Despite My Fibromyalgia, I’m Focused On Staying Healthy

Two weeks ago, I woke up aching from head to toe, as though I were coming down with the flu or had just run a full marathon the day before. But I didn’t have the flu and I definitely hadn’t run a marathon.

Instead, I had spent a half hour the prior evening swimming laps in the local pool. It was the first time in nearly a year that I’d gone swimming. After I was finished, I felt fabulousboth recharged and relaxed at the same time. But the next day it was clear I had overdone it.

Since being diagnosed a few years ago with fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, sleep, and memory and mood issues, exercise has become especially fraught for me.

Sitting in a chairno matter how ergonomically advancedfor more than an hour or so straight can send my back into severe spasms and set off a ripple effect of pain that eventually engulfs my entire body.

Before fibromyalgia, it was not unusual for me to leave my apartment on a whim to take a five-mile walk. In the winter, I often donned snowshoes and cross country skis to traipse the New England trails around my home. I loved to hike and rock scramble up steep mountains. I biked for hours on the tree-lined path that ran behind my building.

Related: I Ditched The Gym For The Pool—And It Changed Me

I might not be that active these days, but stagnancy is just as bad for my body (if not worse) than overdoing any exercise. Sitting in a chair
no matter how ergonomically advancedfor more than an hour or so straight can send my back into severe spasms and set off a ripple effect of pain that eventually engulfs my entire body.

Standing still in lines or crowds for more than 20 minutes causes shooting pains in my legs for the rest of day and into the night, keeping me awake at all hours. Even lying down usually does not offer me the pain relief most people would expect. Instead, my body feels its best when (and seems to benefit the most after) it has been engaged in low-impact mobility.

My diagnosis meant I had to educate myself on how to stay in shape without aggravating my condition. But this was a fine line that I had trouble seeing and often crossed unwittingly, especially as my body’s pain levels tend to fluctuate dramatically from day to day.

In my search for some solutions, I recently enrolled in an intensive eight-week rehabilitation program for people with chronic pain. The program emphasizes re-conditioning; it teaches us how to exercise and complete daily tasks in ways that reduce pain. In the program, a team of physical and occupational therapists work collaboratively to modify my weekly exercise regimens in ways that engage me in a level of activity I need to become stronger and more resilient, all the while trying to avoid the dreaded flare-ups.

Related: Browse fish oil products to support healthy joints.

What I’ve learned: Quality over quantity is key when it comes to exercise. As a result, I am learning to be more present in my more fragile body. This means understanding and abiding by my physical limitations, while also staying committed to remaining fit and healthy.

What I’ve learned: Quality over quantity is key when it comes to exercise. As a result, I am learning to be more present in my more fragile body.

When I returned to the pool last week, I began applying what I learned. At first, I took my time treading water for a few minutes. When I progressed to doing laps, I swam much more slowly and mindfully, favoring comfort over speed. I took breaks and deep breaths often, gently stretching my legs beneath me between each lap before setting off again.

When my arms began to ache or tingle, I switched to using the boogie boards the club offered and simply kicked my legs gently behind me to get to where I wanted to go. I repeatedly reminded myself that I was not in any rush or race. And when I woke up the following morning, I was not besieged by body-wide aches that made me regret exercising the night before.

Likewise, when I go for one of my afternoon walks nowwhich are usually only a mile or two as opposed to fiveI incorporate a similar tactic. I pay attention to how my body moves and where it hurts, adapting my movements as needed to accommodate pain or tension. I take breaks as often as I need to.

Related: Shop for products that meet your specific health goals.

I occasionally walk with ankle braces and a cane because it relieves pressure on my aching joints and overactive nerves. I also apply methods for preventing pain before and after I exercise, including gentle stretches, massaging tight trigger points with tennis balls, and icing the sore spots on my body.

With time and dedication, I hope to build up my strength and endurance so I can add more laps and miles to my routine, but in a way that doesn’t make my pain worse.

