How Inflammation Has Changed My Whole Life

THE WARPED WINDOW

In August 2015, after I'd just lost my job and the life that I knew for four years, I was walking into a nail salon with my best friend. As we approached the salon I saw our reflection in the window. This moment changed my life forever. I saw the two of us: me taller than her, her thinner than me. I was startled to a halt by our reflection, because the image of us seemed warped. Sena looked heavier than I knew she was in real life, and I looked about a million times fatter than I pictured myself in my mind. 

 Sena & me through sunglasses, 2014

Sena & me through sunglasses, 2014

I glanced over at Sena and confirmed she looked as I knew her to... tiny. I looked back at the window and she still looked bigger there. Phew — that must mean the window got me wrong too.

But after a brief moment of relief a slow, sad feeling of terror settled in. I realized the reality of my situation. I knew what my friend looked like from my everyday experience of her. When a reflection distorted her shape it was easy to recognize and dismiss. 

For my own image, however, I was completely lost. If Sena wasn't there for comparison, I would have had no way to judge whether what I saw in the window was an accurate view of reality. Until I could find a skinny mirror to ease my mind, I'd be plagued by a fear that I looked a way I hated. And this would happen over and over, my self-image teeter-tottering back and forth based on skinny/fat mirrors around my world.

I learned on that day I had a profoundly poor understanding and knowledge of my own self — that when faced with my own distorted reflection I didn't know what was real and what wasn't. 

Over the next hour Sena and I sat mostly in silence while we got out pedicures. I was in the process of realizing that if I wanted to live a life of truth and meaning I had to make a big change. It was this otherwise insignificant trip to the nail salon that set me on a journey of self-inquiry. 

A little less than a year into that journey, on 4/1/2016, I sketched goals for the year in front of me. This was my biggest goal:

 

INTRODUCING, INFLAMMATION

Three hundred sixty-five days later this journey leads me to the topic of inflammation because I believe it to be the thing that causes that stick figure in the mirror to look any different from the girl standing in front of it. 

The first time I read the word "inflammation" I intuitively felt a connection to it. I was learning of the process by which food causes inflammatory conditions in our bodies, an agitated state where our immune system unnecessarily kicks in that leads to all sorts of negative health outcomes. The concept made sense to me immediately and it felt as though I was finally getting a long-awaiting diagnosis for a disease that had been affecting me my whole life. 

Essentially, the result of inflammation is that the way our body presents itself outwardly is not a reflection of its true, healthy, natural state.

Inflammation has been quite the buzzy health topic and I think it deserves every bit of the attention it now receives. From the perspective of my body and how I've experienced the effects of inflammation caused by food, I'm personally confident it's to blame for a vast array of our society's health issues. 

But I want to talk about inflammation from a broader perspective. The more I think about inflammation and how it affects my body, the more I'm convinced it's a concept that's present in all areas of my life and the cause of most of the things I struggle with. And it may be the same for you. 

I understand inflamed areas to be: compromised layers on top of a natural state which change the conditions that determine the outcome.

I'll unpack that. In the case of my body there is my healthful self at my core, then a layer of cellular inflammation, which produces the manifestation of my physical body and how it looks from the outside. 

All of the time I spend feeling puffy — and that is the most accurate way I can describe the feeling — can be attributed to inflammation. Physically, it was easy to find proof in my experience. I basically spent my life until recently feeling "puffy". When I feel puffy, I'm more likely to go out and eat or do things that took me further from the things that are in my best, most aligned self-interest. (Think being hungover, and then eating an unhealthy meal that makes you feel even worse.) I spent my life consuming foods and drinks (particularly alcohol) that inflame.

The rare reprieve from this type of consumption would lend itself to my feeling much better, much less puffy. During those times, when I'd catch myself in a window or mirror what's reflected seemed much closer to how I felt at my deepest layer. 

SOBER EXPERIMENT

The weeks leading up to that day at the nail salon were a haze that was kept hazy by a lot of alcohol. As I became newly interested in getting to know myself I saw every moment as an opportunity to learn. I realized that drinking made this really hard. As soon as I took even a sip, my state was altered and I couldn't do any real reflection into my thought process and how I engage with and react to life. And when I was hungover I didn't have the motivation, and my general frame of mind was different anyway. In short, when I was drinking everyday, there was always a layer between what was at my core that changed what my experience would be. Alcohol equaled inflammation. 

I decided to stop drinking for a while. I had a continuum of events coming up (a wedding, a reunion I was hosting, holidays) that I knew would pose a real challenge to this determination, but all I can say was that the feeling was so deep and urgent that it supported me in my resolve. What I experienced during this time surprised me, taught me, inspired me in lots of ways — those lessons could start a whole different conversation. But what's relevant here is that I acknowledged alcohol as a producer of "inflammation" not only to my physical body and the way it functions, but to how I experienced the world.

It's as such that I've started to see the effect of inflammation in my life, and how it contributes to my inner purpose not necessarily resulting in action or manifestation that is reflective. Call it life inflammation. 

