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I have a yeast infection.
I know what you’re thinking: “TMI, Bethany.” And five years ago, I would have agreed with you. But as the infection started in 2009, and stayed with me into 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, I began to realize that hiding it and acting like it was this big, gross thing would be like pretending to not know a member of my own family.
So, everyone, Yeasty. Yeasty, everyone.
Now that you’re acquainted, here’s the story of how Yeasty became a part of my life.
It was 2009. I got a cold and did what most people do. I took some antibiotics. The next day, I had a yeast infection. Following yeast infection protocol, I went out and got some Monistat to treat it. The yeast infection came back. I went to the doctor. She prescribed me some Diflucan. And... it came back again.
I tried all the creams and all the pills. I ate lots of garlic and yogurt. At some point, I was treated with gentian violet, which I highly recommend to all women because it dyes your vagina purple for three days. Have you ever had a purple vagina? I’ve had a purple vagina.
I suppose it goes without saying that the yeast infection came back.
For a while, I tried to pretend that it had gone away.
“I can’t still have it, right?” I thought to myself. “It’s just normal again and I haven’t seen it normal for a while, so I don’t remember what that’s like.”
That lasted six months. I finally went back to the gynecologist, and she was like, “Nice try. It’s still there.”
And I took more medication.
Now, by this point, medication had no effect on the yeast whatsoever. If anything, it seemed to rise up and become angry, like Smaug at Erebor. While he’s in there guarding the treasure, he’s fine, but the second you try to uproot him, whoa, boy. Watch out.
They tried voriconazole on me. Voriconazole is the strongest antifungal available, used to treat deathly ill hospital patients. Smaug just laughed at it.
“Should the itching be worse?” I asked my gynecologist.
“Huh,” she replied, tapping her pen against her forehead.
“Yeah, so what now?” I asked.
“Holistic medicine?” she suggested. I half thought she was kidding.
I finally went to my regular doctor, who sent me to an infectious diseases specialist, an immunologist, and a urologist, in that order. All of them did the same thing: took some blood, looked at it, and said I was healthy. But I wasn’t healthy, and I knew it. Still, their lack of concern made me feel like maybe I was a hypochondriac. An extra itchy hypochondriac.
I finally broke down and decided to try holistic medicine.
“A lot of my patients go to this guy,” said my gynecologist. “Just know that he, uh, doesn’t take insurance.”
I made an appointment with “Dr. Sal.”
“How much is the visit?” I asked his assistant.
“It’s very reasonable. Only $80,” she replied.
“OK,” I said.
“But you’ll need to come in once a week for the first month,” she added.
I did some mental calculations. $80 was one thing, but $320 for that month was quite another. It was already a stretch to pay my bills. But I decided to just go and make it work. This might be the only way to get rid of the yeast.
Dr. Sal’s office was a tiny, windowless room with an examination table and a glass cabinet full of strange vials. The walls were covered with positive-thinking quotes like, “Healthy eating is the key to healthy living!”
Dr. Sal himself was short and tan with slick, graying hair. He didn’t look like a doctor. Rather than a lab coat, he wore a polo shirt and khakis.
“Hop up on the table,” he said. “I need to examine you.”
He began to poke me all over my body, rubbing my temples, poking my ribs.
“Does this hurt?” he asked, squeezing my right hand hard enough to hear my bones crunching together.
“Yes,” I said.
“That means your gut is in turmoil,” he replied.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Positive thoughts, Bethany,” I reminded myself. I had decided to trust holistic medicine for now. I would do this for a month, and if it didn’t help, I would quit.
“Good news,” Dr. Sal concluded. “I’m willing to take you on as a patient. But there are some things you need to buy.”
He handed me a long list of items.
“And this is the most important thing,” he said, handing me another sheet of paper. “Only eat the things on this list.”
I looked at the list.
No alcohol. No starchy vegetables. No sugar. No bread. No dairy. Fresh vegetables and lean meats only. One cup of decaf coffee per day.
“The problem is in your gut,” Dr. Sal said. “Yeast is thriving there, killing out the good bacteria. We have to destroy the yeast and balance your gut flora. But the only way to destroy the yeast is to starve it by not giving it anything it feeds on.”
I looked back at the list.
“I can do this,” I said, full of doubt.
Dr. Sal also handed me four bottles of vitamins.
“How much are these?” I asked.
“They are very reasonably priced,” he reassured me. That became his motto henceforth.
The $80 appointment ended up costing me $180 with the vitamins. Plus, I had to go buy castor oil, a skin brush, chia seeds, and a tub of green vegetable powder from the health food store. My first appointment cost me almost $300.
I had a bottle of wine in my fridge when I got home that night.
