Martha Beck’s Formula for Reversing Bad Fortune (As Applied to Chronic Illness)

Carie ShermanBy Carie Sherman

It’s been a rough couple of months as it relates to my health. Nothing serious–thank goodness–but annoying nonetheless.

I’ve been sick with acute illnesses (shingles and strep throat) as well as the “same old same old” (big-time fatigue and fibro-pain top my complaints). On top of that, it’s summer, and I’m one of those “live for summer” types who hates being stuck inside. I’m so anxious to feel well.

But since I don’t, I’m thankful to have read an article by Martha Beck in the most recent issue of Oprah magazine. She’s a life-coach who uses humor, self-deprecation, and a fine writing style to discuss various topics of enlightenment. This article, Reversal of Bad Fortune, describes how we can use our experiences in one of two ways: As a catalyst for hopelessness or a catalyst for growth.

I can’t recall the last time I felt well physically. And despite my best efforts, it’s wearing on me mentally. Clearly I need help weathering my “accident.” So I decided to use her formula. And though publishing this will make me feel more exposed than Janet Jackson at the Superbowl, I’m sharing it with the hopes it makes someone else feel better, too.

What follows is the example Martha used of her friend who experienced a serious, life-changing car accident as well as my own assessment.

Martha Beck’s Accident Formula

First, write down the pertinent info about your “accident.”

Annette wrote: “I was crossing an intersection when a driver, high on meth, ran a red light and hit me at 70 miles per hour. My car rolled three times and stopped with me hanging upside down. I was able to call my husband, and help came right away.”

I wrote: Just after the birth of my first child and the beginning of a new career as a freelance writer, I was diagnosed with an incurable chronic illness.

Next, isolate the key components of the above statement.

Annette wrote: 1) Intersection. 2) Meth addict. 3) Red light. 4) 70 miles per hour.

I wrote: 1) Birth. 2) Child. 3) Writing career. 4) Diagnosed. 5) Incurable chronic illness.

Third, pretend you are each component of your accident. Use free-association and talk about yourself as if you were the individual component.

Annette’s first word was “intersection.” She said: “I’m a crossroads, a place where Annette can make an important choice.” For the word “driver,” she said “I’m a speeding driver, high on meth. I’m the insanity of humans and of the world. I’m here to teach Annette not to be afraid because fear is useless.” So on and so forth.

I’ll admit it–this part was hard. And I’m not sure if I did it correctly. But here’s what I wrote:

1) Birth. I’m the beginning of a new life. In life there are highs and lows.

2) Child. I am a child. I am a new life. I’m learning to navigate a new world with the help of many wonderful people.

3). Writing career. I’m a writing career. I’m flexible. I’m creative. I’m challenging and fun. I’m an opportunity to learn. I am filled with rejection, yet joyful with acceptance.

4). Diagnosed. I am a diagnosis. I am a suggestion of what is. I am not a definition.

5). Incurable chronic illness. I’m a chronic illness. For Carie, I am not a death sentence. Yet I am difficult and challenging and require change. I am here for the long haul. Carie can learn to live with me or fight me. I require a focus that Carie has never before had. I require Carie to focus on what’s most important.

Finally, read your original description again and incorporate the meaning you’ve created through the free association exercise.

Annette discovered this: “The story of her accident turned out to be a pivotal moment when she could choose to release her fear of death and go on with greater serenity.” Martha says, “Actively choosing to look for meaning in her accident left her happier and more vibrant; seeing it as meaningless would have caused her to contract in terror.”

And here’s what I learned: Even though I’ve spent the better part of this week moping around because I can’t raise my arms above my shoulders, this process helped me remember what’s positive about my illness. (Which is some feat, given I’ve complained to my husband at least once an hour about how miserable I feel.)

My “accident” (aka, my health issues) requires new beginnings. I can choose to fight my new reality, or I can learn to accept it with the help of my support network. It reminds me that life is challenging and constantly changing, and if I hadn’t gotten sick, I might still be focused stuff that’s not important (like an unfulfilling career that would have required far too much time away from my little girl). My life has changed. And during weeks of pain and uncertainty, it’s bound to be frustrating and depressing. But it’s not hopeless.

Thanks, Martha Beck, for the much-needed perspective.

I hope you found some, too.

What helps you? Leave a comment below.


