“Try taking the wheat out of your diet”: My Quest for Trauma-informed Healthcare

881dbb5eb3b9b9773efda1d0508c068fThis small, simple sentence about wheat, spoken by a naturopath, completely changed my life. I eliminated wheat immediately after this visit, and I had never felt better in my life. I had been searching for a cure for my aching joints, bloated body, and fuzzy mind for almost a decade and I had finally found the answer. Not only was I intolerant to wheat/gluten, further tests revealed I was also allergic to dairy.

Meeting this naturopath was a culmination of thousands of hours in visits to “Western medicine” doctors and endless medical tests. Seeing her was a “last resort” after I started feeling as if no one would ever find a cure why I just felt so awful all of the time and why my bloated stomach made me look like I was pregnant (even though I was not). I was hesitant to see her because insurance did not cover the visit or testing costs, but I did not care. At point I was beyond desperate and had almost given up all hope of ever finding an answer.

The closest anyone had ever come identifying my debilitating food allergies was a doctor who diagnosed me with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain and joint condition often related to trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This “traditional” doctor finally saw that I was in a tremendous amount of pain and anguish and did her best to put a name to my discomfort.

Unfortunately, though, she had no cure for fibromyalgia other than telling me to rest and do morning stretches to relieve my joint pain. In my own research for baseline information about the condition, I learned that some people in the medical community contend fibromyalgia does not even exist. They dismiss this illness that affects mostly women, scoffing it’s “all in their minds.”

Despite finding a doctor who at least acknowledged my pain, my search for relief continued. My entire body ached, I was perpetually exhausted, and I could not lose weight despite regular exercise and a healthy diet. I was so desperate that I even chose to visit a nutritionist. I had seen numerous nutritionists over the years, with zero results.

This one’s solution was to eat more salads and to give me brochure sponsored by Cheerios about lowering my cholesterol (ironic, since wheat and dairy were making me sick, and that high cholesterol is symptom of trauma). Her defenses rose when I suggested that she was missing something. I have refused to see nutritionists ever since. (I also had a brief stint with a personal trainer, but the “just do it” mentality of popular exercise regimens exacerbated my adrenal failure from decades of “fight or flight” stress response in daily life.)

I was first sent to a nutritionist during college after my regular doctor found I had high cholesterol. The nutritionist found nothing, and even noted that I was a lean, healthy, and active teenager (I still have the medical records). I figured I had just eaten way too much microwave popcorn in my first year at school. Little did I know, this was yet another sign of trauma that the “responsible adults” surrounding me had not only missed, but had passed up as a sign that something was wrong with this otherwise “healthy” young adult.

I find it preposterous that nutritionists do not seem to be trained in trauma. Half of the body’s nerves are the stomach and are called the enteric nervous system and the stomach is referred to as “the second brain.” We focus so much on mental health with human trafficking and trauma survivors, but mostly ignore this part of “gut health.” Yes, we talk about irritable bowel syndrome, but we do not pay attention to food itself, and how survivors may utilize food as self-medication.

For instance, these days cannot give a talk without having iced green tea and dark chocolate both before and after my lecture. I need these foods to calm my stomach and nerves. Hot chocolate is another necessity during cold weather. In earlier years, I drank a lot of soda and candy bars just to get through each day. I did not crave these foods in terms of a sweet tooth, but rather a way to calm my body and to be a part of the world. (I also rely on a glass of warm soymilk to calm my nerves when I need help falling asleep – a “remedy” I learned from a kind nurse.)

The first few nutritionists had a field day with the cola, candy, and hot chocolate. They could not even fathom that I needed these foods to help me calm my stomach and to cope with every day stresses. Instead, they saw my need as an individual weakness and that I was personally to blame for my pain and weight gain. Body politics and “fat shaming” trumped holistic health.

Thankfully, some doctors seem to be catching on. Pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is applying from a Centers for Disease Control-sponsored study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, and long-term health solutions. In her recent TED Talk, Dr. Burke Harris articulates how trauma wears down our adrenal system through continued perceived threat and that “high doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Furthermore, I am beyond grateful for Dr. Burke Harris’s work because she articulates the how trauma affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA Axis). This was particularly important to me and my search for trauma-informed healthcare because, the HPA Axis…drumroll, please…regulates metabolism and many hormonal functions.

We may not have all of the answers yet, but at least we are moving in the right direction. Without understanding the profound impacts of trauma from human trafficking – not only on mental and reproductive health – on the entire body, we will continue to blame victims and survivors like myself who have already decades of discrimination and reproach.

My food allergies were diagnosed ten years ago, which is when I also started receiving treatment for low thyroid production. Thanks to those treatments I lost a lot of weight, gained energy, and regained joint mobility. I thought all of my health issues had been solved. However, I am now facing new health challenges as I begin early menopause (I will be 45 in June).

I do not feel comfortable sharing most details of this experience at this time. As you might imagine, my own personal gynecological and reproductive health is extremely private. So much of my own healing has been centered on recovering not only from being exploited, but also from being sexually abused from childhood through adolescence. This healing entails not just mental health, but also the physical importance of “being in my body” after decades of dissociation as a personal survival strategy and cultural denial that abuse even exists.

That said I am sure I will share my experience in time. The reason I love speaking out through lectures and writing is to strengthen the community of trauma survivors and to break the very silence that enables exploitation and abuse to continue.

I also hope to speak out through research. I recently joined a research team focusing on long-term health needs for trafficking survivors. Yes, survivors need health care at the “crisis point” of being exploited; however, as so many trauma experts teach us, the road to healing is long and complicated. Thankfully, researchers like Dr. Laura Lederer have opened the door on this topic, and I hope our team can contribute to health for survivors.

KP

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For Mother’s Day…and every day

122_2This quote, more than any other, sums up my intention in life. Yes, I live in a gorgeous neighborhood and I drive a reliable car. However, I do not work to support those things. My passion in life is to make and take a stand for children. The very fact that I can fulfill that very dream AND live in a gorgeous neighborhood and drive a reliable car is a blessing that I acknowledge every day.

That said, why we have to often need to “choose” to either do work that make the difference children’s lives or make a decent wage is testament to my experience of how we do not value children’s lives and safety in our culture. Day care workers and teachers are some of the lowest paid jobs in a world where our sports and entertainment idols make millions. I know this comparison is often made; however, giving voice to that reality must be said often. Otherwise, we may lose sight of what our culture puts forth as priorities.

Thankfully, we do have this day to celebrate all Mothers do in this world and all we stand for. Yes, I am an activist, an advocate, and a scholar. But, first and foremost, I am mother, and for that I am most grateful.

KP

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