I took the bottle out and looked at it. “The diet technically doesn’t start until tomorrow,” I reminded myself.
For dinner that night, I had pasta, wine, bread, and more wine. I was like a prisoner on death row having one last meal. I fell asleep face down on my pillow, still wearing my clothes.
The next morning, I woke up and checked the “allowed foods” list.
I scrambled some eggs and chopped some avocado for the top. Then, I mixed up a glass of the green vegetable powder Dr. Sal had prescribed. It looked like swamp sludge and tasted like lawn clippings.
The next hard part was giving up regular coffee. I thought I was fine until I got into a shouting match with a shower curtain and then cried for two hours. Luckily, my boyfriend at the time was very understanding of the situation.
“Do you need to cry?” he would ask, stirring his pasta, as I poked at my steamed kale. “You have that look on your face.”
“I’m OK,” I said. But I wasn’t OK.
My mom had always insisted that her children deal with every tough situation with a positive attitude. I’d launched into the yeast-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, alcohol-free diet with a feeling of, “Well, I have to do this, so I might as well make the best of it.” But I was only smiling on the outside, especially when the people around me all seemed to be having so much fun, drinking wine, eating cake.
“I promise you’ll see results soon,” Dr. Sal said, during my third appointment. “But for now I want you to start doing coffee enemas four times per week to help clean out your colon.”
I was starting to feel skeptical of his credentials.
I was losing weight way too quickly, sometimes 4-5 pounds per week. I began to feel faint almost constantly. The 10-minute walk to the subway felt like 10 miles. Unable to maintain my body heat, I was constantly cold. I mentioned these things to Dr. Sal, and he seemed unconcerned.
“But how are your bowel movements?” he asked instead and prescribed me more “reasonably priced” vitamins.
I canceled my last appointment with him and decided to channel the power of healing on my own. By this point, I knew what to eat and what not to eat. I had $1,000 worth of vitamins. How hard could it be?
Turns out, pretty hard.
The biggest issue with long-term candidiasis is that there is no one specific cause. It has been linked to stress, diabetes, HIV, mononucleosis, gluten intolerance and long-term use of birth control. But no doctor had been able to pinpoint exactly what was causing my issue. The diet seemed to help a little, but the yeast was still there. I sank into a depression after six months of “healthy living.” With every meal, I began to feel like I was just force-feeding myself so that I could get through the day.
“Why do you stick with it?” my boyfriend asked one day.
“Because I don’t want to be sick,” I replied.
“But is the diet even helping?”
“A little? Dr. Sal said it would take a few years. You know, baby steps.”
He rolled his eyes at the mention of Dr. Sal.
At the end of June, after almost seven months, I went back to a regular diet. I’d lost 40 pounds. My cheeks were sunken, and I had dark circles under my eyes. I needed nutrients. I needed to feel normal again.
I was on vacation in Tennessee when it happened.
“I want Mexican food,” I said suddenly.
“OK,” my boyfriend said.
“I don’t care anymore! I’m starving!”
“No judgment,” he replied.
I ate a plate of enchiladas and an entire basket of chips before I came up for air.
“How do you feel?” my boyfriend asked.
“AWESOME,” I replied. And I did. For the first time in months, I felt like I was allowed to make my own decisions. Maybe I could learn to just live with the yeast, I thought. Was it possible? I decided to find out.
Three months later, a red patch of dry skin showed up under one of my arms. I didn’t think anything of it until three more arrived. When I went to the doctor, she confirmed that it was, indeed, fungal.
“This is tied back to my yeast problem, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Almost definitely,” my doctor said.
“I need to go back on the diet again, don’t I?”
“If you ever want to get better,” she replied.
I trudged home feeling hopeless. But things were different this time. This time I was prepared. I wanted to do it.
I sprang out of bed the next morning and downed my green juice and my eggs with avocado. I threw out the leftover wine I had in my fridge without even looking at it longingly. I took my vitamins.
The first time I’d done the diet, I was only focused on getting rid of the yeast and taking my life back, like I was its victim.
But that’s not the case anymore. I’m not ashamed of what I have. I have systemic candidiasis. I didn’t ask for it to happen. It wasn’t because I was “wearing the wrong underwear” or “didn’t eat enough yogurt.” (Trust me when I say that every woman who has ever had a mild yeast infection has given me advice on how to get rid of mine, and I just laugh and laugh.)
I have a disease. I don’t know the cause, and I don’t know the cure. I don’t know if it will ever go away.
The symptoms come and go. I eat my steamed kale and try to consume more fats to prevent my weight from dropping. I wear three pairs of socks to keep my feet warm. I take B-12 vitamins for energy. But most importantly, I’ve accepted that this is my life now, for better or worse: steamed kale and the hope that one day I’ll be yeast-free.