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AIP Stories of Recovery is a success story series about regular people from the Autoimmune Protocol community who are changing their lives using the protocol. Each month a new person is featured and readers have the opportunity to discover all the different health challenges that are being overcome by folks just like themselves on the same path. At Autoimmune Paleo we hope you’ll be inspired by, empathize with, and learn from these stories. If you are interested in sharing your story, please let us know by filling out our interest form.
Jillian’s story begins the way many of our stories do: debilitating symptoms with frustratingly few options for treatment from doctors. But the way her story unfolds gives us a striking glimpse into the often imperceptible ways trauma can impact our physical bodies. While recovering from a relationship that had turned toxic, Jillian discovered approaches to healing — beyond diet and lifestyle — that finally started to address some of the issues at the root of her physical symptoms.
What health issues are you dealing with, when did they begin, and how long did it take to get a diagnosis?
I have ulcerative colitis and fibromyalgia. I was diagnosed with UC in 1995 when I was just 15 years old. The fibromyalgia didn’t set in until 15 years later, after a particularly bad flare of my UC that required hospitalization and left me bed ridden for months. The pain condition took much longer to diagnose since it’s more or less a matter of someone believing you, which is easier said than done if you’re a woman, am I right ladies?!
Describe what the lowest point on your health journey was like.
The lowest point in my health journey was about 12 years after my initial diagnosis, I couldn’t get health insurance coverage because of my pre-existing condition, which was exactly why I needed it (*palm to face). And I flared so badly I was unable to work. I could barely function.
The only treatment I could afford was massive amounts of steroids, which as we know are dirt cheap but also have intense side effects. They wreaked havoc with my mental state and caused my bones to degrade to the point of osteoporosis by my late 20s.
When I could finally afford a colonoscopy, my disease had progressed so much that I was told I might have to remove my colon. And in fact, it was cavalierly suggested to me as a “cure” for my disease.
Up until this point I had followed my doctors “orders” and always thought they had all the answers. But it didn’t add up to me that there was zero advice about what I could do for my health besides drugs and surgery.
What challenges influenced you to look for a solution? Basically, what was the tipping point?
I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my fiancé, feeling immense shame about allowing myself to get so sick. I felt like a burden, like it was somehow my fault. And I knew this man I was marrying deserved better. I realized that I had outsourced something that was my responsibility, and that the only option left was to find the answers for myself. I knew I wasn’t getting the whole picture from my conventional medical doctors and I started to ask A LOT more questions about my “orders”.
When you found a protocol to help you heal, what was it and what was your first indication that it was working?
When I finally invested in a naturopathic doctor, I began to see the options I had. I read Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall. She was a mother who devoted her life to helping her daughter use food to reverse the same illness I had, after years of being discouraged by her doctors. Which simultaneously felt all too familiar and gave me the hope I needed to keep searching.
Shortly thereafter I was introduced to The Paleo Approach by Sara Ballantyne. This was the book that spelled out to me in understandable language and graphics the science of WHY inflammation occurs and HOW our immune systems become dis-regulated to the point of self-sabotage.
Through radical diet change and targeted supplementation, I was able to reverse much of my disease in a short period of time. After that I educated myself on the microbiome and the role of gut bacteria. I even tried a treatment called Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT) which not only helped with my gut health, joint pain and energy levels, but it alleviated my anxiety and depression in a way that I wouldn’t have even believed possible had I not experienced it myself. Even my doctor had to begrudgingly admit that I had done something to lower my inflammatory markers drastically! I knew I was onto something…
What resources have you used on your healing journey so far and how did you find them?
The truth is, after several years of singularly focused research and self-experimentation I still felt as though my healing had plateaued. I could not figure out what was still holding me back. Honestly, I felt a lot like that Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind. I had so much information and no real answers. And I was growing weary of the fight.
What happened next was a complete blindside. I made shocking and painful discoveries in my marriage that no one should ever have to make. I went on to endure relentless abuse at the hands of this person that I had trusted with my life. A person I had been so devoted to, so careful not to burden or scare off. And at this point my world came crashing down.
I became skeletal again almost immediately, despite my emotional state being the only thing that had changed. And it occurred to me at that point that I had been in a toxic relationship. I had defended and justified unhealthy and unsupportive behavior because I was afraid of being abandoned. Which I now recognize as a common stress response called “Fawn”. Look it up. Are you a people pleaser? You might just be fawning because you feel insecure or unsafe.
I realized what I was missing all along, I had been living under a constant state of stress for over a decade. This is where a deeper understanding of trauma and its connection to chronic illness illuminated the rest of the puzzle for me.
Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score, showed me how unresolved emotional stress takes up residence in our bodies resulting in disease and dysfunction. This led me to explore the mind body connection and the work of Gabor Mate and Peter Levine, among others. At the time I didn’t know I was being abused in my relationship, but my body did, and it was trying to tell me.
As awful as that experience was, it taught me a few things: It taught me to trust my intuition, it taught me to stand up for myself, it taught me that stress not only plays a role in our well-being but it could be the one thing standing in the way of your healing, and it taught me that my body isn’t against me. My body was doing everything it could to alert me to the problem, I just hadn’t been listening.
I realized that eating right and meeting all my biological needs was only the first layer of change I needed to make. And that if I wanted to truly heal on a deeper level, I needed to regulate my nervous system and unburden myself of all the heavy emotions I had been carrying around for years. I turned to breathwork, meditation, and self-compassion for ever thinking that I was a burden, or that I had to prove my worth to anyone.
Did your doctors suggest any treatments that you rejected and if so, why did you choose to try other methods?
*See answer to question 2
It can seem like our lives are consumed by a chronic illness, but there is so much beyond those struggles. What brings you true joy right now?
I am now more secure in my mind, body and spirit than I have ever been in my life. The good thing about everything burning to the ground around you, is that you get to decide how to rebuild. What to keep, what to leave, and what is essential to your heart and soul. To be honest, after the initial mourning period passes, it feels a lot like freedom.
What brings me joy now is entertaining my beloved dog Parker Posey, who despite not having any eyes, sees me better than most. I enjoy photography, writing, gardening, cooking healthy food, laughing with friends, spending healing time in nature grounding my energy to the earth.
And illuminating for women the medical gaslighting and toxic dynamics in the healthcare system (or even in their interpersonal relationships) that are contributing to their illness. Hey, we all need to have some fun once in a while, right?! 😉
It is a great privilege to be able to use my experience in my coaching practice and to help other women realize their innate potential to heal themselves on their own terms. And I am so thankful for this community of like-minded warriors offering support and encouragement to the desperate and discouraged souls out there needing direction.
These connections we make with each other are the key to our collective healing. And I’m convinced this shared experience has given us all a greater purpose. Together we can make a difference, together we can heal the world.
Would you like to share your Story of Recovery? Let us know by filling out our interest form.