Just as it is with my addiction recovery, the more work I put into taking care of my physical self, the better results I get. And I’ve learned this the hard way: as someone suffering from an autoimmune disease, like so many other recovering addicts and alcoholics, I have to be especially careful with my body, and when I'm not, I leave myself susceptible to painful flare-ups and inflammation. For my spiritual and emotional recovery, I have to take certain steps to stay well—for me, it’s going to meetings, helping others, staying connected to my sober network, and taking care of my relationships. For my physical recovery, I have another set of steps I need to follow. The only way for me to be healthy, happy, and useful to others is to actively pursue all three kinds of recovery: spiritual, emotional, and physical.
What is Ankylosing Spondylitis?
Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that can cause some of the vertebrae in your spine to fuse, which makes the spine less flexible and can lead to a hunched-forward posture. If the ribs are affected, it can be hard to breathe deeply, and inflammation can also occur elsewhere, especially in the eyes. I had a flare-up in my right eye about five years ago and was diagnosed with Uveitis, an inflammation of the iris, but for the most part I’ve been lucky enough to have good vision with no need for a prescription. I was diagnosed with AS when I was twenty-eight, but I’ve had stiffness and pain since my late teens.
Complacent and Suffering
Growing up, I was very active in sports and martial arts, and I was embarrassed that my pain sometimes kept me on the sidelines. Even after my diagnosis, I was afraid to share about what I was going through with my well-meaning family and friends: even though everyone was sympathetic, I felt alone in my disease. It was too scary to face head-on, and trying to explain how I felt to others—that living in my 20 or 30 or 40-year old body sometimes felt like being 90—felt overwhelming and impossible.
As an adult, my problems with alcohol and drug addiction worsened, I felt more and more isolated in my twin illnesses: addiction and AS. I worked as a chef and wine consultant for most of my adult life, and the physical demands of the job left me in pain every day. Slowly I was forced to downsize my active lifestyle, and I grew more dispondent as my health deteriorated.
The Way Out
After many false starts, relapses, run-ins with the law and interventions, I finally had a spiritual awakening. I decided to surrender, accept help and give my recovery a full and thorough effort. I connected myself to a strong and caring sober community, and held myself accountable to them daily.. And day by day I started to feel better. I felt a healing peace of mind, body and spirit that I had never felt before.
A few years after I came into addiction recovery, I decided to pursue a career path focused on others’ recovery, including integrative nutrition,and accupuncture. Because I was pursuing a new career—not to mention a new way of life, without drugs and alcohol and with a new spiritual purpose—I was forced to look at the way I’d been treating my body. I realized that in order to be truly authentic to my clients, I neede to practice what I was preaching. I knew I could do better, and I knew I could feel better, too. I did some research and found out that some people with AS find relief through an elimination diet, yoga, fasting, and meditation. I knew what I had to do, but I was afraid—so just as I’d been taught through recovery of addiction, I did some reflection. I wrote out my fears, hopes, the obstacles and challenges I might face, and what I had to gain. More than anything, I wanted total remission: genuine, continued relief, not the temporary relief (and the side effects) of painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs.
I ate very carefully and thoughtfully, I changed my exercise routine to include yoga and stretching, and I started taking vitamins and supplements. Thanks to a clean diet and the right kind of exercise, my pain lessened, and I began to enjoy a more active lifestyle again. Eventually, I also started seeing Dr. Scott Bienenfeld (paindoctornyc.com), an addiction psychiatrist who along with his pain specialist associates, helped to give me consistant relief and taught me holistic ways to remain pain free. Being under the care of someone who understands addiction puts my mind at ease, and Dr. Bienenfeld’s treatment has made an enormous improvement in my quality of life.
My New Life
Recovery from dependence on drugs and alcohol gave me a new life and a new purpose, but for years I was still held back by AS. It wasn’t until applying the tools I've learned in my spiritual recovery to my physical recovery that I truly felt whole, body and mind. Through my physical recovery of AS I have also lost a significant amount of weight, and I can also proudly say that I’m in the best shape of my life. Now, since I’m in much less pain, I can be the best me possible—for my kids, my family, and for myself. Today I am the managing principal of Life Assurance Recovery, a recovery services company, offering interventions, recovery coaching and case management to people struggling with addiction and mental health issues. A lot of my personal experiences of addiction and recovery goes into my fulfilling work, in hopes to spark some inspiration and hope in another person's life and help them in their struggle.
Recovery from drugs and alcohol is so much more than putting down the substance: it’s a spiritual, emotional, and physical journey, a brand new way of living in the world. For me, part of that journey was managing my AS. And now I can say that no matter what’s holding you back, the tools of recovery can work for you—as long as you apply them. I know they did for me.