What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

Glossy brochures touting the joys of sobriety fail to mention a few of the not-so-sexy, real life details. I didn’t exactly expect the first few days to be fun. Just kidding. Yes, I did. I mean, Hello? I quit drinking! I should immediately be vibrant and well-rested, with glowing skin and the stamina of a passionate 22-year-old. Probably I’d get back to running marathons, transform my fledging coaching business into a multi-national beacon of hope and fix all the problems with all the things. If not in the first week, then in the first month (See? I can be reasonable). I’d listened to enough sober success stories on podcasts to know that beauty, happiness and creativity are side effects of giving up alcohol (provided you accept these gifts with humility and gratitude, of course). In my first few days sober, I dutifully attended support meetings, did some journaling, and waited for Amazon to deliver my superpowers.

Fast-forward to Day 214. This morning, I barely made it through my workout for middle-aged moms. I had to use my knee as a kickstand in side-plank and do low-impact jumping jacks. I swear that class was easier when I was chronically hungover (and motivated to prove to myself that I was triumphant over alcohol). And now, instead of feeling energized after the workout, I’m contemplating a nap—even though I slept 8 hours last night. Also, a deep scrutiny of the mirror shows that time is still marching (or skipping) forward. I probably look better than I did eight months ago, but I’m not a fan of the “b” in subtle. I want the “A” in awesome. And adding insult to injury, I’ve gained a few pounds.

What the hell is going on? [See also: What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?]

Early sobriety was difficult. I suffered from anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. But as bad as the symptoms were, they reinforced that I was doing something right. Had they not been an issue, I could have too easily decided that drinking had also not been an issue. Early sobriety required a lot of self-care, and I made peace with that. I’d been beating myself up for a long time both mentally and physically. But as weeks have turned into months, the initial withdrawal phase faded into kinda-happy-but-mostly-blah phase. I feel good. But I also feel like I’m in recovery.

My symptoms qualify for what is known as PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome). Various addiction websites say PAWS can last anywhere from a few weeks to two years. This is the bullshit in the fine print that the sobriety commercials fail to mention.  This felt unacceptable to my addictive personality, which is fueled by instant gratification. A month is a long time when you’re taking things day-by-day (or minute-by-minute). Who’s got years to deal with suboptimal performance?

I can only hope I do. What’s the alternative? To keep drinking? Where does that option put me in two years? Do the math. Even if nothing gets worse (which it would—that’s how alcoholism works), the best-case scenario is that I’m currently four years away from the life I want. At this point, I’m eight months closer. Time moves fast in a slow and grueling kind of way.

My former self would have had no tolerance for this recovery process. But the gold nugget hidden in the muck is that I’m not my former self. I had a similar realization after I had a baby (or four). There is no getting back to normal. We adjust our expectations, priorities and goals based on new needs and desires. A new normal is created one day at a time. I now liken recovery to giving birth–to my new life. For now, I’m breathing through the contractions, sleeping when the baby sleeps, and decorating my vision board with all of the wonderful things to come.

Everyone experiences sobriety differently. But if you’re new and struggling, here’s an excerpt from my journal—Day 30. Maybe it will help adjust your expectations—both good and bad.

I have not forgotten the parched brain buzz that greeted me every morning for years. I do not miss feeling intoxicated in the evening or falling asleep in a stupor. The cycle of clawing my way out of a hole each morning only to slide back each evening has been broken. Now, I begin and end each day with gratitude for this perspective. Treating my body with kindness feels like a stay of execution.

But life is not all rainbows and butterflies. It’s May 21, 2020, and we’re still under lockdown orders. A few days have been sunny and warm, but most days are dark, rainy and cold. I feel more relieved than enthusiastic about my sobriety. My energy is low, and I struggle with motivation. Thanks to my dog, I exercise every morning, but I’m not breaking any training barriers with stadium stair-laps or burpees. Consistency is my only goal. Today, after completing the bare minimum, I crawl back into bed at 1 p.m. I shouldn’t be tired. But I am tired. It feels like depression.

I realize that it probably is depression. Not likely clinical or serious, but I ponder my history with anti-depressants anyway. They have provided short-lived reprieve in the past, but the side effects quickly outweighed any benefit—especially when combined with alcohol. Now that I’m not drinking, might they help? I’m doing everything I can to feel good—eating a whole food plant-based diet, taking handfuls of supplements, exercising, meditating, and spending time in nature. What else is there? Why do I still feel flat and lethargic?

 For the first time in a month, I consider pouring a drink. I’m home alone. No one would know. I could easily slip into my old routine—grant myself a reprieve—take the night off. I allow myself to consider the possibility—play it through. Thankfully, I have run that experiment countless times and have lots of data to show the hypothesis is false. The only thing that I truly crave is the fraudulent promise—the potential in the pour. I do not actually want to feel drunk. Drinking when I feel low does not produce a high. And it’s way too soon to forget the hangover.

But I’m still depressed. And bored. I need to do something to fix that. Until. I remember Glennon Doyle’s words in Untamed. She says that all feelings are meant to be felt. We are taught to pursue happiness as though no other emotion has merit. But it’s okay–necessary–to feel all the feelings. She notes that in reality, many of our painful feelings don’t actually hurt worse than a paper cut. I check in with myself. Does this depression hurt as bad as a paper cut?

I scan my body. The melancholy feels a bit heavy, but my movements are unencumbered. I can still raise my arms above my head, so that’s good. Thoughts of loneliness bring tears to my eyes, but the sting is more like a minor itch and they don’t even fall. Sadness is a pinch of pressure around my heart, but my tennis elbow hurts worse. So, all things considered, the sensations of my depression do not, in fact, hurt worse than a paper cut.

