Looking out over the mountainsHi, I’m Susan Vennerholm. I’m a climber, hiker, trail runner, freelance writer, code wrangler, yogini. Lover of wild places. A fan of dogs, bad humor, and wild mushrooms. I drop whatever I’m doing to follow Orca whales when they’re playing nearby in Puget Sound. Shameless sci-fi and fantasy fanatic. I love an alpine start (that’s where you get up between midnight and 4am to climb a peak) – there’s nothing much that beats standing on the side of a mountain and seeing the sun rise. Favorite rock to climb: wingate sandstone and granite. I believe age is inevitable, but aging is optional.

My career has seen me instructing mountaineering and climbing, working admin in outdoor education, teaching yoga, and now doing WordPress website wrangling, tech support and content writing for the web. I thrive on such a varied life. Much of my free time I can be found hanging out with dogs, rock climbing and scampering up peaks. And eating really good AIP food. Lots of it.

My Autoimmune Story

I started this blog because of my journey with autoimmunity. I share somewhat in depth about that journey here so you might understand why I’m so grateful to be doing things in the outdoors. Living in a state of wellness is truly a gift. Don’t take your own for granted!

I’m one of a growing number of people worldwide who have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. It’s the autoimmune version of hypothyroidism, where the body attacks its own thyroid and various other body systems, frequently the brain, as was my case. It’s a very common, yet very under-diagnosed condition. In fact, about 90% of people diagnosed with hypothyroid have this autoimmune (AI) version; not many of them know it, and most are are given ineffective treatment.

I suffered for years with this undiagnosed condition. Once I figured out what was causing my health problems, it took a few more hard-won years to get my health back.

Living with autoimmunity is a constant balancing act; the symptoms can be reduced and even eliminated, but once the autoimmune (AI) gene is turned on, the body maintains its propensity toward autoimmune reactions that cause symptoms.

‘Misbehave’ in the form of dietary and lifestyle habits that feed inflammation and stress, and you pay the price, in debilitating symptoms that might be physical, mental or emotional. On the other hand, listen to your body’s signals for proper care, stay on top of ever-developing treatment protocols, and you have the best chance for what most call a ‘normal’ life.

In a nutshell, living well with autoimmunity means constant attention to taking really good care of yourself. But we should all do that anyhow, right?

Breaking Down

For years, my life was far from normal: I had chronic chemical depression (based on an inflammatory process in my brain), debilitating fatigue, and the inability to exercise, work, or maintain social relationships. I had severe reactivity to multiple foods despite eating what was reportedly a “healthy” diet. I had stubborn weight gain.

I had brain fog so thick, I literally couldn’t write a grocery list. Reading was nearly impossible. Conversations were hard to follow. Even my own thoughts were hard to complete.

I got to the point where my housemate did my grocery shopping for me because I couldn’t handle a trip out of the house. I couldn’t really remember what “well” felt like. It got really scary.

I had been a bright, highly athletic, outdoorsy, fun-loving, energetic woman of thirty-something, and over the period of a few years, it all slipped away from me—at first slowly, then cascading rapidly into a complete collapse. At my worst, I wondered if I’d ever be an active part of society again. It was really frightening.

Only in retrospect can I see how far back my health decline began. The more I learn about my condition, the farther back that ‘recognition date’ moves. Originally, I thought it started about two years before my 2008 health crash; now I know it started in my teens or before.

I found out I had Hashimoto’s in 2008 when I collapsed, but at the time I didn’t understand how it related to absolutely every one of my symptoms—physical and mental. I had even read Dr. Datis Kharrazian’s renowned book on Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, yet refused believe it was about me. I was to learn better. One day, on Dr. Kharrazian’s blog, I found mention of an online support group called Hashimoto’s 411, and I joined the group. That day my life began to change.

The Healing Path

That was autumn of 2012. In November of that year, in desperation for a change, I started a strict AIP, or autoimmune protocol. It’s an anti-inflammatory protocol that eliminates foods and substances that feed the autoimmune ‘fire’, while remediating deep-seated micronutrient deficiencies and key issues with gut health and other body systems that are common to autoimmunity.

Within a week, my depression was 90% gone; my debilitating brain fog had disappeared; my energy levels started to rise; and my food reactions virtually stopped. It was amazing! My experience of immediate change with AIP is not typical; it tends to take people longer than that for profound changes. I suppose I got lucky.

I had been “mostly-gluten-free” (which is frankly about like being 90% pregnant… think about it… you can’t really be 90% preggers) for years, and had played periodically with corn-, soy-, and sugar-free diets, all of which brought me some relief—until I returned to old eating habits and old symptoms each time.

