when does biography become biology?
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
Things are hopping in the Replenish virtual halls right now as I’m teaching a series of free workshops for nutrition practitioners called Reframe Nutrition.
That teaching has me thinking a lot about one of my favorite quotes:
“Your biography becomes your biology”.
If you recently joined me and downloaded my new ebook, Functional Nutrition 101, welcome, I’m so thrilled you’re here!
Please note that both Replenish PDX and Holistic Nutrition Lab come directly from the desk of Functional Nutritionist (Andrea Nakayama). That’s me! And I’m here to provide you with insight and information that will help you on your journey in every aspect of your “practice” of health.
Thank you for allowing me to walk by your side.
Your biography becomes our biology. . .
When I was a kid, we all read Our Bodies, Ourselves, the pivotal book on women’s health and sexuality.
Do you remember it?
The book spoke openly about subjects that were formerly (and publicly), taboo ~ subjects such as why we bleed and get cramps, how to protect ourselves during sex, and where our sexuality may be seated inside of our bodies.
Women, young and old, were hungry for this information about ourselves.
Our Bodies, Ourselves sold over 250,000 copies as a hand-made pamphlet, without any advertising. It’s gone on to sell over four million copies world-wide.
It’s interesting that over forty years later, we still need to fight to uncover the information that speaks to what’s going on in there.
We still need to search for the health care providers that will address why we’re experiencing a sign or symptom, instead of just covering or concealing it with a quick-fix.
We still need answers, as the expressions of ill health are now epidemic.
While I champion and practice the examination of the deeper physiological and clinical underpinnings of each person’s manifestation of ill health, I also want to call attention to the importance of the story. Your story.
Your story and your body, both unique to you, are equally parts of yourself.
The same goes for me.
Today I would like to invite you to glimpse at a piece of my story, my self.
Many of us have a moment in life where we can distinguish a before and after. There may be several of those moments in your life.
Note: If you can’t think of one of those moments, I challenge you to consider the time in your life when you felt your very BEST and then chronicle the events moving forward from that point.
And if you if you feel better now than you ever did before, you’re rockin’! Go ahead and considerwhy you think that is and anchor all the factors so you can come back to them again.
For me, one of those big moments was when my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
I could tell you the story quickly, and I often do, but the truth of how that moment impacted my body and my life, how it influenced my hormones and my future expression of disease, are better captured in the details.
I’m not just a widow, but a woman who eats, drinks, sleeps, and exercises. And these things require my attention. But I’m also a woman with a specific set of genes and a body that has been deeply influenced by the circumstances of my life.
And I’m not alone.
I share my story with you below, not just to illustrate how the truth of my health lies in the fine elements, but to invite you to consider the same for yourself.
What are the details of your body and yourself?
Be forewarned: the story you’re about to read may be intense. And it’s just the beginning. It’s the before and after. It’s one moment, in a succession of moments, when everything changed ~ not just in my life story, but in the story of my health as well.
The intensity of what I share lies within me. My biography has become my biology.
It’s with this profound personal awareness of the intersection between story and body that I meet and serve my clients. They come to me with a malady, underneath which is invariably tangled a tale.
What stories can your cells tell?
If you’re a health care practitioner, don’t miss getting your hands on my free ebook called Functional Nutrition 101.
When you get the ebook, you’ll also receive an invitation to join my free three-part workshop,Reframe Nutrition that’s happening right now.
Want to go deeper?
Grab Functional Nutrition 101 now!
P.S. If you’d like to continue the broader conversation of the effect of story on physiology and health and vice versa, please join me on the Holistic Nutrition Lab Facebook Page. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
April 16, 2000
Time is standing still.
Seconds are protracted.
My mind and heart race. Each minute betrays a new possibility.
Hope and fear delve deeper into my cells and my soul than they’ve ever resided.
I lie in my bed, anxious and cold, trying to apply logic to the absurd.
It was simple to begin with: we thought he had a sinus infection. But Isamu had never had a sinus infection. My husband was rarely ill.
My cousin Adam visited us the previous weekend. He arrived at our home with a horrible head cold, sniffling and sleeping through his stay. I was thankful for the relaxed weekend of simple meals and mid-day naps.
Just into my seventh week of pregnancy, my body felt achy and squeamish. I was troubled by thoughts of whether or not this life inside me would stick, become a tangible part of our future. Isamu easily acquiesced to the lethargy of the house as well, retreating under the covers with me to stave off the chilly spring San Francisco rain, holding his open palm against my belly, communicating with his touch to the embryo we had together created.
At the start of the work week, my cousin flew back to southern California. Yet he seemed to have left the congestion behind, with Isamu.
