Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Itchy, Raw, Eczema! There is a holistic solution.

Eczema that looked like a flesh eating disease is what brought me to my knees over ten years ago in wanting to figure out how such a healthy living yogini could have skin covered in open raw wounds. I went to see all of “them”: two conventional dermatologists, a long standing herbalist Angelica of Angelica Herb, acupuncturist, and a consultation with Pratima Raichur, an Ayurvedic doctor. All confirmed I had the full range of eczema: the wet ones that look like little blisters on the hands and feet, the scaly bordering psoriasis type mostly on my legs and then straight up clusters of itchy red bumps on my arms. The scenario wasn’t pretty. Eczema and allergies run in my family and I seemed to have dodged all of the allergies until my mid 30s when eczema came along. I question (dis)eases that “run in the family” what is it exactly that we are inheriting?

I came to understand my eczema as an external physical manifestation of my internal raw, itchy, wounded, firey self. The internal seemingly endless chatter about the future, the what ifs, unchecked feelings swept under the proverbial rug already densely populated with self doubt and worthlessness that I had no idea even existed in my psyche. I don’t recall one of the professionals listed above suggesting I try meditation or psychotherapy. Maybe it wasn’t their place. Maybe we have to figure this out for ourselves, willing to surrender completely and look at the raw, itchy, wounded, firey self. My recurring anxiety attacks which at that time seemed inexplicable being that I was in a relationship that I thought was with “the one” (no pressure there at 33 years old), as well as becoming a certified yoga teacher in a new “Weekend Warrior” 8 month program at OM Yoga Center (no pressure there pioneering into career). It’s all connected, skin eruptions like eczema, shingles, hives are all linked to stress. Getting to the source of your stress is where the work lies and most of time what ails you is embedded in implicit memory like shards of glass, difficult to see, but painful nonetheless.

Both dermatologists prescribed steroid cream and I was so desperate to get rid of it, I gave it a go against my personal belief in healing the body holistically. The steroid cream didn’t make a difference.  Next I tried Elidel, still a prescription but not a steroid (I think). I didn’t see or feel much of a difference with Elidel either. The skin is our largest organ and by putting toxic chemicals on it I knew I wouldn’t be solving anything, just masking symptoms. I firmly believe when the body is given a fair shot at healing it will.

My gut instinct told me I needed to make a radical change with my eating habits and in doing so without realizing it, I’d be working with my mind (this is the secret Jiu Jitsu). For me, eating super clean was an easier task than discovering where my thoughts came from, sitting with feelings and emotions and asking for professional help. In my mind and opinion back then, I didn’t see a need for professional help as far as psychotherapy was concerned (read scared shitless of what I would discover about myself). In fact, I admired people who went and always wanted to have a therapist because I thought it would validate me in some way, like yup, I’m neurotic but sane like the rest of y’all working through stuff. Many years later in working with a therapist, validation was only one of the gems that helped me see what was going on inside. What I didn’t know back then was in limiting my yoga practice to just wanting to learn the asana and skeptical of the spiritual benefits, I was cheating myself of so much and trying to control the very thing that could help me get better and grow. I had no idea what “let go of the outcome” meant, though I could say it to others and myself, I had no idea how. I was picking and choosing what I wanted from yoga trying to avoid the actual work of self reflection and self study (Svadhyaya).  At that time I didn’t know how to negotiate my feelings concerning a boyfriend that I was in love with who happened to occasionally make fun of me passive aggressively. He would make fun of my curiosity in investigating yoga and Buddhist philosophies. I didn’t have the courage to tell him to love all of me or leave me. Eventually, and thankfully, the leave me did happen. Some people may be able to work the “pick and choose” method from a spiritual practice, but if my plan was to teach yoga how could I leave out the main part? In retrospect, how could I discover me if I was bypassing the teachings of yoga? I had no idea what this journey had in store for me. This I believe was the wet eczema my wounded self.

That relationship I was in, if I was too “spiritual” in his eyes, an example of that being reading books by Chogam Trungpa Rinpoche or Iyengar (both assigned readings for teacher training), he would make fun of me and ask me if I really believed “all that crap”. If I put on 5 pounds, I was told in his version of a joking way that I was getting a belly and he would adjust my pants or skirt to make sure I saw what he was talking about. Meanwhile, it was my boyfriend at age 25 to my 33 who was dieting to lose weight, taking pills so he wouldn’t lose his hair, had just quit smoking, and eventually went back to seeing a therapist because he had been diagnosed with bi-polar 2 disorder in his teens. None of that bothered me. I loved him unconditionally, yet he projected his fears on me and did not love me unconditionally. While in yoga teacher training, I did practice teaching asana and restorative yoga to him and he liked it, but he always asked me to leave out the  “spiritual stuff”. He suffered from severe back pain as well. Go figure. He read Dr. Sarno’s book “Healing Back Pain” and “magically” it worked for him.  This isn’t magic, it’s psychology and mind/body connection.

