The first and hardest phase of my 25-year transformation into a new and healthier person.
|Yesterday I wrote about making a new start in the year 2000. But the period during which who I was really began to change took place long before that. I started attending Santa Clara University in 1987. It was my first time away from home, although I was really just a state away. I’ve heard many people describe college as the most memorable, or the most exciting and fun years of their lives, a time when they experimented with all kinds of relationships and enjoyed being out on their own and, naturally, did a lot of partying, too. My experience was significantly different. My expectations were, however, rather more common. For instance, I arrived at the close of summer in California and every turn of my head was rewarded with the sight of the bright, beautiful sunlight shining upon the well-manicured lawns of the SCU campus and upon well-tanned bodies clad in short attire well-suited for the weather, including lots of bikinis. I had spent the last three years of high school working hard to develop a, shall we say, artistically pleasing physique, so I was always happy for any excuse to remove my shirt. Although, in truth, this never seemed to impress anyone like I secretly hoped it would. I suppose this realization dismayed me a bit—along with what I saw to be a weight gain epidemic among the freshman class, presumably from eating all that fattening cafeteria food—because I soon modified my diet to match that of a body builders during the “cutting-up" weeks prior to a serious competition. That is, I virtually eliminated my entire intake of fats, I increased my intake of proteins, and I drastically reduce my intake of carbohydrates, all while striving to keep up a regular, rather rigorous workout routine. But the eventual results of these misguided decisions brought me even greater dismay. I began actually losing the muscle tone I had so eagerly sought to attain throughout most of high school while my waist seemed to become more prominent. I wouldn’t say I was getting fat, but what muscles I had developed around my middle region were looking less and less well-defined, my abdominal muscles seem to be just about the only muscles that didn't diminish in size, and my external obliques (or “love handles”) were actually growing larger from all of the trunk twisting exercises I was doing. The overall effect was that my body seemed to be taking on the suggestion of a pear shape.
Another effect I think I can, in retrospect, attribute at least in part to my drastic dietary changes is that a “nervous gut” I had experienced mere glimpses of my senior year worsened to the degree that I could no longer dismiss it as mere nervousness. In fact, it grew so bad that it became the focus of all my waking moments, And still, it grew worse, until it overturned just about everything in my life in which I had placed my hope and faith.
It's not easy to recall those days, because they were days filled with physical pain. My belly hurt nearly all the time. And anything I tried to do to cure or or relieve the problem only seemed to make things worse. For instance, one general practitioner in town dismissively instructed me to worry less and eat more fiber. I was already eating approximately 40 grams of fiber each day, mostly from high-fiber cereals which I believe were intended to reward seniors with regular bowel movements. My results weren’t exactly rewarding: I began having accidents in my pants. My pain seemed to have a mind of it's own. Whether I worried a lot or a little, I would experience bouts so severe I couldn't even stand upright. Sometimes I would quite literally double over in pain. On at least two of these occasions, I was fortunate enough to be in or near my dorm room, so I just shuffled over to my bed and tried vainly to rock myself to sleep or until the worst of it had passed. And when the pain was less severe, I still felt a constant agitation in my intestines, like a living thing was crawling around my insides. One might mistake such sensations for hunger pains, but I was never really hungry. In fact, eating just felt like something I had to do. What I experienced wasn't quite like an eating disorder, either. I wanted to eat, I wanted to enjoy the food, and usually I did enjoy the taste (although I came up with some rather unusual taste combinations that I would nevertheless consume), but during those years I lost the enjoyment comes from feeling hungry and then being able to satisfy that feeling by eating. I felt an inner pressure, like gas, pushing outward all the time. On a literally daily basis, all I need do was to to bend forward—as when leaning over to tie one’s shoes or when rinsing and spitting mouthwash into the bathroom sink—and that pressure would force the undigested contents of my food back up through my esophagus, whereupon I would usually spit it—or just let it stream out—into the sink. I later learned the term for what I am describing is "reflux". I'm still not exactly sure if what I experienced was technically reflux, because I have been given to understand that reflux generally brings up bile and acid along with the food. But I only recall the stuff that flowed out tasted and smelled like the food I had just eaten (although in mostly liquid form), without the unpleasant bodily additives. Perhaps I should have been grateful for this small blessing, but what I actually felt was an overwhelming sense of frustration that my body didn't seem to want to process anything I swallowed. Rather, every bit of food I ate just seemed to want to go out the same way it came in.
Most of these symptoms persisted for many years to come, but the year and one term I spent at Santa Clara were likely the worst, probably because it was so new and confusing and terrifying to me, with no end—no cure—in sight. Even the specialists I saw during breaks with my parents seemed at a loss to explain what was wrong with me. Those who were less concerned about identifying the source of my physical symptoms had an easier time of it. Like the dismissive general practitioner, a psychologist I met with for a time suggested I might be better off if I worried less about working out and about my physical appearance. He did, of course, have a point, but whether I worked out or not seemed to have absolutely no effect on my gastrointestinal symptoms.
Fast-forward to 1989: I continued to experience the the same symptoms without any better understanding of what was wrong and, perhaps needless to say, I was feeling ever more frustrated. I remember returning from break to find a locksmith working on our dormitory door locks. I appeared to be the first student to arrive back at school, and I watched the man work for a while, making no effort to disguise my impatience. Finally I suggested—in less than polite terms, I'm sure–that he work on my door next so I could get into my room instead of standing in the hallway watching him work. My tone and manner so agitated him that he gathered up his tools and left.
My feelings of frustration continued to mount. I tried reading the Bible on a daily basis, hoping either to find the answers I wanted in the book or in response to my prayers. But still my symptoms showed no signs of abating. I attended mass occasionally too, in the rather handsome church at the center of the Santa Clara campus, but when I finally accepted that neither my prayers, nor My Bible readings, nor my church attendance would earn me the cure—or at least the answers—I so desperately wanted, I ceased all my religiously (and, admittedly, selfishly) motivated activities.
I took to sleeping less at night. I found that, at night, when several hours had passed since dinner, and when I knew that people didn't ordinarily eat so I myself felt no such obligation, my discomfort was usually more tolerable. I began taking advantage of the slight and impermanent relief in my condition by walking, jogging, and doing various exercises at night. I had no access to 24-hour gyms at that time, but I managed to find fairly creative ways to to exercise by making use of the structures in my surroundings. For instance, I would sometimes do pull-ups by hanging on the underside of a flight of outdoor stairs that lacked risers.
But my continuing confusion and unmet concerns, my increasing lack of sleep, and the encroaching chaos in my academic and personal life eventually all conspired to defeat my newly resurrected (albeit transient) sense of purpose.
[Coming next: “What Went Wrong”]