That’s useful information. I decide that I can handle this feeling of depression. I make a mocktail, grab some dark chocolate and salty pistachios, and flip on Netflix. I turn on the fireplace, burrow under a blanket and invite the dog onto the couch. Turns out, she’s feeling depressed too and misery loves company. She extends the same grace to the two cats who join us in the covers. We all stay that way until 10 p.m. Then, I wipe the crumbs from my shirt, brush the dog and cat fur off the couch and call it a day.

It wasn’t a great day, but it sure as hell wasn’t a bad day. I could fill several pages in my gratitude journal. I learned (or remembered–I forget) that resisting difficult things is far worse than just leaning in. And feeling depressed under the influence of sobriety is far better than the alternative.

That was 185 days ago. The disappointing news for those of you on a sobriety journey is that I still have days like that. The good news is that they are fewer and farther between, with shiny bursts of productivity sprinkled among the doldrums. The lows are getting higher. My life is like a sepia-toned photograph with spots of color being added each day.

Symptoms of PAWS are cyclical (meaning they come and go in waves). What do the symptoms cycle around and what triggers the symptoms? No one seems to know. It’s not likely female hormones, as men have this too. Maybe it’s stress? The moon? Karma? Whatever– I’m don’t particularly care. My curiosity tends to coincide with aforementioned doldrums. Suffice it to say that when the symptoms come, as they did today, I spend a little time trying to decide which doctor/specialist to call as there must be something seriously wrong with my physical or mental health (or both). Then I realize it’s just a rerun episode of Groundhog Day. I relax, do my best and try to focus on my progress. PAWS is a sign that the brain is recalibrating. We can trust the process, even if we don’t understand it. This too shall pass.

What is PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome)?

Detoxing from an addictive substance often includes acute symptoms like muscle ache, nausea, headache, increased heart rate, the shakes, agitation, sweating and insomnia. For heavy drinkers, this usually lasts 3-10 days. Severe addicts need medical supervision as detox can trigger seizures, hallucinations and delirium tremens (DTs).

Long-term recovery begins once the withdrawal process ends (as in, you’re not done, you’re just getting started). Some impairments persist for months and even years. According to Hazelden/Betty Ford, symptoms include:

  • Foggy thinking/trouble remembering/impaired focus
  • Urges and cravings
  • Irritability or hostility
  • Sleep disturbances—insomnia or vivid dreams
  • Fatigue
  • Issues with fine motor coordination
  • Stress sensitivity
  • Anxiety or panic
  • Depression
  • Lack of initiative
  • Mood Swings

New sobriety is analogous to credit card debt. The first step towards freedom is to stop charging to the account. Then reduce expenses and pay down the balance. This requires an uncomfortable adjustment in the budget and an honest evaluation of needs versus wants. It will probably suck for a while. But you do what you have to do to clear the debt. The process is the same with PAWS.

Turning to sugar, caffeine and nicotine is a natural instinct when attempting to manage our mood. Unfortunately, addictive substitutes reinforce the cycle of cravings and ultimately undermine sobriety. The best offense in PAWS is to eat a nutrient-dense diet and avoid junk food. This is way easier said than done in a crisis. There is wisdom in the adage, “quit the addiction that is killing you the fastest.” When faced with a powerful craving, is it better to eat ice cream or smoke a cigarette than to take a drink? Of course.

However, it’s important to understand what’s happening on a biochemical level. Mood and cravings are a function of brain chemistry. Habitual alcohol consumption causes dysfunction of endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and other “feel good” neurotransmitters. It takes time for the brain to recalibrate. A balanced diet and a variety of supplements will support the process and reduce the symptoms. Most recovery programs do not include nutritional support. Those that do have a 75 percent recovery rate, versus the 25 percent typical of A.A. I found two books that explain this missing link, with detailed suggestions for specific symptoms. Check out Seven Weeks to Sobriety: The Proven Program to Fight Alcoholism Through Nutrition by Joan Mathews Larson, PhD., and The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. (The book links go directly to Amazon. The author links take you to their websites so you can learn more.)

When I quit drinking, my diet was already about as clean as it gets. I take vitamin D and B12. Regardless, I had cravings for sugar and struggled to avoid foods that haven’t been a problem for me in years. After reading Mathews-Larson and Ross’s books, I paused my intermittent fasting regime and started eating a high protein breakfast. I also started taking 5-HTP, tyrosine, DLPA and glutamate twice a day. This decision was based on my symptoms. You need to do your own homework. My general recommendation to anyone would be to take a multivitamin, eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible, and check out those websites and books.

Nutrition and supplements are no more an overnight cure than recovery meetings. But they are just as essential if you want to thrive in sobriety. PAWS is manageable. The most helpful thing is to remember that the lows get fewer and farther between. Accept them as part of the process and practice self-care. Rinse and repeat, one day at a time. Practice gratitude for bursts of clarity and joy. You will get through this and it is so worth it!

There is No “M” in Sober

There is No “M” in Sober

The fact that I no longer need or want to drink still shocks me—into smiling. I don’t ever want to go back there.

What is an Alcoholic?

What is an Alcoholic?

Despite our society’s belief that most people are normal drinkers and only assholes are alcoholics, alcoholism is more of a journey than a destination.

There is No “M” in Sober

There is No “M” in Sober

My alcohol-free journey is unfolding in beautiful and simple ways, right in the middle of the day-to-day difficulties of life (during a pandemic). I’m moving at an intentionally slow pace. Most days, I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing much. But when I look back over the last eight months, I see how far I’ve come on all fronts. I used to hit the day running, trying to accomplish more before breakfast than other people can in an entire day (intermittent fasting until noon was my cheat). The need to prove myself was harsh and fueled by anxiety–a direct consequence of my alcohol use. Now, I prefer a slow start: checking in with myself; setting intentions for the day; honoring my space; focusing on gratitude and peace and hope.