In 2012, committing to a strict autoimmune protocol truly changed my life, and I began to heal. It wasn’t a 180, though.

Over the next year I felt better than I had in a decade. However, I had some periodic backtracks and knew there were still some things out of place. Key were some disturbing depressive spells which, after some experimentation I found were related to caffeine consumption. So, I swore off my last two vices … sniff … tea and chocolate. That may sound way out there, but my weird depressive spells stopped with the elimination of caffeine. Since then, I’ve found research that supports my suspicions on that.

However, despite the depression being gone, I still had a lingering – and total – lack of motivation, despite having strong desire to reach my goals and dreams. I was a boss at making well-organized to-do lists, but I literally couldn’t get off my butt to do anything. I felt like some part of me was broken or missing. Imagine a car without a part – it might still run but never quite right. That’s how I felt.

In November 2013, I learned that my lack of motivation might be related to out of balance brain neurotransmitters. I went on amino acid therapy in an effort to remediate that. Within a month, I felt a marked increase in my motivation, and a deeper stabilization of my moods. I felt better than I had in a decade!

Since 2014, the deep depression hasn’t returned, and my motivation has been steady. In addition, my ability to handle exercise and stress has increased exponentially.

2016 update: I have since learned more about the neurotransmitter issues, and while supplementing them was a piece of the puzzle for me, my long-term protocol revolves around keeping inflammation at bay, especially in my brain; new research has shown that chronic brain inflammation is a key player in many (perhaps all) depressive disorders, from chronic low-level depression to severe psych disorders. The inflammation affects brain function in a variety of ways, and the resulting disruption of neurotransmitter function is only part of the picture.

In the Backcountry Again!

at Indian Creek, UTOver winter 2013-2014 I started climbing at the climbing gym. Historically, I’m not a gym rat, but living in a rainy state, well… what a joy to climb again, even indoors on plastic!

I started day hiking and was amazed I could finally handle it again. In the previous 4 years, doing merely 20 minutes of easy yoga resulted in a 2 hour recovery nap. The two years prior to that, I couldn’t handle any physical activity at all; even going up a flight of stairs felt heroic.

In spring of 2014 I returned to hiking in the mountains, rock climbing, and climbing some technical peaks.

In summer of 2015 I returned to more strenuous alpine mountaineering, and my body was now able to handle extreme, extended physical activity with a relatively normal recovery period.

Summer of 2016 saw me doing long alpine mountaineering days (16-21 hour pushes) and handling it really well with normal recovery. I’m now training for alpine adventures with more intense cardio along with high intensity exercise and weights, and seeing my strength increase over what it was even in my twenties.

My outdoor trip ‘hit list’ grows daily! Whoop whoop! Gratitude.

Looking Forward

I am still healing. I’m still learning where my body’s changing limits are. I have to be mindful to not over-do it. Even this summer I passed on trip invites, to keep from pushing my body too hard and crashing. It’s a balancing act. Living with autoimmunity is a balancing act… ever-changing.

I am becoming re-acquainted with my changed body, fostering a better relationship with it, and building the strength and stamina to take me higher and further than I’ve been in years. Or perhaps ever. I’m so ready!

This healing journey involves a lot of learning, and a great deal of patience and stubbornness. My Naturopathic Doctor once told me the only reason I survived my initial health crash was due to my amazing will power. I’ll take it!

In addition to Backcountry Paleo, I have another blog called Reality Bites (neglected since I started BCP) focused more on the medical side of Hashimoto’s autoimmunity. My path has brought me here to Backcountry Paleo, where I am excited to share my inspiration about getting back into the wild, high, and remote places.

This morning, a friend at the climbing gym commented about the posts I make on my personal Facebook page, where I frequently express unhinged stoke about the progress I’m making in my training and climbing. Until you lose the ability to climb a flight of stairs, work, or complete a thought, and as a result, lose hope in having a future, it’s probably hard to understand why someone would post about that stuff like a kid at summer camp. That’s okay; I’ll keep pouring out the stoke. The gratitude brings me to tears on a regular basis.

It is my hope that this website will help and inspire those who need it. If you are suffering from symptoms that keep you from doing what you love, remember that there is always hope.

Thanks for visiting!

summer 2015: walking on the Inspiration Glacier in the North Cascades. that's me in the back.

summer 2015: walking on the Inspiration Glacier in the North Cascades. that’s me just ahead (photo credit: Shauna McDaniel)