I am not the angel here nor do I want to make him out to be the bad guy. He wasn’t a bad guy at all, nor was I perfect. We were two people who connected when we did, learned from each other, and parted with torn hearts and always wanting the best for the other. No relationship is perfect, but I learned a lot from that one, mostly that I needed to work on self-confidence and developing my intuition. This would take years and it never ends. We are all a work in progress. No wonder the angry eczema engulfed me. I was far too scared of losing him, “the one” and never stood up for myself.  My skin disease didn’t have a shot at healing as long as I stayed in that cycle of not taking care of my emotional self. I needed to completely accept myself skin “problems” and all, but I had no idea that was a choice. I didn’t know I could “Jiu Jitsu” my mind, turn its perspective in a new direction. I kept wanting the eczema to go away, and live happily ever after with my boyfriend and teach yoga. What I wanted and what was happening were not in sync. In retrospect and understanding what was happening then and what I understand now to be the path to healing, and Karma, I simply didn’t have the key to unlock what was causing so much pain inside.

 On the path to figuring out the eczema from a dietary perspective, going down one avenue, I met with Angelica of Angelica’s Herbs for a consultation. Her diagnosis, and she stuck with her prognosis, was to blame all the drugs I had done as the culprit to my skin eruptions. The problem with her diagnosis was that I really had never done a whole lot of drugs. Sure I had drank alcohol quite a bit in the previous 10 years of my life, but as far as drugs were concerned, I could count on two hands how many times I’d smoked pot or consumed cocaine and I stopped doing both on my 26th birthday and never looked back. Alcohol is a drug and as we know very damaging to the liver as well as relationships. Angelica put me on a detox diet of no wheat, meat, dairy, alcohol, fried foods, caffeine, and sugar. I’d done this before seasonally for 5 days or so when juice fasting which I started doing in my late 20s only this time according to Angelica’s regime, I could eat whole foods. Angelica wanted me to stick with this plan for 8 weeks and take the herbs she prescribed. I could feel and see changes happening, but my skin condition didn’t clear up. This detox regime also reminded me of what Dr. Andrew Weil suggested in 8 Weeks to Optimal Health – a detox I tried in my 20s but didn’t really take to heart. I wasn’t ready to fully embrace the healing benefits of the elimination diet. I didn’t think I needed to as I didn’t have any “negative” health symptoms.

As of writing this book, I’ve been caffeine free for at least 15 years. This was a choice I made years ago. I don’t like the feeling of caffeine coursing through my veins making me feel speedy and anxious. My hands used to shake terribly and I’d shake my foot or legs around like so many people do – just look around you or look at your self. Not everyone has a speedy reaction to caffeine. I do. Also, I choose to believe there are more quirks and health issues caused by caffeine than there are perks. Attempting the elimination diet method, I spent close to $800 on Angelica and her herbs and in fact my boyfriend even paid for it. He slept next to me while my hands were covered with a charcoal and garlic paste concoction wrapped in gauze. He also didn’t mind going on the “cleanse” diet for a little while. I thought this guy is a keeper sleeping next to ol’ garlic stinky hands meanwhile we never spoke about what was really happening between us and I never looked at how I felt.  In my mind we were going through a “for worse” phase and we weren’t even married, yet I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to look at what I was feeling on the inside – all I could see was blaring painful skin and desperately wanted to get rid of it and have healthy skin.

Since my first explosion of eczema it has been 12 years. The relationship I was in during that time ended 9 years ago. Did the eczema go away just like that? Hell no! Is it permanently gone? Absolutely not! Why? Because nothing is permanent. All that is coming, is going, too. I did find a temporary solution that does alleviate the itching and the red bumps in a bottle of ointment prescribed by an amazing dermatologist at NYU. It’s not holistic, but he does make it himself in the pharmacy. I use the ointment so infrequently that it expires long before I’m even half way through the two ounce jar. Basically I can say I have my eczema’s number. It has never come back the way it was when it first erupted and know occasionally I get hives. I have highly sensitive skin. My skin is my barometer for what’s going on inside me mentally. I’m lucky because I can see it. Some people suffer from ulcers, some hiatal hernias, some high blood pressure, high “bad” cholesterol, heart disease, the list goes on. My stress comes out in a skin condition.

The inner work I have done through meditation, yoga, and psychotherapy has helped in more ways than I can mention including relaxing my relationship to eczema. What this means is to understand that in order for something to change, you have to accept it first. You have to embrace all of you as whole, complete, and beautiful just as you are. Self love and compassion is a potent medicine. Your body is going to change, just as your body will be sick, get old, and die. If you are a human being, then you will experience sickness, get older and die. When I clean up my diet a few times a year do I think there is a direct link to alleviating my suffering? The answer I have found is this; it all depends on my mindset, how gentle I am with my thoughts and my body and accept what I am feeling and what is happening. When I am mindful of thoughts I can make healthy and caring choices not limited to just consumption of food or otherwise, which leads to actions that are healing rather than harmful. This is the key to living a happy, healthy, life or what I like to call a Healthy Spicy Life.