Life is so much easier without the chaos in my brain and body—the below-surface chaos I didn’t even realize was there until it was gone. The fact that I no longer need or want to drink still shocks me—into smiling. I don’t ever want to go back there. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I was a full-blown addict, disguised as a busy mom and super-healthy health coach. It snuck up on me. “Did it?” You might ask. “Really? How sneaky was it?” Well, we all know hindsight owns the market in the obvious. But for a long time, I was a naïve little frog in a pot of warm water, enjoying a glass of wine after a rough day. I failed to accept the water had started to boil, the entire bottle was gone (again), and I didn’t have the strength to jump out.

Why did it take me so long to break free? I don’t shy away from hard things—especially when they are clearly within my ability. Technically speaking, not drinking doesn’t require a specialized skill set. I’ve run marathons (with a hangover), learned to open water SCUBA dive and breastfed a baby while potty training a toddler and functioning on no sleep. Pushing through pain is my thing. What was I so afraid of?

Let me try to articulate my fear.

I was afraid of cutting off my supply. If I admitted there was a problem, it’s a forgone conclusion that I should stop buying alcohol. Maybe even stop drinking it too. That’s a non-action I didn’t want to be forced into. I was afraid to lose control and in denial of the fact that I had already lost control. Every day, I cycled between the tension-building and honeymoon phases of an abusive relationship. I didn’t want to move forward because I was so focused on going back—back to a time when I could take it or leave it, set limits and act in my own best interest. Back to a time when I could drink and feel happy. Back to a time before it all seemed pointless. Back to a time when I followed my own rules. I wanted to control my drinking, not stop drinking. Cutting off my supply of alcohol would also cut off my identity. I was a drinker, not a quitter. I had to make my relationship with alcohol work.

I had FOMO—fear of missing out. I was afraid that life wouldn’t be fun anymore—that I wouldn’t be fun anymore. My pronouns are she/her and I identify as a party girl. I believed, as so many of us do, that alcohol eases anxiety and promotes relaxation. Certainly, I felt better after the first sip. Just one sip opened the valve and released the pressure that had been building all day. That first sip had become the highlight of my day. I’ve since learned that alcohol jacks our brains with so much (feel good) dopamine that a counter assault of (feel bad) cortisol and adrenaline is launched in response. This is why regular drinkers have trouble enjoying social functions without their drug of choice. They need a shot of euphoria to balance the drag. (Both of which are a function of brain chemicals and not objective reality.) The process of chasing a buzz forges a connection between drinkers—the conundrum and the cure. I didn’t want to forfeit my sense of belonging with the other problem solvers.

I was afraid of change. The rut I was in still qualified as a comfort zone. What would be left if I quit drinking? What would I hold in my hands? How would I calm my busy brain? How could I have a pleasant conversation without a bit of a bump? What would I laugh about? What would I focus on? The irony was that life had already changed. My mental and emotional state was chaotic. I wasn’t connecting with people. I hadn’t laughed in a long time. I couldn’t focus on anything but the next drink. Alcohol was once paired with friends, food and fun. Now it was a futile ritual conducted mostly alone. Drinking had sapped all of my energy. The thought of figuring out how to not drink was exhausting. Drinking was easier. Until it wasn’t.

Quitting required a hard stop. Anyone who has tried knows that attempting to drink less doesn’t usually fix the problem. It’s like people who eat less and lose a bunch of weight, only to end up heavier a year later. Because they are hungry. Maybe thirsty too. Willpower is not an effective strategy if you still want what you can’t have. You’ve got to rewire your brain and learn to want something else. A hard stop induces discomfort—often so much that it proves to be impossible to do alone. It requires an alcoholic to do what an alcoholic stopped doing a long time ago—admit there’s a problem, ask for help, and surrender the supply.

Teetering on the edge of the decision is brutal. It’s feels as overwhelming as that hiker who must cut off his own arm to free himself. Except it’s not. You just have to put down the drink. You can keep your arm.

Early sobriety is no picnic either. I tried to experience every symptom of withdrawal and detox as confirmation that quitting was necessary. The charade was over and I was heading home—to myself. When I lay awake at night, soaking my sheets with night sweats, I felt gratitude to have escaped. When I couldn’t focus during the day and was too exhausted to do much of anything, I gave myself permission to rest. I let things go, I called in sick and I didn’t apologize for taking care of myself.

Honestly, I did beat myself up more than I’m acknowledging. But my primary focus from the beginning was to stop doing that. Self-care is not self-indulgent. When I was drinking, I kept going at all costs, hiding my pain and problems. Admitting them might have implicated the alcohol, and my addiction could not allow for that. I blamed others where I could, but I mostly kept quiet in my suffering because I suspected that alcoholism might be the problem.

It feels amazing to finally be able to admit that alcoholism was my problem. That took a minute. It started with a silent surrender. And for months, it was at most a whispered agreement. Now it’s a roar. I still feel some shame, but I’m hitting the override button. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s action despite the fear. My aversions to somberness have proven to be unfounded. There’s no “m” in sober. It hasn’t been easy, but it sure beats drinking myself into mental and physical isolation and agitation.

Sobriety programs usually include making amends. I was eager to make whatever apologies necessary, purging my shit once and for all.  However, I’ve realized that the first apology—my primary amend—would be to me. I have hurt, denied, betrayed, neglected and wronged myself. I own that without shame because it’s my truest story. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone there. Feeling whole and empowered, I can now acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused (myself and others) and take action—which is the only amend that really counts.

What is an Alcoholic?

What is an Alcoholic?

What is an Alcoholic?

