How disease shaped my life for the better

I drifted through childhood tight-chested, detached, and anxious, unable to breathe fully. Sinus infections once a month, face always full of mucus, and clenching my stomach constantly to keep it from aching and spasming and screaming in the middle of tests.

My limbs were twigs but I had B-cup man boobs and a pot belly. I exercised more and more to fix myself but it just left me depleted, head pounding, wanting to die.

My liver enzymes looked like an alcoholics, but doctors wrote it off as “Grave’s disease”, because “there’s no way you can have a liver issue at this age”. And I blindly trusted them because I was in high school and didn’t know anything.

After months of tossing and turning in bed unable to sleep, I started taking melatonin, at twelve years old, biking to CVS and crushing up the 10mg extra strength into neat 300mcg portions to save money.

But since I was an anxious kid, the idea of self-medicating with melatonin made me nervous– I didn’t want to permanently damage my pineal gland or become dependent on it, so every day I’d do a little research. I’d read about the long term safety of melatonin, its mechanism of action, and the experiences of others.

This was my first gift from disease: a life-long obsession with health and a burning motivation to understand the body.

Nobody cares about how their toilet works until it breaks. But unlike the inner workings of toilets, self-understanding is important for everyone. The self is a microcosm of the universe. By understanding the self, we understand everything.

When I first started to feel better, many years later, I would look back on my high school years and feel sad and frustrated. I’d think: man, if only I was just HEALTHY like a normal kid. I could’ve accomplished so much more. I could’ve been so much farther than where I am now.

But this is faulty thinking.

This Chinese parable illustrates it well:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

— Alan Watts

“You never know what will be the consequence of misfortune.”

Maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you still wish things were different. I’ll keep giving my story so I can show you how I turned my illness into growth.

Nietzsche did the same, by the way, you can read about it here.

Yeah I subsist on raw, cold-pressed, chlorophyll left in the sun for thirty-four hours. Really stimulates the mitochondria you know

Towards the end of high school I started studying diet and nutrition.

If you’ve ever gone in depth into modern nutritionism, you’ll know it’s a lost cause. I wasted years experimenting with different diets, vitamins, macro / micro nutrient ratios. Low FODMAP, Whole 30, juicing, fruitarian, keto, carnivore, raw vegan– these diets help some people, sure, but it’s not sound science.

If you were eating cereal and string cheese for every meal and you switch to Whole 30, of course you’ll feel better. Not because Whole 30 is The Answer, but because Whole 30 is miles better than your old, horrifying, eating habits.

Just eat how your great great grandparents ate. Just avoid anything unnatural. Eat in accordance with the seasons. Skip a meal occasionally. That’s enough.

After realizing how much time I wasted going down the rabbit hole of modern nutritional science, I kicked myself again. Why did I reject my own culture? Why did I treat food like tetris, jamming together processed foods so they fit stupid, arbitrary nutrient goals? I would have saved so much time…

But I needed to go through it. I needed to go through it so I wouldn’t get that ‘grass is greener on the other side’ feeling when I’m at home eating yogurt while the health blogosphere is yelling about how dairy causes colon cancer.

Living both sides of the argument cemented my confidence in tradition and culture. And as an added bonus, I can now empathize with people in both camps. I can help people move from one side to the other.

While the diet troubles were going on, I was also bouncing around doctors, doing blood tests, trying to get a useful prescription. After three well-meaning but futile attempts at curing me, I lost hope and took matters into my own hands.

The next step was supplements and nootropics

Damn, I’m never going to find out the root cause of feeling shitty, but maybe, with enough supplements, I can clock my crippled brain into overdrive and still manage a reasonably happy life.

Most of these were a waste of time. But Adderall wasn’t. Calling Adderall a ‘nootropic’ seems like a stretch though.

Adderall changed my worldview. It gave me a taste of my best self, showing me what was possible if I could just focus for an hour straight, on anything.

This taste of competency, however fleeting, showed me how beautiful life could be once the mind becomes one-pointed.

And it cemented the fact that my happiness is much more dependent on my internal chemistry than on external circumstances. On Adderall, the projects I used to dread turned into exciting puzzles. The same exact projects, a completely new light. So the work in front of me didn’t matter nearly as much as my attitude towards it.

I doubled down on my health research, with a new goal: to feel like I was on adderall all the time.

Sleep apnea

As part of my quest I underwent a sleep study and was officially diagnosed with Obstructive Sleep Apnea. (More on this here).

I started using a CPAP machine and for the first time in years woke up feeling well rested.

Having a giant mask strapped to my face all night was embarrassing and uncomfortable, but the sleep it gave me was worth it.

My health still wasn’t great. I still had a lot of stomach and energy issues. But I still thought of the machine as breakthrough progress.

