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What Hashimoto’s Taught Me About Prejudice and True Beauty

My mother's Hashimoto's diagnosis made me realize how much I took her for granted, and how much I dismissed her for being overweight.

When I think of my mother, I think of uncooked chicken on a cutting board. I think of her on her hands and knees on the floor cleaning our kitchen tiles. I think of her plump, pale white skin, and the heavy sound of her breathing as she trundles up the stairs. And most shamefully, I think of the single word I used for most of my life to describe her, and hate myself for it: fat.

My family, we’re Albanian Muslims, which means that not only do we like to eat, it’s our main past time. When we have parties or family gatherings, we can’t start doling out the booze, so we just start serving more food. Consequently, we were a tribe of eaters, ministered to by my Mother, who seemed to always be hunched over the stove growing up, cooking our favorite meals for us day or night: a lifetime spent frying or baking or sautéing or reheating food for the seven people she loved.

But never for herself. As long as I can remember, I’ve seen her counting calories, sometimes for months at a time. It didn’t matter; she was always shopping for looser pants or looser shirts. Her daily regimen of chores would have reduced other guys’ moms to skeletons: she was always lifting, always cleaning, always killing herself for a house we couldn’t afford, smack dab in the middle of New City, a small but wealthy suburb in New York, with its three floors and disastrous mortgage.

Her daily regimen of chores would have reduced other guys’ moms to skeletons: she was always lifting, always cleaning…

Eventually, my father lost his business, and so my mother lost her home. We moved out, into two cramped, Lodi, New Jersey apartments that were hastily renovated, but still far smaller than where we’d previously lived. And without a chandelier to Windex, or floors to constantly keep scrubbed, my mother just gained more weight.

Still self-conscious of her weight gain, my mother asked us to blur photos of her for inclusion in this piece.

She slowed down. She’d always hated going to the mall, which she associated with our toy aisle temper tantrums, and the humiliating experience of having to buy new clothes.  Now, though, just walking to and from the car was a chore. Around the house, she’d get dizzy spells when she stood up too quickly. She’d even start to breathe heavily when doing simple things, like pounding chicken to grill for my brother, who insisted the protein was vital to his weightlifting “gains” process.

She was selfless. No matter how much her weight made it harder for her, she was selfless. She drove us to and from school, cooked for us, washed all our clothes, dealt with all our shit. She cleaned toilets, and bid on construction jobs for my father, who–after failing another business venture and plunging our family into debt again–seemed to do nothing but nap all day. But it was she who was tired. Yet she did it all, quietly, never appreciated.

The excessive fatigue and weight gain finally forced her to see a specialist. But it tooks years to get a diagnosis. She’d see a doctor. They’d put her on medicine. It wouldn’t work. They’d try another a month later. That wouldn’t work. They’d try another medicine. Finally, some results. But then the insurance would run out. She’d have to see another doctor. Rinse repeat.

It took about 11 years, give or take, before they finally diagnosed my mother with Hashimoto’s disease

It took about 11 years, give or take, before they finally diagnosed my mother with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that gradually destroys the thyroid, eventually leading to weight gain and fatigue. It turned out that, with the right meds, her younger, better years could have been saved, but better late than never, right?

My mother on her wedding day.

Sometimes, I look at these pictures of my mother when she was still young and I cry. She looked like she’d been carved from marble: beautiful, tall. She somehow managed to make the outdated hairstyles of the early 80s look good. Her skin was clear, her smile was warm and vulnerable hovering above a straight posture that ran a line down to her feet.

Then I think of her at the height of her obesity. Her face, full and tired. Visibly shorter, as if she’d collapsed in on herself. And when I compare her to her past self this way, I ask myself: was it really the Hashimoto’s that made her sick? Or was it my family, which ran her ragged, and sapped the energy out of her, and never appreciated her?

It’s at these moments that she seems, to me, to be most tragic and mysterious. Do I really know this woman, who gave up a computer science scholarship to Princeton to marry my father at 17? What lies in the soul of this woman who would thrill me as a child when I heard her tip-toe through the house at night, softly singing lyrics from the Quran?

How could I have taken her for granted for so many years? How could I have dismissed her as fat?

She was, and is, so much more.

Immune & Autoimmune Diseases Profiles

The Health Coach Who Refused To Be Wounded

After years of suffering from Hashimoto's Disease, Celiac, and depression, Allie Stark wondered what would happen if she stopped identifying as a sick person. It changed her life.

Allie Stark says “fuck” a lot. She’s honest as all hell, unapologetic, and sugar coats nothing. You’ll thank her later. 

A testament to this? Her clients keep coming back.

Allie runs a booming wellness business. She’s a health and nutrition coach, a wellness consultant, and a yoga instructor. She coaches one-on-one with private clients, specializing in clients with chronic illnesses. She also facilitates large group therapy workshops, and gives workshops and talks in organizations.

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Allie Stark.

Before you start rolling your eyes about Silicon Valley’s commodification of Buddhism and all things woowoo, that’s not Allie’s style, and it’s not what she’s peddling.  