I’m determined to maintain a quality of life that includes me being physically active on a regular basis. If that means modifying my routines, using assistive devices, and even ultimately accepting that I may not always be able to accomplish all of the things I did before my diagnosis, then I’m willing to do it. Though it may seem like a lot of work, my body is worth the effort.

What Happened When I Finally Took Everyone’s Advice And Started Eating Breakfast

When I decided to start eating breakfast every single morning (on top of documenting its effects on my health, energy, and general ability to conquer the day-to-day), I excitedly told a friend of mine. She was confused: “You? Trying to be healthy?”

“Yep,” I told her. “I’m doing it!” She laughed for a long time. But I was steadfast, determined to find the better, brighter, healthier me that lay dormant somewhere inside.

There were some surprises, at first. For one thing, I realized that eating breakfast meant actually being awake for breakfast. (Noon is apparently not breakfast time, I’ve been told.) I’m a student and a freelance writer, and we are nocturnal creatures: We can see in infrared and easily amass a whole body of work without ever crossing paths with the sun. I’ve tried to actually wake up early in the past, and it’s never gone very well. So, in my efforts to wake up and eat breakfast, past failures at making positive life changes hung over me.

But I remembered something: Last summer I decided to take an accelerated math class (!) at eight in the morning (!!)…because I’m a masochist. Naïvely, I believed this would make me a better person. I thought: A person who woke up at six a.m. to do math would be a person who went on to have a productive day. I would finally learn yoga and figure out how to do my own taxes. I’d be the best version of myself. But in actuality, I ended up being the same person, except that I was in a really bad mood all of the time.

Related:  I Tested 7 Different Health And Beauty Uses For Apple Cider Vinegar

This time around, I promised myself things were going to be different.

Once I got past the initial shock of being awake for breakfast, I began to think about which breakfast foods I’d eat, and how I could make them healthier choices. Saying I’m “not a health-conscious person” is putting it lightly. Friends have categorized my diet as “gas station food” or “food you would eat at a child’s birthday party.” I like dollar pizza, mac and cheese, and greasy breakfast sandwiches. The only praiseworthy health habit I have is avoiding high-fructose corn syrup.

And while I might count a handful of Cheerios as breakfast, I wanted to take this breakfast challenge more seriously.

Once I got past the initial shock of being awake for breakfast, I began to think about which breakfast foods I’d eat, and how I could make them healthier choices.

I love green smoothies, but they’re so expensive! I decided to start making them as my breakfast, and they turned out great. I tossed kale, avocado, plain yogurt, green apples, almond butter, frozen bananas, apple juice, and ice into a blender, and voila!

Related: How To Make The Best Smoothie For Your Goals

It was like a dessert and only vaguely resembled something healthy, which is perfect for me. While I mostly drank a smoothie, sometimes I’d have an egg sandwich or a bagel instead (because I’m not a saint and bagels are a human right).

Unfortunately, I must admit: I began feeling better (which means I have to keep waking up early). Eating breakfast fits squarely into the all-important self-care box. By waking up to eat, I wasn’t beginning my day by rushing out the door on an empty stomach, which has been good for my anxiety.

I was also more aware of what I was eating, because I was doing this as a health challenge. I think that’s called accountability? (I’ve heard of that before but thought it was something for other people.)

Eating breakfast fits squarely into the all-important self-care box. By waking up to eat, I wasn’t beginning my day by rushing out the door on an empty stomach, which has been good for my anxiety.

My blood sugar and energy levels benefited from this experiment, as well. I’ve felt more stable with less spikes and low points throughout the day. The smoothies did make me gain a little weight (maybe all that avocado?), which I’m honestly happy about, since I walk five or six miles a day and tend to lose weight quickly.

Related: Shop superfood powders for all your smoothie-making needs. 

Also, since I started eating breakfast, a couple of people complimented my skin. Disclaimer: I use a bottle of highlighter a day, so it’s hard to know what’s what, but being the horribly vain person I am, I will do almost anything to look better, and so I plan to continue the smoothies.