A Quick Guide to Vitamin D and Lupus

Carie ShermanBy Carie Sherman

Have you had your vitamin D levels checked recently? If not–you should.

Last summer, I learned I was severely D-deficient. And recent blood-work confirmed that because of supplementation, I’m deficient no more. (I count it as one of the reasons I say “better” when someone asks how I feel.)

Why is this vitamin so important for lupus patients? To start, there are studies that indicate a link.

Low vitamin D levels might have some bearing on the development and severity of lupus.
Our D levels are low because those of us with photosensitivity avoid the sun (vitamin D is “sunshine vitamin”).
The drugs we take (steroids and hydrochloroquine) might interfere with vitamin D levels.
SLE patients who receive supplementation may experience less disease activity.

Lupus or not, researchers estimate that 1 billion people worldwide lack proper D-levels.

What’s the Big Deal about D?

This is so cool: The Mayo Clinic outlines what the science says about vitamin D, breaking down each piece of evidence and grading the science behind it. Not surprisingly, nearly every autoimmune condition listed is given a “C,” indicating more research is necessary (support lupus research and Lupus Colorado!).

The “A” list includes:

  • Bone disease: softening, weakening
  • Kidney disease Psoriasis
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Lung disorders
  • Diabetes
  • Stomach and intestine problems
  • Heart disease

The evidence isn’t fully in on these items, but there are also some indications that improved vitamin D levels could lessen joint pain, lower risks of certain kinds of cancer, improve brain function and improve blood pressure.

Could You Be Vitamin D Deficient?

You might be at risk if…

You don’t have much sun exposure (true of most lupus patients!).
You have dark skin.
You have kidney dysfunction.
You are obese.
You don’t eat meat or dairy.
Your digestive system isn’t functioning well, as in celiac disease or Crohn’s.

There’s only one way to know for sure: Ask your doc for a blood test (she’s taking so much already, what’s another test, right?). If your levels are low, treatment is as simple as taking a pill.

I saw my energy go up and my pain levels go down soon after treatment. You’re already seeing your doc, so I think it’s worth asking about.


Meditating for Better Health (by an Unlikely Meditator)

Carie ShermanBy Carie Sherman

My best girlfriends like to play a little game with me. Well, more like “at” me.

“We” first played a few years ago, while everyone was visiting me for a long weekend.

Here’s how they play: They decide it’s time to play (without informing me, of course). Whenever there’s a lull in the conversation, they purposely stop talking. They exchange glances, then sit, wait, and count.

Why? Because they know I’ll break the silence. I find it impossible to sit in quiet. I compulsively seek chatter.

Many laughs have ensued at my expense. They’re well-deserved.

So, no one will be more surprised than them to find that I have a new habit. And it’s all about me…being quiet.

And I think you should adopt this habit, too.

Finding Better Health through Meditation

As humans, we’re conditioned to experience stress. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s what kept us from getting eaten by saber-tooth tigers. Those days may be long gone, but our bodies are still wired for stress.

Most of us begin our days like this: We burst into action as soon as we hear the starting gun (aka, the alarm). We race and race and race until our day is done, and we collapse into bed wondering where the hell the day went and why our bodies hurt.

Most of us are chronically stressed. It makes our stomach hurt, our blood pressure sky-rocket, and our energy tumble. (And that’s how stress impacts “healthy” people.)

The Basics of Meditation
Meditation is an ancient practice that can positively impact health. There are many types, like mantra meditation, relaxation response, mindfulness meditation, and Zen Buddhist meditation. Most types involve four elements: A quiet place, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention, and an open attitude.

Meditation and Chronic Pain
One of my biggest fears in life is that my health issues are “all in my head.” So my worst fears have been realized, as research has shown that pain originates in our brains. It’s not a condition; it’s a perception. But it doesn’t make pain less real. Psychotherapist Eric Garland was quoted in the May/June issue of Spirituality and Health magazine as saying, “The whole idea of pain being in your head is ridiculous, because anything that’s in your mind is in your brain, and anything that’s in your brain is in your body.”

Garland goes on to say that patients need to think of the mind as a powerful tool in controlling chronic pain, citing meditation as a component of treatment.

