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5 things I’ve learnt from esophageal achalasia

Juicy giraffes.

© aNadventures

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Having considered myself relatively healthy for most of my life, I was quite surprised when my esophagus turned ill in what felt like an out of the blue situation. 

It all started in mid-2018. I was having lunch with a potential employer when I felt a strange cramp in my throat and had to make a big effort not to throw up the delicious food I was chewing. I didn’t finish my plate and somehow made it through the remainder of the job interview with my troubles going unnoticed, or so I assume. 

The symptoms, however, started multiplying, regardless of what I was eating or drinking. My initial assumption of me having an allergic reaction to some specific spice or food turned less and less likely. When I finally had tests carried out in hospital by mid-2019, I learnt that there was a term for what I had been experiencing: esophagal achalasia. This is a rather rare dysfunction of the muscle joining the esophagus and the stomach.  

In a nutshell: Whatever I eat or drink may get stuck and pile up halfway, forcing me to throw up all of a sudden. It’s not painful but it can be quite uncomfortable, especially in social situations, as you may imagine. Nonetheless, there are some lessons this illness has taught me that I’m thankful for:  

1. Every bite matters

Throughout the last year, I’ve noticed that my behaviour towards food has considerably changed. I used to be a passionate foodie. I still am. But the pleasure I take from taking a decent bite has been very much reduced, I won’t lie. As my capacity to take in food is much more limited than it used to be, I now make very conscious choices of how to nourish myself. These choices mainly depend on fueling up my energy levels and getting as many nutrients as possible. I’m also forced to eat slowly and to carefully chew my food as every bite will take its time to trickle through the malfunctioning muscle joining the esophagus and the stomach. It’s not uncommon for me to feel my stomach rumbling all while the food is piling up in the esophagus. I then have to be particularly mindful with my body: Am I hungry? Or am I full? Let’s just take one bite at a time. I know for sure that every bite will matter. 

2. My body knows what’s best for me

Long before I knew there was something seriously wrong with my health, I started being in the mood for soups, soups and more soups. Two years ago, I got a hand blender for Christmas and we’ve been inseparable ever since. When the symptoms aggravated and I could eat less and less solid foods, I understood what my body had been preparing me for. Porridge, soups and smoothies are my favourites these days while it’s almost impossible for me to make it through a bowl of rice or an entire pizza. Never having been particularly fond of coffee, I now crave the substance on a regular basis, as I have the impression it makes my ill muscle relax in some kind of way, finally allowing the food to make its way to the stomach. Even if it may all just be in my head, I truly believe my body knows what’s best for me and makes me crave the foods I can handle best. 

3. My shape does not define me

As you may have guessed from what I’ve previously described, I lost quite some weight throughout the last few months, especially as the condition has gotten worse. I’ve been rather slim for most of my life but gained some curves throughout the last few years which I’d come to like about myself. People who know my previous foodie version are now rather concerned about how bony I’ve become. I tell myself that curvy or bony, I’m still me, regardless of my shape. 

4. People who genuinely care are priceless

Feeling rather weak, I must confess I haven’t been the best version of myself in recent times. The people close to my heart showing genuine interest and asking how I’ve been feeling have been very uplifting, though. There’s a saying stating that you’ll know your true friends once you find yourself in an uncertain situation. This holds true for what I’ve experienced throughout my days in hospital and beyond. Seeing my mum show up as I had cables stuck down my throat and as I couldn’t eat for several days in a row or my dear friend Trixie taking off days from work to accompany me to a doctor’s appointment in another city, genuinely cheered me up. Knowing that my loved ones care about my well-being is simply priceless. 

5. Body, mind and soul come as a package

Officially, achalasia, as the illness is commonly referred to, has no known underlying cause. It may be a viral autoimmune infection, a kind of neurodegeneration or a hereditary condition. Regardless of its name or classification, what I know for sure is the following: In my case, it’s certainly related to the severe stress my body, mind and soul experienced in the years leading up to the illess’ first appearance in my life. Overload? I swallowed. Heartache? I swallowed. Mobbing? I swallowed. I kept on swallowing until I quite literally couldn’t swallow anymore. And that’s how the agony made itself get noticed, for once. The lesson? I simply won’t swallow things the way I used to. I speak up. I clearly define my boundaries. I talk about my feelings. It’s a work in progress but it’s so worth it. For the sake of my overall well-being. 

Life goes on, no matter what. There are good days and bad days. Sometimes I can eat as if nothing ever happened, other days I hardly even manage to get down a bite or two. Knowing that these hard days will pass, makes me grow stronger. I’ve learnt to take every day as it comes. After months of constantly fading energy levels, my recent treatment at the hospital seems to have granted me with some relief at last. As I’m typing these words, I’m feeling quite positive about leading a relatively healthy life, with achalasia by my side, and I’m thankful for every lesson it has taught me. 

How about YOU? Is there anything in particular that you’ve learnt from a recent hardship?


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