Despite our society’s belief that most people are normal drinkers and only assholes become alcoholics, alcoholism is more of a journey than a destination. It’s true that some people are predisposed to travel faster due to genetic and biochemical factors such as the way the body metabolizes alcohol and the feeling that alcohol produces in the brain. (If you have a high tolerance or experience euphoric relief, you’re moving faster.) Lifestyle factors can slow the process. A person with a job that has no room for sub-par performance is highly motivated to abstain from drinking during the work week. Someone who lives in an alcohol-free home will naturally drink less than a person who keeps a loaded bar. Put those same people in a different life (or on vacation. or in quarantine) where regular drinking is acceptable, normalized and even expected, and addiction accelerates (alcoholism is a progressive disease).

The cross-over from normal drinking to problem drinking occurs when a drinker learns that alcohol (temporarily) solves the problems created by alcohol. This can happen quickly or over a lifetime, consciously or unconsciously. Have you ever gone to a weekend wedding? Many people over-do it on Friday night (I used to call that a rookie mistake). The women separate from the boys on Saturday morning when the “normal” drinkers sleep it off and the “professionals” grab a hair-of-the-dog and literally jog past the struggle bus to the party. Alcohol anesthetizes pain.

People who drink to relieve stress are especially prone to developing alcoholism. The more you drink on a regular basis, the more anxiety, depression and mood problems linger below the surface. These symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are attributed to external stressors (finances, spouse, kids, Karen, dinner time, trains, roadblocks, elections, things that break, and days that end in “y,”– all problems that are never your fault), and can be quickly relieved by more alcohol. It’s a cycle that ensnares many of us and accelerates as slowly or quickly as our circumstances allow.

Looking at my own decent into the disease, I’ll use an analogy (that I made up–all credit or criticism goes to me). Every person is given a limited, unknown and random number of free drink tickets for the bar of life. The quicker we use them, the sooner the tab starts. Eventually, the bill comes due. My life allowed me to drink more than I might have in a parallel universe. I don’t have to work long shifts or a second job. I didn’t have to choose between alcohol and other necessities. I could buy my gluten-free, vegan cake and drink too. In my mind (held hostage by alcohol), I didn’t have enough reasons to not drink. I felt privileged and entitled to live the good life, and was brainwashed to believe that the good life included fine wine and pricey liquor. I was a normal drinker for many years, abstaining through my pregnancies and moderating as life demanded. But I was always a drinker, and thus was marching at a steady pace into addiction.

But I didn’t know that. Because for a long time, I qualified as a “normal.” The red flags were few and far between. I was as healthy and happy as I thought I could be–stoically dealing with the ever-growing symptoms of alcoholism disguised as WTF Day #389). There were people around me who drank far more than I did. Their existence kept me safe and secure in my own habits. I wasn’t like them! I was good. I was better. At the very least, I was normal. And it’s easy to see how I suffered such delusions. In our society, you are either an alcoholic or you are not. I was high functioning, and therefore had plenty of evidence that I wasn’t an alcoholic. I knew I needed to cut back and I wasn’t happy that it seemed difficult. But I believed that the problem was a lack of willpower. Motivation. Energy. The problem was me (and everyone else’s bullshit)–not the drinking. Every day, I tried really hard to stop what was happening to me and internalized the guilt and shame of perpetual failure. What I couldn’t swallow I blamed on other people. And every night, alcohol both relieved the pain and fueled the flames.

The truth is that alcohol is a carcinogenic, mind and mood altering, addictive, psychoactive neurotoxin. The truth is the problem isn’t any of us. Occassionally, you meet an ex-drinker who is still an asshole. But as a general rule, recovering alcoholics are emotionally intelligent (maybe more so than the general population as overcoming addiction takes a great deal of courage, reflection and humility). The mental illness associated with alcoholism is a side effect of drinking the poison. I know that to be true because with the poison out of my system, that broken and pathetic version of myself is healing. My integrity, joy, productivity and compassion have returned. I’m not pretending to be okay anymore. I am ok. Placing blame on those of us that succumb to alcoholism only offers immunity to the $1.5 trillion-dollar industry that profits from disease. Transferring blame to people instead of the product prevents the “normal” drinkers from seeing the danger.

I quit drinking in April, 2020 because I was miserable. So many things were out of my control (Covid-19 and the subsequent quarantine, financial distress, e-learning for my kids, isolation, etc.—not to mention the amount of alcohol I was consuming). While I have always believed that alcohol reduces stress, and is therefore therapeutic, my daily experience was not aligning with that belief. My stress had become physically and mentally overwhelming. I was so desperate that I made the only change I really could, and did something that I hadn’t imagined was possible (or pleasurable).

I stopped drinking.

Seven months later, I can report that sobriety feels amazing. Even bad days sober are better than good days drinking.

Now, I’m trying to figure out what this means. Am I an alcoholic? What do you think?

Evaluating whether or not you should quit drinking (for a while or for good) using the question, “Am I an alcoholic?” may be irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s assume the self-assessment you take on a random website says, “No.” Then what? Do you keep drinking and hope things getter better? [Spoiler Alert: Hope is not a strategy.]

The real question should be, “Is my use of alcohol enhancing my body, mind, life and relationships?”

Even the answer, “I don’t know,” is a call to action. There’s only one way to find out.

P.S. When I decided to quit drinking, I did something very uncharacteristic. I acknowledged that I needed help. That was the best thing I ever did. Within an hour, I had a temporary sponsor and attended a support meeting. I could not have made it without the help of people who have gone through it. There is so much support out there. Contact me, call your local A.A. hotline, find groups online. Find REAL people as soon as you can. Ex-drinkers that are active in support communities get it. They fucking care. They will be there for you for as little or long as you like. You are not alone.

Read More . . .

The anxiety, depression, negative thinking and other psychological symptoms are the effects of heavy alcohol use, not the cause. As bad as the symptoms may be, this is good news. It’s not you. It’s the booze.

Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

In the first few weeks of sobriety, I attended A.A. meetings. I had no problem believing that I’d become powerless over alcohol or placing my faith in a higher power. If submission was the prerequisite for freedom, I was ready to hand over my keys. Whatever it takes. I’m done. But when I read that problem drinkers must “endure the suggestion that they are in fact mentally ill,” I bristled with denial. Nope. No can do.