While I’m not suddenly a morning person, this has been an overall positive experience for me. I have found some healthy breakfast choices that I genuinely enjoy, and it felt good to do something nice for myself. I can’t promise anyone I will always wake up early to eat breakfast, but I will try to when I can. Besides, veggie smoothies are just as good for you at two in the morning, right?

What It’s Really Like To Suffer From Lyme Disease—And How I’ve Learned To Cope

I used to be an adventurer, a traveler, an athlete, an occupational therapist, and a Pilates instructor. But suddenly, when I got sick with Lyme disease four years ago, I was thrust into a new role: I became The Patient.

Lyme disease is an insidious illness: There was no thunderclap, dark cloud, or bolt of lightning marking the day I contracted this disease. I assume I was doing regular, teenage activities, like hiking the bluffs of my rural hometown in Minnesota, camping, or swimming along the banks of the Mississippi River. But my assumption is just that: an assumption. 

I wonder: At what point did the Lyme disease begin chipping away at my immune system and calculating the day it would hit me? 

My body began to break down bit by bit. First, I was dealing with a series of large ovarian cysts, followed by the surgery to remove them. Next came the onset of interstitial cystitis—a painful, inflammatory bladder condition marked by urinary urgency and frequency. I held fast to the belief that this situation was temporary, and I soldiered on through sleepless nights and continuous pain for four years. 

Then, I began to experience constant vertigo, insomnia that landed me in the emergency room, debilitating fatigue, weight loss, digestive issues, and pain in my brain and spinal cord. My longtime general practitioner could see my health was failing, but she was baffled as to how to help me. I saw one doctor after another, but despite consulting with some of the best physicians, they could do little more than speculate out loud about what was going on with my health:

You’re in between vertigo episodes right now. We’ll catch it the next time!

Maybe an old Epstein-Barr virus has been reactivated?

You’re having silent migraines without a headache.

You have PTSD.

You need to stop eating so many raw vegetables; they’re giving you gas and causing your stomach pain.

You have an unfortunate case of severe chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivities. It’s one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen!

I went with the latter set of diagnoses: Severe chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivities seemed to encompass many of my ongoing health challenges. 

In 2012, the doctor gave me a round of steroids to treat my chief complaint: exhaustion. Unfortunately, the medication caused me to tank and land flat on my back in bed; the fatigue was crippling. New symptoms emerged—I couldn’t sleep, sit up, tolerate sound or light, and my brain and spinal cord burned with a ruthless intensity. Eventually, the sound sensitivity escalated to the point where I could no longer talk on the phone–not even to my mother (who lived far away, and who I wanted to talk to!). For months, I lay in a dark, silent room, hoping the symptoms would fade away. But I was wrong. I was 33 years old, and living in complete isolation.  

Eighteen months went by.

 At this point, I had nearly succumbed to the idea that I was unhelpable; this mysterious illness would claim my life, or—in an equally scary thought—it would become my entire life.

For months, I lay in a dark, silent room, hoping the symptoms would fade away. But I was wrong. I was 33 years old, and living in complete isolation.  

With the encouragement of my family, I decided to visit one more doctor. I vividly remember the appointment: I was too weak to walk on my own, so my husband carried me through the doors of the doctor’s office. That’s when I got a new diagnosis.

Related: Shop multivitamins to help promote health and immunity.

Following a two-hour appointment to review my medical history, the doctor diagnosed me with Lyme disease despite two negative western blot tests (Western Blots were the first immunoblot developed to detect Lyme. An immunoblot is a laboratory test that looks for antibodies). That day, I learned that the testing for Lyme disease is not an exact science. In reality, studies have shown up to 50 percent of those infected with the illness will never test positive through traditional blood work or recall a tick bite.

To make matters worse, only about 50 percent of people develop the classic symptom (the all-telling bull’s-eye rash), leaving many clinicians with the difficult task of diagnosing Lyme disease based on clinical presentation.

After endless trial and error, I assembled a team of healthcare practitioners and began a grueling treatment program (sometimes swallowing up to 60 pills a day) that will continue until I’m well or until I can’t afford the burdensome out-of-pocket expenses any longer.