Isamu spent his sleepless nights jokingly cursing Adam, whom he loved as if they had actually shared their childhoods. The cold symptoms disappeared quickly, but by Wednesday the headache lingered. It was so fierce that Isamu stayed home from work, in bed all day, barely eating.
He’d almost never missed work in the seven years I’d known him. He was driven by a hard-core internal motivation to excel. His typical barefoot and laid-back manner, slow and deliberate speech, didn’t reveal the intensity with which he pursued any of his passions.
Isamu had taught himself each new software program or twist of a language, and his fingers could run over a computer keyboard in myriad codes, as fast as those of a jazz musician at the piano. Without any formal engineer training, he went from purchasing and piddling around on a new computer to developing software and managing a team of developers within the time I knew him. He didn’t skip a beat in the fast evolution of software, let alone a day of work.
After just one sick day, Isamu left in the morning as he usually did, on his bicycle, riding down the hill to his office in San Francisco’s Mission District, determined to get back to work.
He came home on foot by mid-day.
The head pain was now so acute that he was unable to concentrate and dubious that he could bike up the hill to our flat.
I’ll confess that my patience was running a bit thin while I stumbled through the unease of early pregnancy. My stomach was in a knot. I felt fragile. The sight and smell of most of my favorite foods repulsed me. I was in a shroud.
My attention, my compassion, was focused on my own body, on my self.
Isamu usually resisted being taken care of when he was sick anyway. Characteristically, he didn’t yield to maternal instincts and his manner seemed to intrinsically reject patronization. And I had nothing to give. I implored that he go see a doctor. At the age of 31, having just chosen a primary care physician a couple of months earlier for the first time in his adult life, I couldn’t comprehend why he didn’t tackle this situation head-on like he did all others, and go see her now.
On Friday, he left for work in the morning and from there, he did go to the doctor. He took the bus. He didn’t call to ask me to drive him. He didn’t want to bother me. He just phoned when he got back to his office.
His headache was diagnosed as a sinus infection and medication prescribed.
That night, after running some errands, a trip to the pharmacy for the meds, and an odd episode of vomiting right on the city sidewalk, I walked up the stairs to our flat, just ahead of Isamu. Behind me I heard him fumble with the last stair and laughed out loud, “What’s going on?!”
Just as I turned to face him, he fell to the floor, catching himself with his left knee. I got down on my own knees, serious and intent now, all my attention on him for the first time in weeks, and asked the same question again. “What’s going on?”
The question was perhaps more for the air hanging thick between us, pregnant with a variety of possibilities, then for Isamu to answer.
The severity of his headache was unusual, the vomiting curious, but watching my small but solid husband—the man who encouraged me to scuba dive and snowboard beside him while he methodically worked his body to master each sport, the man I saw skillfully scramble down rocky mountain trails and up branch-less trees—fall to his knees when walking up a simple stair, was just plain alarming.
He said his legs had gotten wobbly, they’d seemed out of his control.
I did what I’d never done and called the on-call doctor at the special hotline number on the insurance card. The answering service connected me immediately. Dr. O spoke to me, to Isamu, and finally to me once again.
Her advice was that Isamu should stay in bed the following day, drinking lots of liquids. If the pain was still agonizing we should call her to get an authorization to go to the hospital the following night.
For a “neurological exam”, she may have said.
But that comment went right over our heads.
The following night, the pain was unbearable. Isamu had stayed in bed all day long. He hadn’t had more than a few tiny bites or sips of anything I brought him, a juice with protein powder, some soup, toast from fresh baked bread with butter. Simple foods. All hard to digest in the face of his suffering.
He was in such agony he barely spoke.
I got things done: laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and kept coming back to him in the bedroom.
Usually when home, weeknights or weekends, if we were not doing something together, Isamu was in front of his desktop computer, a chunky laptop propped on his thighs, or with a book of some sort or another in his hands. Music was always on the stereo or on his headphones, unless we were listening to a favorite radio program on public radio, This American Life, Selected Shorts or Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
But on this day the house was quiet.
Quiet, yet still too loud to silence the earsplitting throbbing in his head.
Things appeared worse than the night before. But Isamu didn’t have a fever.
I found myself questioning whether it was a matter of perspective—whether the headache just seemed really bad because he was always so healthy, so unaccustomed to being sick. I wondered whether his tolerance for this kind of discomfort was just really low.
I could kick myself now for even thinking such a thing, but at the time I was trying to make sense of the insensible.
There was the vomiting, the strange trip on the stairs, and there were moments when he was actually moaning from the intensity of his misery.
Isamu’s mother, in from out of town, joined us for dinner at our house that night. We ate. Isamu sat politely through dinner and nibbled at some food. Then without comment he made his way from the dining table to a large chair in our living room, propped up his feet and closed his eyes.
Just as silently he returned to bed.
