016, I was seeing an ENT on a bi-weekly basis, and he had scheduled a CT scan to investigate. The results of the CT scan showed my severely deviated (and yet, still charming) septum, and a few marked blockages in my left sinuses, but nothing my ENT deemed surgery worthy if I could live with the discomfort and semi-constant sinus flare.

In late December of that year, while home in Wisconsin, we visited our former co-workers and I ran into my training spirit animal Barb. She looked radiant, and I was all, WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU DOING TO MAKE YOU LOOK LIKE AN ANGEL BABY. She and I both have had our unique and similar journeys with weight-loss, but have always seemed to err on the side of loving our bodies and owning our shapes. Beyonce wasn’t built in a day, and all that. But the weight-loss she had experienced was really secondary to me — she just looked so radiant and so strong– and I had to ask her. She told me about Whole 30, and basically gave me everything I needed to get started.

A few weeks later, with my hubby on board, we started our first round of Whole 30. Convincing 2 Wisconsinites that giving up dairy in all its forms for 30 days is a “good” idea is peppered, nay, DRENCHED with skepticism. In our daily lives we didn’t really drink a lot of cow’s milk, but I cooked and baked with butter constantly, cheese was a grocery staple, I ate yogurt every morning, we bought cream cheese by the Costco brick (yes, they make this, and it could kill a man if thrown), and pizza, stuffed cheesy bread, quesadillas, GRILLED CHEESE — these were our junk food soul food splurges of choice.

I mean I won Gideon’s heart with a homemade German Chocolate Cheesecake, a banana cream toffee pie, buttercream frosted cupcakes, my luscious (toot, toot) grilled pear & cheddar cheeses, and so. many. servings. of Culver’s custard. Our love language centered on dairy (and probably some mutual understanding of the toots associated with such a love). Now, the conversation about how radically changing the way you eat effects a relationship is another post for another week (and a time when I’m not on a Whole 30 and can have a glass of wine) — cause y’all — that transition is a still-in-progress PROCESS. Suffice to say, 30 days without our creature comfort foods would be a challenge.

In the first few weeks of our first Whole 30, I felt such a dip in energy. I was hacking up all this mucus crap constantly and I felt like my body was trying to kill me. I looked forward to when the 30 days were up and I could return to my morning routine of over-night oats made with Greek yogurt, and evenings with a glass of wine and a thick slice of cheese. Oh, and ice cream. On our honeymoon we toured the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Vermont. To say we MISSED ice cream is an understatement. Toward the end of our Whole 30, I had to admit I was feeling better. I was having oddly regular poops, sleeping better, and breathing better (like through my nostrils even– who knew a nose wasn’t just a decoration??).

Even so, when the 30 days were up, we crash landed. My first post Whole 30 meal had cheese all over it, and while I was eating it I felt like someone was shoving pipe cleaners in my nose. After the meal, my nose was stuffed and I returned to being, as Eleven would say, a mouth breather. I held onto many of the meals I learned to prepare during that first round, but didn’t really think to permanently avoid the foods the program had eliminated. I mean, its normal for humans to eat dairy on a daily, right? Its in the food pyramid for gosh darn sakes! They wouldn’t put it there if it wasn’t good for EVERY BODY. Period. Full stop.

Hi denial, it’s me, Sarah. You have a dairy allergy. You’ve probably always had it, and your body is getting progressively less awesome at fighting it, and that’s why your sinuses keep starting on fire and spewing dragon sauce everywhere. Maybe stop eating a cheese and see what happens. Just an idea.

Fast forward to some number of months later and I’m navigating an MS diagnosis, and I’ve decided on the fly to implement another round of Whole 30. This round felt familiar and empowering, and seemed to cut through my ever-looming fatigue shadow. After this round, I knew pretty definitively that dairy was a problem for me. A constant cause of inflammation, the cheesy kryptonite to my Super Sarah. Around the completion of this Whole 30, I was researching the Wahls Protocol and figuring out how I might go about eating this way (which is to say, dairy free, gluten free, refined sugar free) forevsies.

I’m currently embarking on my 3rd round of Whole 30 as a kind-of reset to the loss of routine that comes with the holiday season. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t binge on pizza and port wine cheese spread in the great state of Wisconsin, but I definitely didn’t eat my 9 cups of fruits & veg errrryday, and I definitely ate upwards of 2 of my mom’s butter-lovin’ famous Christmas cookies, and I definitely ate a whole darn donut during our family’s weekly Sunday fried chicken n’ donuts breakfast.

Now, I’m not divulging my indiscretions to get them off my chest like this is an old-school confessional booth, friends. I don’t feel ashamed of these indulgences like I might have during the diets of my yesteryear. Instead, what I felt was more like trepidation. I knew that my body would react, respond, revolt– in some way, shape, or mucus form. And boy did she. My immune system was already on the fritz after catching the Norovirus from my deeply generous nephews, and the introduction of these inflammatory foes during my recovery was ill-advised, to say the least.