I’ve also used herbs, supplements, medication, diet and lifestyle changes, light therapy, detoxification, exercise, and many other therapies to strengthen my body and mind. While I’ve made some improvements, I deal with unremitting fatigue, insomnia, muscle and nerve pain, and flu-like symptoms on a day-to-day basis.

Treatments are demanding. In the simplest of terms, killing a high infectious load in the body creates a cascade of inflammation for a period of time. Often, I feel worse before I begin to feel better.

It’s Time To Stop Being So Scared Of Meditation

So how do I cope with the constant barrage of symptoms? Some days I laugh. Some days I cry. Mostly, I’m a work in progress learning to listen to my body and respect what it has to tell me. Sometimes it tells me to rest. Sometimes it tells me to take a risk. When you live life with a chronic illness, every day can be a surprise, and you must always re-examine your body’s fluctuating energy reserves. Whatever the message, when I listen, my body always responds by moving me a step forward in my healing. These small victories fuel me to continue the long journey toward recovery.

When you live life with a chronic illness, every day can be a surprise, and you must always re-examine your body’s fluctuating energy reserves.

In addition, I’ve mindfully cultivated relationships, both in person and on social media, with individuals in the chronic illness community. I’ve teamed up with other Lyme patients to create an online support group for the state of Illinois, where I live, and I joined a fierce group of women for the Lyme Disease Challenge to raise international awareness about this emerging health crisis. We cheer each other on, and their support is essential to my recovery; it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this longstanding fight.

After being diagnosed with Lyme disease, I remained fearful of nature for many years. These days, I have an overwhelming desire to reconnect with it, even if it’s on some paved trails. Being in nature is vital to my recovery. Although I live in an urban setting, there’s a nature preserve near my house, which allows me to walk and daydream (when I don’t feel super-fatigued) about my future ambitions. Though I continue to have physical limitations, the ability to walk, dream, and let my inner wanderlust free is a form of moving meditation for me.

And as an ex-gymnast and Pilates instructor, movement has always been an integral part of my life. For fitness, I incorporate gentle Pilates and yoga into my treatment protocol. In both of these mind-body exercises, the quality of the movement or pose is more important than the quantity of repetitions.

For core Pilates moves, I like the feeling of moving my leg muscles while lying down during the footwork series on the reformer. I like the fluidity of the rowing series on the reformer as well.

In yoga, I like the gentle stretch and spine twist of triangle pose. On days when I feel stronger, I like the physical challenges of crow and side crow, although I’m not very good at them yet. Of course, I love corpse pose, or savasana, as it’s very calming to my nervous system.

The breath work involved with these forms of exercise helps to reinvigorate my body and relieve stress and tension. Despite the fact that I am living a modified life due to waning strength and energy levels, I refuse to give up, and I use mind-body exercises to remind me that movement is life. As long as I am still moving and breathing, I am living.

Lyme disease has cost me a lot: my job, friends, financial stability, and the ability to start a family. Still, I remain mindful of the idea that just because a few chapters of my life ended, doesn’t mean the whole book closed. There are many unfinished chapters to my life story, and I’m writing them one page at a time.  

Life may not always look the way I want it to look, but I’ve discovered a spirit of perseverance within me that constantly whispers in my ear, “Keep going. You can try again tomorrow.” 

How Walking Every Day Renewed My Sense Of Self And Creativity

I’ve always loved walking. When I was in elementary school, I would ask my best friend to walk home with me and we’d take all the scenic routes, finding new paths through our city every afternoon. This same desire to walk and explore stayed with me as I got older, always as something I could turn to for self-care or just to get some movement in. While I preferred to amble about on a leisurely stroll in the warm weather, I’ve definitely also walked in some of Massachusetts’ most intense blizzards (like I said, I really like to walk).

But then two years ago, things changed. I graduated from college and started working full-time while going to graduate school at night and I essentially stopped keeping up with my walking habit.

