On Saturday of last week I had a pivotal moment. Lying on my bed, exhausted, exhausted of being exhausted, weak, with a racing heart and chest pain, I had to get up and go to a party. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t stand the idea of making myself do that. But then I took a step back and looked at the larger picture. This was the millionth time I had done this in the last eighteen months, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try again. (Go here for the science behind it all.)
Looking at the pieces of my life and diet, it clicked into making sense in a way that it hadn’t ever before. There was no magnesium in my current diet (I had given up on greens in an effort to reduce my fiber intake). I had enormous salt cravings. The further in time I got from the time I removed greens in my diet, and the more stress I was under, the more salt I craved. In January of 2012, when the anxiety first started, I had also first started taking Spironolactone, a diuretic that flushes magnesium from the body. I have had the poorest sleep of my life in the last eighteen months. There were a million different ways to tell the story of my health, but this was one of them. I thought: why not try some magnesium and see if it helps?
It did. Almost instantaneously I felt better. My brain no longer felt frayed. My heart stopped racing. Magnesium is important for supporting the contraction of heart muscles, and it also is one of the key players (if not the key player) in turning off the firing of nerve cells. Things got quiet in my body. And they no longer felt exhausted. They just felt… normal… and for the first time in longer than I could remember.
My brain was quiet. I wanted to weep with relief, but I was too awe-struck to do so.
In the last eighteen months, I have of course experienced some normalcy. I have been able to hold onto who I am, and I have been able to act and to live and to do things that I would have done ordinarily. I published a book, I started a blog, I went to school and wrote papers. I met men and women and slept with them. I went out dancing. I laughed. But all of it was just. so. hard. to. do.
The world was no longer naturally rosy the way it had been in my first couple of decades. I had to struggle every day to be as grateful as I always had been. I had to fight to be happy. I had to start seeing two therapists and to have long, drawn out conversations with my friends and family members (to whom I am infinitely indebted) in order to calm down all of the anxious thoughts running through my head. I checked myself into the hospital one time because my heart was racing so fast. It was an absurd and terrifying time. What was wrong with me? Was there something physiologically wrong with me, or was it a psychological problem? Was it both? How long was this going to take? Was I ever going to get better? Or was I forever condemned to life being so fucking hard all of the god damned time?
I have no idea what started the whole thing. Maybe it was in fact the Spironolactone (which I stopped taking in June of 2012). Maybe it was 24 years of chronic stress. Maybe it was the insomnia that’s plagued me my whole life. That doesn’t really matter, however. What matters is that it happened. I now know intimately how painful mental illness can be, how devastating life is when your brain and body aren’t working properly, how scary everything is when nothing seems to be under your control or going according to plan.
I’ll never be able to change that. Whether or not Spiro played a role in my problem, my brain learned how to be anxious. I can still fall into those traps. I can still walk right back to the horrible questioning and pain that I often fell into in those past 18 months. I am no longer actively fighting to resist those traps, but they are still present in my mind.
A week after my “miracle” I am feeling the same. I have managed to maintain a sense of wellness. Do I have trust in it yet? No. That is going to take serious time. There have been many different occasions over the last eightteen months in which I have thought I found the answer, that I was “cured” or “better” or at least “released.” None of them brought me any sense of permanent relief. I only edged more into wellness slowly, and then often falling backwards after a stressful event.
A week after my “miracle” I have also learned some things. Three days ago, I began having anxiety again, the kind that crops up with easy decisions and is enormously puzzling for that fact. My heart was racing standing in the Whole Foods aisle: which coconut oil do I get, the unrefined or the refined? These are the kinds of questions that have regularly sent me into fits of panic over the last several months.
The next day I woke with anxiety again. And my acne had sprung back to life over night. Over the past week, I had hypothesized that perhaps the magnesium was helping my acne (which has returned with a vengeance prior to my ‘miracle’). It sure seemed like it. I didn’t get any new cysts in the magnesium time and my scar tissue was healing. My thought was that the magnesium was now facilitating the uptake of vitamin A and D into my skin, which is crucial for skin health, as well as calming my adrenals, regulating hormone output, and also fighting calcium, which has the ability to calcify soft tissues — something I think has been happening in the dermis layer of my skin.
So anyway. My anxiety and my acne came back. What happened? Was the magnesium miracle a fake? Did it not have any long term consequences? Was the problem really all in my brain all along?