In came the whopper of sinus infections like an unwanted Owen Wilson, You, Me, and Dupree style. After blissful months and months and (what?) months of sinus-infection free living (UNHEARD OF), my face felt like it had been beaten with tiny, heavy, sledgehammers from the inside out. And the mucus. Laawwwwwd the mucus was like a Culver’s concrete mixer without any of the Wisconsin-fresh farm charm. My words to my husband the morning after Christmas were as follows: “Everything hurts and I’m dying.”

Thankfully, I am more adept at healing myself in ways that do not include taking 2-4 Mucinex a day (which I obviously never did, of course not, especially not even after my ENT informed me that unless I was making Meth I should probably stop buying them). So with some combination of manuka honey, gallons of hot tea, hot baths with essential oils, sleep, bone broth, 3 boxes of kleenex and fairy dust, I am finally on the mend (just in time to meet my new students who are probably all raging with post-holiday illnesses – you know I love y’all deeply but come on, wash yo hands n bring you a kleenex).

All this to say, happy, sappy 1 year Whole 30 Anniversary to me. If not for this program, I wouldn’t have been able to isolate Dairy as one of the most prominent causes of my chronic sinusitis, and I’d probably be knee deep in a cheese/booger mash right at this moment, breathing through my mouth, as it were. Cheers to the New Year, may all your resolutions be revolutions (even if they are only just about the size of a nostril).

— Sarah




All’s Wahl that Ends Wahl: Wahls & Weightloss

food, lifestyle, personal, Uncategorized, weight loss

In the frenzy of promotional e-mails that made up post-Turkey Day shopping, I opened a screaming good deal for Gap.com. Gap Denim, pretty much always excluded from any promotion, was not only included, it was 50% off. Holy shnikes. A shit-storm of emotions swirled around me while my fingers hovered above my home row keys (#showingmyage). I wasn’t just going to buy a pair of jeans from The Gap, I was going to buy a size 14, which I likely haven’t worn since age 14. To understand the weight of this moment, I probably need to brief you on a few earlier chapters.

I’ve alluded to my battles with the emotional abuse of food in my previous post, and that will help to provide context for the feelings of value and self-worth I was taught to associate with a body image I never seemed to possess. You’ll also note from that post, some 28 years later, I’ve come to a process place of acceptance and self-love with my bedraggled bod– loving her in all her forms for all she does and can do– like keep me alive.

Having said this, I won’t pretend that weight loss hasn’t always been in the foreground of my life, even in the many.moments when I did not want it it to be. From third grade forward, the message of my body as a danger to my health, a slippery slope toward chronic illness, was made visible to me by doctors, nutritionists, immediate and extended (oh bother) family members, peers, bullies, and my closest friends. I don’t remember a day that Gym Class didn’t feel like an act of betrayal, a year when Physical Fitness Testing wasn’t demoralizing, or an impending Fall when I thought of all the sports I couldn’t try out for, lest I have to expose my body in a locker room more than required.

In my pursuit of weightloss, tangible results didn’t always evade me. In high school I lost nearly 60 pounds doing The Fat Flush, which I quickly rectified my freshman year of college through a combination of home sickness, drinking for sport, and day-old Toppers Stix. Later, I would rekindle a relationship with Weight Watchers, with a friend holding me accountable, and lose about 35 pounds. With a thousand other stories from then to now, I will simply say: I am a human being who has come to know the ebb and flow of her body weight and the seasonal wardrobes reserved for loss & gain.

With this embodied knowledge comes a keen ability to weather the words of well-intentioned observers who take to noticing your loss and gain. As a very little girl, I remember my (now deceased) great-aunt loudly confiding to my mother that I really needed to lose some weight. Right now, it was cute, but it wouldn’t be when I grew up, and I really could be very pretty if I just shed some of those pounds. In another moment I remember standing in line at Subway with my (now deceased) grandmother as she commented on what I needed to eat to become thin. As a young woman, any momentary weight loss was peppered with phraseology about how “good” I looked “now” and how they “could really tell in my ________ (insert part of my body that does not need your observation or commentary to be worthy, valid, and beautiful).”

Just as I craved food to fill my empty, hurting spaces carved by bullies and the enemy and self-doubt, I also desperately desired to be something so much less, to take up less space, to have a body less like a backpack and more like a kite. I felt the whiplash contradiction in the way I loved and hated food, the Stockholm I came home to in the body I was forced to find harbor. I want you to know that it is hard for me to write about these memories. I want you to know that I don’t have to dig too far to remember exactly how those days felt in my skin, to embody self-loathing in such a visceral way.