With 12-hour days where I’d go straight from work to class to my bed, I barely made an effort to shower, never mind purposefully walk anywhere I didn’t already have to. I missed walking—missed the time to myself, missed being able to move and see things and find a sense of grounding.

This May, I finished my graduate degree—so no more night classes for me (yay!). I finally have my evenings to myself again, and my weekends aren’t packed with playing catch-up on homework and studying.

Related: Shop multis to get your health on the right track.

On top of my newfound free time, I also recently found a renewed desire to walk. A few weeks ago, after getting home from a three-day trip to New York City, trekking all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, I challenged myself to start walking every day after work. I wanted to recreate that feeling of adventure that I was missing and figured the best way to do it was to get back into taking walks (that, or world travel—which isn’t exactly free of charge!).

With 12-hour days where I’d go straight from work to class to my bed, I barely made an effort to shower, never mind purposefully walk anywhere I didn’t already have to.

I didn’t set a time frame or a distance for these walks, because I didn’t want it to feel like a chore; walking used to be fun—a way for me to get my creativity flowing and recharge my mental and physical health.

The first few days, I seriously struggled to get walking. The problem is that it’s not a part of my routine. I usually go to work, and then after work I might make social plans to meet a friend in the city or grab dinner with my partner at a restaurant. If I don’t make plans, my go-to hobbies are reading and creative writing, which unfortunately keep me locked away from people and the world. So when I challenged myself to walk every day, the first question I had was—how will I fit that in, now that I have some extra time?

I had to actively carve out time in my day, but it was totally worth it. On the first day of my challenge, I found myself walking around my neighborhood block because I hadn’t budgeted my time well; I needed to grocery shop after work that night, and by the time I’d finished dinner, it was already late. I’ll be honest and say my neighborhood isn’t very fascinating to look at, so I didn’t find the walk very stimulating. To avoid a lame walk again, I vowed to make walking a priority so that I wouldn’t have to resort to a snooze-filled walk again the next day.

Related: Yes, I Take My Toddler To The Gym

My daily walks varied, and I tried to keep up the habit on the weekend, too. I took a short walk in Western Massachusetts with my friends when I visited for a surprise party, and a longer walk on the beach the next day. I budgeted days for at least a few longer, intentional walks, and toured around the Charles River (in Boston) for over an hour with one of my friends. I’ve always preferred talking while walking over chatting at the bar or at dinner, because moving around keeps my creative energy going. (I also have ADHD, so I’m at my best when I can move my body while I’m thinking and having a conversation—as opposed to feeling restrained because I have to sit still on the same bar stool for two hours.)

After just a few days, I was starting to feel better: My mental health had improved—I felt calmer and more focused—and so had my creativity.

After just a few days, I was starting to feel better: My mental health had improved—I felt calmer and more focused—and so had my creativity. I’m a writer of both fiction and journalism, and getting out into the world filled my head with a ton of story ideas. Whether I was walking around Beacon Hill in Boston or on the shore of Wollaston beach, just being out and walking put me in the right headspace to create.

The only downside to my regular walks was that they encouraged me to make purchases while I was out. I’d spot my favorite ice cream shop and feel the urge to grab a small cup, or I’d be tempted to get dinner in the city instead of going all the way home and cooking the meal I’d planned. Basically, it’s just a mindset I need to plan for if I want to be budget-conscious (although ice cream is SO good).

There are days when I wasn’t (or am not) able to fit my walking in, like when I had a bunch of errands that needed to get done after work or I wanted to make plans with a friend who preferred to stay indoors. I probably won’t be able to walk every single day, but I’m going to make it an intentional, active part of my routine the way I do with reading and writing.

Related: Shop fitness watches to track your mileage.

It fills me with a small sense of adventure and travel on a local scale, which helps me keep my thirst for world travel at bay while I save for future trips to London, California, and Japan—all vacations where I plan to walk my heart out.