I had a girlfriend at the time and I remember her half-awake, rolling over to kiss me in bed, and groggily planting her lips on this absurd mask she forgot I was wearing. I felt let like a clown, a lame geriatric Bane parody.
I’m 21. How am I this meek?

So I pursued a new goal: ‘I don’t believe any underweight 21 year old is fated to need a CPAP machine. There has to be an alternative. I’m getting to the root cause of this.’

And after eight months, I did. I fixed my “obstructive sleep apnea” naturally.

And this experience made me realize how grossly excessive technology could be. The simple solutions of ancient times are often more elegant and effective than our over-engineered Frankenstein solutions of today. Sleep apnea showed me that simple yogic techniques can, in many cases, replace a thousand dollar machine.

The Wind Rash Mystery

before and after

While the sleep apnea saga was going on, a new mole in my whack-a-mole series of health problems popped up: huge, unexplained rashes all over my body.
It’d pop up all over my arms and chest Monday, disappear Tuesday morning, only to show up on my face in the afternoon.

I went to my primary care doctor. He told me I’d probably been exposed to posion ivy while hiking, to take some zyrtec, and hope for the best…

Then I went to a gastroenterologist who tested me for gluten intolerance (negative), told me to take a SIBO test (not covered by insurance, even if I had SIBO, the cure was iffy), asked me over and over again if I had any allergies (I don’t), and concluded with “yeah I don’t know, you’re going to have to go to an allergist”.

I told him it flares up in the wind so it’s probably not an allergy. He laughed at me trying to LARP as a doctor.

I went to a dermatologist. She prescribed me a steroid cream and told me to hope for the best.

I scheduled an allergist appointment and braced myself for more dissapointment, frustration, and wasted time. But before my appointment date, I stumbled upon some articles about rashes that flare up in the wind and they sounded exactly like what I was suffering from.

But none of the sources were from the perspective of western medicine. It was all traditional. I had a hunch that this was it. And I knew for a fact that the allergist wouldn’t know shit about it.

So I started seeing an Ayurvedic doctor, I bought a bunch of textbooks on Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, and eventually, through various alternative therapies, the rash finally subsided.

I was not “allergic” to anything.

The Tables Have Turned

I grew up believing science had the best solutions.

Tradition was barbaric, irrational, and ignorant. Doctors were superheros.

Each new health problem took me on a tour of the Western medical system.

They showed me up close and personal how terrible it could be. And this loosened my dogmatic faith in modern medicine and softened my view towards the alternatives, until I finally replaced my extreme skepticism of minority viewpoints with a new open-mindedness, self-reliance, and cultural wisdom.

“Sometimes it takes chronic sickness, suffering, pain, and a confrontation with the fear of death before a person is willing to let go of cherished beliefs and open up to the truth of clinical reality.” – David Hawkins, Letting Go

If life was easy that would’ve been the end of it.

After finding Ayurveda I should’ve started glowing. My pot belly should’ve morphed into a six pack and I should’ve felt high on life 24/7.

I learned my lesson. I realized my mistakes. I knew disease was my guide up to this point, but I had graduated right? It was time to enjoy life.

Sadly it didn’t go down like that.

Some days I’d feel amazing. I’d think I was totally cured of everything. I’d jump out of bed breathing freely and easily and would eat a large pizza for breakfast with no issues. I’d feel an energy I hadn’t felt since I was a little kid.

But as soon as I tasted success, I’d wake up the next day feeling awful. Not nearly as awful as I used to, thankfully, but I could never maintain that beautiful state of health and energy that I knew was possible.

I kept banging my head against textbooks, researching new herbs and new cleanses. But nothing worked consistently.

It was frustrating to admit, but I haven’t actually graduated. Disease isn’t done with me yet.

The first part of my journey was figuring out the physical. How to interact with the physical world, what to eat, how to listen to my body, how to live in accordance with nature.

But the body is downstream from the mind. You can never maintain perfect health if the mind is disturbed, no matter how much green juice you’re drinking.

A large part of me is still attached to my old desires. It craves recognition, drugs, television, self-destructive-for-the-sake-of-it pleasures, violent music, and excessive wealth.

When I’m sick, my instinct for self-recovery puts these desires aside. Energy and health are higher priority. Drinking can wait.

But when health is taken care of, I move down the to-do list from Health to Hedonic Pleasure and Validation.

I’d wake up feeling good and my first thought would be “HELL YEAH I FINALLY FEEL GOOD. TIME TO CELEBRATE.” I would springboard from extreme tamas (dullness, lethargy) to extreme rajas (passion, lust, ambition), leaping over the goal, sattva (clarity, equanimity). I had no balance.

As soon as I had energy, all my discipline would go out the window. I wanted to make up for all the “lost time” I spent on stoic and silent ashram meals and hours of meditation.

