Hi everyone, I’m Steph.
If you want to read a little more detail about my whole story, and how I have come to creating this website, business and community, then I would encourage you to read the long version below.
Here is the summary.
I am a physiotherapist based out of Melbourne, Australia. I completed my undergraduate study in 2010 and immediately started work in private practice. From here I went on to complete my Post Graduate Certificate and then Masters in Sports Physiotherapy. I have worked in various elite sports since 2013, many of which have taken me around the world travelling with Australian teams. I have since taken part in a number of natural and functional health courses and I am now studying a certificate in nutrition.
But, there is another side to my story. I suffered from glandular fever twice during my school years. I never really recovered from the second bout, and it developed into chronic fatigue syndrome. Over the following 10 years there were some relapses and an additional diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. After development of some new symptoms I was diagnosed with a Chiari Malformation and underwent decompression surgery (brain surgery) late 2018.
Working in the health industry whilst also suffering from a number of health concerns has given me quite an interesting, and in some ways, unique perspective. I have gained a lot of knowledge and have accessed a lot resources that I know have allowed me to navigate my journey a little easier. I have also become quite aware of some of the areas where resources are lacking and I am hoping to help fill that gap, and this is what led to the creation of Expansive Health.
I decided to go into a bit more detail about my story than I usually would in a profile. This is due to the fact that I aim to not only provide and share resources, but also create space for a community for people that are going thorough similar experiences. I feel my honesty and ability to share my story will also help others.
When I was eight I was diagnosed with glandular fever. I don’t remember much about this time other than having to quit some of my after school activities and I was unwell for a while. Over the next 8 years I suffered from recurrent tonsillitis. I was given antibiotics on every occasion, at this point in time, the negative effects of antibiotics on the microbiome where not widely understood. I have had gut issues for as long as I can remember. Anyway, it was the start of year 11 that I started to really struggle with energy. I would come home from school and fall asleep on the loungeroom floor nearly every day. I struggled to get out of bed (more than the average teenager) and I just didn’t feel right. I told Mum I felt that I had glandular fever again. My mum took me to the doctor multiple times, only to be dismissed. I remember the doctor telling me that as I had had it once I could not have it a second time (also another misconception). One day, about half way through the year, I woke up and my neck and face was all puffy. My mum booked another appointment with the doctor and took me there, along with my school photo taken at the beginning of the year, this was to help prove that something was wrong. The doctor finally decided to test me for glandular fever, just so we could see that’s not what it was, the results came back and it turned out I had a severe case. I was off school for weeks, sleeping about 16-20 hours a day. When I did go back to school I didn’t go back full time as I never really bounced back. I was incredibly lucky that learning came naturally to me, so despite not being able to study properly I still finished school and was accepted into physiotherapy and moved out of home and into the city.
Throughout university I still never felt right, I always tried to live near campus so I could walk home if I had a break between classes and sleep. I went to doctor after doctor asking for tests, I just did not believe that anyone should be as tired and weak as I felt. They would usually do blood tests, which would come back in normal ranges and that was that. Until one doctor said, “Well, it looks like you have chronic fatigue syndrome.” I was given no advice, and just went away thinking that that was that, I just had to learn to live like this.
I was fatigued, lethargic, any physical load made me worse, the brain fog was intense, my gut was far from normal (although normal for me- I didn’t know any different), I struggled with concentration and memory. Although not consistent I had pretty severe anxiety. Every day was a struggle.
In my last placement of my undergraduate degree I was placed at a private practice in the suburbs. A few weeks into this placement my supervisor mentioned that he was doing a study on the effects of a specific type of exercise on people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Linking a dysfunction of the neck (positional cervical cord compression) as the trigger for CFS. I immediately asked if I could be involved.
Over the coming weeks I saw immediate change. For the first time in nearly 6 years there was hope of improvement, and this sparked something in me to find out more. Honestly, I had no idea where to start. Eventually after seeing a few different types of practitioners I started working with a naturopath. Through testing I discovered I had various food intolerances. By adjusting my diet and doing a gut repair program (based around an anti-candida protocol) I saw incredible results. I felt human again.
