One of the life lessons I hope to pass onto you is the importance of and ability to embrace your new reality. Throughout your life there will undoubtedly be moments where aspects of your life will completely change. Some of these will come naturally as you transition to a new phase in life: going to school for the first time, moving away to college, beginning your first full-time job. Each of these will rock your reality in ways you can't easily prepare for. When it happens, it's so important to accept and embrace these new realities. Unfortunately this is far easier said than done. You'll be tempted to cling to the life you've always known. And to miss it and wish for it to return. But unfortunately doing so will only create more anxiety and not help you deal with your new existence. You will ultimately need to internalize this new life as your new reality, embrace it, and only spend your thoughts on ways to make this new life better.
Some of these new realities, though, won't just be the result of natural transitions in life. You may encounter completely unanticipated (and often unfortunate) circumstances that require you to adapt in ways you would never have wanted to. A professional setback, a loss of a loved one, an illness, and so much more. These will challenge you the most and will cause you to ask questions of why you were so unfortunate. But nonetheless, the only way to persevere is to once again embrace this new reality, accept it as your own, and optimize against it. If you are able to do so, you'll ultimately realize that you can personally grow to entirely new heights and thrive in ways you may have never imagined.
This all won't make much sense to you until you encounter such a new reality. So to make it more real, I wanted to share the story of a new reality I've recently had to face. One I truly struggled with. But one which I ultimately embraced, overcame, and thrived because of it.
It's been just over a year since this new reality rocked my own world. Let's head back to September 2018 when it all began. I started to notice that when I went to crowded bars, networking events, and conference parties, I found myself no longer enjoying them. It was odd for me because as an ambivert, I'm equally energized by throwing myself into a crowd, introducing myself, and cultivating interesting conversations as I am holed up at home coding away for hours. But alas, that fun had disappeared. At first I thought maybe I was coming of age as I was on the eve of my 35th birthday and was finally growing past the party scene, which so many of my friends had lamented had happened to them. But I noticed something odd at a conference I attended in October. When at the kick-off party that night, the bass roared from the music the DJ was pumping as usual, but I realized I just couldn't hear the people I was trying to talk to very well. I kept asking "what did you say?" a hundred times and it frustrated me. And I seemed to remember that same hearing issue at a few previous events I had gone to.
When I returned home from the conference, I messaged my doctor and mentioned that I felt like I may be experiencing some kind of hearing loss. She didn't think much of it as I was also recovering from a cold which sometimes causes such symptoms, but scheduled a hearing test nonetheless. A week later, the hearing test shocked both my doctor and me: I was suffering from severe hearing loss in my left ear. And unlike classic hearing loss that happens with old age at the high frequencies, my hearing loss was specifically at low frequencies, making it even more surprising. My doctor and a series of specialists then subjected me to a battery of hearing tests, an MRI, and steroids.
After about a month of this, a specialist was finally able to diagnose what caused my hearing loss: I had acquired a rather rare medical condition called cochlear hydrops. Each person's inner ear has three fluid chambers, each of which automatically regulates the amount of fluid in its chamber. I, unfortunately, was suffering from a condition that caused those fluid chambers to no longer appropriately regulate their fluid, causing excess fluid buildup and pressure. This pressure caused a whole host of symptoms. Not only the low frequency hearing loss I initially experienced, but a whole series of symptoms I would become intimately familiar with in the coming months. Tinnitus, or constant ringing in the ear, was the most frustrating, making it incredibly difficult to sleep at night without a white noise machine or fan running. Sound distortion also caused these annoying reverberations anytime I heard low frequency sounds, making it even more difficult to hear beyond the hearing loss I was already suffering. The worst part? If this condition wasn't managed, it would progress to Meniere's disease, an even rarer condition that causes vertigo (a spinning dizziness sensation accompanied by loss of balance) and constant migraines, which becomes debilitating.
Unfortunately there isn't much known about this condition given how rare it is. What causes it? The medical community's best guess (and it's only a theory) is it was a common cold gone awry. And how do you cure it? Unfortunately no known cure.
The only option then is just to manage the symptoms. Since my inner ear membranes were no longer functioning properly to automatically regulate the amount of fluid contained within them, the only thing I could do is dramatically drop the total amount of fluid my body was retaining in an attempt to get those chambers to drain. And the way to do that was to dramatically reduce the amount of sodium in my diet... for the rest of my life.
