Leaving Chronic Illness Behind

By Sari Huhtala

Courage doesn’t always land us on a mountaintop. Sometimes courage is a whisper that beckons us to let go, to walk a path of most resistance. Courage, in its many disguises, can simply be declaring that the illness that has been ascribed to us is not the story we will choose, at least that’s how Anna Laviolette experienced it when she decided she would do what it takes to bring vibrant health and vitality back into her life after 10 years of severe illness.

It was back in 2000 at the age of 40 that Laviolette’s health began a downward spiral after a car accident resulted in whiplash and a shoulder injury. The injuries led to chronic fatigue and unbearable pain that “was so strong it just never ended,” Laviolette, a Pickering, ON resident says. To maintain a “quality of life” she managed the pain with codeine – slowly increasing the dosage until she was up to six codeines a day.

What transpired was a host of symptoms that led to medical diagnoses of fibromyalgia, scleroderma and Sjögren’s syndrome, the latter of the two being autoimmune diseases. Scleroderma affects the body by hardening of connective tissue. Cells begin producing collagen in the tissues, which can prevent organs from functioning normally. With Sjögren’s, the immune system attacks the glands that make saliva and tears. By 2007 her digestive system was completely destroyed by the codeine, she says.

“The force trauma from the accident catapulted me” into a whirlwind of chronic illness. “I had abused my body for years” even before the accident, Laviolette says. “Although my diet had been reasonable – at least from a standpoint of medical education – it was still just a mainstream Loblaws-type of shopping.  Even if I made home-cooked meals during the week, we were weekend warriors.

There was a whole social environment that was out of balance.” Though not recognizing any symptoms as signs that her body was out of balance prior to the accident, she now sees in hindsight that yes, she had symptoms like chronic constipation and fibrocystic breasts – both of which are signs something is not quite right, she says. “I had set myself up perfectly,” Laviolette says. “Caffeine was my go-to by 8 a.m., by 10 a.m., by 2 p.m. That would get me through the day.

I had extreme adrenal burnout and fatigue – I set myself up. We’re not educated in whole life, or slowing our life. “I had a lifestyle situation happening and on top of that I had a medical situation – codeine poisoning. “I felt so crappy all the time. It was like something from the movie Groundhog Day. Every day by 11 a.m. I felt awful. I needed a nap. I kept saying “I feel crappy all the time.” My daughter said ‘Mom you got to stop talking like that.’”

Her youngest was 10 at the time and the other two were teenagers. “For them it was a world they couldn’t understand.” “We all have a brick wall that stops us and makes us look,” Laviolette says. The question then becomes, “Can you find the courage to do what you want to do instead of what everybody else wants you to do?” Her physician had wanted her to attend a support group for fibromyalgia patients. “I sat in a fibromyalgia clinic for five minutes and decided that was not going to be my life.”

She kept asking her doctor about the possibility of visiting a naturopath to see if that would help her and finally in 2010 he had said to her “If you believe food will make a difference then try it,” she recalls. And so she did. That became a turning point in her life. Even a hint of feeling better is all that is needed to start walking a path of healing, she says. “I went to the naturopath and said ‘My doctor said I have fibro, but I said I don’t want that.

They’re telling me I have chronic disease, but I didn’t order it.’ The naturopath said ‘Fibromyalgia is only a group of symptoms, so let’s just treat the symptoms and see where it gets us.” “I did start to feel better,” Laviolette says. “I had to feel better in order to get better.” With severe chronic illness “you have to get yourself high enough so you can stoke that fire because everything you see is through the eyes of illness.” The key – keep it simple.

She purchased the Whole Life Nutrition Cook Book, a nutritional and cooking guide for healthy living, and began to slowly implement changes to her diet and lifestyle. “Chronic illness doesn’t allow you to have structure, so you have to change things in little ways. “In today’s society in the Western world women our age are malnourished because women are” juggling careers and family and not making their own needs a priority, she says.  “Eating disorders are more prevalent than we realize. I see the other side of the spectrum.

As women we need to focus on how to make it simple so we can actually find the time to do it.” Small steps, like buying a whole food item that you normally don’t buy, or staying clear of the processed foods in the grocery store and only sticking to the produce aisle, eating more fruits and vegetables, adding a salad to each meal and preparing foods from basic ingredients all make a difference, she says. Venture out to farmers’ markets and shop for produce that is in season, she recommends.

“When Loblaws tells me rutabagas are 29 cents a pound versus 69 cents a pound I know that’s the produce of the season. What’s in abundance in the grocery stores is the produce of the season and that’s what my body needs.” Ideas like taking photos of recipes so that when you are in the grocery store you can pull up the photo on a phone and pick up the ingredients is a simple way of initiating change, she says.

