are you my guru? weight, illness & relationships
With Guests Wendy Shanker & Chris M. Tatevosian
Not only can a serious illness teach you what to accept in a relationship but it can destroy a union as well. Just ask author Wendy Shanker and radio host/author Chris M. Tatevosian, both of whom can attest to that and share their stories with Dr. Veronica in this week’s installment of Wellness for the Real World.
Shanker thought she finally had her life in order after battling her weight for years. She came to grips with the fact that she would never be a size 8 or 10. And that was all right because she realized she could still be healthy and happy at a size 14 or 16.
“Right when I thought I had a peaceful relationship with my body, everything fell apart again,” Shanker, the author of Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation & Madonna Saved My Life and The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, tells Dr. Veronica.
Shanker was diagnosed with Wegener’s granulomatosis, a rare autoimmune disease that affects about 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 30,000 people and affected her sinuses, lungs and kidneys.
She describes the disease as being worse than cancer because so little is known about it and so few people contract it. With no known cause of Wegener’s granulomatosis, she began to blame herself, thanks in part to a doctor telling her that her condition was due to her being overweight when in reality there is no correlation between the two.
Doctors treated her with steroids to reduce the inflammation and chemotherapy to destroy the cells that wreaked havoc in her system. She was left with horrible side effects, including a loss of hair and hearing, aching joints ached, weight gain, skin problems and a liver that malfunctioned because it was unable to adequately process the drugs. After she dropped 40 pounds in a couple of months, she explored alternative therapies.
“I didn’t feel like I could leave western medicine behind,” she says. “For what little information and treatment that western medicine could offer, I wasn’t about to not do what my doctor said.”
She set out to find alternative medicine practitioners that understood she would still take medication. As much as she loved Aryuveda and incorporated a lot of the elements of the ancient Indian medicine into her life, she couldn’t live a 100 percent Aryuvedic lifestyle any more than she could become a vegan 100 percent knowing the health benefits. And then there were some things she wouldn’t do at all.
“I don’t care if Buddha came down from the mountaintop and told me to rub pigeons on me, I’m not doing it,” she said. “So I had lines to draw in the sand.”
She points out that what works for one person with the same ailment may not benefit someone else suffering from the same ailment.
“It’s a matter of finding the therapy that makes sense to you intellectually, that has a physical result that’s positive and worthwhile for you and that’s something you feel that you can integrate into the rest of your life,” she says. “It was trying to find my space within these different practices and take a little bit of each one that worked for me plus my western medicine. That was the treatment plan that ended up being effective. That is what I think is helping me today stay in remission and lead a healthy life.”
During her sickest times, she wasn’t dating anyone. Her circle of friends and family supported her through this difficult time.
“Having been through that as a single person, I know I can get through anything,” she says now. “It has helped me not compromise when it comes to choosing who I want to spend my time with.”
Tatevosian had found who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with and married her in 1992 when he was 31 years old. His bride knew her husband, a body builder, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), when he was 18. Before they wed he asked her if she wanted to marry someone with MS. She told him that she had read up on it and knew what she was getting into.
Three years into their marriage his condition exacerbated. He needed a cane to walk and his vision started to worsen. Multiple sclerosis affects 2.5 million people worldwide, including 400,000 Americans, yet only a small percentage reach the stage of Tatevosian, who is severely disabled, in a wheelchair and legally blind. His wife left him.
“My wife wouldn’t admit she was getting out because of the MS,” Tatevosian tells Dr. Veronica. “She couldn’t explain why she was getting out. She just had to get out.”
“…We were married for 10 years. During those 10 years, it just wore on her. You can say you’re going to live with somebody forever, through sickness and in health, but you don’t know what it’s like until that time comes.”
Yet instead of blaming her, he looked inward.
“I recognized I had made it all about me,” he says. “I had so much misdirected anger. My wife fell out of love with me. She saw an angry person all of the time. She felt that I was unthankful. I don’t remember ever saying thank you because I was so mad.”
Before the marriage dissolved the couple sought therapy. During sessions counselors suggested his wife take her wheelchair-bound husband out for a walk or do other things for him.
“It was all about doing something for me,” Tatevosian says. “And even the doctors didn’t recognize that my ex-wife needed help, not just me. We had MS. It wasn’t I that had MS. I know that wore on my wife and she became very angry with that. She was mad at me because the doctors were supposedly taking care of me and not her. And she didn’t like that.”
When going through his divorce, he lost self-esteem and experienced feelings of worthlessness. He fell into a depression as he thought that he would never be able to meet a woman again, end up in a nursing home, that his 18 years of education no longer served a purpose because he could not work or see.
These days he’s able to watch television and use the computer from a close distance. Relying on voice recognition software, he penned a book, Life Interrupted: It’s Not All About Me, written for patients, spouses, family members, caregivers and friends of people with any chronic illness to handle the stresses put on relationships. A staggering 51% of Americans suffer from a chronic health condition, according to a 2008 Gallup poll.
“I wrote this book to let people know, if you’re in that situation, life is not over at that point. My life completely turned around after writing this book.”
And he remarried. His current wife endured a very bad, 22-year marriage to an alcoholic. He explained to her that he can’t help out around the house by doing tasks such as emptying the dishwasher or cutting the lawn.
She told him, “What I want is someone to show me love and kindness.”
“I said, ‘Well those are two things that I can do.’ And that’s what I do every day.”