I Ditched The Gym For The Pool—And It Changed Me

I was diagnosed with arthritis in my 20s. Super-fun, right? Technically, I have Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), which primarily affects my spine but causes all of my joints to feel swollen, click-y, and achy. According to the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, AS is a complex, potentially debilitating disease that basically fuses your vertebrae. It’s chronic and lifelong. And if you google AS, you’ll see hundreds of pictures of people hunched over, totally incapable of walking. (A good rule of thumb: Never google anything ever).

In the past few years, I’ve really noticed my AS’s progression, mostly marked by profound stiffness—all of the freaking time, especially in the morning. It’s like I wake up super-glued to the bed, and when I move, all of my back bones are super-glued together. (I want to remind you that I am not 80 years old, I’m 31.)

When I finally stand up, it’s like ripping bone from bone, which, if that isn’t melodramatic enough, only gets better if I finagle myself into multiple positions on a yoga mat, trying to pry my body open. The key, any rheumatologist will tell you, is to always keep moving and keep exercising, in order to prevent the vertebra from fusing.

It’s like I wake up super-glued to the bed, and when I move, all of my back bones are super-glued together.

So when I say I needed to find an exercise regime that works, I don’t mean it in the “yoga bores me” or “SoulCycle is a cult” sort of way (although SoulCycle is 100 percent a cult). I mean it in the “I’m going to end up paralyzed if I don’t work out” sort of way.

I’d exercised a bunch. The elliptical was a favorite for a minute there because it’s lower impact than the treadmill, which makes me feel like all my bones might break immediately. But it gets kind of boring swinging away in one spot. I also really liked belly-dancing class because the music is amazing, my hips don’t lie (sorry, I had to), and it blends cardio and dance elements. But I couldn’t belly-dance every day. And everything else is fairly high-impact, so I’ve had to limit my kickboxing, pilates, and HIIT classes.

Related: Shop proteins for pre- and post-swim power-up and recovery.

And then I went to Miami for a quick weekend vacation (from NYC) a few months ago. I’d been to Miami a dozen times, and every single time, I spent half my vacation swimming. I am an actual mermaid, it turns out. Laps, doggy-paddling, headstands—you name it. When I’m swimming, I feel much lighter, I move with grace, and my body isn’t screaming with pain. (Any good specialist will also tell you swimming is the number one exercise of choice for AS patients.) After I leave Miami, I always wish I had a pool back home, and this time I decided to do something about it.

Riding high on the after-glow of water’s benefits (excess weight dropped, joints well-oiled, feeling energized, strong, and flexible, and AS symptoms less noticeable), I decided to join the gym near my workplace simply for its 25-meter pool.

For the past month, I’ve been swimming almost daily—and it’s changed me. Instead of feeling like getting into and out of water is a chore (ahem, gym), I look at it as life-bettering fun-time. It’s literally healing me every time I get in. It’s buying me a future free from disability and endless pain, but more so, it’s given me back a sense of connection to my body.

When I’m swimming, I feel much lighter, I move with grace, and my body isn’t screaming with pain.

It used to be that I was just dealing with this chronic illness silently. It was me against It. Regular swimming has changed that. Now I look at It as a friend who I must take to the doctor, and it just so happens that the doctor is water. Instead of thinking about how weight gain impacts my joints or how I’m weak during yoga class because my wrists can’t hold me up, I think about how every time I get into the water I get stronger, fast, more resilient.

At first, I could do one lap. One. I was breathless, I was struggling through that horrific muscle burn. Then I did two laps without rest. Then four. Now I can do six. (Also, hello biceps, perkier butt, stronger abs, a flatter tummy, and greater lung capacity!) For me, that’s huge. It’s a process, it’s a ritual, it’s self-healing. And it requires a mental sacrifice; I have to give up all the fear and self-doubt and disconnect and commit to the water.

It’s literally healing me every time I get in.

That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles. I’ve learned that although water is low-impact, chlorine is rough on the lungs and the millions of flaps you do with your feet will totally strain your ankles if you don’t properly stretch. I have to realize that no, I cannot eat a box of pizza just because I went swimming today. I have to figure out how to share a lane with another swimmer without being fully annoyed by them or annoying them. I have to learn when my body is fatigued, because swimming is a full-body workout. I have to learn how to stay awake afterward, too, because swimming wipes you out (fun fact: you get super-tired because your body is using its energy trying to regulate your body temp). Not to mention the horror movie that is gym showers (let’s just say I do not attend a luxury gym).