As I was pacing outside my house and kicking loose bricks in the sidewalk, I had an idea: I had added seaweed to my diet in higher quantities in the last couple of days in order to offset any iodine or thyroid imbalances I might get from eating greens. I also thought the iodine would just be good for my thyroid in general. Maybe seaweed has calcium in it? If that’s the case, then I would cut seaweed from my diet and see if I went back to the blissful, relaxed state I had achieved over the previous week.
I went online, googled seaweed, and found out it’s the densest source of calcium in the human diet…bar none. It has “eight to ten’ times as much calcium as a glass of milk! I slammed down magnesium pill after magnesium pill yesterday and got better, if marginally. It would be a while before balance could be restored.
In order to really ramp up my recovery, I decided to take an Epsom Salt bath. I was a bit skeptical and nervous about it going in, but oh my god, ladies.
Seriously. My God.
Epsom Salts deserve a post all their own.
When I first got in the bath (epsom salts are 100 percent magnesium sulfate — put a cup or two of it in the tub with you), I laid there for a while and promised myself I’d stay in for 15 minutes. I played mind games to keep myself from getting too bored, even though I kept thinking about all the things I wanted to get up and do. When can I get out? I kept thinking. How long do I have to stay here to see if there’s be any effects?
Then it hit me. Somewhere in there, my body got the message, and it started sending an even stronger one back: “Stay the hell in this tub, woman!” it kept shouting at me. My limbs became listless. My brain, free. Something very strong inside of me really wanted me to stay in there. I re-filled the tub two more times. I emerged my whole face. My acne stopped aching. The swelling went away. The bumps on my face began to disappear.
At 11:46 pm I finally got myself out of the tub. That means I had been in there for one hour and twenty minutes.
My whole life, I have had a sore, tight neck and back that has given me countless headaches. For the first time that I can ever remember, I went to stretch my muscles after the bath, and I felt nothing. My body has never been more loose in my entire life. I can’t believe people pay hundreds of dollars for massages. One cup of Epsom Salts costs about 97 cents.
I wanted to call my brother and tell him to stop smoking pot and just start taking Epsom baths. But I was too relaxed to pick up the phone.
Later, as I was walking through the house, I tripped on my computer cord and almost knocked the computer off the table. Did my adrenaline spike? Nope. Did my heart jump a beat? Nope. Just a slow and steady thump thump thump.
All of which is to say, six million thumbs up for Epsom salts.
Today, I do not have anxiety, I do not have chest pain, and my heart is not racing. Seems like the magnesium/calcium balance really is important for my health, and that I have a long way to go for restoration.
I have also been doing some reading on magnesium and inflammation. Turns out — as it goes for many things — magnesium is crucial in this regard. This is probably why it’s been so helpful for my acne. When I take the Epsom baths, scar tissue all over my body heals. Magnesium is also an important factor in the use of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin K. I’ve been eating liver and salmon like it’s my job — but what good is it doing me if I don’t have the magnesium necessary to process it?
There will probably be a lot more troubleshooting moving ahead. While I don’t have anxiety this afternoon, I did feel my heart race this morning when I logged on to OkCupid. (My heart didn’t race when I got a call at 11am today about thousands of dollars of debit card fraud, but being ignored by an attractive individual? What this says about me I do not even want to think about). Clearly psychological problems will always be able to affect my physiological state. This is the case for all of us, for all of humanity, for all of time. We can’t escape it.
I also know that magnesium is not a miracle. It does not obviously fix everything. This is a lesson I learned the hard way. I was so excited about it when I first discovered how good it was for my anxiety that I thought it really would fix everything. Turns out I still have trouble sleeping, and, just like OkCupid, that probably has a whole lot to do with the stress in my life. Magnesium can help me deal with the stress, but it cannot make it go away.
Magnesium is a big part of the journey for me. I couldn’t recommend experimenting with it more highly, especially for people who are stressed, worry, or sleep poorly. Therapy will remain a part of that journey. And patience, and healing, and forgiveness. I cannot panic if things aren’t perfect, if they don’t feel good, if I feel unsettled, if I don’t sleep, if my menstrual cycles don’t become regular, if I don’t regain my ravenous libido. Like I said, that’s a part of being human.
I now know, however, that it doesn’t have to be horrible. That I can experience specific events of stress and react to them with my adrenal glands firing away, and then go back to normal. Go back to being excited about being alive. Go back to gratitude. Go back to a life without fear and without panic. Go back to losing sleep without panicking. Go back to being confident and ambitious and proud and kicking ass left and right in all of my endeavors. It’ll take a long time to figure out the shape of all of this in my life and to continue to learn how to have faith in myself and my body. But that’s the name of the game these days. This is a fact of life that I am happy to live with.