Shannon's Story: The road back to health

Hello there, and welcome! Thank you for taking a moment to get to know me, and for holding space for me to share my story. It is my hope that my story resonates with you in such a way that your heart sings, “Yes, me too!”, and you start to feel a little bit of relief because you are not alone. Truth is, you are anything but alone, even though sometimes it feels that way. So grab a cup of tea, get comfortable, and read on…

A handful of years ago, I experienced a severe health crisis that to this day has no “formal” diagnosis. I look back at what very few photos exist from that time and I see a young woman who is almost unrecognizable, a ghost – I was extremely frail and underweight, my bony shoulders slumped, and I looked like I would break if someone as much as touched me. My eyes told a story of deep sadness, despair, loneliness, and complete uncertainty of the future. I was extremely ill, unable to digest almost all foods, and was utterly lost. I was trying to find spiritual meaning in the agony, but slowly losing the will to endure it all. I was becoming increasingly certain that I would never recover, that no one would be able to help me, and that my life would continue to spiral downward. I felt helpless and alone, despite multiple attempts to work with doctors and feverishly figure out what was ailing me.

From the outside looking in, I am sure it was a shocking transformation to witness. On paper, my life was filled with accomplishments and accolades. I was just beginning an amazing career as a cancer biologist, was newly married, and was on the fast track to a successful life. After all, this was all I had ever dreamed of…right? I had been a top performing student my entire life, and earned my Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Systems Biology from UCSD. While I worked extremely hard, I was always hungry to accomplish more, to be more…to be…perfect. In high school, I was passionate about music (band geek, and proud of it!), and would practice my clarinet for hours a day in preparation for performances and regional competitions. In college, I was in the Honors Program, did undergrad research during the school year and in the summer, and held 2 jobs…all on top of my rigorous Chemistry and Biology coursework. As a grad student, I spent endless hours in the lab (including nights and weekends) designing and executing experiments, reading scientific literature, and writing grant applications and manuscripts. In my so-called “free time” (aka pre-dawn, lunch, dinnertime, weekends), I swam, bike and ran all around San Diego County as a triathlete, and raced Sprints through Ironman distance events. Those years were immensely stressful, but extremely rewarding and rich with life experience. Anyone who knows me can tell you that if there was something I wanted to achieve or experience, I poured my whole heart and soul into it and no one could stop me. I had a seemingly endless supply of passion, laser focus, and motivation to get there. As I barreled through my 20s, I didn't think too much about what I ate or put into my body, or the long term effects of intense (bordering on excessive) exercise, sleep deprivation, and chronic stress. I never stopped to ask myself:

  • Are all of these lofty goals MINE, or am I following a certain path because it is "safe"?
  • Does the scientific career and life that I’ve been building truly make me happy?
  • What are my beliefs about the world I live in, what do I truly value, and WHO am I?

I didn’t ask these questions because I didn’t have (or more truthfully, make) the time – full speed ahead! Rest was not on my life menu, and failure was not an option. However, life was about to deliver me one hell of a lesson...who needs expensive college and graduate programs when the School of Life’s curriculum is so intense, and FREE?! HA!

So what the happened? How did it all crash down – from fast-paced, “successful” life to barely surviving and all body systems on rapid shutdown, in only a few years time?

