Chronic stress is real and has deadly consequences. Luckily for me, I made a decision to take control of my health and am focused on my healing. Chronic stress occurs when the body’s normal reaction to stress never lets up. Think of a running car with its wheels constantly spinning but the car not actually moving…for hours…days on end. You might expect that car to overheat and for essential functions to start breaking down with eventually the car itself just giving out. Well, the same thing can happen to your body. In fact, the same thing was happening to mine. Instead of the body overheating like the car, inflammation builds up as a reaction to the stress and wreaks havoc on any number of systems in the body. I could feel it. I even tried to name it. But no traditional medical providers took me seriously. While I think my closest friends and family who were observing me noticed my decline, no one knew quite what to offer either. The most visible symptom was weight gain but there was much more happening that no one could see on the outside.
I had a difficult pregnancy. For a Black woman, unfortunately, my story is not an uncommon one. We now know a lot more about the contributors of racism and sexism to maternal mortality rates than was common knowledge when I was pregnant 9 years ago. Short story, I had a severe case of preeclampsia and ended up having a premature delivery to a 2 lbs, 1 oz brilliantly, badass baby girl. I’d never had blood pressure problems before and after delivery, my blood pressure returned to normal rates and has stayed that way since. I breastfeed my little one for the first two years and got pretty damn close back to my pre-pregnancy weight. I felt good. I had no reason to think that would change. But what changed was likely a collision of preexisting health factors, personal choices/habits, genetics, and a whole lot of environmental stress. I want to talk about the environmental stressors in this piece.
Raising a baby by yourself is hard. It is unnatural. It takes a village for a reason. Everyone loves a sweet-smelling, cooing, cute baby and I had a REALLY cute baby. I had a lot of support during that first year and a half. I’m not at all diminishing the support and love I have from my Village now and had through the years. There are so many examples of times I literally couldn’t have gone on that work trip, sat in on that meeting, or met that obligation without my Village. What I’m saying is that once a baby is no longer a baby, people move on. There was less concern about how I was getting through day in and day out with a talking, can-feed-herself, potty-trained preschooler or elementary school student than there was about a newborn/toddler. I’ve written before about the challenges I have with my wild child. She’s not easy. She requires a lot of me — emotionally and cognitively. I value my role as a mother and prioritize it over career. That set of priorities and needs associated with them cost me. I thought it just cost me career advancement and esteem with my colleagues. What it was really costing me was my health. Slowly, quietly, but violently.
Black women earn 62% of white men
What’s more, is that raising children is expensive. Like really really expensive. Child care costs alone between her infancy through pre-Kindergarten (because I live in a state where it is not subsidized) totaled around $50K. Not to mention healthcare insurance, co-pays, surgical procedures, clothes, diapers, car seats, strollers, toys, experiences, etc. Pay inequity is alive and well…even in academia. Add to that, no child support, no generational wealth, and all the trappings of so-called middle-class life in America. I was under a great deal of financial stress. That whole adage, “Money can’t buy you happiness” is a whole *&%!#^ lie!
On top of that, I was struggling mentally at work with increasing frequency. I wrote a bit about this in my piece, “…And Sometimes You Have Just Had Enough”. The demands and expectations in my career as a tenured professor were overwhelming. There was simply never enough hours to get things done or when things got done, there was always 10 things waiting to replace those. It was relentless for me. It was overwhelming for me. Further, I experienced microaggressions from faculty and students in various shades and degrees on a regular basis for my entire time in academia. In the midst of this, I worked hard to create a safe space for students of color, to model for them as much as I could, how to navigate the space, how to survive the space. I’ve cried with students, sat with them while they cried, advocated for them, and strategized with allies for their best outcomes.
The impact of all of this was for me was chronic stress. I don’t know the last time I felt rested. I don’t even really know what that feels like. I’m genuinely unsure if I’ve felt it. So, over the course of the past several years, I’ve gained 50 lbs, moved up 5 dress sizes, felt tired more hours of the day than energized, felt heavy in my body, felt wrong/off in my body, been depressed, been anxious, watched my hair get drier and more brittle, and experienced aches and pains in most of my joints. I’ve lain in bed when the alarms go off willing myself to get out of it with absolutely no energy to do so. I’ve had difficulty concentrating and a general feeling of fuzziness. There are other symptoms that I won’t divulge here. But I think you get the general picture. It wasn’t good. I went to my PCPs over the years with these symptoms and the answer was always — lose weight. I still remember the humility I experienced when I bared my vulnerability and tried to articulate my experience with one of my PCPs about 4 or 5 years ago and watching him pull up a chart that showed me my weight gain over time. His response was, “Look at this. What happened? It must be your diet. You have to change your eating.” That was the second to the last time I shared with a PCP. The second time, even though this physician was a Black woman, her response was similar. She was even more dismissive though. At least the other guy took the time to pull up the chart.
I KNEW something was not right with me despite their feedback. I did my own research on adrenal fatigue syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic stress, and Functional Medicine practitioners. This past fall I was finally able to get in with an amazing practitioner and for the first time in my experience with healthcare, I felt heard, seen, and valued. I cried the last time I saw her because even though the news wasn’t good, she heard me, she had a clear plan, and she told me what I always knew to be true — I am the best expert on my health and well-being she’s just following my lead. If any of my experiences or symptoms resonate with you, consider a Functional Medicine practitioner. They have a great directory on their national website — https://www.ifm.org/functional-medicine/what-is-functional-medicine/. If you’re in the Houston area, I can’t recommend Dr. Tia Hickerson enough. I’m so excited to get my body back. To get my mind back. To get me back. I’ll be writing more about this journey I’m sure so make sure you are following me on Medium to stay up to date. If you’ve had positive experiences with functional medicine, comment below.