But the thing is, it wasn’t “lost time”. My meditations were blissful. But, regressed to my old mindset, I’d forget.

I’d think: if something looks boring, its bad– lost time. And what looks more boring than sitting down with your eyes closed, doing absolutely nothing? I’d gloss over the importance of inner experience, simply looking at the aesthetics of the situation. I’d forget my actual feelings in those moments and would think wow I really tortured myself huh. I deserve to let loose for a bit…

Eventually I recognized this. But the solution seemed simple.

I made a note, “don’t party as soon as you feel good. you’ll screw it up. trust me.”

But “don’t party” didn’t address the root cause. It just surpressed the symptom.

Partying is just a symptom of the real issue: restlessness.

I didn’t think I could be happy just sitting around doing nothing. My mind was to restless. I have to do something life is short I have to live it I have to feel good what should I do???

I was trained to think I need to do something “fun” to be happy. And what are “fun” activities?

Well the people balling out in rap music videos seem like they’re having a lot of fun. I should do that.

And so it goes.

When I stopped myself from partying, my restlessness just morphed into over-ambition and anxiety. Instead scheming for short-term gratification which society deems as “bad”, I stressed over long-term gratification which society deems as “good”. Really, both are bad.

“OK OK I FEEL GOOD TODAY SHIT HOW DO I MAXIMIZE PRODUCTIVITY– I’VE WASTED SO MUCH TIME TRYING TO FEEL GOOD AND HERE I AM FEELING GOOD IT’S HAPPENING I GOTTA DO SOMETHING NOWS MY CHANCE” and I’d run around in circles doing scattered work and excessive planning, stressing about absolutely nothing until I burned out and felt like shit once again.

It was all still rajas, just a different form.

And it manifested physically too. It’d give me these small gallstones, something I never used to suffer from. According to TCM, the gallbladder is connect to ambition, and unfulfilled desires damage the gallbladder and liver. They’d be painful and ruin my digestion, but they’d pass (with the help of herbs) without complications. Like a slap on the wrist.

Disease is a tough teacher.

When I was healthy, self-improvement seemed silly.

I’m here. I made it. What else is there to improve? Time to accomplish something

But I never actually made it. I had my physical body in order, but my vital and mental bodies were still screwed up.

So under this illusion of health, I directed my energies outwards. But a screwed up mental or energetic body will taint all your engagements with the world.

This is a state many people live in. And they don’t recognize it because an unhealthy worldview is much harder to detect than a full body rash.

This is the successful, high powered CEO that created jobs and upped the GDP, but also ruthlessly price gouged and cannabilized small businesses, established a monopoly, paid his employees as little as possible, dodged all taxes, and vented his frustration at his son.

He tells himself “the ends justify the means”. He sees what he built and takes pride in his accomplishments. But his accomplishment, while it comes with some benefits, will always be tainted with the suffering he created along the way.

And yes while his life may be more fun and exciting than us plebs and while he might have a beautiful wife and the money to experience the finest pleasures on earth, the sense of lacking that motivated all this hard work will never leave.

It’ll never leave because it’s a lack that cannot be filled by what you do. It can only be filled by changing how you do it.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t trade Taco Bell and a 2001 Carolla for michellen star meals and ferraris– of course I would. But the luxuries don’t matter nearly as much as your ability to enjoy them.

This is why I’m grateful for my illness. It forced me to introspect.

Now, you don’t need to be ill to introspect, of course. Any suffering can bring you to a place of introspection. But that’s the key. We all have to suffer to grow.

Sure, it’s possible to introspect without suffering. But few have the motivation. I know I wouldn’t. Most only change when up against the wall.

And through this forced introspection I found a more permanent joy.

A joy independent of what’s on Netflix, who I’m drinking with, or who I’m dating. And sure, sometimes I would much rather be a normal twenty-something with that vibrantly indulge in normal hedonistic pleasures without consequence. But this feeling fades a bit more each day.

Deep down in my gut there’s a deepening well of gratitude. It grows a bit every time I feel joy in being.

And as I see this inner transformation, I am reassured that my suffering, which used to look so cruel and arbitrary, does has a purpose. And this gives me optimism.

I used to look into the past and cringe over how much of life “I wasted” feeling anxious, sick, and weak. I used to wish I could do it all over, knowing what I know now.

Now I look back into the past, I see the beautifully strange way in which my life is unfolding, and am simply excited by the narrative. Excited to see where it will go next, and grateful for the progress I’ve made towards it’s mysterious culmination.

Think about who you are now vs. who you were before you were sick.

Not physically, but mentally.

Think about what bothered you then and what bothers you now.

Has disease changed your perspective for better or worse?

If you were to regain your past vitality (which you will!), knowing everything you know now, would you be better off, or worse off?

Would you appreciate life more or less?

Published by Karthik Bala

trying hard to figure shit out

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