The stigma around mental illness is strong, despite the increased awareness surrounding mental health. Physical ailments are less complicated. Fighting cancer makes you a hero. Reversing diabetes is badass. Conquering alcoholism warrants props too–but simply battling it?–not so much. Mental illness, however, translates to crazy–not in touch with reality–a few pieces short of a puzzle. Granted, I drank too much. But I can stop drinking. The cure for crazy isn’t as clear.

I’m not really into labels, but I’ll use one for the purpose of keeping it simple: I was a high functioning alcoholic. To all outward appearances, I was a productive, positive person. I looked and acted healthy. My kids were taken care of, my dog was walked, and dinner was on the table. I was helpful, reliable and kind. Drama was something I avoided. I wasn’t sick on the outside. But inside, my mental health was deteriorating.

Every morning, the shrill voice of an unrelenting inner critic pierced my consciousness before I even opened my eyes. Some days, I’d cover my ears and beg, “Can I get a cup of coffee before we start the beat-down?” The voice did not have a sense of humor and the request was usually denied. I knew deep down that my efforts to balance my alcohol intake with a whole food plant-based diet, daily exercise, and copious amounts of water and supplements weren’t enough. What I didn’t realize (until after I quit) was that my bad habit wasn’t even a habit anymore. It was a full-blown addiction.

Alcoholism produces an internal state of dis-ease that is death by 1000 cuts. Ethanol is a sedative. Your brain counters the depressive effects with stimulants and stress hormones. Once the alcohol wears off, there is a bio-chemical imbalance that lasts well into the next day (or longer), leaving you hypersensitive and anxious. Even if you didn’t drink enough to suffer the standard hangover symptoms, you feel at least mildly annoyed by life in general. Relationships and responsibilities are more pain-in-the-ass than purposeful. Negative thinking permeates your psyche. Moods may be manageable for high functioning folks, but the slogan on the struggle bus is “fake it till you make it.”

It just so happens that alcohol calms the stress that alcohol creates. A drink will take off the edge left by the last drink. That’s why we call it “happy” hour. Welcome to addiction.

But Is Alcoholism a Mental Illness?

Indeed, alcoholism is a mental illness. However, like most chronic disorders, it’s reversible. The anxiety, depression, negative thinking and other psychological symptoms are the effects of heavy alcohol use, not the cause. The good news is that it’s not you. It’s the booze goggles. Alcohol blocks or destroys the natural chemicals that maintain emotional stability. But when you stop drinking, you can regain your mental health if you make the effort. Seven months sober, I am a new and very improved version of myself. I’m not pretending that I’m all good. I am all good—even on the tough days. I trust myself to take care of myself. Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t wake up like this on day one. It’s been a long haul and very hard work. Anyone willing to peel the onion is going to shed some tears. I’ve attended countless recovery meetings, worked with a therapist and a coach, read every single Quit-Lit book I can find, and immersed myself in sobriety podcasts. And I’m not finished. But for the first time in my life, I’m taking responsibility for my own needs. I’m healing. Every day gets better. I’m free. And I’m never going back.

 

Jodi’s Plant-Based Miracle: Life After Stage 4 GBM

Jodi’s Plant-Based Miracle: Life After Stage 4 GBM

Jodi’s Plant-Based Miracle: Life After Stage 4 GBM

In November of 2017, Jodi Gardner, a 50-year-old administrative assistant for Trine University, was sick with what seemed to be a nasty bug. She had an intense headache and had been vomiting for days. Unable to shake it, she went to an urgent care clinic.  She was treated for a sinus infection and sent home to rest.

By the first week of December, however, Jodi was getting worse instead of better. Her weight was dropping at an alarming rate. Her cheerful and engaging personality turned lackluster and unresponsive. She couldn’t shower—she couldn’t get out of bed. Family members were frightened by her rapid deterioration. They voiced their concerns to her doctor. Jodi was sent to Cameron Hospital for a brain scan.

The scan revealed a stage 4 Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), the deadliest form of brain cancer. Jodi’s tumor was the size of a baseball and crossed the midline—which is the worst-case scenario. Without treatment, survival is typically three months. Even advanced medical care only extends life expectancy 12 to 15 months. Jodi was taken for emergency surgery at Lutheran Hospital, and 97 percent of the tumor was removed. But her surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Kachmann, was candid with Jodi and her family about the prognosis. “With such an aggressive resection and treatment, it is possible to see miracles. But I’ve never seen one. In this case, it’s unlikely.”

 

 

Dr. Kachmann also offered a directive. He advised the entire family: “Diet is your best weapon. Sugar feeds cancer. Processed foods contain chemicals that cause inflammation and prevent healing. If you want to add years to Jodi’s life, she needs to eat a strict, whole food, plant-based diet.” He gave them a list of his favorite documentaries, books and websites and encouraged them to do more research on their own.

Hearing a thread of hope, Jodi’s husband took Dr. Kachmann’s advice. Doug, a 49-year-old engineer, watched the films and read several books. By the time Jodi got home from the hospital, the pantry was clear. Jodi’s Mountain Dew, M&Ms and cigarettes were gone. He said, “I got rid of the obvious bad stuff and just did the best I could. I was already used to cooking dinner every night, but we had been a meat and potatoes family. I just started making substitutions—you know beans instead of meat. But Jodi couldn’t eat much after surgery, anyway.”

The next few months were perilous. Jodi resisted the dietary changes that she felt were being imposed on her. “I was actually mad,” she says. “I loved Mountain Dew. I used to keep a case in my car.” She longed for the foods that were previously a source of comfort; the new rules irritated her. She sometimes referred to Doug as her “truant officer” when he blocked a craving.  And once, at the grocery store, Jodi asked Doug’s sister, Julie, if she was the “food Nazi.” Julie recalls, “I answered honestly. ‘Yes, I guess I am.’ It was okay that she was mad. I’d rather be the bad guy than have an empty seat at the table.”