It started with a trip to Mexico…

In the summer of 2010, I traveled to Mexico to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday at a resort on the ocean. We relaxed, ate copious amounts of chips and guac, and the margaritas kept flowing. It was a pretty epic party weekend by most people’s standards, and I returned from the trip with a nasty GI bug…one that just didn’t want to let go. Several tests and doctor’s visits later, nothing appeared to be “wrong” and I was sent off on my way. I was in a lot of pain – terrible gas, bloating (no, I am not pregnant, thank you very much), alternating constipation and diarrhea, and my moods were erratic. I scheduled a colonoscopy because I was so desperate to understand what was going on, but had to cancel last-minute, as I was about to move cross-country to Boston so I could start my first corporate job. While the move was smooth and I found my new rhythm quickly, the decade-long ticking stress bomb (undergrad + graduate school + postdoc) was about to detonate. Being a scientist, I couldn’t help but do my own research and frequently consult with Dr. Google (Warning: this is quite possibly the worst thing you can do). Thus began the downward spiral of self-diagnosis, self-medication, self-experimentation and the rapid onset of Orthorexia (definition: the systematic avoidance of specific foods in the belief that they are harmful; also, not my first tango with an eating disorder). For sure, I knew I had developed food intolerances, and eliminated gluten from my diet first. For a time, I felt immense relief in my digestive symptoms with the added bonus of losing 10 pounds, and thought I had found some answers. However, I wasn't even close to being back to 100%, so I kept digging deeper. I exhaustively researched and tried several different diets: Paleo, Specific Carbohydrate Diet, The Perfect Health Diet, and much later on the Autoimmune Protocol. I became obsessed with everything that went into my body, and would often flip-flop which diet I was on because I was impatient to see results (but in the process prevented any true healing to occur). In eliminating what felt like entire food groups out of my diet, I was also eliminating fun, spontaneity, opportunities for social interaction and connection, and my sense of sassy self. While I had fleeting stretches of time where I felt better, I routinely struggled with indigestion, belching (to the point of choking), bloating, gas, constipation (this was by far my more persistent symptom), brain fog, forgetfulness, fatigue, irritability, and anxiety. I decided to go off birth control in 2012 in the hopes of normalizing my period, but my hormones decided to stay offline for another 2 years. Despite my deep commitment to my health and going all in to "figure out" my health challenges, I felt like I was getting worse. How was this possible?

Despite being hopeful that my new job and move to Boston would cause my stress levels to reduce (grad school days were behind me and I could finally be an ADULT!!! Yay!), they only compounded. I was re-learning what it meant to experience the frigid winters and steamy summers in Boston (I grew up in Massachusetts, and somehow had blotted 21 years of east coast weather out of my memory), and I noticed that my health suffered immensely in both of those seasons (turns out, my body dislikes intense cold and humidity). I missed my west-coast friends and California lifestyle terribly. While I was initially excited about my first corporate gig at an oncology therapeutics company, I soon felt unchallenged, underwhelmed and uninspired by the 9-5 grind (is this my future for the next 35+ years?!), and honestly, my heart and intuition told me that popping pills is not the answer for treating any chronic illness. All of my best efforts to control my diet were getting me nowhere, and I was alienating myself from friends and social situations where eating and drinking were involved. While my partner at the time was trying his best to be supportive of my craziness, the stress was taking its toll on our relationship and connection BIG TIME. I felt incredibly alone, and that no one could possibly understand what I was going through. Visits to conventional medicine doctors ended with the lazy diagnosis of IBS and prescriptions that I didn’t have the heart to take. I just didn't believe that drugs were the answer. It's rather difficult to describe my emotional landscape during that time, but it was some mix of being furious, disappointed, sad, anxious, fearful, alone and hopeless. At the time, I didn't make the connection that my "normal state" of being chronically stressed was bad for me, since that seemed to be the way everyone lived - so why was I the one who was sick? I really didn't know how to live any way other than all out, pedal to the floor, “just try and stop me” attitude. All the motivation, perseverance, stubbornness and grit were not going to get me through this, and I learned that lesson the hard way.

I started to lose weight. A LOT of weight. Handfuls of grapes and minuscule meals would satiate me for most of the day, as I had a growing fear of the digestive distress that eating caused. I was literally fearful of food. I tried to calm my fear and anxiety by deeply immersing myself in a yoga practice that had begun 10 years earlier in college. I practiced 5-6 times per week, and was whole-heartedly participating in a teacher-training program. I was immensely thankful for the space, mental focus, clarity and community that yoga brought to my life, although the rigorous physical practice was the last thing my body needed. While my yoga mat was my happy place, chaos ensued the moment I stepped off. My whole world felt like it was falling apart, and I felt so out of control. Despite my best efforts to control my diet, my list of symptoms began to grow – dizziness, chronic fatigue, hair loss, insomnia, muscle pain, panic attacks… My digestive symptoms continued to rage, and at my worst, all I could digest were boiled, mashed carrots. I had muscle spasms almost daily, and had chronic pain in my shoulders and upper back (even despite all of the yoga). My mental state was in shambles, and all I could ask was, “Why me?”.

