How I Heal: Sarah Hrudka Behlke

Name: Sarah Hrudka Behlke
Age: 31
Location: St. Paul, MN
Who: textbook empath, type 2 + 7 Enneagram hybrid, creative entrepreneur, photographer, Mama—who’s never met a stranger.
Healing from: Lyme Disease, Adrenal Burnout, Leaky Gut, OCD, Anxiety (Basically chock full of fun party tricks!)
The symptoms: Debilitating fatigue, burning joint pain, brain fog, GI issues

It’s honestly hard to even remember now when I started feeling sick; isn’t that how it goes? Once something becomes chronic–regardless of what it is–anything before that feels distant and implausible. There’s of course the chicken or the egg theory, which I find as overwhelming to rationalize as the concept of outer space. So instead I focus on healing now, while looking at the more recent years when I can start to pinpoint the root of such attrition. Spoiler: It’s all related.

I’ve likely had Lyme disease for a number of years; my prediction after long contemplation would be a greater part of two decades. I grew up running in the woods of Wisconsin and swimming naked in the creek. (Though I should point out you can contract Lyme disease anywhere, even if you didn’t spend your youth as brazen Mowgli. And while we’re educating, fewer than 30% ever see the trademark ‘bullseye’ rash.)

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the years in my 20’s when I prided myself on how little sleep I could run on, succumbing to ‘the hustle’ juggling full time work, school, internships and a semblance of a social life. I so desperately clung to the need to excel at my crafts and be the reliable, loyal go-to. Pepper in some emotional trauma and I laid a solid breeding ground for my poor adrenal glands to sizzle, gut to suffer, and disease to flourish.

Fewer than 30% of Lyme sufferers ever see the trademark ‘bullseye’ rash.

Unbeknownst to me, Lyme was brewing, and it was wreaking havoc on these two precious little cannellini beans that rest on top of my kidneys. I was completely unaware of what adrenal glands even were until a functional MD told my tear-laden face, at the age of 27. I was 28 when someone finally diagnosed me with Lyme and gave legitimacy to everything I was feeling. And it wasn’t until this year, at the ripe age of 31, did a therapist diagnose what I thought were my normal coping mechanisms, as OCD. Whether it be age, a baby, or a solid tribe of women behind me, something in me has kicked up a notch in terms of how I am facing healing.

Looking Back/Looking Forward
Which of my illnesses came first? It’s hard to say. I remember one time very soon before I was diagnosed with Lyme—when I had hit a wall and knew I was on the cusp of more answers than I had gotten—I asked my husband to hand me the dish towel. Except I couldn’t think of the words “dish towel” and I completely broke down. I knew it was more than a slip that humans have. I knew deep down to my core that my brain and my being as a whole were not functioning optimally and it was not my fault.

Lyme disease is a spirochete, which means it is shaped like a corkscrew and can permeate into the depths of your cells, unlike almost all other disease, make it difficult to diagnose and easy to hide. It is a stealthy inhibitor that can also lie dormant. In my instance, I can look back and pinpoint times in high school where I thought certain symptoms were chalked up to being an athlete, growing quickly, hormones, etc. And then it was more ‘manageable’ in early college (because it can also lie dormant for periods of time) but then began to flare up and take residence thereafter in my mid 20’s, when I hit the pinnacle of emotional turmoil. That is no coincidence, and with that, it allowed my body to breed and feed off of the vicious cycle it was creating. My adrenals were pumping out cortisol, my body was in a permanent state of inflammation, and Lyme was having a heyday.

“I so desperately clung to the need to excel . . . pepper that with some emotional trauma and I laid a solid breeding ground for my adrenal glands to sizzle, gut to suffer, and disease to flourish.”

At an appointment five months postpartum, my functional MD said that my labs read that I was “running from a tiger,” even if I felt otherwise rather idle. Therefore the idea of balance is a concept that is hard to grasp for someone like me who only sees tipping scales. That is why I have vowed to aim for harmony instead. Simply shifting my thoughts to look at my body as a whole, not segmented, inherently created a conduit for all healing efforts to begin nourishing everything. It’s nothing revelatory but the smallest shift helps immensely; just the sound of it makes the bottom of my exhale a little less shallow.

Permission to Heal
I’ll never forget when I first handled my newborn, aside from the moment that his slippery self was out of the water and onto my chest. I mean truly primal, holding my kid sans the nurse and with a heightened sense of awareness to his fragility. I held him with such conviction and was intently, keenly attuned to his needs and addressing them in the moment. THIS—It turns out that this is the kind of attention I needed to give my body in order for it to begin healing.

