Some frustrating health issues

I’ve been dealing with some health challenges lately and, well, I’m going to whine about them for a minute. If TMI isn’t your cup of tea, skip this post and come back tomorrow. I’ll have a pretty photograph to share with you.

You might recall my foot surgery in June of 2014. One year post-op I still experienced some pain, to both my and my podiatrist’s surprise and consternation. And then in July I whacked that foot hard into a table leg, breaking the second toe, aggravating the surgery, and setting me back months of healing. It hurt to walk in all of my shoes except my Birkenstock sandals. I threw out most of my old shoes and upgraded to expensive, but very well constructed new ones. My podiatrist had me put an orthotic insert into all of them to build up my arch and correct my overpronation to take pressure off the surgery site and allow healing. I’ve had to stop going barefoot, even around the house; I wear Birkenstock clogs as house shoes. And I’ve cut out all unnecessary walking. I’m finally starting to walk pain-free, but it’s been a very frustrating eighteen months.

In addition, I’ve dealt for years with some digestive issues. A gastroenterologist was surprisingly little help — “you’re eating more fiber, right? Well, that’s all I know to tell you” — despite pain so bad that it was affecting my ability to work. Four years ago I took a chance and went to a pain clinic for it. You would not believe all the things they tried — electrostimulation, antibiotics, even meditation and a version of autogenic training. But it all helped and made this condition manageable.

It should not have surprised me that being ejected from an über-stressful job in June helped even more than all the doctors and their treatments. My discomfort eased by an order of magnitude. All that was left to look at was diet. So I started an elimination diet — and my guts quieted the rest of the way down. As I’ve added various foods back to my diet, I’ve discovered that wheat, almost certainly garlic and onions, and probably legumes (beans, peas, lentils), and certain vegetables (including cauliflower and broccoli) are the main culprits behind my gastro-intestinal distress. What these foods share in common is that they contain oligosaccharides, and my guts apparently can’t process them properly.

Eliminating these foods has been transformational, but it has also turned eating at restaurants into a form of Russian roulette. I can obviously avoid breads and beans because I can see them, but onions and garlic are hidden in so many restaurant dishes. And I eat out pretty frequently, as in my line of work lunch meetings are normal. I avoid Italian and Mexican restaurants entirely now. Fortunately, I can find safe foods at any restaurant with a breakfast menu. And I eat a lot of plain hamburger patties and fries — though those can be seasoned with garlic or onion and often even the kitchen staff doesn’t know it.

Meanwhile, I’m still adding foods back into my diet. There’s some evidence I might have difficulty digesting fructose. If so, goodbye to a whole bunch of fruits (including cherries and plums, which I adore) and anything made with high-fructose corn syrup (which I probably ought to avoid anyway). But I’ll change my diet in whatever ways are necessary to avoid gut pain.

And here’s the kicker in all of this: the pain isn’t the main problem. It’s uncomfortable, but I can usually manage to get through my day. The real problem is that when I’m in pain at night, I can’t sleep through it. The insomnia is worse than the pain.

What this all means is that while I’m figuring all this out I never know when I’m going to tie my guts up in knots and be awake half the night. I suspended the challenges for Christmas, but since the first of the year I’ve felt bad more days than not. I’m determined to push through, though, and learn what I can and can’t eat.

An unintended consequence of this is that my diet has shifted away from proteins and vegetables and toward fats. I keep track of what I eat using an online tool called CRON-O-Meter, and it tells me that lately my diet has contained a whopping 47% fat.

Between a high-fat diet and not being able to walk it off thanks to my stupid foot, I’m gaining weight and all of my pants are too tight.

It’s all been stressful. And if you’ve been following my Driving and Singing series, you know that belting out a tune can really help me vent my stress. Unfortunately, I’ve been having some trouble singing since about Thanksgiving. My throat has been dry and feels “thick.” Sometimes projecting a really big note triggers my gag reflex, of all things! It is so frustrating not to be able to sing out.

I’m determined and diligent. I will push through all of this. But I’m struggling with patience right now.


Toothpaste is a scam

Given that every toothpaste contains whitening ingredients now, why aren’t we all walking around with teeth that are a perfect #ffffff? (That’s the HTML code for the whitest white, for the nongeeks in the audience.) That’s right: because it’s a scam.

Crest Tooth Paste, 1960
Photo: Allen Sandquist Collection

Anytime a product category requires an entire aisle at Walgreen’s, with many competing brands and even products within one brand, each promising to be the Best Evar!!!!!!! – that is, when something is marketed to the hilt, that’s your clue that you probably don’t need it.