What Meditation Can Do For You

So What’s Your Excuse?
You don’t have time. BS. Unless you’re an ER nurse on an 18-hour shift who literally can’t find time to use the restroom, you can find a few minutes in your day that are just for you. Try this: Set the timer on your phone for 45 seconds, then close your eyes. Breathe in for 7 seconds, breathe out for 7 seconds. Congrats–you just meditated.

I can’t stop my mind from racing. This is correct! But it’s not an excuse. In fact, it’s exactly why you should practice meditation. First, note I said “practice.” It’s a skill that you develop over time. Second, your mind will be filled with thoughts. All you’re trying to do through meditation is let those thoughts flow without getting caught up in them. You don’t need to follow every thought down the rabbit hole.

It’s not for everyone. Do you breathe? Yes? Then it’s for you. Breathing is both voluntary and involuntary. Mostly, we breathe without thinking. When we consciously breathe, we can improve our immediate situation (there’s a reason we say “take a deep breath” before you face a challenge) as well as long-term situations.

I’m not a stinky hippie. Of course you’re not and neither am I. You don’t have to follow Phish or wear Birkenstocks or smell like patchouli to reap the benefits of meditation. It’s a practice that executives, celebrities and professional athletes also embrace.

I can’t sit like that (in reference to the position my daughter calls “criss cross applesauce”). Then don’t. You can still get the benefits of meditation sitting in a chair or lying down. Sometimes, I go for a “mindful” walk, where I focus my energy on the present moment (i.e., what I’m hearing, what I’m seeing, what emotions I’m experiencing, where I feel my emotions in my body, etc.).

Try It, You’ll Like It
Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Try a quick 3-step brain hack for happiness, specially designed for the skeptic.
  • Visit meditationoasis.com. Check out the free podcasts for guided meditations on a variety of topics ranging from “work breaks” and “creativity” to “pain” and “grief.” I use their app daily, and it’s helped me realize this: I spent 36 years desperately trying to NOT feel any emotion other than happiness. Humans are meant to experience our emotions.
  • Download an app. I’ve tried Headspace, which is narrated by a fabulous Brit who walks you through the process.

Chronic pain is no joke. I started meditating daily about six months ago–and I can vouch for its positive effects. I don’t have a special routine and I try different methods. But I am consistently quiet a few times a day. If I can do it, anyone can (just ask my dang friends!).

The evidence is there. Isn’t it worth a shot?


To gluten or not to gluten: That is the question

DSC_0768By Carie Sherman

It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds, especially those of us who just want to get better.

Promotion of the gluten free lifestyle is everywhere. There’s even speculation that gluten is a reason for the increased incidence of–yep, you guessed it!– autoimmune disorders.

Change Your Diet; Cure Your Incurable Disease

There’s no known cause of or cure for lupus. And despite the fact that a quick search of “lupus + gluten” reveals “studies” that link the two, it hasn’t been proven. (In a lab. By scientists. Real ones, who follow scientific standards and whose research can be duplicated in the lab by other real scientists. Findings that have been peer-reviewed. That kind of study.)

Despite that fact, there’s a movement on the interwebs that strongly suggests wheat is Public Enemy Number One. Books and blogs have been written. Conspiracy theorists have gotten on board and celebrities are endorsing the GF lifestyle.

And, no surprise here: the consumer-market is fully engaged.

So why all the interest in going gluten free? Is it just a fad? Should the average lupus patient try it?

Confession: I’m Gluten Free

I’ve been off gluten for nearly a year. I made the change at the suggestion of a well-respected rheumatologist. (The suggestion was given with the preface of: There isn’t any scientific proof to this, but I’ve had patients feel better off gluten.)

That was good enough for me.

When you feel like crap, you’ll try anything. Even if science can’t back it up.

When Gluten Free is Medically Indicated

A gluten free diet is the only treatment for an autoimmune condition called celiac disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, celiac disease is “an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response in your small intestine. Over time, this reaction produces inflammation that damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents absorption of some nutrients (malabsorption). The intestinal damage can cause weight loss, bloating and sometimes diarrhea. Eventually, your brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs can be deprived of vital nourishment.” In kids, celiac can affect growth and development. My husband has a friend whose daughter wasn’t growing. She grew 3 inches in a year post celiac-diagnosis by following the only known cure: the GF diet.

