Steven’s health case is very different from those of Beth, Joe, and Melissa.

Steven had opened a Pilates studio in my town and was a health nut. He was fanatical about what he ate and how he exercised and how his body felt and looked. He had lots of tattoos and piercings. He was a very passionate man.

Steven had a couple of chronic conditions that were beyond his control, including asthma that would flare up from time to time and for which he required treatment. Other than that, he was in pretty good health—but he would occasionally experience symptoms including headaches, palpitations, and nervousness, and he would become afraid that he was about to have a dangerous asthma attack or even a heart attack. His stress levels accumulated with this mindset. Steven sometimes came to my office for help. We’d run tests to check his heart and lungs, and then we’d reassure him that he was okay. This pattern went on for several years. And once he got his reassurance,  he was back out there teaching Pilates and running and doing his usual thing.

External Uncontrollable Events Affect Our Stress and Health

During this time, Steven also experienced some difficult and stressful circumstances in his personal life. His son, whom he loved dearly, suddenly moved across the country to be with a woman he’d met on the Internet, effectively removing himself from Steven’s life. Steven had an on-again, off-again relationship with his spouse. He had a strong sense of abandonment and was deeply affected when those he cared for seemed to reject him.

Then his business ran into financial trouble during the recession, and his number of visits to my office increased. I began to ponder what the real issue was for Steven. I started to ask him about his feelings of stress and anxiety. He acknowledged that he had a lot of fear. It was clear that those conditions were affecting his health.

Creating a Healthy Mindset By Rebuilding The Foundation

We began to dig into his foundational belief system about himself and about life and death. As it turned out, he had a lot of feelings of insecurity left over from his childhood. He had grown up in a faith system that was dogmatic and punitive, and he continued to believe that his ultimate destiny would be in a bad place and that he could never be forgiven for the things he’d done.

Though my role was not to be Steven’s counselor, I did recommend some books that I thought might open him up to the ideas of compassion and forgiveness. Steven then went out and met with a faith leader from the denomination in which he grew up, but he chose a person who was compassionate and committed to the teachings of unconditional love, forgiveness, and hope. Years later, when Steven came into my office for a check-up, he had a new tattoo. This one was very subtle. It was symbolic of the fact that he was loved, he said, and he began to cry as he told me about it. He said he felt completely forgiven for his past mistakes and that he had begun to feel truly alive and present for the first time in his life.

When Fear Is Diminished, Purpose and Peace Are Found

The most astonishing thing about Steven’s story is that all the things he feared then actually came to pass. His son died of a drug overdose. His wife left him permanently. When he came in to see me after those things had happened, he was grieving and depressed.
“Do you need medicine for anxiety?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”
The old Steven surely would have been wrecked by these events, but this new Steven was resilient. He said that he didn’t feel abandoned; even as his worst fears came true, he was able to remember that he was
loved. “I’m not afraid,” he said.

But that’s not the end of the story. A while after that, Steven came in to see me with severe chest pain. He’d just had shoulder surgery, but the pain didn’t seem to be the result of that. So I ordered some tests. It turned out that the bones of his spine, his scapula, and his ribs were riddled with tumors. He was treated for the cancer, and for a while he went into remission. I saw him periodically over those years as he tried to fight off the disease. And even through this horrific period, his outlook remained positive.

“I lived all those years healthy but afraid,” he told me. “Which means that, really, I was unhealthy. Now, here I am. I’ve lost the people closest to me. I’m dying of this incurable disease. And yet every day, I’m alive and I’m well—and I’m not afraid.”

Steven had gotten one more tattoo. Its essential meaning was that perfect love casts out fear. He no longer had panic attacks or palpitations; he had left all that behind. When the cancer finally took him, he went without fear.

Melissa is the office manager at a busy doctor’s office. She is short in stature and has been severely obese for years. Her work is sedentary and very stressful, so she doesn’t get much exercise. She’s gone through a number of significant family stressors over the past several years that adversely influenced her health. Melissa has multiple sclerosis (MS) and has been treated for it with various medications.

Constantly Sick Is No Way to Live Life

When I first started working with Melissa, she was frequently sick, often coming in for sinus infections and other maladies. She was generally tired, her body hurt, and she could not lose weight. Though she had always been heavy, she said she was athletic as a child and exercised, and her current physical health was nothing like it should have been, based on her own history.

Despite her chronic disease and other challenges, she continued to work hard and to engage in life in a meaningful way. She had purpose, but she lacked the physical health to engage with her purpose in the way she wanted to. She was committed to working on her health until she got better.

Off The Couch, With Willpower

The last thing you would have predicted for Melissa was that she would take up running as a way of addressing her issues. She was significantly overweight, with poor posture from her sedentary work, and on medications for a serious chronic autoimmune disorder—hardly an obvious candidate for running. But she decided to enroll in a “couch to 5K” program as a way to exercise. She followed the step-by-step process: first walking, then jogging, until at last she completed her 5K. At that point, she felt so good that she began to use Weight Watchers to track her nutrition. She also drew on some of the resources my office gave her to help her choose foods wisely.