Look, I know that studies say that the fluoride in toothpaste leads to fewer cavities. But when I was a kid in braces, I brushed with baking soda most of the time. It tasted terrible, but it made my metal mouth gleam like nobody’s business. And I saw no uptick in the number of cavities I got.

I’ll bet I could brush dry and still reap brushing’s benefits – but for one. The reason I still use toothpaste, even though it’s a scam, because it makes my mouth feel and taste minty fresh. I like that.


Eventually you realize you’re the common denominator in your problems

When something you don’t like happens to you over and over again, at some point you have to look hard at the part you play in it.

At the beginning of this year a larger company bought the company for which I work. Most acquisitions seem to be about neutralizing a competitor or reducing overall costs through layoffs, but this one was different. The company that bought us wanted our products and our people and treated the acquisition almost like a merger of equals. At about the same time I got a new boss, which would have happened merger or not. So on top of merger activities – new processes and systems, getting new computers, a switchover to the acquiring company’s computer networks and IT policies – we also embarked on a very aggressive project, and I had to figure out how to work for my new boss.

My office
The scene of my stress

The stress was intense. By the time the project ended in early August, I was teetering on the edge of burnout. My boss comped me an entire week off to recover, but it wasn’t enough. I’m still feeling aftereffects of the exhaustion, and am trying hard to get my head back into the game.

The thing is, I’ve been here over and over again. I took an inventory of just the last ten years and counted six times I’ve been exhausted like this, and some of those times have been for long periods. This has unintentionally become a theme on this blog; check out the stories here and here and here and here and here. I tended to finger external causes – it was the divorce, or a lousy project at work, or too many commitments. While external forces certainly played in these stressful times, I was overlooking the common denominator: me. As I took stock, here’s what I learned about myself.

  • I love to start new things. I am excited by a new venture’s potential and tend to say yes even when I’m already plenty busy. This is how I came to manage three separate departments and own a few side initiatives – the opportunities sounded exciting, so I said yes. I juggled these responsibilities well enough until the merger, when expectations and workloads spiked, and then I couldn’t handle it all.
  • I want to look like I can handle whatever is thrown at me. While all this was going on, my new boss wanted me to start several other side projects. I wanted her to see that I was in her corner so I took them on, but I was already behind the eight ball and this only made it worse. I ran frantically from meeting to meeting and watched my e-mail inbox fill faster than I could respond. People who worked for me could never get five minutes of my time.
  • I think that unless I’m killing myself, I’m not working hard enough. This has to come from my parents, because they both will work ridiculous overtime and go in even when they’re so sick they can hardly stand, as if their health and sanity is less important than their work. I’ve never been one to work overtime unless someone holds a gun to my head, but I multitask like a madman even though all the research says multitasking doesn’t work.
  • I am a perfectionist. Actually, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I know that what I consider to be my best work is often far more than what the situation calls for. But it still bothers me when I have to deliver less than my best. I had to do a lot of that just to survive this year, and it added to my stress.

I’ve finally had enough of this repeated exhaustion. In April, I asked my boss to narrow my responsibilities. She’s worked steadily on it and now I have a workload doable by a mortal man. Here are some things I’m working on so that I don’t wind up back in this mess again.

  • It’s time to learn to say no. My new mantra is, “I’d love to take that on, but something else has to come off my plate first.”
  • I have a new daily goal of not coming home from work feeling fried. This means I will pace myself every day, and this actually scares me. I’m afraid that if I don’t work ridiculously hard (or at least look like I’m working ridiculously hard) I’ll get bad reviews or end up fired. I’m going to face this fear head on. Logically I know that if I slow down it won’t result in unemployment, but I don’t feel it. But I’m already thinking about the extra energy I’ll have for my sons when I come home.
  • I will relax in the evenings. I feel like I need to work when I get home, too – cleaning, writing, cutting the grass, paying bills, or any number of other things. From now on, every evening will contain at least some time to read or watch TV or sit on the deck and watch the lousy golfers on the course behind my house hook balls into my back yard.
  • I’ve taken up meditation and yoga. The meditation helps me relax; continuing to practice it will help me cultivate staying present even when stress naturally occurs. The yoga is helping me accept my limitations – I’m unathletic and have terrible balance, and so many of the poses don’t come easily. But however well I can do the pose is inherently okay. And I find that without striving, over time the pose comes a little easier. Maybe life’s the same – stretch gently, listen to yourself for signs it’s time to stop, and try again next time to find you can stretch just a little bit farther than before.