Living with an invisible chronic illness was the hardest thing I had to learn at the age of 15. I didn’t understand my body, doctors didn’t understand my body, and I could see the doubt in everyone around me:
“Is it just all in her head?”
When I couldn’t rely on anyone to give me the answers, I had to find my own solutions. I just KNEW it wasn’t all in my head. I KNEW something was not functioning well in my body and doctors just hadn’t found it yet. I KNEW there had to be some sort of a solution that’s not anti-depressants, or cortisone injections, or life-long painkillers.
10 years later, I became a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach, I can work full-time and dance salsa without feeling any pain, I’m a professional singer, and I’m living my best life in Cusco, Peru.
How did I get from being glued to my bed to living a thriving life? Let me give you a sneak peek into my life …
I was 15 and walking with a cane ...
It started very much out of the blue when I was 15. I would return from school feeling extremely tired, I started getting extreme belly aches, my immune system stopped protecting me so I caught every virus that was going around, and my legs hurt with any move I made. It was like knives being punched into my hips … All. The. Freaking. Time.
One month later, I couldn’t even get up and go to school.
My forever optimism made me get out of bed and reach the bathroom to get ready, thinking: “Today I’m better. I can do this!” But I would hold on to the sink as soon as I felt my legs shaking. And I had to admit to myself: “I can’t do it today...”
This was the hardest part: admitting I couldn’t do it. I had grown up with competitive sports. For over 10 years I was doing competitions in jump rope (Yup, another fact many of you don’t know about me) Literally, if I dared to say: “I can’t do that.” I had to do 10 push-ups. At the age of only 6, I was trained to never ever say I can’t do something. And here I was, having to actually listen to my body and admit I couldn’t go to school. I felt disappointed every single day with my body’s limits.
A normal reaction is to go to the doctor, who might send you over to a ‘specialist’, who will tell you what’s wrong with you and what you can do about it. You go to that ‘specialist’ with full trust and belief that you will get fixed soon. Right?
I had hope every time I went to a different doctor. And every time I got the same answers:
It’s all in your head.
There’s nothing wrong with you.
You should just start moving more and spend less time on the couch.
Until I got a different answer, one year later, from someone who was specialized in chronic illness:
You have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can take some physiotherapy sessions to learn how to move without pain. You just have a small energy bucket and you need to learn how to live it.
I left that hospital feeling extremely happy to finally have a name for what I was feeling. I wasn’t crazy. There was something. I had a chronic disease. I could finally answer the question I got every day: “So what do you have?”
… But I soon realized this diagnosis meant nothing.
Finding my own solutions to my ‘trash can’ diagnosis
As I got home and started thinking about it … Something just felt wrong. This couldn’t be it. There must be something more. There must be a solution.
I started writing a blog that would go viral in the whole of Belgium. I got interviewed for a national magazine and I got so many comments from people who were going through the same struggles. It made me question my diagnosis even more. Everyone was getting a different treatment: magnesium infuses, antibiotics for a year, hormonal treatment, antidepressants, surgery, cortisone injections, … You name it.
I was shocked. It looked as if doctors were just experimenting on them, trying whatever they believed would be THE solution. I decided I was not going to accept any kind of medical treatment and I felt determined to find a natural solution.
I started studying everything I could study about meditation, mindfulness, positive psychology, healthy habits, nutrition, stress management, and so on …
I got better, year by year, by being very strict with my sleeping schedule, going to school part-time, doing a body scan meditation three times a day to truly listen to my body, I went to a psychotherapist to help cope with my limitations and perfectionism, and I completely adapted my life to my body’s limitations so that I didn’t even get confronted with it that much.
From my 15 to my 19 years, I didn’t have a normal teenage life. I lost all my friends and found one new best friend who was also a misfit at school. I didn’t have boyfriends. I couldn’t even go for drinks. I didn’t have the luxury to worry about normal teenage stuff.
I was worried about being able to walk without a cane, being able to go to school, being able to see my one friend without overdoing it, being able to go up the stairs when my mom took me to the concert of my favorite band …
I had to become extremely smart with my tiny energy bucket, calculate what I can and cannot do in a day, and fully prioritize my self-care. (This probably rings a bell for my clients reading this post: yes, most of my expertise doesn’t come from my health coaching certification, it comes from my extreme experiences with chronic fatigue and pain.)
So why do I call it a ‘trash can’ diagnosis?
Fibromyalgia is real. Chronic fatigue syndrome is real. But they are just names for a group of symptoms. They don’t say where the symptoms are coming from, and every person with these diagnoses has different causes and different solutions. That’s what I learned later in my Functional Medicine studies, but way before that, I already felt like doctors were just putting people in these boxes when they had no clue what was going on in their bodies.
What was causing my fibromyalgia? I’ll get into that in a bit. First: Peru.
The turning point: Peru and Functional Medicine
I had always dreamt of traveling to South America. Studying Spanish was my hobby ever since I was 14 years old, and I’m just more of a touchy-feely person who feels great around Latin people. When my chance came to do a 3-month internship in Cusco, Peru, I was scared. Scared of how my body would react to a 3,400 meters altitude. Scared of working full-time. Scared of having to walk up stairs and not being able to visit Machu Picchu.