For several months, Jodi struggled with the dietary limitations. Meanwhile, chemotherapy and radiation were delayed. The incision on her forehead wasn’t healing and she had to undergo plastic surgery. The setbacks proved to be devastating. At a checkup in February of 2018, she was told the tumor had grown back. When Dr. Kachmann delivered the news, he asked Jodi about her diet. She openly admitted to what she felt were minor lapses. He reiterated the importance of completely avoiding sugar and eating plant-based. She decided then and there, no more exceptions. This was life or death.

 

Jodi’s family stood ready to support her. Doug was at her side round the clock. He continued to cook plant-based, monitor food labels and avoid sugar. He noticed that even the BOOST ® shake recommended for weight gain was high in sugar. He pointed out the problem to Jodi’s mom, Judy, who researched recipes and delivered a high protein plant-based shake every day during the six weeks of Jodi’s chemotherapy and radiation. Judy, who worked as a critical care nurse for over 30 years, knew that Jodi’s odds of beating the tumor were bleak. She said, “I had never considered diet to be an essential factor in healing. But when Dr. Kachmann said she needed to cut the sugar and follow a plant-based diet, we decided to follow his recommendation. At the very least, it gave us a sense of power. We felt there was something we could all do to help.” Jodi cherishes the memory of her loved ones’ efforts. “I became so weak and lost so much muscle. It was a struggle to do anything. All I did was lay in bed twenty-hours a day and eat the vegetables and fruit they brought me. I had to build myself back up,” she said.

Dr. Kachmann’s advice motivated Jodi and her family to take responsibility for changes within their control. “We watched every documentary on the sheet,” recalls Julie. The family found one documentary to be especially relevant to Jodi’s situation. The C-Word (2015) details neuroscientist Dr. David Sevran-Schreiber’s journey to heal from brain cancer after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Diagnosed at age 31 and given months to live, he not only survived, but thrived for another twenty years. Dr. Sevran-Schreiber says in the film, “I realized they were doing everything they could to kill cancer cells, but they weren’t doing anything to help my body resist cancer itself.”

Doug and Jodi Gardner also purchased Dr. Sevran-Schreiber’s book, Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life. While the book details a multitude of scientific evidence for the power of nutrition over disease, it does not promote false hope. It doesn’t promise that simply eating kale or celery is a cure. The core message emphasizes the importance of nurturing the body’s innate physical, emotional and spiritual defenses, while also receiving appropriate medical treatment.

The Gardner family is doing more than playing defense with food. They are grounded in their strong Christian faith. “I was not afraid,” Jodi recalls. “I never stopped praising God. He is good. I knew I would be ok. I knew where I would be, regardless.” The Gardner’s believe in prayer and community; church members intercede daily on Jodi’s behalf. They also believe in the strength of their family unit. Every Sunday, the large and lively clan gathers for a meal. Four generations of parents, children, siblings, spouses and friends exchange stories, talk about their faith and of course, share good food with one another.

Jodi’s cancer has changed the whole family’s approach to nutrition. Jody said, “We are very grateful to God that our eyes have been opened to see that whole, real foods can help and heal the body. We now actually crave vegetables and fruit and look forward to trying foods we’ve never eaten before.” Doug’s mom, Louise, said, “The more you look into the information about bad food, the easier it is to understand how we get sick. Your body has to fight off all the stuff that isn’t natural. I used to buy candy and pop for my grandkids. I thought I was being a good person. And here I was, buying them poison. The more I learn about what’s in the food, the madder I get.”

Jodi returned to work five months after being diagnosed with GBM. Her cancer is in remission. She says, “I know the diet helped me, but God healed me. We will be plant-based for the rest of our lives.” Doug knows Jodi’s return to health is a legitimate miracle but respects the call to diligence. “We can’t let our foot off the gas. We need to stay the course. So, we watch the documentaries and revisit the facts” he says. “We wouldn’t have known about plant-based eating if it wasn’t for Dr. Kachmann. That advice meant a lot, coming from a surgeon. If he hadn’t said anything, we would have continued as we were. And God only knows where we’d be.”

This week, twenty-six months after the GBD diagnosis delivered a death sentence, Jodi received another clean bill of health from Dr. Kachmann. She remains committed to her diet and living a healthy and happy cancer-free life.

 

Health Coaching Tools: The Wellness Wheel

Health Coaching Tools: The Wellness Wheel

Ever heard the saying, “If you keep having the same problem, you’re the problem?” Yep. That’s true. Wherever I go, there I am. I’m a health coach but I’m also human. Just when I think I’ve figured everything out, another episode of Groundhog Day starts in a familiar fog of deja’ vu. It’s not easy to live and learn at the same time.

Training to be a health coach has opened my eyes to a whole new way (new to me, not necessarily anyone else) of dealing with the darker aspects of myself. I used to assume that healing requires insight to the root cause of an issue. But I’ve learned that understanding why something is wrong doesn’t change what is wrong. Explanations don’t produce change. We can spend a lot of money to have a doctor tell us what’s wrong. We can spend even more to have a therapist tell us why it’s wrong.

Or we can let go of the cause and work on the solution.

Let me share a wee-bit-too personal story of how health coaching worked for me.

In the fall of 2015, I fell into a post-marathon funk. I hadn’t actually run a marathon, but a finish line had been crossed. My book was finally sent to the publisher. And during the three years it had taken me to finish it, I had gone through a divorce, moved with my four children, remarried and inherited three stepchildren. After many intense struggles, highs and lows, my life down-shifted from chaos into peace overnight.

