The Heart of a Lion.

“A lion sleeps in the heart of every brave man”.

First off, happy new year! I hope 2018 brings you a year filled with love, joy, health, wealth, and so much freaking happiness!

Now on to my second post of Drob’s school of thoughts.

Disclaimer. This post is intended to inform and help others, but is NOT meant to diagnose any health issues. If you have symptoms that seem similar, please take the time to get checked by a doctor. (Although as you will read,some doctors aren’t always right).

To understand how I got to this point, I need to take you back several years ago, August 2011.

I was coming off a full day of work at a popular summer camp in the middle of the woods. As the day was winding down, I noticed three weird dots on my sock, including one tiny spec lingering right above my ankle on my shin. As I bent down to take a closer look I viciously swiped off what happened to be 3 ticks.  This was before I knew anything about what diseases ticks could spread, and just went about the rest of the day without a second thought. Less than a week later, I had flu like symptoms that lasted a few days, and was told it was just a bad sinus infection.  I told a walk in physician about the ticks, and he checked my shin for any circular rashes indicating being infected with Lyme. “A circular rash occurs in approximately 70-80% of infected persons and begins at the site of a tick bite”. (CDC, 2015).  Since I didn’t have any rash, the physician told me I probably did not have Lyme and I could rest easy.

My flu like symptoms did go away, however during that fall season I did start to experience routine dizziness, unexplainable fatigue, pale skin, and bad pain around my joints. At first, I did not tell anyone about these symptoms.  I kept living my life and dismissed them thinking they would go away on their own.  They didn’t.

On-going sinus issues led me back to my primary doctor who prescribed me more antibiotics.  After a week of the generic “z-pack” (A common antibiotic called Azithromycin usually given to people who have mild bacterial infections), my sinus symptoms did not go away.  I also noticed that my throat began to hurt and because of the joint pain I finally admitted to feeling, was recommended to a rheumatologist.  (A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in the detection of musculoskeletal disease and systemic autoimmune conditions commonly referred to rheumatic diseaseshttps://www.rheumatology.org/I-Am-A/Patient-Caregiver/Health-Care-Team/What-is-a-Rheumatologist )

I was given an extensive blood test as well as a throat culture, and diagnosed with strep throat. I took strong antibiotics (Amoxicillin) for two weeks, but nothing improved.  I was worse.  I did another blood test (because who doesn’t like getting stabbed in the vein all the time?) and was told I had the Lyme bacteria in my blood.  My rheumatologist then prescribed me a month supply of antibiotics, as well as steroids, Prednisone, to combat Lyme and its symptoms.

One month went by and I did start to feel a tad better.  Another blood test confirmed that the Lyme was still in my blood, however my rheumatologist explained to me that this was normal for once you become infected with Lyme, it never leaves your blood. He also informed me that the month of antibiotics should have killed all and any lingering Lyme bacteria and that all of my symptoms should go away with it.

So here is where the story should turn right? Ha! Not even close! I’m just getting started.

Of note. That’s roughly 8 weeks of antibiotics in a 16 week window. If anyone is doing the math at home, this isn’t very good for gut health huh? More on that soon.

A few months pass by and I am still experiencing joint pain, except more severe, fatigue, dizziness, and anxiety.  I make a call back to my rheumatologist and he agrees to do some more blood tests for stuff he may have missed.  Nothing comes up, and I’ll never forget what he then tells me. “Nothing is wrong Derek, you are fine. It’s all in your head. It’s probably stress”.

“Probably stress”. Ha! Are you serious? Excuse my language but get the fuck out of here with that BS. I walked out of that office that day so miserable, so angry, and so defeated, I did not know where else to turn.

Ok I lied. I did have someplace to turn, another doctor that was. Severe stomach pain, difficulty digesting food, and weight loss were some new symptoms I began to experience which led me to a gastroenterologist, or stomach specialist.  Maybe this could be explaining all of my health problems I thought? One could dream right.