Despite the fear, I jumped on that plane and traveled with an attitude of: “I can jump on a plane back home if things get really bad."
After one week, I ended up in the hospital with a parasite and salmonella. My microbiome wasn’t strong enough yet to handle such different bacteria and adapt to the local food. But I made friends from the first week, they visited me in the hospital with board games, and helped me once I got back home, feeling weak and insecure about my adventure in Peru.
Slowly but surely, my personality started thriving. My body started climbing the stairs of the city. My energy levels started increasing.
I could work full-time and go salsa dancing right after. I used my Spanish to make many local friends, I met some musicians, and they offered me a job as a singer in bars and hotels. I couldn’t believe how life was unfolding right in front of me, in only three months' time.
I couldn’t figure out why my health was improving. It had been a combination of things: warm people, sunlight, dry mountain air, natural local foods, a spontaneous schedule so I could listen to my body (Peruvians do this all the time, you can read more about that in my article “A plan is just that: a plan.”) …
I knew I had to stay longer. “There is more for me here. Peru isn’t done with me yet.”
So I stayed: 6 months more … A year more … Another 6 months … Ok now I’ll really return to Belgium but give me just another 6 months … 3 months became 3 years.
During that time, I kept learning about natural health online, I started (binge)watching these online summits with different health experts from around the world, and that’s when it hit me:
Nobody had ever tried to go upstream and figure out the cause of my symptoms
They had never checked my hormonal balance.
They had never checked my gut health and microbiome.
They had never checked how my liver was functioning.
They had never checked toxicity: heavy metals or mold in the body.
They had never gone further than a simple scan of the bowels, the heart and the muscles and say: everything looks fine.
Everything LOOKS fine, but how is my body FUNCTIONING?
That’s what Functional Medicine is about: going upstream, making a whole timeline from birth to now, finding the combination of causes (it’s almost never just one cause to make the bomb explode), and supporting the body to repair whatever went wrong and start functioning optimally.
Not just improving symptoms, but really going for the most optimal health situation you could create for yourself.
After 3 years in Peru, I decided to go back to Belgium and find a Functional Medicine practitioner who could dig deeper. Even though I was feeling way better, I knew I still had a lower energy level than normal people (I didn’t even know what a normal energy level felt like anymore).
So here it comes … What causes fibromyalgia (in my case):
Mold in the body because of a leakage in my room when I was 15
A liver full of toxins from the things I touched and breathed in while not having the right enzyme (glutathione) to detoxify: rubber, plastic, gasoline, … You name it.
Taking birth control because of my extremely heavy periods at the age of 14, which depleted my B6 levels, which damaged my liver health and immune system
Emotional trauma as a highly sensitive person and not feeling like I could fit in (I figured this out during my psychotherapy sessions, but I knew there was more to it than just emotional trauma)
Food sensitivities, SIBO, and a leaky gut were only a couple of symptoms that were consequences of the list above, which in turn were causes for further damage in the body, and that’s how the ball keeps rolling.
Fibromyalgia completely changed and shaped my life, and I’m thankful for it
Every Functional Medicine practitioner works with a health coach who first talks with the client, creates the timeline, and figures out what the next steps could be: are there lifestyle changes that need to be made? Does the client need to learn how to listen to their body or deal with perfectionism? Do we need to run specific tests to find more answers first?
After 2 sessions with my own health coach, she stopped and said: “Maya, you know so much about this already. You love working with people, and you know what it feels like to be chronically ill and not knowing who to turn to … Haven’t you thought of a career switch?”
I was an Intercultural Relations Manager until that point, worked as an operations manager and project manager in several organizations, but never had I thought of using what I had studied for over 10 years, adding on the right coaching skills, and helping people who were stuck, trying to live their best life, but overdoing it, or bumping into their body’s limits.
I entered a certification program from the US to become a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach, I decided I would work online and move back to Peru after one year of not feeling like I could adapt to my own culture again in Belgium, pandemic hit so I waited and waited until I could get on that first flight back to Peru, and now I’m here, in Peru, singing, coaching, feeling the best I ever have.
This is just the start of what’s to come: I want to help more people, organize health retreats in Peru, build a global community of Healthy High Achievers and truly inspire people to not just adapt to stress and fatigue, or to their digestive issues, but really work on themselves, love themselves, and choose optimal health and happiness, whatever that looks like for every individual.
My Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome took me on a journey to create a life that’s truly aligned with who I am. And I am forever grateful for that.
It’s time for you to feel healthy, happy, and calm!
If you’re struggling with extreme fatigue, poor digestion, random muscle aches, arthritis, hormonal imbalance, rashes, food allergies, or you have them all and you have no clue how this could all be connected, please reach out to me.
We can have a free chat over Zoom and I can help you figure out your next steps. I can connect some of the dots for you and give you clarity on what’s going on in your body.
If I had found the right person to help me, it wouldn’t have taken 10 years for me to get better.
I wish I had found Functional Medicine earlier, or the right health coach to point me in the right direction. Instead, I found books and psychotherapy, which helped me take baby steps because I had just no clue where to turn to.
You have me. And I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through.
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Medical Symptoms Questionnaire
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