The best kind of writing is completely raw and honest.
So to know my yoga journey and challenges, you need to know my rather complex anatomy and deep, deep pain.
I started becoming incredibly sick in second grade. How old are we then? Eight years old?
It was awful. I missed months of school, and for two years no one could figure out what was wrong with me.
I couldn’t even eat a blueberry without throwing up for hours. My abdominal pain was so bad and deep within my gut that it left me shaking on bathroom floors.
I felt so different, alone, embarrassed and incredibly small. I remember one day in third grade, I lost complete control of my bowels. But luckily I had spare clothes with me. I spent that entire day hiding in a corner on the bathroom floor with my knees to my chest, crying harder than I ever had before.
No one knew what I was going through. Doctors didn’t. My family didn’t. My friends didn’t. My basketball coaches didn’t. I didn’t. This continued on for two years.
It wasn’t until I was referred to see a gastroenterologist at Riley Hospital For Kids in fourth grade that I finally got some answers. I was scheduled for an upper and lower intestinal scope. It was an outpatient surgery, and my first time being put to sleep under anesthesia. Was I scared? No, I was more scared of never finding out what was wrong with me. Besides, I had Abbey Road by The Beatles in my disc-man to numb the pain.
After that operation, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease…and a rather severe case of it.
Crohn’s Disease is where parts of the digestive tract become inflamed. It most often involves the lower end of the small intestines and the beginning of the large intestine, but it may also occur in any part of the digestive system from the mouth to the end of the rectum. The exact cause of Crohn’s Disease is unknown. It occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. When parts of the digestive tract remain swollen or inflamed, the walls of the intestines become thickened.
My doctors wanted to remove my colon in the fourth grade. Given that I was so young, and Crohn’s Disease was so uncommon, we weren’t quite ready for that yet.
You name it, and I’ve battled it. From fourth grade to my senior year of high school, I took about 25 pills a day. Treatment regimens included monthly blood transfusions, medicated enemas, outpatient surgeries, PICC Line antibiotics, month long hospitalizations, multiple intestinal resections, appendectomy, morphine PCA pumps, and being fed through tubes for months.
Nothing I tried ever worked. I have survived multiple close calls with hypokalemic shock, septic shock, anaphylactic shock, and a very intense adverse reaction to an iron infusion that put me into respiratory distress.
As I got older, my disease got more aggressive. It continued to fiercely progress and take over my body, which potentially could equal colon cancer. I was left with the choice to either continue on this path of exhausting suffering or have my colon removed.
Did I want to take my chances with colon cancer at age 20? I thought of all the beauty I had left to experience. How could I ever see the world, if I couldn’t leave the gas station’s bathroom floor? How could I accomplish any dream of mine constantly throwing up water? How could I have a boring normal life and maintain a job, if I couldn’t even handle the pain of walking? I traveled all throughout Europe with my family, and by the time we reached Paris, I was in a wheelchair. I saw the Mona Lisa in a wheelchair. That is not a life I wanted to continue. I wanted to live more than anything. I wanted freedom to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t want my bastard of a disease to win.
At age 20, I had three-quarters of my colon removed, a foot more of intestines, appendix and rectum removed. It was a 19-hour operation. And it has been so hard, I’m not going to lie. Because yes, I do have a colostomy bag. A permanent one. And you know what, f*** anyone who judges that. It sure as hell is better than having cancer. Ever since that operation six years ago, it has been a constant battle with body image, eating disorders, self-worth, self-confidence, self-destructiveness, focusing, self-awareness, anxiety, depression, and self-love.
My body has always felt like a foreigner to my mind.
So to cope with the emotional pain and to feel empowerment, I started running. I have completed two half marathons and three full trail marathons. I would run miles upon miles to exhaust my brain and myself. I was incredibly self-destructive with it, because it gave me a feeling of running away from my problems and fears. I was running 70-90 miles a week in the dead of winter.
During this time, I had also been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed 40 milligrams of Adderall. I was smoking a pack a day and hardly eating. In addition to my own self doubts and self-destructiveness, Adderall stimulated that 100 percent. I remember one time, I felt so down on myself and self-destructive that I locked myself in a bathroom and dug into my skin with tweezers.
I felt myself downward spiraling on a path of self-abuse. Everything had gotten to the point where I couldn’t handle the consequences of being myself.
This is when I found myself in my first yoga class.
I had no idea what I was getting into. I gathered into a pitch-dark room that was 100 degrees with about 30 other individuals.
The teacher opened the practice with us on our backs and a giant stretch to squeeze our arms around our legs to give ourselves a hug to show self-love. Within five minutes, I was crying. I wish I could feel that first yoga class all over again. It was the most incredible life-changing moment. I felt for the first time ever strong, beautiful, and that I could let go of everything toxic I hold on to. Not only that, but I could feel the deep abdominal twists in the heated room detoxify my intestines like a wet rag that is squeezed around to dry. There hasn’t been one class where I haven’t felt nauseous. The nausea symbolizes body detoxification.
As the tears and sweat poured, the instructor talked about with each deep stretch letting go of something you hold on to. Wait, what? You mean yoga is literally a practice of letting go?! With each deep back bend and abdominal stretch, I feel years of sadness, depression and loneliness leave me. And I replace each part with love, strength and balance. I cried until I thought my heart would leap out of my lungs. But it was such a deep cry, a cry that I had been building up since second grade.
I knew nothing about taking care or loving myself. I let go of that in my first practice. I left the studio with a membership and remembering one of my favorite quotes by Buddha,
“In the end only three things matter: How much you love, how gently you live, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.”
I needed to learn to take care of myself. I started practicing yoga on and off, but that wasn’t enough to impact my mind. I became mentally sick. I spent two weeks not leaving my bed, ignoring phone calls and plotting killing myself. I can’t describe how depressed I felt, other than a deep sickness in my brain. All my awful medication most certainly overly stimulated my thoughts. I researched gun laws, where to get a gun, and I knew exactly where I was going to do it.
I felt dead in my brain. I felt ugly and worthless from the effect Adderall was having on me.
I finally answered two phone calls.
Then, I really thought to myself, when do I feel the most beautiful? When do I feel like I have self-worth? When do I feel the most strong?
And I knew the answer: it was when I’m practicing yoga.
I pulled myself out of bed that day and went to my yoga studio. In each practice, we begin by setting an intention. My intention in this practice was committing myself to quit taking Adderall, Zoloft, Ambien and smoking cigarettes.
As the tears flooded, I let go of feeling numb and embraced my new path of self-awareness and self-love.
The next day I enrolled in Passion Yoga School in Costa Rica to immerse myself for four weeks to become a yoga instructor to help others heal the way yoga continues to help me heal. Since November and having a daily practice, the change in myself is mind blowing. Everything I learn on the mat, I take into my own life.
Practicing yoga isn’t just a physical exercise, it is a lifestyle. Yoga builds strength in our bodies and brings focus to our thoughts providing the support to commit ourselves to make positive changes.
Stretching, twisting, balancing and breathing cleanse the body of emotions that have been buried in tissues for years. The space created with detoxifying provides room to fill up with love, compassion, hope, happiness and empowerment.
Through a regular practice, you build a strong mind and body connection. Yoga teaches what your body needs, and more importantly what it doesn’t. I have learned that real happiness and change comes from within. You can’t change your external environment without focusing on the internal first.
Through a daily practice I’ve learned to love my body and myself, and that is a gift I can only hope to help empower my students with.
Author: Megan Ziemer
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Nadja Tatar/Flickr