In 2012, I began to work with a Functional Medicine doctor and experienced some small victories with extensive blood, urine, and stool analyses. I learned over the course of a year that I was (unsurprisingly) plagued with several co-infections (H. Pylori, Candida, and Parasites), was severely depleted of key vitamins and minerals, had heavy metal toxicity (including Mercury and Lead), was in deep adrenal fatigue, had insufficient hormone output, and my body was raging with inflammation and spiked auto-immune markers. A tough case, indeed. While the test results gave me hope that there was something to fix, I still felt stuck and impatient. I was frustrated because my practitioner admitted that my level of physical imbalance was outside of her wheelhouse. I took courses of antibiotics and herbal treatments to rid myself of the infections, but my symptom relief was short-lived. Meanwhile, the stress levels in all areas of my life came to a head. I was constantly living in a state of, “Life will be better when X happens”, where X was a myriad of things that were supposedly going to happen in the future, and this future held the elusive key to my happiness. I felt a gaping hole in my heart, and felt intensely lost – the life I had worked so hard for wasn’t what I had expected. It didn’t bring me the joy that made my heart sing. What now? 

I began to realize that it was going to take a serious miracle to rebound from where I was, and I wasn’t sure that I had the courage to believe in miracles anymore. I started desperately seeking the help of other practitioners – functional medicine doctors, energy healers, acupuncturists, life coaches, and spiritual coaches. I was spending big bucks in my search to find answers, but my relief was temporary...because I was expecting someone else to provide the answers rather than having the courage to look within. My psychospiritual health journey intensified deeper - I remained obsessed with food, elimination diets, my supplements, and journaled everything I put into my body and painstakingly recorded my symptoms. I tried to figure myself out like a Sudoku puzzle and was failing miserably. I isolated myself completely from friends, family and my closest relationship, because I truly felt like no one could understand what I was going through. I was slowly accepting that this miserable state may be my new baseline, but I felt disgusted and angry – at my body for failing me, my inability to fix it, and the failure of modern medicine in its ability to help me. I pointed a lot of fingers, and the weight of my pain felt crushing. But there was always a faint whisper that urged me to continue on, that said, “please don't give up”.

In early 2013, I seriously thought my life was over. My manager at work could see that my collapse was imminent, and urged me to take some time off from work. While the thought of this screamed FAILURE, I took the next 3 months off. I can say with complete confidence that this was the turning point for me. During this time, I learned what it meant to live without a schedule and to have the space to power down, which I hadn’t experienced … EVER? I was free to rest, play, and do whatever my heart desired – go to yoga? OK! Sit outside and stare at a tree? GREAT! Reconnect with friends who I haven’t spoken to in a gazillion years? YES PLEASE! Day by day, I could feel the weight lift off of my shoulders, and I did not miss my job or my day-to-day grind one bit (that was telling). I knew I needed to further unplug, so I booked a ticket to California (my happy heart home), and it was during that month that my true spiritual healing began. Every day, I woke up and sat down mindfully to eat my breakfast – no stress, no rush, no schedule. I was very committed to eating as per the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), and along with very specific supplements, I started to see vast improvements with my digestion. During the day, I would hop on my borrowed bicycle and lazily ride to a Pilates or Yoga class, or just ride around to take in the breathtaking Northern California countryside. I read, I sang, I took in the beauty of the world. With no schedule, I had a LOT of time to reflect on my life, and whether or not the life I had built was what I truly wanted. During this time (one might call it “at just the right time”), I was exposed to several influential concepts, texts or works that blasted my mind and heart open, including “A Course in Miracles”, Gabrielle Bernstein’s “May Cause Miracles”, Jon Kabat Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living” and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques, Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, and several Yoga philosophical texts. I couldn’t read and process all of the material fast enough, as I was starving for a rekindling of my heart’s fire. That faint voice that once nudged me to look deeper grew in volume and intensity to a loud roar that I could no longer ignore. My heart poured out answers to questions I had failed to (and were too afraid to) ask myself in the past:

  • Am I living a life that makes me feel a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and joy?  NO

  • Have I chosen a career/life path that is in alignment with my passions?  NO

  • Have I focused more on pleasing other people rather than honoring what I truly want?  YES

  • Am I an active co-creator of my misery, imbalance, and struggle?  YES

  • Has my health crisis been brewing for years, and the fateful trip to Mexico set of the perfect storm? YES

  • Is it up to me to take ownership of my own thoughts, feelings and emotions, rather than blaming the external world for my problems?  YES, YES, YES

  • Are my health challenges a last-ditch effort of my body and spirit to scream to me that I have been abusing myself for way too long, and that it was time to radically change the way I treated, honored and loved myself? Abso-f*cking-lutely.