Nope. It explained some of them, not all. That just led to more diagnoses, blood tests, and antibiotics.  (At least my CVS card was getting good usage during this time!) I had what’s called H. pylori. “H. pylori is a type of bacteria that can live in your digestive tract and attack the stomach lining” (https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/h-pylori-helicobacter-pylori).

One month of antibiotics and anti acid medicine later one would finally think this had to be it right? Wrong again. I didn’t get better.  More blood tests and a new breath test confirmed I did not have the H. pylori any longer in my blood. But I was still experiencing bad stomach pain and even nausea while eating.  So, on to more testing. I was given a standard biopsy, you know, the one where they stick a camera down your throat and check the stomach and intestines. Pretty cool right? The biopsy showed an ulcer and inflammation in my small intestine, however I was told it was not Celiac’s. “Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage of the small intestine” (http://celiac.org). Since I did have inflammation, I was told it could be possibly food allergies or insensitivities, and should look into getting tested for that.

Great.  Just what I need.  More tests and more doctors.  (Glad I had good insurance).

In this time frame afterwards, I can’t pin point when exactly, because of the continuous joint pain and other symptoms I mentioned earlier I was referred to the Department of Chronic Diseases at the local hospital.  More blood tests were given, and for one point in time, I had a specialist tell me that based on the blood test results that there was a high probability I had HIV or Cancer.  I am not making that up. That was exactly what was said to me.  They explained to me my results, the possible culprits, and told me I had to come back in two weeks to retest specifically for the HIV and AIDS, as well as compare my blood cell counts to the first test I took. (Talk about the most stressful two weeks of my entire life).

Thankfully, everything came back negative, meaning I didn’t have Cancer, or HIV. Nothing out of the ordinary was really found. All that was wrong was that my white blood cell count was relatively low, but still on the normal side of the spectrum of blood cell counts. (In my own research, a low white blood cell count is a common symptom of people who experience chronic Lyme or autoimmune diseases). The specialist did acknowledge that I had Lyme in my blood, but told me they did not treat for it as they did not recognize it as a chronic illness. Yeah, countless people are making these Lyme symptoms up right, doc? You got to be shitting me. I didn’t say that. I wanted too.

See a trend here yet?

After seeing the specialist at the hospital I knew I needed a change.  I needed to find an actual doctor that could test for everything and also BELIEVE me when I told him/her the symptoms I was experiencing, especially related to Lyme.  I stumbled upon an Osteopathic doctor close by, who was also part of ILADS (International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society). Every osteopathic doctor is different.  In general, these doctors believe in a whole body approach to healing and self-care, and look for alternative treatments that aren’t used by regular physicians.  I was ready for the change.

We get down to business and do an extensive blood test.  (No I did not have a blood test card where the 10th one is free). The appointment lasted close to an hour and a half, and for the first time I finally felt understood.  Blood tests confirmed I had Lyme, as well as other vitamin and mineral deficiencies that were similar in other patients who had what he called Chronic Lyme.  He gave me an accurate description to what was going on in my body, including why I had the various stomach issues I began to experience months before my visit. I found out I had a yeast overgrowth, and in response my body had become allergic to it. This is common in people who take tons of antibiotics in a short period of time, due to the extensive destruction of the good bacteria in the body’s digestive system.

Treatment for the yeast overgrowth would be long and challenging.  I did a complete overhaul of my diet taking out wheat and dairy as well as restricting my sugar intake.  I began to take probiotic supplements and stopped drinking beer and most alcohol. (I continued to drink Tequila for close to a year before finally giving up all alcohol for good). This difficult but necessary change in my diet completely transformed my body. Over the next several months, I lost close to 30 pounds. My stomach health did improve during this time however, the entire process that had already gone on for close to two years began taking its toll on my mental psyche, especially with my joint pain never improving.

(Nope, I’m still not done. I’m getting there though keep reading!)

