When I was in my 20s, I went to the doctor once because I was having heart palpitations. I was diagnosed with a mitral valve prolapse when I was about 10 years old, amidst a childhood of allergies, stomach pains, eczema and Academy Award level mood swings. I thought, as people in their 20s do, that it had all caught up with me and I was in cardiac decline due to old age. I went in to the cardiologist prepared to weigh in on pacemaker options. After a brief chat and a Holter monitor, he told me I was drinking too much caffeine. Turns out there are better ways to hydrate than coffee and dark soda. Be kind. It was pre-Google.
Fast forward <mumble mumble> years and I often sit with patients, coffee cup full on my desk, blissfully free of panic attacks and heart palpitations. My colleague, also a Naturopathic Doctor, wistfully lingers in my doorway for a whiff of what he calls my “coffee perfume”. People include coffee in their beverage intake with immediate modifiers, as if I’ve caught them sneaking in a window with a scandalous, illegal mocha. “I only have 2 cups.” “Never after 2pm.” “Half caf.”
Relax, I tell them. You have Naturopathic Medicine all wrong.
The cool, weird thing about Naturopathic Medical school is that it can be very experiential. We change our diet, taste herbal tinctures, counsel one another, experience spas and have our spines adjusted. Imagine conventional medical school doing this? “Ok, that was Wellbutrin- now I’m passing around oxycodone, then we’re going to try an appendectomy.” Talk about increasing competition for admission!
But seriously, we did it all. I tried a water fast once. If we haven’t met, this is a funny because I am 5’6, weight about 112 pounds and eat like a Clydesdale. I broke the 3 days of consuming only water as one should, with organic apple slices. I then made a BLT (ok! 2 BLTs) and never looked back. For my physiology, fasts must include more than water.
I did the full blown Elimination Diet. It rocked my world. I was freshly arrived on the west coast from New England, where all good recipes begin with butter, and wind up involving some kind of bread. Whether or not they are valid the phrases “detox reaction”, “healing crisis”, and “food sensitivity” made a lot more sense after that go around. Ultimately I uncovered undiagnosed Celiac disease that explained many of the aforementioned health crises. But changing my diet was a tiny part of my return to coffee.
Naturopathic Doctors are generally very honest. No, not just honest. They really strive to be authentic. I have learned that this difference is important. Honesty means that you never tell lies. Authenticity means that you never live lies. I was told by several friends in school, that my words were hurtful. Insane, right? I’m hilarious. I’m from Catholic New England. My baby books were dripping with sarcasm. Totally normal.
I can usually ignore the free advice of the misguided, but in learning to counsel one another, we had to learn to listen. Not a brief class on it. We had a 5 course counseling series on it. We began by sitting in tortured silence for 5 minutes while a classmate told us about something. We could not do any of the things that people do: Prepare a Reply, Make a Judgement, Predict the next part of the story, Relate it to Your Own Experience, Solve the Problem. It was HARD. Then we taped ourselves listening to each other, and then we taped our visits with clinic patients. We watched, in mortified agony, our body language and saw ourselves morph into actual empathetic beings.
It is impossible, once you see how incredible it is for someone to actually be heard, not to want to keep hearing people. And it is impossible, once you are truly heard, not to recognize the pain you have lived with for being chronically ignored, or judged, or constantly trumped by someone else’s story.
Once I learned how to listen, I found I could tell how stress was affecting me in a whole new way. I could hear the lilt of my voice increase when I was overtired, my confidence dive when I was under or poorly fed, or my physical health decline when I was ill-prepared for stress.
Nothing changed overnight. At times I took supplements or medications to overcome hurdles, but the slow shifts made the most lasting impact. My coffee, for example, is now simply black. I do not drink it when I am overtired, which just makes me feel anxious and I can’t stomach it without having eaten good food. My love of coffee drives me to keep those things in balance.
The body is a slow moving ecosystem, and no amount of knowledge or will power will change that. I began consciously working to improve my health in 2001 and for how incredibly far I’ve come, I am still working on it.
Now I have patients come in who tell me they went gluten-free, or sugar-free or tried mindfulness or yoga, etc for a few days or weeks and nothing changed. They want a supplement to work as fast as a drug, but be easier on the body and conscience. It makes me smile. Who doesn’t? It’s a great start, and I’m happy that I’m working with a motivated person. I can hear the lilt in their voice letting me know they feel trapped, or unheard or overtired or underfed. I know that supplements, herbs, even drugs ironically work best when they are working in a healthy system, but I also know that most people take time to find what is really making them unwell. So I sit back, sip my coffee, and listen for how I can help.