But I don’t do peace very well. Survival mode is motivating, albeit stressful. With no more fires to fight, I was at a loss for what to do next. There was no “normal” to get back to—too much had changed. So I enrolled in a health coaching certification program, hoping that furthering my education would help me figure out what came next.

What came next was winter–both actual and proverbial. Despite the fact that nothing was wrong—everything was actually right!—I felt stagnant and depressed. I’d go days without leaving the house. I slept too little, drank too much and forgot to work out. My sense of self and self-esteem seemed out of reach.

The health-coaching program proved to be a lifeline. In learning how to help others caught in their own spirals of descent, I was given the tools to help myself. And it was unlike any intervention I might have predicted. I had assumed that since there was nothing wrong in my life, the problem must be me. Crap . . . wherever I go, there I am.

But there was something wrong in my life. Looking at it from a holistic view helped me to see living in survival mode had allowed me to neglect other areas of my life. When survival mode ended, I was dazed and confused because I thrive on community and connection. Without those, I stop thriving. Health and happiness are inextricably linked, and require balance in all facets of life–not just the areas we prefer to focus on at the expense of the others. The epiphany came with an activity called the Wellness Wheel. There are 12 domains, each represented by a spoke in the wheel. I rated my satisfaction in each domain. It was immediately obvious why I wasn’t rolling steady through life like I should be. My wheel had a flat.

But the good news is that it was just a flat–not a fatal flaw in my character or mental health. The darkness was simply a lack of light. Awareness led to action. I visualized what my ideal and balanced life would look like. Each week, I set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). Baby steps propelled me from my (dis)comfort zone. Soon it was spring—both real and proverbial.

Had I stuck with the assumption there was something wrong with me, the shame and guilt of my pathetic state would have perpetuated the cycle in which I was stuck. This is the beauty of health coaching. We don’t focus on what has brought you down. We focus on what will bring you up. The negative circumstances holding you back don’t matter nearly as much as the strengths and values that will move you forward. Healthy habits and happy feelings are far more rewarding than doom and gloom. Eventually the bad behaviors get “crowded out.” Balance is the most powerful anti-depressant.

Health coaching strives to solve problems so that they stay solved. Because life is full of curve balls. Accepting responsibility for your own wellness allows you to take corrective action instead of waiting around for rescue. There is always something you can do to improve today. And every something you do adds up to an even better tomorrow.

I’m a health coach, and I’m human. Groundhog Day episodes are part of my struggle. But when I find myself stuck in repeat mode, I need only to remember that there is nothing wrong with me that I can’t handle. I’ve simply put too much emphasis in one area of my life at the expense of the others. Darkness is a lack of light! Actions that restore balance turn on the light. Challenge accepted. Game on . . .

Interested in health coaching? Read more about working with me . . .

Health Coaching Explained

Health Coaching Explained

Sometimes, it’s nice to be told what to do.

Just kidding.

Let me start over. When it comes to our health, we’re used to being told what to do.  It’s easier to accept a prescription than responsibility. Yet it’s our lifestyle that triggers chronic disorders and disease. And research shows (and countless people are discovering for themselves) that issues can be managed and reversed by making changes within our control.

Change is hard. For the most part, we know what we need to do. Drink less, sleep more, increase veggies and stop eating (and drinking) processed crap. Got it. But that’s too simple and also too hard. So we look for the hack. Pills are easy to swallow and programs get quick results. There are solutions at every price point.

But what happens when the pills cause more problems than they solve? Or when the program stops working because we can’t stick with it? Depending on our personality, we buy into the next promise or stoically accept our fate.

There’s another option—a new buzzword in town. I’ll explain what health coaching is, how it’s different than what you might expect, and why it works. It’s a complete shift from the normal “help” we’ve been offered. I’ll be honest. I didn’t understand health coaching until after I became one.

I wanted to be a certified health coach because I know a lot about nutrition and wellness. And I love to talk about it. Free advice is my specialty . . . you’re welcome. I’m the go-to gal with the fun food facts. Heck. I even wrote a book. Evidently, I had a lot to say–it’s so thick that few people actually finish reading it. It’s like a bible. But that’s ok–I’m proud of it. I continue to share the good news in every medium I can manage. Just sit next to me at the next band competition and see for yourself. Bring a notebook in case you want to write stuff down.

What is a Health Coach?

Imagine my shock when I learned in the certification process that effective coaches listen more than they talk. This was disappointing in light of my abundant words of wisdom. It was awkward to learn that my advice won’t work for everyone. In fact, it may not work for me indefinitely. I can’t lay claim to having the answers. My job as a coach is to help others figure out what they need, what works for them, and most importantly, how to auto-correct as life evolves.

From a young age, we’re told that the professional opinion is the correct answer. Experts are the authority. And this is true in many situations. Medical school is a legal prerequisite for diagnosing disease. But while doctors do prescribe treatment, it is not their job to guide you step-by-step to wellness. Doctors manage what’s wrong. In contrast, coaches help you discover how to get right.

Coaching is an emerging field in healthcare. Thus, most people do not understand what we do and where we fit into the big picture. It’s unlikely that your doctor has referred you to a health coach, and less likely that your insurance company agrees to pay for it. The landscape is changing fast, as evidence demonstrates that coaching yields significant results (at a fraction of the cost). For now however, we are still outliers in the system (aka out-of-pocket-eers). That will change in the near future.

Despite my theoretical understanding of coaching, I still gave a lot of advice when I began seeing clients. That paradigm is hard to shake. Clients expected me to be the expert and I wanted to deliver. And in the short-term, my rules (or anyone else’s) can work. Try this! Do that. You’ll likely make some headway. But eventually, there is a wall. Following someone else’s program requires a lot of willpower because it belongs to someone else. Eventually, you run out of steam and it doesn’t work anymore.

How Does Health Coaching Work?