2012-2013

During this time frame, I still experienced chronic pain in roughly every joint in my body.  I also began experiencing severe pain in the back, hip, and neck areas. In addition to my new diet, the chronic pain and fatigue was so bad that I did not work out or lift weights for an entire year. If I had any energy or motivation I would drag myself to the gym to walk on the treadmill or outside. That was it. For a full year. This was torture for someone who loved working out as much as I did before all these Health challenges started. Pain was so bad that normal things throughout the day caused me considerable stress and pain. Bending down to pick up a pot, walking up stairs, reaching up for a dish, even trying to find a comfortable position sleeping was difficult. It was not a fun time frame for me.

This period is where I was at my lowest mentally.  I felt alone.  I didn’t talk to friends or family much about what I was experiencing early on because I felt misunderstood.  I was too stubborn to reach out for help.  Nothing made me happy and I routinely cried myself to sleep.  I was so low during this time period that I often contemplated suicide. I had no outlets, couldn’t workout like I used too, had to stop playing baseball, and lost all confidence in who I was as a person. Some days I would wake up scared because I honestly didn’t know if I could make it through another day. Looking back now I realize how incredibly stupid not telling anyone about that was, and am very grateful to have made it through. However, if you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts please talk to someone and get help! Do not bottle it up or fight it on your own! Reach out to someone. Anyone. There’s always people willing to help. One of many blessings I was able to find from being at my lowest during this time was being grateful for the simple joys we as people often take for granted everyday. Being grateful and taking things day by day helped me get through this period and led me out of my depressive state. But I’ll save that for another post. Back to the story.

2013-2014

A series of X rays, MRI’s, and Cat scans back with my rheumatologist would give me the diagnosis of degenerative disc disease. It was also indicated to me that I had early onset arthritis in my neck, and had disc narrowing in my mid back.  To my rheumatologist and back specialist/neurologist I was also now referred too, this wasn’t abnormal, especially being a former college athlete who played collegiate sports as well as competitive high school football.  To deal with the consistent and sometimes excruciating pain, I was given cortisone shots, nsaids (Celebrex), steroids (more prednisone) and nerve blockages. The nerve blockages worked the best, and would give me months of some relief, yet somehow the pain would always seem to find its way back. Just like those talking animals. You know, the cat and two dogs who eventually found their way back “home” when lost in the wilderness? (You didn’t think I would go an entire post without throwing in a classic 90’s movie reference did you?)

Anyways, months after my last nerve blockage more X-rays from my rheumatologist determined that my arthritis from my degenerative disc disease progressed a whole lot faster than the norm.  In about one year, my back aged considerably.  “You have the lower back of a 55-year-old male, Derek”, was the exact quote I remember being said to me.  Um, I’m only 27. How the fuck is that possible? I didn’t say that. I thought it though. He also told me I shouldn’t lift weights, and that running, jumping, and any physical activity could antagonize the symptoms and make them worse.  Great news, doc.  (More sarcasm if you couldn’t tell).

I did find out however for the first time that I might have an autoimmune disease as the main culprit.  But before he could give me some form of treatment or give me an accurate diagnosis, he had to make sure I didn’t have anything that could affect possible treatment.

(Seriously, at this point, what else could I possibly have? I’ve had everything in the freaking medical book. Shit, I could write the medical book at this point).

Turns out I tested positive for Tb, or Tuberculosis.  This was no mistake, as I had to do a second test at a different blood testing site to confirm this diagnosis.

How the fuck did I get Tb? Is this a sick joke? Not funny God, NOT FUNNY.

On a serious note, still to this day I have no idea how I contracted it. One could stipulate that working in a poor school district that early in the school year a parent could have sent her child to school without first getting their shots in time and somehow it was spread to me. (Just an educated hypothesis).

