There’s nothing quite like facing a kidnap threat in an Islamic country, being bombed/shot at, or thinking you’re going down in a chopper, to make you understand how stress affects you. In my case, as a journalist covering war zones for CNN and the BBC, in the short term, the lightening bolt of adrenalin made my senses razor sharp, appeared to slow time  as well as totally clearing my fogged up brain so I could flee the near death situations.
But what happens when the amygdala/stress response remains permanently activated, even in the absence of stressful stimuli? In non-mast cell folks, this can lead to depression, anxiety and more. In a recent interview, which I have yet to translate and post, renowned mast cell expert Dr Escribano shared that stress hormones can be our number one trigger, causing mast cells to activate/degranulate, releasing their cargo (histamine, heparin, prostaglandins, interleukins and more) into our blood stream and brain.
At the bottom of this post you’ll find a link to part two of my interview with mast cell expert Dr Mariana Castells. She shares her take on how stress affects mast cells.
The mast cell degranulation/histamine release due to stress hormones also messes with our neurotransmitters, affecting our mood and ability to handle stress (you know histamine is a neurotransmitter right?). In my case I began suffering from a chronic state of hyper arousal whereby I experienced the fight or flight response, on an hourly basis, for over a decade. As I was no longer working in war zones, and so didn’t require this massive boost to evade death, this excess had nowhere to go and my body was wracked with anxiety and even seizures. Eventually I believe that my body began to accept this state as the norm, and so began a destructive loop.
Now, while yes, absolutely, we do indeed have plenty to be stressed about healthwise, and goodness knows, eating is a minefield when you know one wrong bite can kill you, but there are a number of studies showing that an allergic reaction can be provoked in test subjects who wrongly believe they’ve been exposed to an allergen. How? Simply by recreating the environment in which the subject was previously exposed (just like in my favourite book A Clockwork Orange) – ie, same music, lighting, smells. Sounds like scifi right? Except I’ve experienced it. One study in particular  provoked mast cell degranulation and a resulting nasal tryptase increase in this manner! So am I saying this is all in our heads? Not really. But we do play our part…
There was certainly a time when my body was so sensitive that I responded to strong odours (perfumes, cleaning products, fabric softener), and foods (low, high, medium histamine), so violently that I wished I could live in a bubble. I bought masks to shield me from pollen and pollution, addressing the world from my command centre (ie nestled deep into my duvet); completely terrorised by this alien world so full of horrors. And so I became a recluse, convinced that one wrong move had the potential to kill me. Ironically, though I had dealt with my personal safety in war zones in a most cavalier way, always putting adventure and getting the story ahead of good sense; I suddenly saw myself as a helpless bunny rabbit in the jaws of life. But still I clung to my “victory”: after decades of trying to convince people that I was actually ill – that it wasn’t all in my head; I was finally vindicated.
It came at a price.
In my efforts to diagnose myself and convince others of my ill health, I had become so hyper focused on every tiny thing happening in my body, on the minutae that made my family’s (and my own) head spin like a plutonium powered dryer, that I lost sight of how wonderful life is and that I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
Because being ill isn’t a life at all.
And so it became impossible to break free of my self imposed prison. While my body healed by leaps and bounds (thanks to my high nutrient diet), my mind was locked in a battle of the inane.
I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, claiming we like to be ill. We are dealing with poorly understood conditions (histamine intolerance, mast cell activation, mastocytosis) and we’ve often dealt with decades of being told we’re: exagerating, that we’re not as sick as we are, that we just need to want to be healthy. Sadly, I was actually convinced that I did want to be well – despite the years of telling myself “I’m so sick I want to die” and “life isn’t worth living” and “I hate my life, please let me die”.
With thoughts like that it’s hard not to be ill. I now understand that I’m only as sick as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not delusional, I am dealing with a medical condition, but we all are. Death is a medical condition. As my man often told me (trying to jolt me out of a toxic mindset), we are dying from the day we’re born, so why not make the best of the time we have?
And that’s ultimately what I understood. I had been dying to be sick, because I needed people to understand what I was going through. In the process, I lost myself to illness. It became a way of life, the only reality my body and mind knew. It’s only recently that a decent amount of soul searching turned up that being ill as a child was the only way to plead attention from a mother who rarely found it necessary to show her face at home. I can still remember the bottled emotions building up, threatening to overwhelm me as I watched her get ready for yet another fabulous party. I remember having my hearing tested in school and praying something was wrong. I remember the day I was beside myself with glee because my deteriorating eyesight meant my mother would have to accompany me to the doctor. Sadly it ended up with my having to sport a hideous pair of Chanel circa 1963 pink tinted glasses. Oy vey! Doctor visits became our twisted family outings as she struggled to keep up with my symptoms.
Thankfully I came to understand that it’s ok to be healthy, that I am no longer a child, and even when ill, I don’t need someone to look after me.
This whirlwind of realisations came to me one after the other as my body healed. With the brain fog steadily lifting, I soon realised that it was simply impossible that my body was just so sensitive for no apparent reason and I became determined to discover what was at the heart of my mast cell instability.
Which brought me right back to stress.
You know the ouroboros? It’s a snake/dragon chasing/eatingits tail, found throughout history, in various cultures. Some choose to look at it as a literal representation – that we’re chasing our tails/the chicken or the egg scenario bla bla. Kind of like the stress/mast cell thing.
But how about this:
“The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process…The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.” – Carl Jung.
I have accepted the darkness and made it part of my light. I am dying. We all are. Some will do it sooner than others. Some will allow themselves to enjoy the years they have. I have understood there’s no point if every waking moment is to be spent searching for how to improve my life, at the expense of actually living it.
I’m sure there’s much more exploring, many questions to be answered, dead ends to come up against. But the big bang has happened for me and I’m ready to provide a calm, safe and supportive home for my mast cells. I’ve made hard choices: ending my journalism career, settling down in one (relatively boring) country where the weather is mild and there’s little threat of a coup; listening to the wisdom of those who surround me (and have my best interests at heart – I kick the others to the curb) and being good, true to myself.
I choose to see food as a partner in healing, rather than the force of darkness it once was.
I choose to understand my role in this illness.
I choose to get better, or die trying (just messin’).
In short, to quote a favourite film:
I choose life.