I write about this now not to evoke your sympathies, or to reprimand you, or to make you feel badly about your own history with weight loss, but to suggest that perhaps the ways we have been taught to conceive of one another’s bodies are not straightforward or obvious. Losing weight while battling chronic illness (whether it be neurological, mental, digestive, etc) is not the victory road experience we see depicted on The Biggest Loser. Instead, it is wrought with both-ands. Confusion, joy and grief, and an uninvited invitation to fully revisit how you see your own body. I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of work for a Monday morning when I’m just tryna put on my work clothes that don’t.fit.me.any.more.

Right now, my body is shedding excess weight, just as Terry Wahls said it would, as a result of a loss of inflammation, and as a result of eliminating gluten, dairy, and most grains from my diet. And hey, this hasn’t been easy. I am working really, really hard to implement the Wahls Protocol — but I am not doing it to lose weight. I am doing it to fight my Multiple Sclerosis, give me an edge over MS Fatigue, and God-willing, put this disease in check while I am physically capable of doing so. For the first time in my life, I am pursuing relationship with food that has jack to do with the self-loathing I associate with weightloss, and everything to do with a feeling of empowerment and self-love.

To bring all of this back into conversation with these damned blue jeans, let me just say I spent 5 years slinging Gap Inc denim to lean and sensibly curvy and average-sized female bodies to put myself through college. I salivated over the knee caps that could fit into non-stretch denim without grunting and pulling. I winced with envy at how easily their waistbands demanded a belt, for fashion and function both. And I spent plus-sized chunks of my paychecks on the sizes not sold in stores, that never looked quite like the silhouettes I unpacked, folded, stacked, and faced just so.

So this year, noting that my formerly size 18 jeans no longer fit, and my size 16 jeans gap in the back and sag in the crotch, I thought, what the heck– why not– let’s order a pair of the highly exalted Gap jeans of our youth. This past week, the laughable size 14 jeans arrived on our doorstep. I unboxed them in the bedroom and giggled to my husband, “there’s no way that these are going to fit.” I shook them out, and decided to humor myself. I wriggled the jeans on, and in a near-sisterhood-of-the-traveling-pants moment, zipped them without even pulling a muscle. I looked at my thighs and hips in the full-length mirror and felt a sense of satisfaction coupled with a dizzying sense of dislocation. Why now?

Let me take this moment to apologize in advance for my body and brain’s knee-jerk response to compliments regarding my physical appearance. In fact, you may have already heard my snappy comeback to the tune of “Thanks, MS is doing wonders for me.” or “Yeah, multiple sclerosis is really paying off.” And if I have offered you these platitudes, please, oh please, consider it in the framework of the girl, the young woman, the me, outlined above. Know that she fought for weightloss for the greater part of her life, and having been freed from the chains of that prison, isn’t seeking after losing these days.

Wearing the new jeans out and about, I have cautioned myself to weather my confidence with a healthy sense of remembering the reckless ways I have fallen into bed with weightloss before. How I hurt myself and commanded my body to shrink in order to be valuable or worthy of praise. I hug my thighs (perhaps a little smaller now) and remind them that at any size, they are beautiful. They have been beautiful. Not just now, but always, and frankly, forever.

Forever yours in blue jeans,

Sarah Jean



Letting Down My Wahls: Autoimmune Eating Insights from an Emotional Eater

food, lifestyle, personal

As I alluded to in an earlier post, I am pretty sure I felt my insides get tugged on by an invisible thread that connects my person to the candid author and foodie extraordinaire, Andie Mitchell. After reading her book, It Was Me All Along, I honestly felt like I had just read a page out of one of the many journals I kept as a kid, teen, young adult, young woman, and hey, maybe last week. Without going into too many of the personal parallels we share (family problems with alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, over-worked mama, falling in love with gay men) I want to wax poetic for a moment about my abusive, lifelong, relationship with food.

As a kid, I remember grabbing at my sweet cherub love handles and pressing curse words into them with every ounce of self-hatred I could muster. I remember writing diary entries about the horrors of back-to-school shopping because none of the clothes I wanted to wear (like the iconic Old Navy Polar Tech Vest or the sensible velveteen jumper) fit me. I remember hating my body for the things it wasn’t and wouldn’t be for me– for the ways it made itself visible without my permission and made me invisible at the same time. Like Andie Mitchell says — a part of me is grateful for my Rubenesque kid body. She forced me to develop a personality and to learn to take the hits life presents with a grain of salt.

All at once, I rejected my body, sought after diets from 3rd grade forward — but found solace in food. If my brother hurt my feelings, my mom could comfort me with a spin through the drive-thru for a double cheeseburger and fries. If that asshole Tim Swan was mean to me in Catechism class (which he was), I could walk a block to the laundry mat behind our house and fill up on vending machine candy bars to take back to the safety of my bedroom. In high school, my friend and I would circle the grocery store after particularly bad days and buy whatever looked like a hug, bring it back to her room, and fill up. On those days, I went home to torment myself in my ashamed fullness, and she disappeared to her bathroom for similar reasons. I spent time attempting to purge after the binges, but I could never bring myself to see it to fruition. I am wildly grateful for that, now.