I can never go back to not-swimming; wherever I go, I know I’ll need a pool. It’s not a vacation experience or a perk for me. It’s a necessity. That, and a swim cap, because four weeks of chlorine-soaked hair is not a cute look.

How This Lazy Girl Survived The Whole30

I’ll just come right out and say it: I try to make smart food choices, but I don’t always get it right. I’m lazy about preparing healthy meals and I never turn down free (read: carb-overloaded) office food. In fact, I’ll pretty much always justify eating a cheeseburger because—you never know—it could be my last day on Earth! In short, self-control isn’t my strong suit.

On any given day, I usually whip up a protein shake or cereal for breakfast, pick up a salad for lunch, and scramble some eggs for dinner. Not too bad, right? But it’s the in-between snacks that are the problem. I’ll often nosh on the half-bagel leftover from a morning meeting or some late-night cheese.

On top of my not-always-so-hot eating habits, my weight has yo-yo-ed for the past five years or so. In fact, bloating and irregularity have been my ‘normal’ for far too long. I also recently learned that I have an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s disease, which may sound like some sort of ninja move—but isn’t. Basically, my body attacks its own thyroid gland, messing with its ability to make the hormones that my metabolism and cardiovascular system need. No wonder my weight has been trouble.

Finding out about my Hashimoto’s diagnosis has, however, made me more motivated about taking care of my health. So, when a friend of mine said she’d finished a 30-day eating plan called Whole30, I decided to check it out. She looked great, and said she felt even better. It was time to take my health into my own hands!

So, what is the Whole30, exactly? It’s 30 days without processed foods, ingredients you can’t pronounce, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, or sweeteners (natural or artificial). The goal is to give your body a month-long break from foods that might be causing health issues. Afterwards, you reintroduce foods one by one to see how your body reacts.

Some Whole30ers say they’ve lost weight, gained regularity, seen clearer skin, experienced less bloat, or developed a healthier relationship with food after completing the program. Intriguing, right? There’s one very important rule, though: Slip up just once and you have to start your 30 days all over again. Intense.

Okay, 30 days, I thought. I got this!

photo: Jenn Pena

So I committed. Unfortunately, that meant saying ‘goodbye for now’ to my buddies Cheese, Chewing Gum, and Mom’s Pancakes. I was worried that my inability to turn down pizza would do me in—but a line from the book Whole30 by Melissa Hartwig convinced me I could do it:  “Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Drinking your coffee black is not.”

Week One

Excited to feel (and see) results, I charged into my first few days on Whole30. There are a gazillion Whole30 recipes out there, but given my busy schedule, I decided to take the simple route. Still, I knew I had to do some meal prepping, so I made ground turkey with peppers and onions for my lunches and a giant fruit salad with grapefruit, blueberries, and strawberries to keep around as a snack. I made an easy egg-spinach scramble for breakfast each morning and stocked my work desk with nuts to squash sneak-attack snack cravings. (What did I do before cashews came into my life?!) For dinner, I scrambled up more eggs and spinach with some diced chicken and onions, and called it a day.

photo: Jenn Pena

Not gonna lie, I felt extremely tired. (Whole30 warned me this might happen.) Without the usual bread, excessive amount of gummy vitamins, and protein bars, I had drastically cut back on carbs and sugar. Despite the tiredness, though, I still finished the week strong. I felt lighter and more optimistic because I managed to survive a whole week!

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

That week brought some perks: My toilet time became more regular and I started drinking more water. Before Whole30, I was lucky if I drank a small bottle of water throughout the day before my nightly glass of wine. I think it was that extra H2O that really helped me ‘go.’

