Can you re-jig a faulty nervous system?
On Saturday morning my battery light is red again, dead again, and I’m feeling like every day of van-life is not a journey into the unknown, just to the mechanics. It’s looking like I’ve no option but to spend time indoors again until the van is fixed. Despite the problems, I already miss her.
After one week I’ve learned van-life is not for the faint-hearted. On Monday I have to call the insurance because the van’s battery is kaput. On Tuesday, I go to the mechanic to deal with a problem with the water pump. Turns out, Betty, my van, is full of leaks. On Thursday, I visit a different mechanic. On Friday, I call the insurance company a second time.
This time, a different problem, my fault: I reversed into a gully and can’t get out. The pick-up truck arrives within twenty minutes and pulls me out, no big deal. But I’m exhausted. So is my dog. I thought she’d be in heaven in the van but no – she just wants to go home, my old house. It’s the last place I want to go.
My first week in Betty is so hectic I’ve no time to workout or write. Because these activities anchor me, I’m feeling unmoored, a little frantic. When I discover the battery dead again on Saturday morning, I’m unfazed, too tired to react. I wait before phoning the insurance company. Instead, I sit at the table and write.
It’s moments like these that make Betty bliss. I’m parked up in an empty sandy nook next to the woods. Beyond the trees are dunes that lead to the ocean. From inside the van I can hear the water breaking on the shoreline. The other sounds are birdsong and the occasional patter of joggers’ feet jogging past.
This writing space is every writer’s dream. Inside, Betty is compact and cozy. Chenille cushions on the sofa add to the comfort. I’ve placed loved ornaments on the counter: a flowering cactus in a white vase, a carved wood box, an African carving of “the thinking man,” a Moroccan sketch of floating women.
My reason for choosing van-life was the chance to re-jig my nervous system. In recent years, due to plummeting oestrogen levels, my OCD tendencies have scaled off the chart. The slightest upset to my day can send my body into frissons of panic that last for hours. I can’t eat, sleep or think in these moments. It feels like the world is crashing in on me though really nothing at all has changed.
I’ve been changing for years now, an awkward and circuitous process, a concerted grasping for “self-improvement.” The transformation started when I quit alcohol in 2014. Shortly afterwards, I realized how much of my life I’d spent being sick and made the decision to take care of my health. The first thing I did was join a gym.
The one piece of advice you’ll never hear from the fitness world is how important it is to eat. If anything, you hear the opposite: stop eating. For years, I reduced my food intake while continuously pushing my body to lift heavier weights, get leaner. I lost weight, a lot of it. But eventually, I lost bone mass too and sent my body into early menopause.
In 2019, things got critical. I’d reduced my food intake to the point that I’d developed orthorexia. This is an eating disorder where a person is only willing to eat foods considered “clean” or “healthy.” At the time, I was subsisting on boiled eggs and homemade bread and coffee.
Finally, in April of that year, I had what felt like an attack of akathisia, a restlessness condition where your nervous system feels like it’s on fire. Your insides burst and crackle, hotter than a ten-foot bonfire. You can’t sleep or eat or think. You pace. You seethe. You burn. You it to end but you’re trapped inside the flame.
RECLAIMING THE UGLY
At that point, I made the decision to study nutrition. I wanted to understand what was going on with my body. I’d spent the previous five years using exercise to manage my IBS symptoms but in the process, I’d exhausted my nervous system, spiking an array of new physical problems.
As a woman with IBS, I was used to being dismissed by doctors so it didn’t occur to me to talk to one. I’d changed my lifestyle once, and I’d do it again. I just needed to know the right steps to take. I signed up for an online nutrition course, ordered the textbooks and started to study. I quickly learned that 80% of maintaining good health starts with a healthy environment.
Back then my environment was toxic. The only thing keeping me afloat was my fitness routine, which is why I pushed myself so hard. But I’d pushed myself too hard. I learned that the body is chemical soup, and once you deprive one system (digestive) of sustenance, the other systems (reproductive, endocrine, nervous) start to fail.
A NEW CALM
I spend a few hours of Saturday morning in the van writing. This is the environment I’ve wanted for years: alone, surrounded by nature, just me and my laptop and the words on the page, black pixels filling up white space. What I wanted was for my outside to match my insides.
Inside, I’m a fiery person. Not in a mean way. My enteric nervous system is hyper-attuned to atmospheric fluctuations enabling me to find earth-shattering meaning in the rustle of leaves. It’s my super-power and my Achilles Heel. If there’s too much activity around me, my system goes into overdrive, and I shut down.
After my spell of writing, I go to the beach, walking half a mile along the shoreline to a spring where fresh water flows out of the dunes. I walk to the tip of beach, from where you can see the Moroccan coastline on clear days. I plunge into the cold water. My body flinches at first.
But I plunge in again – the sun sparkling on the crests of small rolling waves is too beautiful to resist. To dry off, I sit on a slab of rock where the midday sun warms my skin. Sitting on that rock I make another executive decision: fuck the battery, it can wait till Monday. I’m not going anywhere. When I get back to the van an hour later, she starts on the first try but I don’t move an inch.
Hit that Follow Button if you want to witness my journey into nature to make peace with my anxieties and overcome the challenges of travelling with IBS.
Your environment is everything. It dictates your wellbeing. What small change can you make this week to improve the quality of your environment? It can be anything: paint a picture, buy a book, buy a new cushion, try a new recipe.
If you’d like advise on an IBS eating tailored to your preferences, get in touch, email email@example.com