“I’m getting more and more curt with people I work with about I’m-not-gonna-do-the-work-for-you. If you want a cheerleader, I’m not the right person,” she says with genuine impatience in her voice. “I’m being a hard ass because I fucking hate working with clients that expect me to fix their problems. That’s not truth. That doesn’t happen in life.”

In Allie’s view, our societal structure is based on extrinsic factors being cures. She believes that people become unhappy because they can’t ever get what they need from the outside. But she knows from experience that healing is work that one must do on and for oneself. As she pointed out, “most healers are wounded healers, which is why they get into their work.”

Most healers are wounded healers, which is why they get into their work.

Allie was “always kind of a sick kid,” constantly on antibiotics and feeling lousy. She got really sick in her late teens. She developed severe psoriasis but was able to get it under control. Later, at 22, she lost her voice for “a really long time.” She was achy, swollen, fatigued, and had digestive issues. It was a massive autoimmune flare up. She “never felt good, ever.” When she was 24 she was diagnosed with Celiac and stopped eating wheat. She felt better for a few months, then got super sick again. Finally she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease which causes the immune system to attack the thyroid. She was overmedicated by a factor of 300%, then had to go through a process of being weaned off the drugs, which entailed another year of “feeling really crappy.” It made her “incredibly anal” about her diet. She took a “ridiculous amount of supplements,” and started getting acupuncture.

They weren’t her best years but they did set her on the path that would eventually become her entire mission in life. Being sick made Allie interested in health.

“There’s basically two worlds,” Allie explains. “The sick world and the healthy world. When you live in the healthy world, the sick world is not even a reality, and when you’re living in the sick world, you just want to get into the healthy world.” She started teaching yoga at age 17. After college she was private cheffing for people with food allergies. She went into a masters program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in integrative health.

There’s basically two worlds: the sick world, and the healthy world. When you live in the healthy world, the sick world is not even a reality…

But despite her work, she was still sick and often depressed. “I used to get sick like five times a year between ten and fourteen days every time. It was like a quarter of my years I was sick.”

Until one morning during grad school: “I just remember waking up and wondering why I called myself a sick person.” This was the beginning of her transformation. “Nothing was working,” she explains, “so why not just try to change the story and see what unfolded from there?” She had studied how much mental health plays a role in physical health it finally occurred to her it might be time to shift the narrative for her own life too. She had literally tried everything else.

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Allie Stark.

“When you’ve exhausted everything else you can do, and you’re stripped down to your soul, and you’re wondering how to get through [life] moment-to-moment,” she explains, “the only thing left to do is to go really deep inside of yourself.”

So she called her mom and dad and brother and wrote emails to five close friends. She wrote that she knew she had identified as a sick person in the past. She no longer wanted being sick to be her story. Allie asked that if they ever hear her talking about herself that way, that they call her out. She asked for their help in breaking the pattern. “I wanted to think of myself as a happy, healthy person,” Allie says. It wasn’t just about her physical ailments. She had also identified herself as a person who suffered from depression and decided to reject that narrative too.

I just remember waking up and wondering why I called myself a sick person…

It worked quite remarkably. Looking at Allie now, she is the image of health. She is full of life and energy and has clear, glowing skin and the body of, well, a yoga teacher.  “I wake up like four times a year and feel depressed for two days,” she explains, “but, like, welcome to being a fucking human being. I don’t have long drawn-out weeks, months of depression anymore.” She also hasn’t gotten really sick in over a year, “which is fucking crazy.” Allie was able to markedly improve her health and happiness through the stubborn, searching work of changing her narrative. And that—among many other things—is what she tries to help her clients do.  

Allie finished her graduate studies three years ago and began with some coaching work at the San Francisco Department of Public Health as a program coordinator for a service that offered free chiropractors and acupuncture. She also taught yoga while she slowly started to build a coaching practice. “I’ve always had like seventeen jobs,” she states.  She worked for a period with a partner to create an integrative health program.

She then rebranded and went after the chronic health issue niche market. She partnered with two naturopath doctors who are her main referral system with clients. She started giving onsite talks and workshops. Fast forward through a few years of hustling, and here’s Allie now, still with seventeen jobs running it all as one impressive business out of her impeccably decorated Oakland apartment office.

Why are we all trying to be normal and not optimal?

She recently designed and conducted a one-month program she called Human Flourishing. “Why are we all trying to be normal and not optimal?”  This is what sets Allie’s philosophy apart from a lot of the current Silicon Valley mindfulness and wellness discourse.

“Mediocrity is fine rather than excellence,” she goes on, challenging the currently ubiquitous cult-of-productivity, “not perfectionism, but feeling like an optimal human being, being on you’re a-game which gets confused with being productive.”  Allie sees it as more complicated, more about “how you’re being in the world and does that feel optimal?”

Allie wants to write a book one day. She wants to do more public speaking and large group facilitating and have a small private practice on the side. But she knows that it’s all going to take time. “With some of the most successful people, what falls away the quickest is self care. I refuse to negotiate on that, so my goals may take me longer. I’m ok with that.”