2014-2015

How do you treat Tb you ask? With a year of freaking Antibiotics.  Yup.  A full fucking year.  I was referred to the Health department and a given a fresh supply of medicine every month.  Because of the excessive use of the medicine, possible side effects included kidney disease and liver failure in which I had to have routine blood testing and monthly weigh ins.  (This is where I officially gave up all alcohol for good and couldn’t be more happier to do so. Bye bye hang overs). What stinks during this time was my stomach was doing well, so well, that I had implemented some yeast and wheat products in my diet, sparingly at least, with no real huge digestive issues.  But as soon as I began the medicine for the Tb, many of my digestive woes came back. Similar to Drake running through the six with his woes I assume.  (That was a music reference if you did not catch that.) I lost about 10-15 more pounds during this entire year of being on the medication and If you’re following correctly, about 40 pounds of weight lost total from when I was at my biggest.  (What a time. To be alive.) Another music reference.  I’m on fire.  Alicia keys. Ok, I’ll stop. For most people, weight loss is a good thing. But for a tall, lanky, former athlete who worked as hard as me to gain weight and add muscle in my early 20’s, more weight loss was the last thing I wanted.

One year goes by and the medicine did its job of taking away the Tb. I got my letter that said I completed treatment and that if it comes up on blood tests again its fine and I should not be experiencing any effects in the future. Ok great. That’s done. But I still did not have an answer for the constant pain and stiffness across my body.

Deep breath in. Exhale out. Relax. You’re almost finished.

2015-2016

I quickly make an appointment back with my rheumatologist, in which we did more X-rays and blood tests. Finally, after about 5 years, I get a diagnosis that could finally explain some of the symptoms.  Ankylosing Spondylitis, and Psoriatic Arthritis. I had symptoms of both, including rashes that I sometimes got (and still get) on my fingers, hands, elbows, arms, back, and knees. (Check my Instagram where I have shorts on.  They most commonly look like scraped knees but they are symptoms of psoriasis, an auto immune disease that targets the skin). Both diseases target the spine, cause chronic inflammation, stiffness, and arthritis, specifically of the spine, and any attachments to the spine. I have to go yearly for checkups including breath tests, as the ribs can restrict breathing because of inflammation.  I also have to take yearly X rays and get other tests done to monitor the health of my spine.

2017 – Now

Over the hump. (Finally).

I now take a low dosage pill, Otezla, twice a day to combat the two auto immune diseases.  In addition, I eat a predominantly healthy diet consisting of a lot of fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meat, and brown rice. I take supplements of turmeric, tart cherry, beet powder, probiotics, and stomach enzymes to help with inflammation, pain, and maintain optimal gut health.

In addition to eating healthy, there is a lot I do to maintain the health of my body, especially my spine.  Because of the autoimmune diseases, my muscles are in a constant state of tension. Teaching every day and being on my feet throughout the week is a huge challenge for me, as I often come home tired and sore.

I see a chiropractor at least twice a week for regular adjustments, a massage therapist weekly, a Physical Therapist, and exercise on my own at least once a week.  Hot tubs are a God send, and I am grateful my gym has one as sometimes soaking in a hot tub is the only relief that is suitable after a long day of teaching.

Mentally is no different. I practice different forms of meditation daily including the use of various frequencies, affirmations, and deep breathing techniques. I have a social circle that is filled with many positive and supportive people who inspire me more than they can believe.  I whole heartedly believe in surrounding myself with positive people who contribute to my well being, if not, they are not in my life. My family is my rock, and I don’t know what I’d do without their continued support.  (Love you fam)

Doing all of these things helps me live and breathe a positive and healthy lifestyle.  I live with so much empathy and compassion for people I can’t believe how I lived my life any other way prior to all of this happening.

So why am I finally telling everyone this now?

Because for the first time I am not embarrassed by my extensive health history.

I am not defined by my symptoms.  I am not defined by my past.  I am defined by however the fuck I want to be defined as.  I want to help every single person who has their own challenges in life.  I want everyone reading this to know that no matter how dark, how difficult, how challenging life gets to NOT give up.  It gets better! I promise you that. I do have set backs, and I’m not always pain free, but it will not defeat me. Never. I’m too strong for that.

A Turkish proverb is credited with the saying, “A lion sleeps in the heart of every brave man”.

Well Turkish proverb, I thank you. I also thank God, the Universe, and whoever else is out there for awakening the lion that was asleep in my heart. With the help of this post, I only hope to try to awaken the lion asleep in yours.  Drob out.

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