It turns out almost everything you eat has sodium in it. It's naturally occurring in all animal products (milk, yogurt, meat, fish, etc). And it's in the most surprising things (salad greens for example). And of course, every canned and frozen food is stuffed with additional sodium. And all restaurants add an incredible amount of sodium to their food for flavor. And that's when my new reality started to dawn on me: I'll never eat fast food again. I'll never eat my favorite food, pizza, ever again. My days of eating out more than eating in would no longer be possible. Even cooking with canned and frozen food would no longer be possible. Traveling would forever become difficult because of my new sodium restriction.
This new reality was incredibly difficult for me to embrace. I felt sad about the fact that my relationship with food, which was a huge part of the pleasure I had always derived from life, was completely changing. But then I felt even worse for feeling sad in the first place. It's not like I had cancer or was dying or anything, yet why did this diet change feel so overwhelming for me to deal with?
And I continued to try to cling to my previous life. Ada and I, for example, worked hard to try to create a low sodium pizza with a completely low sodium home-made crust and low-sodium cheese. But the fact it didn't taste anything like real pizza depressed me even more.
After about a month of flailing with this new diet, I came to the realization that I just wasn't accepting that my past life was over. I kept asking why this had happened to me and trying to find ways to hack it to bring back some part of the previous life I had always known. But I knew then I needed to stop. I needed to just say it to myself: "My past life is over. This is my new reality. There is no going back." As depressing as that statement might sound, it was actually very liberating. And critical to begin down the path of embracing my new reality.
And ultimately, I did just that. I realized that my relationship with food had changed forever. It could no longer provide the kind of pleasure, comfort, and stress relief I had relied on it to provide throughout my life. So I asked myself then, what did I want my new relationship with food to be? I decided food would become a means to other ends that I had begun to care deeply about. Diet and exercise had increasingly become a priority in my life. I had lost about 8 lbs since leaving my role at LinkedIn and I knew I wanted to double-down on those efforts. I had started to exercise a couple of times a week to start to bring that into my life as well. And I knew now I could dedicate myself to kicking up those efforts a notch and leverage my new relationship with food as fuel for my more important diet and fitness goals.
I devised a brand new diet plan that was low sodium, low calorie, and low carb. The only thing required for my medical condition was a low sodium diet, but it was the low calorie and low carb part that would give my diet purpose and enable me to achieve new heights in health and fitness. I ultimately put together a meal plan that got me to ~1,400 calories a day. My diet consisted of Greek yogurt and berries for breakfast, a huge salad for lunch, and usually an assortment of veggies with chicken or fish for dinner. I kept a detailed spreadsheet of every calorie that I consumed and optimized it for taste and nutrition as I went along. And through this diet I've now lost 30 lbs and maintained it for almost a year.
As part of this, I ultimately learned to cook as well. Ada used to be the sole cook in our house, but given eating out options were no longer available to me, it was important for me to learn to maintain my independence. And I actually have come to enjoy and take pride in my cooking. And I've even gotten to the point where my cooking, despite being low sodium, low calorie, and low carb, is actually decently tasty. (Don't worry Zoe, soon enough you'll have your chance to tell me if you agree :)
As I got my diet under control, I began to shift my focus to exercise. I went from just exercising to specifically training for a half marathon that Ada and I ran together in April this year. I had previously only run a few miles, so was amazed to discover that I could complete my first half marathon in under two hours.
Ada then got into weight lifting after that, so I ultimately transitioned to learning to lift with a personal trainer and then ultimately building out our home gym to enable us to easily lift three times a week. It's been so rewarding to see a 3x increase in the amount of weight I can bench and squat in under 6 months time.
The benefits of all these changes in my life were unimaginably positive. My health KPIs (blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose) went from border-line to ideal levels. I thought I was already an energetic person, but my daily energy and alertness levels have never been higher. The quality of my work improved as well with far greater stamina that I brought to every task. I literally feel like I have reverse-aged, now being in the very best shape of my life at 35 versus even my twenties.
In addition to all the physical benefits, I've seen a ton of mental benefits as well. I've bolstered my confidence as well as my growth mindset: my conviction in my own abilities to take and learn skills and talents I didn't think would ever be a part of my life. Running a half marathon, lifting, cooking weren't even part of my life a year ago.
As I celebrate my 36th birthday this week, I couldn't have imagined just how much my life would have changed in the past year. And yet despite starting the year with a diagnosis of a rare untreatable medical condition, all these changes have ultimately been so positive and I can honestly say I've never felt better about myself nor been prouder of what I've accomplished.
We are measured not by the adversity that we are dealt, but by the way we react in the face of that adversity. And that reaction is entirely up to us. So I hope Zoe, when you face your own new realities throughout your life, you are able to embrace them and not just cling to your past life. Because when you can, you'll ultimately realize that you can find your own unique way to thrive.