LIFE INFLAMMATION

"Life inflammation" is when we find or put ourselves in a position such that the way our experience plays out isn't the expression of our deepest intention. It's when we — knowingly or unknowingly — add a layer to our reality that alters the possibilities for what happens next. We "ingest" something that triggers an otherwise unnecessary "immune response" that alters the trajectory of our health. When we're talking about life inflammation instead of inflammation in the body caused by food, what's affected is our holistic, overall health. 

My experience that day at the nail salon struck me deeply. I looked back at my life and realized I'd been in a job for the previous four years that had chosen me. I was so wrapped up in it — physically, mentally, emotionally — since the day I started I never had a chance to reflect or choose what came next.

I thought back to before starting that job, a whirlwind year in Asia that immediately followed four years of hazy college. And then I thought back to the years before that, my adolescence during which a whole lot of big things happened. I realized that at no point during any of these times or transitions had I ever stopped to reflect on my experience. They happened to me and I kept moving, unaware of the way life inflammation was impacting me. My experiences had started to accumulate as inflammation and when I looked at my life in that moment, this inflammation was altering outcomes. As a result the way my life was playing out was not the way it was meant to from the deepest part of me.

I wanted my next step in life to be purposeful. To be what I was supposed to do, not something that happened due to circumstance.

I knew I needed to be introspective and ask myself questions I never had. I didn't actually know what I wanted or what I was meant to do at my core, but I knew something was there to be found. I felt strongly that I wanted whatever I found to be the thing that determined where I took my life next. 

Every apparent option for what I could do next didn't feel like a nourishing option. To analogize, all the steps I could think of seemed like the wrong food, the type of food that would inflame my body and consequently shape my future experience in a way that wasn't aligned with my deepest desires.

If I stayed in San Francisco I knew I'd be swept back into the startup world. This felt puffy.

If I went back to New York, I'd feel pressure from family and the way of life I'd known for so long. This felt puffy too. 

The only choice that felt right, that felt like it would nourish a decision so that the outcome was aligned with who I am at the deepest level, was to follow a slight but growing spiritual inclination.

And so it began that I forged the first steps in a completely new life. 

EVERY DAY NEW YORK

I want to bring this idea back down to earth and describe some of the real ways I run into life inflammation everyday. Some of these experiences might be similar to yours.

I have the tendency to binge eat. Just a few weeks ago I sat down with an unopened bag of granola and 20 minutes later my head was tilted back pouring the final crumbs into my mouth. Almost from the moment I sat down with it I knew that was going to happen. In fact, from the moment I bought the granola I knew it was going to happen. In fact, from the moment I walked into Whole Foods on my way home I knew it was going to happen. 

This is an example of life inflammation, and in this example I created the inflammation knowingly. I allowed myself to go get that granola, knowing that it had the capacity to send my life in a direction I knew wasn't aligned with what I really want. Still, I created the layer — having that granola in my house — that would make it possible for my experience to go that way. In a way I knew deep down wasn't right. I find that the way we organize our homes and the things we have in them determines the way life inflammation impacts us in so many ways. 

Here's another. I am not yet great at maintaining the healthy lifestyle that I know I'm meant for when I'm away from New York and my routine. Being away creates situational inflammation that leads to me not feeling great, and not being able to exist as my happiest self or do the work I'm supposed to do. At the moment for me, vacation is an inflammatory factor in my life. I recently made the decision not to go on vacation. 

Interestingly, similar to the way inflammation works with food, I don't think that all factors are permanently inflaming. Sometimes it's only at a certain threshold that things can become inflammatory. If I go to a bar for one drink, I've found that the way the next 48 hours unfolds is not a poor reflection of my intentions. If I stay out for more than one drink, bars become inflammatory. I've begun to figure out the things that are inflammatory in my life through lots of trial and error, as we do with food.

And sometimes a food that once caused inflammation ceases to disrupt the body in the same way. The coming and going of allergies over a lifetime is a good example. I'm pretty confident that vacation won't always be something that has the capacity to shift outcomes away from what's in alignment in my life. 

This is especially promising for the life inflammation that has to do with people. There are some people in our lives, some places that are inflammatory for us. Interaction with them causes the course of our lives to move away from our purpose. While it might be best for the time being to avoid their inflammatory impact, it's comforting to know it doesn't have to be a forever thing. 

FINDING WHAT'S ANTI-LIFE-INFLAMMATORY

I know the road is long to finding complete alignment between the person looking in the mirror and the one reflected. But becoming aware of the things — the foods, the actions, the situations — the inflammatory factors that contribute to discrepancy has been so helpful in building my confidence in the reflection. Some of these are easy to identify, some take more effort and bravery to find. 

It's from there that we can start to find the things that are anti-inflammatory — the activities and people and situations that make it easy to reflect on the outside what's truest on the inside. The last year of my life doing this been an absolutely empowering quest. 

Joanna CohenComment