It’s not always easy to look at your body as this resplendent beacon, especially if you have hives, your joints feel like sandbags and extreme lethargy looms by 3pm. But it sure does help when you can, because you start to feel worthy of healing. For too long I let the slapdash efforts of some professionals or misunderstood peers tell me that my healing was unworthy (their own words). Or even worse, that my symptoms were conceived in my mind. I began to believe it. But as I dove deeper, a small level of mutiny led me to believe that perhaps I actually do know my body best. The body doesn’t lie, nor does your intuition (because they cohabitate!).

Not taking care of our bodies—our one home—is tantamount to retrieving water from an empty well. When we finally give ourselves permission to heal–– and practice it daily–– there is an internal repose that happens. A fundamental shift that allows the inherent, primal healing instinct to switch on and for your efforts to do their work. When you have had something as a part of your story for so long, whether or not it was diagnosed, it’s almost jarring to think of your life without it. Would you rather do without gut issues or severe joint pain? Of course, there is no doubting that. But often symptoms carry their own suitcases of suppressed emotions, whether we can conceptualize that or not. So perhaps there is a small part of our ego that is afraid to relinquish the reins. All the more reason to. I’ve found myself saying to my reflection “huh, there you are. Let’s keep unpacking these layers because I am excited to meet you.”

“When you have had something as a part of your story for so long, it’s almost jarring to think of your life without it.”

How I’m Healing
When I say I’ve done the legwork on healing modalities, I mean it. There are few that I haven’t tried at least once; both of out of an insatiable curiosity and almost utter desperation to feel some semblance of normal. The trickiest parts of healing something chronic is that it takes time to figure out if it’s working, and when you’re at the bottom of your barrel, patience is thin. It’s also a little like solving a Rubik’s cube––is it the herb that’s helping this? The Infrared Sauna? Removing the inflammatory foods? It feels boggling and frustrating, especially when your brain is not optimal as you know it could be. But I will tell you this with great conviction: it all matters.

After years of compartmentalizing/thinking that different modalities were helping different areas of my body, I’ve learned just how paramount they are for all parts. Healing the body is not a game of Operation. It’s a team sport.

Top contenders currently:
–infrared sauna
–acupuncture and any bodywork when I am able (things get so stagnant in our bodies)
–the proper mix of herb/vitamins by getting tested and basing off of levels.
–I also recently took the food panel test from Everlywell to check for exact IgG levels of 96 different foods and their effects on me. Fascinating and gave me a great roadmap to lowering inflammation as much as possible.
–THERAPY. It was only when I began to peel back the layers with regular therapy, albeit begrudgingly sometimes, that I could suddenly surrender so the healing had room to heal. Truth is, I can ingest all the Cat’s Claw and Ashwagandha and do all the saunas and cupping but at the end of the day, it’s a moot point if I am not tending to the ground that these organs rest on. Unpacking trauma and finding ways to re-wire unhealthy patterns has shown me that I am not my thoughts. Even though life never really gets easier, we do get to develop better tools that can healthily serve us.

“Healing the body is not a game of Operation. It’s a team sport.”

Accepting the Dips: why ‘die-off’ is as crucial as it is miserable
I cleaned my cast iron skillet recently and realized as I was doing it that it was similar to how I was feeling on a day when die-off symptoms were reigning supreme. The bottom of the pan was covered in remnants. The only way to clean it was by boiling water and slowly scraping everything to the surface, rinse, then simply rub some olive oil on for a clean slate. Any egg I tried to fry without taking those steps wouldn’t cook properly.

When you are knee deep in healing, there are often periods of ‘die off’ or ‘herxheimer’ reaction that looks a lot like this. It’s true that almost always, you have to get worse before you get better, which just feels like a cruel joke, especially when regular symptoms mimic that of a herx. This is often why I shut down and don’t talk about it when I’m ‘in it’ because it’s just as confusing for those around me as it is for my own foggy brain. Even an inherent optimist can feel defeated at best in these ‘dips’; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve wanted to throw in the towel during these moments. But lately I have been visualizing this healing happening–– for me, not to me–– and it’s softened my resistance to its growing pains. Don’t get me wrong, I still am enraged and throw one hell of a pity party from time to time, but I am accepting that the perceived set-backs are a required stage of healing.

New Normal
There are days when I wonder why I have to do so much more than others to even maintain some level of homeostasis. And then as quickly as the thought enters my mind, I release it. You see, disease thrives in a hostile environment, and pity and pessimism take up too much prime real estate. I am also highly aware of how much worse it could be—I’m walking, working, bearing children. . . gratitude for it all is not lost on me, not for a second.

Lyme Disease is an infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a type of bacterium carried by deer ticks. Although Lyme Disease is now the most common arthropod-borne illness in the U.S. (more than 150,000 cases have been reported to the CDC since 1982), its diagnosis and treatment can be challenging for clinicians due to its diverse manifestations and the limitations of currently available blood tests. For symptoms and support, Sarah recommends More Than Lyme

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