As well, always be sure to have healthy snacks readily available to avoid spontaneously stopping for that muffin or bagel on the run. Learn to say no more often to things that don’t support your wellness and yes to the things that do, she says. “Find key people and put them into your world. Find a buddy ( or professional ) who knows what they’re doing in cleansing and repair. If it took me 20 years to get chronically ill, it will take me year after year of improvement to un-peel the layers of illness and work toward strength.” Re-learn how to rest, she says.

“I had to learn to rest. I didn’t have time to rest, but I’d make myself lay in bed for even 20 minutes. (Our nervous system) is in sympathetic mode 99 per cent of the time. We need to put our bodies in parasympathetic mode – even just for 20 minutes. You want more energy? Rest more. It’s better than a cup of coffee.” Seeing a naturopath opened her eyes to other treatments that were available to help her heal her body. She opted for IV therapy, parenternal therapy, which included vitamin C, B complexes and B12, B5, B6, zinc, magnesium, calcium, glutathione, hydrochloric acid and selenium to boost her immune system and control inflammation.

Although it was costly, she says, she really needed to take a look at areas of her life she would be willing to sacrifice in order to feel better. “I had been sick for too long. I asked myself what type of treatment inspired me. Do I want to be well? I looked at how much I was willing to spend and decided I can make sacrifices to change things to feel better. “How much did I lose by not being able to function? How much did I lose by not being able to participate in life?” It’s funny, she says, people will spend money on pharmaceuticals but are reluctant to spend $75 to see a holistic nutritionist and get results, Laviolette says.

She eliminated dairy, wheat, sugar and caffeine from her diet and progressively started feeling better. Having cleaned up her diet to reach a point where she was feeling well, she figured she could revert back to her old ways of being and still maintain her health. She was wrong. “In 2010 I spent all this money to start feeling better and then I went back to living life. “I figured I could clean up everything and then go back to my old ways. By 2012 I was feeling like crap all over again.

You can do 10 steps forward and five steps back.” There are no temporary fixes when it comes to chronic illness. The only way is a lifestyle change for life that will lead one to a path of lifelong wellness, she says. “In 2012 I started seeing a holistic nutritionist. I learned I had only touched the surface of cleansing.” An ETA-Scan, a type of health assessment that analyzes the effects of quantum mechanics on biological systems, revealed “a lot of heavy metals in my stomach and brain,” she says.

Under the guidance of a certified holistic nutritionist she started a detox with herbal tinctures. Always do a detox with the guidance of a holistic nutritionist or other health professional, otherwise you could create more havoc in your body as toxins release, she says. Even to this day she includes a “heavy duty” detox in her regime – “heavy duty simply meaning that it is something that requires discipline,” she says. “I do two good protocols in spring and fall,” she says. “I fall off the wagon and I get back on. You go back to your old ways, and you do things wrong and you don’t feel good. My precursor to my direction is feeling better.” “I’d be on a cleanse and rest in between. I’d do three colon hydrotherapy flushes in a row.

I’d say no to things that are not in my best interest.” “Finding the courage to say no to things that aren’t in our best interest is a big one,” she says. “You have to say no to others. This is a lifestyle that others want. Are you able to say no to a strong influence in your life? For example, I prefer to eat at home because I have better food at home. I ask myself ‘What does my body need?’ We can all fix things, but we need to honour ourselves. I call it goddess goodness. As women we all have a goddess on the inside – we have to nurture that goddess.”

For Laviolette that means nothing less than pure quality. Does she freak out when she’s eating beans that aren’t organic? No, but she’s “always going to try to get optimum” quality, whole foods into her body. “It’s not about trying to have a perfect holistic life. It’s about living the perfect life right now,” she says. “Now at age 56 I’m pretty proud. My focus and concentration is solid. I’m excited about my health and my life. “Today, I have a drive and passion to be healthier, to show my daughters that their legacy is not what modern medicine teaches them (as illness).

If I’m not 100 per cent in my game then I’m not transferring it to my children. “It was probably only eight years ago that my husband had to lift me in and out of the bathtub. I used to have to sleep every day for three hours. I had helpers come with me to the grocery store.” Many women in this generation are sandwiched between caring for aging parents, their own children and grandchildren.

From that vantage point, choosing to be healthy makes sense. “There are all of these great reasons in our 50s to feel good, to be healthy,” Laviolette says. “I just want to get so much out of life that I need to be healthy.” Laviolette was inspired to study holistic nutrition and plans to launch a business, Holistic Strong, once she graduates.

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