Week Two

With a family birthday party filling my house with non-Whole30-approved foods, week two got off to a rocky start. I was surrounded by temptation—and I felt a little annoyed about it. Luckily, my family was pretty happy for me for sticking it out, and even seemed interested in trying Whole30 themselves—until the cake came out, of course. Determined, I kept my eyes on the prize and got some kudos for my self-control. Take that, cake! As much as I love chowing down with my family at birthdays and parties, it was nice to go to bed not feeling bloated that night.

The rest of the week was a challenge. I continued to feel like a zombie (and not in the mood to think up new meals), so I had kept my daily menu pretty much the same as week one—a decision I started to regret by Wednesday. I switched to a combo of canned salmon and hard-boiled eggs for lunch. While that got me through the rest of the week, I was pretty over this Whole30 thing. I wanted wine and cheese, and I wanted it now.

photo: Jenn Pena

Week Three

At this point, I was straight-up crabby, but I knew I was halfway there. My stomach felt flatter, my face looked slimmer, I was going to the bathroom without a problem, and my skin was blemish-free, so I begrudgingly chugged along.

And then things went south. On Tuesday, I got home really late from work and didn’t have  dinner prepped. I was totally exhausted—and not in the mood to cook. Suddenly I was reaching for the cheese. (Palm-to-face.) I knew what this little oopsie meant: I had to start Whole30 all over again. I felt like I had let myself down, just for a stinking piece of cheese. So, back to day one, I went…

Starting From Scratch

Luckily, starting over wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. If anything, I was more focused, prepared, and determined—I couldn’t fail twice! I knew I had to switch up my meals to keep my taste buds in the game.

I cleared my usual temptations from the fridge and pantry (goodbye, cheese!), and prepped mixed berries and grilled chicken with spinach and a sweet potato for work. I also made cauliflower mash and a bunch of different veggies to give my spinach habit a bit of a break. By the end of the week, I felt energized.

photo: Jenn Pena

With the third week of my reboot came my birthday—and the fear that I’d slip up again. My mom came to the rescue, though, and made a Whole30-approved birthday dinner. We all noshed on grilled chicken, potatoes, and mixed vegetables for dinner—and even munched on fruit salad for dessert! While many birthdays past ended with a stomach ache, this time I went to bed feeling great. I didn’t even miss the cake.

After nailing my birthday, I practically danced into my final week of Whole30. By this point, I felt well-rested and alert all day long. It amazed me how much the foods I ate (or didn’t!) affected my mood, energy, and focus. I didn’t even think about sugar or bread as I sailed through the last few days. Even cheese didn’t taunt me much.

photo: Jenn Pena

I Did It! Uh, Now What?

Reaching day 30 was a great feeling. I was free of bloat and toilet struggles, my jeans definitely felt looser, and everyone kept telling me how great I looked. All this just from eating well!

But then came a feeling that reminded me of a weird breakup: I wanted Whole30 to end so badly, but once it was over I almost felt a little lost. Like, okay, fine, you’re free to go eat your gut-inflaming foods now.

The next day, I was out to dinner with my family and had myself a good ol’ hunk of restaurant bread with butter. (I’ll admit that my eyes might have closed in slow-mo as I chewed.) But my bread-y nirvana was cut short pretty quickly when my stomach started cramping up halfway through the meal. Did my body have an issue with bread? Reintroducing cheese a few days later didn’t go so well either—hello, bloat.

Related: 8 Possible Reasons Why You’re So Tired All The Time

Now that I’m acutely aware of how bread and dairy make me feel, I try not to eat them too often. In fact, none of my old guilty pleasures have much power over me these days. Free office food? Maybe I’ll grab a piece of fruit, but you’ll see none of my former cubicle grub-hoarding habits here. I’m also a lot better at reading food labels and I really think about what I put in my body. Other perks? A lot of the snack bars and sugary cocktails I used to enjoy taste funky to me now. Artificial sweeteners and piña coladas actually make me feel sick.

Though I’m not about to go full-on Whole30 all the time—I still love my protein shakes and a good happy hour from time to time—I’m so glad I did it.

Related: Cleaning up your diet? Find a natural protein supplement to fit your lifestyle.