I was tested for celiac, which involves blood tests that look for elevated levels of certain antibodies as well as genetic indicators. My antibody levels weren’t elevated but I did have the genetic markers. Confirmation for me would involve an intestinal biopsy. Coming off a year of multiple, lengthy MRIs (where I accurately self-diagnosed myself with claustrophobia) and receiving electrical shock testing, I was over it. So when the doc said I could try GF and see if I felt better, I went for it.

And my headaches stopped, and my brain was less foggy.

So I stuck with it. But here’s the thing: I can’t remember HOW much better I felt after going GF. And I can’t remember if anything else could have caused my symptom relief. (Did I start any new meds? Was I on steroids? Had my sleep apnea treatment just started working? Did I feel better because I was eating more whole foods and cut out junk?)

It’s likely that I have a gluten sensitivity (it’s a real thing). If you’re sensitive to gluten, a GF diet will help alleviate symptoms. Yet I’m kicking myself for not getting that biopsy. Because once you go GF, it’s difficult to go back. I really miss bread.

GF is all or nothing. You can’t go “almost” GF. And each time you accidentally ingest gluten, you feel awful. It’s not a weight-loss miracle (Milk Duds are GF). I’m the anchor on the fun boat of eating French food and drinking beer and going out for pizza. My hubby is more than a little over me saying “I can’t eat that” when he’s in charge of dinner.

And anecdotally-speaking, I’m a year out and I still have undifferentiated connective tissue disorder and Sjogren’s Syndrome and IBS and GERD and fibromyalgia.

But I do feel “better.”

What’s the Evidence?

Although most of us have heard a plethora of anecdotal evidence on GF lifestyles, science hasn’t shown any links as it relates to autoimmune disorders. It’s true that the research on gluten–particularly as it relates to non-celiac gluten sensitivity– is lacking.

In fact, there are a handful of studies that suggest the reason people feel better off of wheat has nothing to do with gluten at all–rather, other proteins contained in wheat that we don’t fully understand. Writer (and fellow GF-er) Roxanne Khamsi says in the above referenced article that further research can help clinicians develop more accurate tests for various grain-related sensitivities. She states: “Ultimately clinicians hope such tests will help people who have a genuine medical condition to avoid the specific constituents of grains that make them ill and will stop others from unnecessarily cutting out nutrient dense whole grains.”

One Blogger’s Opinion on Do’s and Don’ts

If you’re considering going gluten-free based on anecedotal evidence, I completely understand. But it’s important you fully understand your choice.

So for what it’s worth (remember, I’m a blogger, not a health expert):

  • Don’t self-diagnose. Go to your doc, get tested, and don’t stop eating gluten until you’re diagnosed. If you quit before you’re tested, your test results won’t be accurate. Many people feel better GF. But years from now, you’ll want to know if you’re sensitive or if you have celiac.
  • Do consider your diet. We don’t understand lupus, and great nutrition isn’t what we Americans are known for. Most of us eat way too many processed foods. So it makes sense to give your body a break and eat real food — sick or not.
  • Don’t assume what works for one lupus patient will work for another. We’ve accepted that lupus presents differently in every person, which is why it’s so difficult to manage and treat. I think we can also safely assume that a one-size-fits-all approach to diet isn’t the answer either.
  • Do consider a visit to a nutritionist. I haven’t done this yet, but it’s been on my to-do list for a while.
  • Do what’s right for your body. My grandpa won’t touch onions or garlic or chocolate. My grandma swears that eating nightshades (eggplants, tomatoes) makes her arthritis flare. Most people I know have labeled at least some food as bad for their body. So my best advice? Let your body be your guide and don’t hang your hat on the hype that surrounds this diet or that.

What’s the Bottom line?

I know if I post that there “isn’t” evidence of GF being right for everyone, this blog will see more enraged comments than a post about politics (seriously, medical professionals can’t blog on the topic without getting really inflammatory comments!).

So I’ll just say this: Anecdotal evidence exists that suggests a GF diet can be helpful for some non-celiac patients. But as of today, there is no science that suggests a link between gluten and lupus. Period. So until the science (you know, that published-in-a-peer-reviewed medical journal-type science) suggests otherwise, be wary of gluten free being a cure-all for your autoimmune disorder.

Are you gluten free? Have you made dietary changes that have benefited you? Share in the comments below.