As a former car mechanic, I know that every repair order includes the three c’s: complaint, cause, and correction. Shouldn’t that same principle apply to repairing the human body?
During the 30-plus years I suffered from ulcerative colitis — a chronic inflammatory disease of the large intestine — physicians never discussed all three of those c’s with me. We talked about my complaint and they offered corrections (a lot of pills, potions, and lab tests), but we never focused on the cause.
After years of failed medical treatments, I began to wonder if there was more I could be doing mentally to support my physical recovery. Deep down, I suspected that high stress and perfectionist behaviors contributed to my debilitating GI issues.
Turns out, my gut instinct was right — but it took some time before I learned to trust it.
My symptoms began when I was 39, just before I became a father. At the time, I was setting up a technical-support department for a national car-rental company and putting in 10-hour days. If that wasn’t enough, I was involved with the children’s ministry at my church on the weekends.
I was driven by performance, and while my ego thrived on the recognition I received, the stress of these responsibilities took a toll on my body.
At times, I was going to the bathroom 20 times a day — painful bowel movements along with a lot of abdominal pain. It was tough, especially because I was also trying to be the perfect father and employee.
Doctors prescribed anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, steroids, and immunosuppressants, which led to periods of remission. But the symptoms would eventually return.
In 2003 I started experimenting with a centering-prayer practice, a form of meditation. Twice a day for 20 minutes, I released my worries and just breathed; but I wasn’t changing my behavior outside of meditation, so the pressure continued to build.
Meanwhile, my doctors never asked me about my lifestyle. No one ever addressed nutrition, except to recommend avoiding raw vegetables and fruits — the very foods we need most.
Twenty years after my diagnosis, with my symptoms getting worse, I began to turn to alternative therapies that included diet, supplements, and even stress reduction. Whenever I discovered a new protocol that promised results, I tried to follow it perfectly.
But my rigid approach only produced more anxiety, which ultimately exacerbated my symptoms. One practitioner recommended taking days off from work and relaxing at my Long Island home, which I dismissed. I could make time to meditate for 40 minutes each day, but taking a whole day off seemed impossible.
By 2012 the wear and tear on my body had become too much for my colon, and I had to have it removed in an emergency procedure. Recovering from the colectomy took nearly two years, during which I was forced into early retirement.
My job had been a major piece of my identity — in fact, it was what I’d thought I was living for. But retirement gave me time to process what I’d been doing to myself. I began to see the patterns of my stress and illness with new clarity.
That’s when I started attending a 12-step program. I didn’t have a clear need, just an interest in the process. But by the end of my first meeting, I realized I was an addict, too — addicted to my way of doing things and to the approval of others, which I needed to feed my ego.
The meetings helped me realize that by fighting to stay in control of everything around me, I’d only been limiting myself. I’d been too committed to my perfectionist ways. I felt I’d been given an opportunity to free myself — I just had to be open to change. I attended meetings for two years.
In 2014 I developed inflammation in my J pouch, a surgically constructed reservoir formed from my small intestine after my colectomy, which allowed me to pass stool. I realized that the surgery had removed my colon but hadn’t cured the disease. I became further convinced that the problem was more in my mind.
At the time, I didn’t know what functional medicine was, but one day I stumbled across a TEDMED video on the subject. When I told my son what I’d learned, he mentioned that he’d recently listened to a podcast with Robin Berzin, MD, a leader in the field and the founder of Parsley Health. That’s where I turned next.
My treatment began with an elimination diet, bloodwork, allergy tests, and a family-history evaluation. My doctor and health coach supported my son’s advice to relax and learn to listen to my body.
I was allowed to experiment, which I did right away with my supplements. Loose stools are caustic, so when you avoid them, the tissue can begin to heal. By increasing my dosage of fiber and changing the timing, I experienced an almost immediate effect.
The Parsley practitioners allowed me to trust myself and take initiative in my recovery. They helped me manage my symptoms, and I continued to do the inner work of managing the cause of my illness.
I’m still responsible for this inner work, and I have several outlets for reducing stress. I walk two miles every day and do a guided Kundalini yoga practice at a community park twice a week, plus one day at home. I enjoy time outdoors, and I see an energy therapist who helps me release my emotions in playful, creative ways. I meet monthly with several support groups to talk about my journey with chronic illness and learn from others’ stories.
I still maintain my centering-prayer practice, and I recently added mindfulness meditation, which is helping me become aware of my thoughts and choose to not be driven by them.
This inner work, like the 12-step program, has forced me into unknown territory where I have to trust the process because I’m not in control. It’s been challenging — even scary — but it’s also given me the opportunity to find a sense of comfort in uncertainty. It’s led me to a greater understanding of myself.
I’m 71 now, and my life is better mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than it’s been in decades. Not coincidentally, so is my GI health.
This holistic recovery has extended into my relationships with others, too. I’m less defensive and more receptive now, which allows for deeper connections with my wife, son, and others.
But no relationship is more improved than the one between me and my inner guide. I am learning to trust my gut, and it’s given me the freedom to live a fuller, more balanced life.
This originally appeared as “Gut Check” in the October 2018 print issue of Experience Life.
Tom’s Top 3 Success Strategies
Be less reactive. Taking the time to truly understand the cause of his health issues made it easier for Tom to see potential solutions. “Ask yourself, What inner work am I being invited to pursue?” he advises.
Accept help. “Begin to see that support is already around you,” Tom explains, “even in ways you may not have considered before — like the support I have from my wife and son.”
Be open to new approaches. Initially, taking time out for stress relief seemed counterproductive to Tom’s type-A personality. But once he became open to it, he was able to make positive changes.