Today: No Infections, Improved Energy, A Sense of Purpose

When I saw Melissa recently, I learned that she’s now in a running club and she’s planning for races of longer distances.

  • She’s no longer on her medication for reflux, and we had to stop her blood pressure medication because her blood pressure has decreased so markedly.
  • We haven’t seen her for an infection in months.
  • Her pain is far less than it was, her energy has improved, she’s sleeping better, and her mental clarity is great.

She feels alive. She also feels determined to continue to improve her health, and even potentially to reduce the impact that MS has on her body and her daily life. Melissa has lost fifty pounds through exercise and diet. Her BMI still suggests that she’s still significantly obese—but we’re not really worried about that. We’re focused on the fact that she feels good, she’s healthier, she has good conditioning, and she’s eating healthy foods. She just needs to keep doing what she’s doing.

Joe was a middle-aged mechanic with about forty pounds of extra weight around his belly when he first visited my office. Joe said he had chronic low-back pain and felt tired a lot of the time, although he’s tough and not one to complain about his ailments.

He was drinking six beers every night to relax, but he’d never had any problems arise from his drinking; he tried to be very responsible and had no criminal issues. He also used tobacco.

Joe said he didn’t eat breakfast or much in the way of lunch. At dinner, though, he ate a whole lot of food, and generally not very good food. He was open about that.

He said he felt angry about the state of the economy and the elections and various laws that he felt invaded his privacy. He had high blood pressure that was not well controlled, high triglycerides, pre-diabetes, and chronic reflux, for which he had to take powerful acid suppressors regularly. He was also on a pain medication that didn’t help him a whole lot. Overall, Joe didn’t feel good at all.

The Pain of Managing Pain Medication

One of his previous doctors had prescribed him hydrocodone for pain. When he’d switched doctors, the new doctor refused to continue the prescription. Joe doesn’t trust doctors. “I don’t want more hydrocodone anyway,” Joe had said when the doctor refused him the prescription, “because it wasn’t working. I just want my pain to go away.” Joe can’t even take basic ibuprofen, because it gives him stomach ulcers.

When Joe came into my office, one of the first things we looked at was the role of his diet in his physical discomfort, and the fact that his reflux medication—which allowed him to continue eating unhealthy foods—was potentially causing painful side effects. We also talked about how the six beers each night were keeping him from getting
restorative sleep. I told him that, if he could cut back even to three beers each night, he would probably sleep a bit better and lose some weight.

What Joe really wanted was to ease his back pain. We explained that the forty pounds around his belly—which he was carrying around all day in his physical job as a mechanic—were the primary cause of his back pain. After taking X-rays, we concluded that there was nothing about his condition that wasn’t reversible, because he was mainly
suffering from muscle strain.

After his initial appointments, Joe started to believe that his diet and drinking, as well as his lack of sleep and body habits, might be the source of his problem. He started to believe he actually could feel better, and he started to want that for himself.

Still, he was slow and deliberate in making changes to his life and habits.

In the first year, Joe slowly reduced his beer consumption from six to three a night, though he often drank more on the weekends. He started trying the exercises we gave him to stretch out his hamstrings and hips and to strengthen his core. He also started to improve his eating habits. Instead of eating only dinner, he began eating two meals a day, and he changed some of his choices to source his foods a bit better. Joe even brought his wife into our office—because she’s the one who does the grocery shopping—so we could tell her how to shop for him. Since Joe is a meat-and-potatoes guy, we showed him how to eat in that way while still getting the right kinds of nutrients.

Joe started to sleep a little better. His mood improved. He started exercising more.

12 Months Later…

One year after he began making these changes, he was still on blood pressure medication and a prescription for his reflux, and he was still using muscle relaxers for his back pain. He was still frustrated and angry about the state of the world.

Two years later…

Two years out, Joe rarely drinks beer anymore. He’s realized that it actually doesn’t make him feel any better and that it was just a habit. He’s lost twenty of the forty pounds he needs to lose. His back pain is a lot better. Every morning, he does a fifteen-minute workout with his wife that’s designed to stretch their bodies and improve their core strength so they can both be healthier.

Joe is now eating in a much healthier way, and he says that his energy has improved. He’s cut his reflux medication in half. He’s no longer pre-diabetic and he has normal triglycerides. We still treat his blood pressure, though, and he hasn’t quit tobacco yet, though he hopes to one day.

Looking ahead to the future

Next year, we’re hoping that Joe can lose ten more pounds, quit tobacco, and come off his reflux medication altogether. But in the meantime, he reports that he feels a whole lot better. In many ways, Joe is a different person from who he’d been when I first met him.