It's no secret -- stress kills.
Even so, prior to reading The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life, I thought stress, like my love of French fries, would manifest in problems later in life. At only 35 years old, how could stress be the cause of my autoimmunity and a serious relapse of Lyme disease?
The answer is in Donna Jackson Nakazawa's important book. It's about the science behind "psychoneuroimmunology" or PNI for short. This is an exciting discovery about the connection between the nervous system and immune system. Basically, emotional stress suppresses the immune system and may trigger chronic disease.
The Last Best Cure chronicles Donna Jackson Nakazawa's very personal story about the stress of childhood trauma leading to a potentially deadly autoimmune response in her body.
As you read on, you will see this isn't a typical book review. This is a review of how this book changed my life.
Unlike Donna, I didn't experience childhood trauma. However, reading the introduction to her book felt like she was speaking directly to me. Like Donna, I battled lifelong anxiety; and like Donna, I experienced daily fear that my body would continue to attack itself to the point where I, to put in bluntly, would die.
At age 29, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disorder called Grave's Disease. Then, at age 33, an autoimmune spine disorder called Anklosing Spondylitis. Then, at 34 I was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease. In December of 2014, coinciding with a period of extreme emotional stress, I found out my immune response started attacking a different part of my spine and the soft tissue in my back. This type of response baffled my doctors and introduced me to the growing population of people with autoimmune responses which don't fit into the disease boxes conventional medicine has developed.
I imagine others in this box feel similar to how I felt, hopeless and scared. If in 2016 we can create a bionic hand that is controlled by the brain, why can't they figure out what is wrong with me and, furthermore, why can't they fix it? I related to Donna's experience of living in constant "fight or flight" mode. My days were filled with a non-stop inner dialogue of worst case scenarios and health setbacks when I couldn't calm myself down.
The worst part was not being able to trust my body or my mind. People who haven't developed chronic health issues know when they need to go to the doctor. They might develop a rash or spike a fever, but other than that they just go on with their day. For those of us with chronic issues, we never know what to believe. Are my heart palpitations from anxiety or heart failure? Is my headache stress or inflammation in my brain? And when you look on the internet (and as much as people say don't do it, you can't help it) it always says to call you doctor. Well, after the first month of bi-weekly emails we know they don't want to hear from us anymore, or we fear they won't take future symptoms seriously from the patient who constantly cries extremity numbness.
As I continued reading The Last Best Cure, I struggled to find the connection between Donna's disease triggers and my own. As far as I could remember my childhood was free of trauma, but with the similarities of lifelong anxiety and autoimmune diseases, I feared a trauma occurred before my memories began. In my case I believe it was a tick bite sometime in my preteens. The Lyme bacteria triggered immune dysfunction, triggering a fear response, triggering immune dysfunction, and so on and so forth. Then, a period of extreme stress brought it to the forefront and where I am today.
Donna made herself into her own personal science experiment. Changing nothing else, but practicing mind body techniques she changed the disease process in her body. She practiced mindfulness meditation and yoga, and also received acupuncture.
I use the ideas presented in this book on a daily basis trying to keep my autonomic nervous system in check. How truly amazing the human mind really is. What a gift—consciousness--and the ability to fully experience this life.
The quote at the bottom of this post really spoke to me in relation to the discoveries I had in reading The Last Best Cure: "If you woke up tomorrow and your biggest problem was gone, how would you know? What would you do differently?"
How would I know? Well, a clear MRI and a lower sed rate would help, but also I would be able to live in the moment most of the time and not live in a heightened state of fear and panic. As was Donna's goal, I would find and reclaim my joy.
What would I do differently? Well, that really has been the lesson in all this.
Donna talks about how when you feel "bad" physically you lose your sense of self, because in one or many ways you feel broken, defective. My whole young life I identified myself as an anxiety ridden, fearful person, but now I know I was a simply person with a misfiring immune system. I thought it was my fault. My fault, because I was emotionally weak. Now I know it was not my fault. To regain my sense of self, I must learn to trust myself.
This realization in relations to the question: "What would I do differently?" or to rephrase the question "How will I rediscover my sense of self" is going to change my life.
Here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to go out and engage with this wild, magnificent world we live in. I'm not going to be afraid anymore, because I'm literally not going to be afraid anymore. The "scared of the world" persona isn't who I am anymore. Who knows I might even jump out of a plane.
Please read this book. It's for everyone. Anyone who has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, anyone who loves someone with a chronic illness, anyone who experienced childhood trauma, anyone with anxiety or depression, anyone who wants to feel better, anyone who wants to be inspired.
I feel like a new purpose is unfolding in front of me. What if I can find my joy? And what if I can help others find the same?
Next up is reading hew new book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal:
"If you woke up tomorrow and your biggest problem was gone, how would you know? What would you do differently?" - Unknown
I'm Kerry and I am a writer and licensed therapist. This is a positive space focused on how to thrive in any situation and the transformative power of illness.