From my earliest memories, I can recall the agonizing pain that would come on often after I’d eat. Some days were better than others, and I suffered from a few different food allergies, so it was considered normal. Or at least MY normal. Doctor’s ran the usual tests as expected, but found nothing wrong. I was just an “anxious child” or “I didn’t want to go to school”. Or I was a “picky eater” and I’d grow out of it eventually.
As I got into my teen years, specifically after the onset of my first menstrual cycle, the pain intensified greatly. My parents and doctors just thought it was PMS. At the time I didn’t necessarily hate food, but it wasn’t something I overly enjoyed either. It was more like: Oh, I’m hungry. I’m going to eat something. This looks good, let me put it in my belly. And I was a pro when it came to ignoring or dealing with the uncomfortable pain that would come shortly after I consumed anything. To be fair, originally it didn’t happen every time that I ate, just often enough to be noticed. So if something made me sick, I just planned to avoid it the next time. How easy is that, right? Well, again, it was a “good idea in theory”, but not necessarily one of the brightest moments I’ve ever had. I started to avoid this, then that, and oh… can’t have that either. Pretty soon, my diet got extremely limited. Not to mention, I was also completely dedicated and involved in a variety of activities, so this made for the perfect recipe for disaster.
I started competitive swimming just before I turned 8 years old. I was in my element, strongly connect to the water my entire life. I swear I was a fish in another life. It also didn’t hurt that my childhood nanny, who taught me to swim in the backyard pool, had qualified for the Olympics in swimming herself. By middle school I was already competing at the national and state level. My mother, who was a sterotypical “swim mom”, decided it was time to get serious. I transferred to a more intensive team out of town just to work with a coach who prepares up and coming swimmers for future Olympic trials. I was now training for two and a half hours, twice a day (before and after school), as well as doing “dry land” or conditional training. I was sent to the top workshops and the best summer camps to practice with and be coached by both current and former Olympic swimming stars across the U.S. Although it was extremely hard work, I loved it. I also continued taking dance classes at the same studio I started with at four years old, as well as joining different clubs at school, butb of course swimming was my number one priority. It was my life really, my identity. But food took that away from me…
Gradually, every bite of food would send my stomach into a fit of excruciating, unbearable pain. I’d force myself to go to practice, some days barely capable of making it across the pool without a struggle. My body no longer wanted to work, it was quitting on me. With no food going in, there was no fuel in my body to maintain this type of extensive training. My weight kept declining until finally, under a 100 lbs, my once perfectly conditioned form lost all it’s muscle tone that I worked so hard to gain over the years. At the last swim meet I’d ever compete in (although going into it, I never expected it to be my last), I pushed myself so hard – more than my body could allow. In my last event of the day, I could see all of my competition in the lanes next to me with every breath I took in, and one by one they would pass right by me. I couldn’t accept this, I was not going to lose… again. I held my breath and gave it literally everything I had left in my frail, little body. My heart was racing, but I kept telling myself to keep going. Push harder, go faster. You’re catching up to them. Please! KEEP GOING. NOW DAMNIT! “Go, go, go…!”, I hear my mother yelling from the stands. It’s the last thing I hear.
Midway through the last lap, everything turns black. I remember coming to and gasping at the surface for air. I can’t breath and I swear my heart is ready to explode. I’m disoriented, which way is up and which way is down? I have no idea. I’m not thinking of the possibility of dying at this point, as you would initially think to be in the forefront of my mind at a time like this. Oh, no. Instead, seeing as I am a teenage girl at this point, I remember being mortified and embarrassed. You were almost there! What were you thinking? You just stopped in the middle of the pool, in the middle of a race, and in front of a stadium full of spectators. Are you kidding me? Coach is going to be so mad… and I let my team down. What is my mother going to say?
None of that mattered though. My career was over and so were my dreams. My “swim mom”, who would have never ever, under any circumstances what-so-ever let me end this dream (with all the time and money it took to get here), finally gave in and told me it was time quit swimming. The hospital said I developed exercise-induced asthma, no other explanation for it. I also quit dance that year too, but was able to join more clubs at school, which occupied at least some of my time. And you’d think that I’d get better without all that stress on my body, but it actually continued to get worse. A week before Christmas that same year, my parents found me on the floor, fetal position, and hysterical. I was down to only eating croutons now, because for whatever reason it was the only thing I that didn’t make me sick… until that night. My usual handful of croutons has literally sent me to the ground. It’s also the first night I’d ever had any sort blood in my stool. So off to the ER we go and I’m immediately admitted. Test after test, no explanation or reason for this pain. Every test is normal.
“How can this be? She’s obviously sick”, they say. “Too sick to go home.” “But it’s almost Christmas!” “Maybe she’s just anorexic, she’s a teen girl after all.” “Honey, do you not like how you look?””Is everything alright at home?” “No one’s hurting you, are they?” I want them all to shut up, but I just roll over in my hospital bed. It’s snowing outside and it’s Christmas Eve. The doctor comes in for his usual rounds. He listen to my heart and BAM!, he hears something – something’s not right. It’s a Christmas Miracle! But it is Christmas Eve, after all, and there’s no cardiologist to run any tests on Christmas Eve. I’ll have to schedule for later date when it’s not a holiday, but they say if I can eat one pancake from the hospital cafeteria (as I had not taken a single bite of food since first arriving at the hospital) that they would let me go home for Christmas. I force myself to get that disgusting pancake down, choking down the vomit that so desperately wants to come up. I eat all but two bites, but it’s good enough and I’m discharged.
Weeks later I do see the cardiologist, he runs a few tests, but everything looks of course normal as usual. My heart is in great shape, although I’m left with no answers ince again. I give up. The symptoms go on for the remainder of the next year, but I learn to live with it the best I can. Not only do I have the stomach pain, but now I am fainting randomly too, whether I eat or not. The first time I fainted, I was in line for Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World while visiting my brother in Florida, and I went face first onto a trash can that was placed on line. Nope, not embarrassing at all. Next was at a concert with some of my friends, and then another one. I’d come to expect these episodes at any time I’d go anywhere that I’d get overly hot and it was over crowded. As a weird side note though, for the longest time, any episode where I would pass out in public place I would somehow meet a famous person. This made my friends love taking me to shows, because the security guards would pull me out of the crowd and take me backstage, and they would always get to meet the band. Even that day at Disney World, I was a little disoriented afterward and was not paying attention to where I was going, so I walked directly past two body guards and right into the lead singer of Everclear, who at the time was all over the radio. Unfortunately the days of meeting famous people seem to be long gone, but it also has been a good amount of time since I last fainted in public as well. I now know the feeling when the syncope is coming on.
First I start getting a dizzy/spinning type of feeling, then I start losing the hearing in both ofmy ears as if I have q-tips in them, and I feel a strong, invisible pressure pulling across my entire body from the top, downward. Finally, the tunnel vision starts to set in (where I start getting very disoriented) and a bright light overpowers my eyes, getting brighter and brighter, until it suddenly turns dark. If I lay down or put my head between my knees in any beginning stages, I can usually stop the episode from happening thankfully. But it’s scary every time none-the-less.
Eventually, with time, things did get better. I start reintroducing different foods, one by one, back into my diet. The pain never fully went away but it was a little more tolerable and not as consistent as it was in preceding years. I graduated from high school and left home to pursue my dreams of traveling the world and becoming a marine biologist. As I said, I have a strong connection to the water. It’s where I feel home.It’s where I am free.