The flood of emotions I felt in those moments is truly indescribable. For the first time, perhaps ever, I was listening to my heart. It had an awful lot to say; rather than attempting to “fix it”, I held space for myself to feel it all. As much as I wanted to turn away and resist my Truth, I knew that it was what would save me. So what did my Truth tell me? That I had spent most of my life so far hating myself and my body (which was evidence by years of disordered eating as a young adult and adult). That I spent a lot of time feeling unworthy of happiness, love, and deep connection, and was distrustful of other people and their intentions. Worst of all, I was convinced that my own intuition was not to be trusted. I tried to protect myself by building layer upon layer of brick walls in the form of scholastic achievement, accolades, and perfectionism to make it seem like I had it all together, when in truth, I was hoping I could convince others (and perhaps myself?) that I was worthy of acceptance. That I was good and lovable. I chose relationships with people who were not emotionally present or connected, because I was afraid to share or expose my deep desire for love and connection. I had wanted to control everything in my life, when in fact I was in control of nothing. Most importantly, I learned that I was complicit in my own health decline and only I held the key to reverse the damage. The message was loud and clear: all of the healing protocols, diets, and medical advice were not enough on their own. The true healing began when I allowed myself to listen to my heart, to live by my intuition, to speak my truth, and to build the life that I truly wanted.

When I started using my intuition to guide what was right for me, my life and relationship to self (and food!) radically transformed in the most beautiful way. I have since worked with several talented Functional Medicine doctors and Naturopaths to sleuth and treat the underlying root causes of my biochemical and physiological imbalances, although I will argue that my deep spiritual work has been equally as (if not more) important. It turns out that my genetics, prior health issues during childhood and adolescence, and choosing to live a life chronically stressed provided critical clues on how the “perfect storm” brewed leading up to my trip to Mexico. For example, I harbor genetic mutations in mediators of the Methylation (MTHFR) pathway, the Vitamin D receptor, IgA, IgE and others, making me susceptible to imbalances in neurotransmitters, clogged detoxification pathways, leaky gut, and autoimmunity. I was not breast fed (which is super important for the development of an infant’s immune system and to ensure a robust, diverse microbiome), and whatever microbiome diversity I had as a child was slammed by excessive use of antibiotics for my chronic respiratory infections, and for treating Acne as a teenager (double whammy). An imbalanced microbiome also makes me a prime target for infection of opportunistic pathogens, Candida and Parasites. I started experiencing chronic stress (external and self-inflicted) in my formative years throughout graduate school, which set the stage for a health breakdown, and was exposed to toxic mold in my home only months before my trip to Mexico. Truly, my body was primed for breakdown.

Certainly, I am still a work in progress, but aren’t we all? In the end, I decided to make some major changes in my life including leaving relationships that were not serving me, and moving back to California, where I truly feel is HOME. While this transition was anything but easy, it did create an immense amount of space for me to explore MY hopes, dreams and passions. When I began to release parts of me that were no longer serving, and leaned into what made my heart say “YES”, I was amazed to see my body respond in kind. This, in union with a balanced, nutrient-rich diet and supplement protocol, I was now able to tolerate and digest foods once again (though I do still follow a very specific diet that works for my bioindividuality). My hormone systems slowly came back online, my energy rebounded, and I began to feel that joie de vivre once again. Now more than ever, I have to be extremely mindful of what I put into my body, and that extends to more than just food (thoughts and beliefs too!). I do still experience setbacks, like we all do, and have had to change my lifestyle for good to ensure that I prioritize self-care through stress management and adequate rest (and play!).

Certainly, my experience has illuminated my life mission. It is clear that I deeply wanted to shift my scientific focus from developing diagnostics or therapeutics for treating chronic disease, to helping people prevent these diseases in the first place, or to heal by using nutrition and implementing lifestyle changes that support balance and wellbeing. This led me to find the courage to re-focus and bridge my scientific expertise in chronic illnesses (i.e. cancer, autoimmunity) with my passion for nutrition, mind-body wellness, mindfulness, and spiritual connection through Transformational Nutrition Coaching. I now look back at my health challenges all throughout life with immense gratitude, as they were opportunities rather than hindrances. Truly, each health challenge was an opportunity for me to clearly see where I am making choices that support balance versus imbalance, and a chance to hone my ability to listen to the powerful wisdom of my body.

As such, it is my mission to help YOU reconnect with your body, heart and spirit so that you can learn how to powerfully and robustly digest once again - food, emotions, and life experiences - so that you can find the nourishment you need to live your passion, your truth, and your YES every single day.