In 2001, I got very sick, but no one could diagnose an actual cause or condition. I had several serious episodes of dehydration that required trips to the emergency room, once necessitating a 24-hour stay and 7 IV-bags of fluid to re-balance my electrolytes.
Serious athletes sometimes experience episodes like mine, but usually after intense exercise over many hours in punishing heat. My last trip to the ER was after 45 minutes walking on the treadmill, indoors, in February. While reading Glamour. Hardly a strenuous workout. And, at the time, I was a gym regular, working out 4-5 times a week, so it wasn’t like the stroll was sudden shock to my system.
I couldn’t keep much food down. I could only stomach the blandest of Lean Cuisines and Slimfast. I lived on the futon, if you could call it living.
I visited a round of specialists, starting with a nephrologist and ending with a gastroenterologist. Midway through the whole experience, which stretched out over a year and a half, I began to realize that the doctors had lost interest in finding what was wrong with me, and were getting more of a challenge trying either to prove or disprove what the referring doctor suspected.
The assembled experts agreed on this: exercise was provoking the situation, which included extremely low potassium and sodium, so I should not exercise, I should avoid sweating, and I should get more sodium in my diet.
Yes, I became the only person in the history of the world to be put on a no-exercise, more-salt diet.
Have I mentioned I live in Houston, Texas? I was getting this advice at some of the best medical facilities in the world, not from quacks who lacked access to diagnostic tools or learned colleagues.
I was also getting this no-sweating advice in a town where the mercury in the thermometer regularly sneaks up on 100-degrees in the summer. And often in the spring and fall.
I avoided the outdoors—errands in the early morning or after dark, no parades or happy hours or basking in the sun. I barely lifted anything, getting help from remarkably generous friends (and of course my patient husband) when we moved into a new house. I went from seeing myself as at least vaguely athletic to feeling like an invalid.
I also started to use salt on my food. I’d never salted anything, and even tended to leave it out of recipes, so the adjustment was a shock to my system. A not altogether unpleasant shock. I cannot believe I went my whole life without adding salt! I don’t go out of my way to add it to food these days, but I’ll never cook without it.
Still, saltier food and the ultimate slacker lifestyle didn’t fix everything. (I know, shocking!)
A therapist I was seeing suggested that it was OK to decide to stop going from doctor to doctor, that I needed to decide how I wanted to live if medical science couldn’t produce an answer.
I stopped the doctor circuit. Things got better for awhile. Not zany, madcap, butterflies-and-unicorns better, but better.