I looked in on him in the darkened room, body supine, brow furrowed and I called the doctor. She instructed us, just as she had suggested the night before, to go to the hospital.
The hospital wasn’t far, but we’d never been there before. It was the same hospital where we were expecting to deliver our baby in about seven months.
On the way over I imagined us driving to the hospital for the birth of our baby, Isamu at the wheel coaching me through the pain of contractions while I slouched in the passenger seat, a bulbous belly stretching toward the glove compartment.
Our son’s birth would look quite different than that.
The emergency room was not too busy for a Saturday night. Isamu handed his insurance card to a nurse and I stood by his shoulder. Then he vomited the contents of his dinner into a mustard colored bucket that was quickly whipped under his chin. Pink salmon, red beets, the little bit he had eaten in the last 24 hours.
“It’s not blood, it’s beets,” I told the large male nurse who had magically appeared with the bucket.
After some hours of waiting, Isamu was wheeled away on a gurney for a CAT scan. I begged to follow and together we traveled in an employee elevator to a seemingly empty floor, with room after room of large medical machinery.
After the scan, they wheeled him back down to the ER and we sat together on the rolling bed, positioned sideways in the hallway, parked up against the wall, our feet dangling off the sides of the stretcher like two small, helpless children.
There was “only a 4% chance that something would come up on the scan” we were told, and we worried out loud about the effects of a spinal tap, which we’d been advised was the next test to be performed.
There was no spinal tap.
Isamu was in that 4%.
The testing branched out in a whole new direction.
An ER doctor came over to talk to us after catching Isamu’s eye watching him relay the news to another doctor. Isamu would not alter his gaze. If there is something to say about me, say it to me, his eyes demanded.
He could not be intimidated, even by the unknown.
“I hate to tell you this,” the doctor began, “but your CAT scan looks awful.”
“It does not look like the scan of the man sitting in front of me,” he continued.
He quickly ran through the gamut of possibilities from a brain infection to cancer and said that a neurologist would be down to see us shortly.
I hopped off the gurney, with the instinct of a scribe, and went to the desk where the doctor had been standing minutes ago to grab paper and pencil for taking notes. Just minutes between the end of one reality and the beginning of another.
The word “cancer” said within the space of a second.
ER doctor: Dr. M
2 CAT scans
2 blood samples
3 DARK SPOTS ON BRAIN
We sat waiting, naïve, idealistic, invincible.
I suppose we were numb.
Our brains not knowing where to go with this information. Within minutes of receiving the news, Isamu mentioned some concern about what this would mean to his future cognitive abilities. This is what troubled him most.
Dr. N arrived. The first neurologist of many we would meet over the next two plus years. He was nice and young and performed a battery of sophomoric tests: eyes following his finger, standing on one foot, opening and closing fingers as quickly as possible.
I watched trying to detect anything wrong, but like the doctor said later, it all looked normal. “Is his face always crooked like that?” he asked me after having Isamu turn his face toward me. “Yes.”
He told us that at UCSF we would be handled by one of the best neurology departments in the country; that we were in good hands. As if it can be good to be in the hands of any neurology department, I thought.
Another neurology resident arrived and it was clear that Isamu was now a “case”, a “specimen”, something to be pried at and studied—no longer a man, but a brain. A brain with three dark spots.
They carted him off for a chest x-ray. Then four blood cultures for bacteria testing.
It would take three days to receive the results.
The same nurse that had checked us in, that handed Isamu that first mustard-colored vomit bin in that other life—the life of a headache and not a brain ailment—performed the blood extraction.
It was after 2:00 AM.
Isamu was awake and still in pain.
He asked for another bucket.
I sat and focused on the possibility of a brain infection. I knew nothing about neurological illnesses, but the sound of brain cancer sounded ten times more horrifying than infection.
An hour later, Isamu was admitted to South 8; the neurological floor of the hospital. Room 817, bed 1.
I got him settled into bed, whispering in the dark room, kissing his face and resting my open palms on his broad cheekbones, stubbled chin, and at his heart center. The same places I would touch two years later as he took his last breaths.
But that night he took my hand in his and gave a tight squeeze, looking deeply into my eyes, assuring me that he would be OK.
Reluctantly I left Room 817.
I walked down the hall of the neurological unit.
I took the elevator down the way we had come and half stupefied, half pragmatic, I walked out of the hospital into the cold early morning air.
I drove home alone.
The streetlights were a blur, the drive in the car passing without any consciousness.
I needed to get some sleep, I reminded myself, to take care of this growing embryo inside my body. Yes, I was pregnant.
I had entered the hospital with Isamu by my side, and the preciousness of life focused inside my own body. I was leaving alone, me and our embryo, the preciousness of life redirected outside my body, to Isamu, my love.
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