Somewhere in my early-mid 20’s, I stopped hating the body that carried me through life. I started to be more tender with her. I held her, even in the places we both know caused us hurt. And just as I surrendered to the body I have, I started to give her permission to do the things she wanted to do but never felt allowed to try. We did yoga together, in public. We learned to devour food we cooked ourselves and truly savor every bite. We lavished other people with our cooking, unashamed to let another person see us eat.

Somewhere concurrent with this timeline, we gave ourselves permission to stop trying to lose weight. The great majority of my life was spent implementing crash diets and failing, and failing, and failing. And just as I surrendered to the weight of my body, I started to find that I was developing a shape in my midsection, definition between my ankles and calves, and something of a feminine jawline. At every turn, I remind myself that I made a decision to love my body in its entirety, how it moves, its hows and whys — and that this change did not negate or amplify that love.

Skip ahead a couple chapters to when this recovering emotional abuser of all things food and body shaming is newly married to the kindest human being, and learning to feed herself along with another human. In my first year of marriage, I believe my husband started to witness my patterns with emotional eating. It was easy to hide my occasional reactionary food ways in the year we spent long-distance. But when I ordered pizza on a whim after a particularly horrific speech team meeting without telling him, as he sat next to me on the couch, it wasn’t so discreet any longer.

Seeing the way I treated myself after moments like this, my sweet husband was fully on board for our first round of Whole 30 in January of 2017. In doing this elimination style way of eating, I looked at whole foods in a way I had not before. I thought about vegetables and proteins as puzzle pieces I could fit together to create something balanced, nourishing, vibrant, and delicious — revaluing the way I derived the “comfort” in “comfort food”.

In the Choose Your Own Adventure version of the diary of my life, I probably wouldn’t turn the page to an MS diagnosis. But in the real diary of my life, not too long after that first round of Whole 30, that’s exactly where the story led. By now, you likely know that I have implemented (with stumbles and shortcomings) The Wahls Protocol as a means of fighting my MS fatigue — and ideally– healing some of the damage this pesky autoimmune disease has wrought on my brain.

Even as I choose to embark on this way of eating as a means of healing and loving my body, I still carry with me that girl told to hate her body, while splitting open Double Stuffed Oreos to ease the sting. All that to say, what does it look like to continue to recover from emotional overeating and binging while you’re knee deep in a program like Wahls? I will tell you, first, it’s not as sexy. If that pizza binge comes knocking, the pizza at the door has a gluten-free crust and no cheese on it, and just doesn’t have the same grease-sparkle it once did. Second, ever the crafty emotional eater, you learn how to abuse the healthy choices you’ve introduced into your daily life. Did you know that sweet potatoes are particularly high in sugar and carbohydrates and taste exceptional with melted coconut butter and cinnamon on top? Did you know that unrefined, virgin coconut oil, when melted with cocoa powder and maple syrup makes an incredible, insatiable, chocolate ganache? Or, did.you.know. that there are myriad gluten-free, dairy-free sweet and savory treats gracing our grocery store shelves, at this VERY moment, WITHOUT SUPERVISION?! Did you know?!

Certainly, the moment exists for all of these delicious foods. But as a human being with a tendency toward excess, my body is learning a new vocabulary for what the emotional abuse of my food looks like. To be honest, in an elimination program like Wahls, there are sincere moments of feeling like the toddler screaming at the grocery store because Mom won’t buy (or let you eat) the cookies you want. In some moments, I do miss the me that ate Chinese buffet with abandon, ate stuffed crust pizza backwards, and skipped the bowl when Ben & Jerry’s was in play. The emotional labor required to do the work of meal planning & prepping is (dare I say) HARDER than the alternative.

But, as I continue to find, day in and day out of implementing Wahls — my body — that same body I decided to love in her every capacity, can do so much more if I feed her this way. She finds that her nasal passages are clear, not puffy and constantly in need of Flonase & antibiotics & Mucinex to facilitate breathing. She finds that her body hurts less, and feels lighter with each step. She finds that in the morning, she can lift herself out of bed, and find joy in the opportunity to strive toward 9 cups of fruits & veggies (even when she falls short of the goal) that day. Some days are harder than others to keep tumbling forward, but the vitality I am only beginning to feel is pretty unparalleled to any other moment in my adult life. (And that’s WITH the MS diagnosis, y’all.)

Lest you thought this #wahlsnewb had it all figured out,

I will forever miss pizza.

Love & light to you on your own healing journey,

-Sarah Jean