When the walls closed in on my clients, and my advice was no longer working, I felt as discouraged as they did. Their failures became my own. So I enrolled in a masters degree program. I knew that I could do better. Coaching is a skill. Done well, it is powerful—just look at the results that business, executive and life coaches get! They charge big bucks, and the investment pays for itself many times over. Within a few months of entering the program, I made the turn. I got it. I stopped talking and started asking questions. And the answers were there.

We are each the expert of our own life. My job as a coach is to help you own that. There is no such thing as an “unmotivated” person. We’re all motivated by something. Sometimes our brain-wires get crossed. Coaching untangles those wires and brings clarity to our behaviors. I ask questions like, “You said this, but you’re doing that. Why?” And your answer leads to the next step. Connecting to your own unique values and God-given strengths results in lasting change.

My clients made the turn with me, once I stopped assuming I knew what they needed. They reached their goals and now push beyond. In turn, they inspire me. That’s what I love about coaching. I get to grow too. I do offer direction when asked, but now it’s more like an open-ended set of options. My clients chose their path. Together we evaluate the results and plan the next step. I don’t miss giving a lot of advice because plain and simple, that didn’t work. Failure isn’t rewarding.

And that proves that personal transformation is possible. Because if I can figure out how and why to stop telling people what they need to do next, you can change too!

P.S.: Please realize that results don’t happen overnight. I am not offering a quick fix, rather  real and lasting transformation. Together we will take one step at a time, and you will get where you want to go in a way that allows you to stay there. Check out Anna and Missy’s stories below. I’ve worked with both of these ladies for over a year.

Who Needs a Health Coach?

In my opinion, everyone can benefit from health coaching. Including me. In my observation, there are three categories of people:

  • Those struggling and want help.
  • Those struggling but prefer to argue that change is not possible.
  • Those who aren’t struggling but are ready to tackle a new goal.

Which category describes you? Would you like to give health coaching a try? I offer free consultations. Submit a health history form and I’ll contact you for an appointment. 

What is a Health Coaching Program?

Health coaches often have a specialty that appeals to a specific group of people. The overall focus of my program is nutrition and wellness. Though every client is unique, I most often deal with people looking to lose weight or maintain their weight loss, balance gut health and improve digestion, reduce chronic symptoms like pain, allergies and IBS, combat cravings, manage stress, and/or incorporate more home-cooked meals with meal plans, recipes and efficient strategies. My intention is to help you:

  • Discover what foods or diet plan works best for your body.
  • Assess your life from a holistic perspective.
  • Identify assumptions and thought patterns that are working against you.
  • Find true motivation, inspiration and energy.
  • Focus forward with timely, achievable and realistic goals.

My health coaching program provides you with:•

  • Two private 50-minute sessions per month
  • Ongoing email and phone support between sessions
  • Simple healthy recipes and nutritional guidance
  • Resources specific to your needs and goals (books, videos, websites, handouts, etc.)

What is Group Coaching?

Working one-on-one with a health coach means that every session is all about you. However, so much can be learned from others. Tapping into collective wisdom and experiences, and brainstorming from different perspectives can lead to discoveries you might otherwise miss. Group coaching is based on a team environment of confidentiality and trust, where group members are open to being coached. Themes arise from individual issues and questions. Discussions and exercises reveal varying perspectives that can offer a feeling of normality, inspiration, and multiple layers of support and accountability.

Success Stories

Anna M.–Tallahassee, Florida

“I have been a single mom since shortly after my children were born. For 10 years, I worked in a high stress job and spent all of my time taking care of my kids. Fourteen months ago, my weight hit an all time high. I was five feet tall, 165 pounds, and needed Spanx to squeeze into my biggest clothes. So I spent a year going to a personal trainer 3-4 times a week, and cut back on unhealthy food. When I didn’t loose any weight, my doctor referred me to a metabolic specialist, who found that my triglycerides were at 602, and my total cholesterol was at 347. A genetic test indicated that I don’t metabolize cholesterol very well. Statins were prescribed, and I was told I’d need them the rest of my life. But even at small doses, the side effects were immediate. Muscle fatigue, cramping, flu-like symptoms, daily exhaustion, and several severe depressive episodes were debilitating. I tried at least five different statins and each was as bad as the last.

I couldn’t live this way. So I did my research and made a decision. I believed that if I changed my lifestyle, cleaned up my diet and lost weight, I wouldn’t need those drugs. But I felt like I’d already tried everything! Even my doctor believed I’d always need the statins regardless of my efforts. It seemed hopeless.

And then I started working with Colleen. Unexpectedly, most of our sessions were not spent talking about what I should and shouldn’t eat. Self-defeating thought patterns were my greatest challenge. Colleen helped me get out of my own way and overcome my fear that things would never change. Every small step gave me the confidence to take another. I just needed someone else to believe in me until I could believe too. The weight was slow to come off and I had to push through frequent plateaus. But I now weigh a healthy 118 pounds. My cholesterol and triglycerides have dropped into the normal range—off the statins!—and continue to fall. And I have no fear that I can’t sustain this. Colleen didn’t just help me lose weight. She guided me to a completely new perspective. Her coaching style – combining both nutritional and psychological counseling – has been instrumental in my success. I know that I did the work, but I give Colleen all of the credit. And now that I have the knowledge (and the energy!) I will pay this success forward, starting with my kids!” –Anna M.

Missy B. — Fort Wayne, IN

“I lost over 100 pounds on my own. And then it started coming back. It was embarrassing and shameful to think I was destined to be among the 95 percent of people who regain all their weight. I envied the healthy and active people who seemed to have it easier than I did. Working with Colleen gave me the tools and skills to transform my relationship with my body and my understanding of food. She encouraged me to trust my intuition. She challenged me to break my own rules (because they were holding me back). Now, for the first time in my life, I am happy with myself and so very proud of who I’ve become. I would never have believed this was possible without Colleen’s support.” – Missy B

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