I slowly started increasing my work hours, taking on new challenges and returned to uni. I have always thrived on being busy and challenging myself, it’s what got me through the end of secondary school and through university whilst also managing my poor health. But it’s also what lead me to crashing again.
My tendency to over commit myself resulted in a huge decline in my health. I’d pushed myself way too far. At least by this stage I had discovered a lot more about health, I had a better understanding of natural health and modern medicine. I also had a much better understanding of my own body. I pretty quickly sought the help of an integrative GP (similar to a functional medicine doctor).
This period of time was an intense struggle for me. My fatigue was worse than ever before. I was too scared to walk my own dog because I was worried I would pass out. There was an over pass I had to cross on my way to work, and walking up those stairs felt like it took all the strength I had, and I had to stand at the top and prepare myself to walk down the other side. I had to immediately reduce my hours at work and ensure I had more breaks through the day. Between clients I would sit and just stare, I could feel my body shaking but every day I pushed through. In hindsight I should have taken a few months off, but I just wasn’t in the financial position to do so. I needed money so I could seek medical help. I was single at the time, I didn’t have someone to support me at home, cooking was too hard, so I lived off ubereats, or sometimes just didn’t eat because that just seemed easier. I often described to people that it felt like the air was thicker and gravity was stronger. On my bad days, lifting my hand to my own face felt like I was lifting 40kg. If I ever tried to exercise (which is often what is recommended) I would end up having to take more time off work. Generally, if I wasn’t at work I was in bed.
For a period of time, I discovered that after a few drinks that fatigue would dissipate, this resulted in me going out a lot more on weekends than I would have otherwise. It was the only time I felt human and in many ways saved my mental health during that time. On the weeks I wouldn’t go out for drinks my fatigue just seemed to engulf me even more.
I was well aware that many of the habits and strategies I developed in order to simply survive during that were no good for my long term health but at the time I really was doing the absolute best I could with what I had.
I was lucky to have some very supportive friends that would come to my house and help me get up and out, so I could at least fulfill various commitments and continue to participate in life.
I feel its probably also relevant to mention that throughout this entire time (from childhood onwards) I had quite a number of social and family challenges I also had to deal with. There were phases in my life where it really felt like nothing was going right. But all that is another story of course.
I had some pretty positive changes occur while working with the integrative GP, he worked on my adrenal health, hormones, gut health and candida overgrowth among other things. I was improving, starting to feel like me again and then things went back downhill. I started getting headaches and migraines, brain fog was returning, I went into some pretty serious bouts of depression and my anxiety returned, eventually it got to the point where I was having serious visual disturbances and losing control of my hands. I tried to make excuses for it all and laugh it off, as I was just not mentally ready to deal with more challenges.
I then heard an interview with someone on the radio who had suffered a brain tumour, he was begging people to get checked out if they had ANY symptoms, better to be safe than sorry right? I had an MRI and was diagnosed with a Type 1 Chiari Malformation. Over the following 4 weeks I saw a few specialists, one of whom put me on medication that turned me into a zombie and increased my depression, I knew that was not the way I was going to manage this. I was then referred to a neurosurgeon who had me in hospital the next day to perform a decompression.
For those Chiari people out there, I had a removal of posterior arch of C1, some skull removal, debulking of the tonsils and a dural graft taken from the top of my skull. It apparently was incredibly scarred and there was a huge amount of pressure in my head.
Going through this was intense in so many ways. There were physical challenges, emotional challenges and mental challenges. Times where I felt I had completely lost my independence, more depression and more anxiety, and eventually a feeling of being completely lost. But it forced me to look at my life in different light. It forced me to slow down, it forced me to stop pushing and just trying to get through. It was the start of something pretty powerful for me.
During my recovery my neurosurgeon recommended that I take meditation a little more seriously and create a consistent practice. This was just another thing that made me realise the importance of looking at all facets and approaches to health to find improvement. Since then I’ve delved deeper into all things health and healing and am continuing to achieve my health goals.
Fast forward to now. I’m feeling the best I have in a long time, I know I have further to go but for the first time ever I fully believe I am going to achieve the health I want to.
Throughout my journey I have learnt so much and experienced a lot. I have also helped a lot of other people through my work already. I also acknowledge I have had an advantage working in the health field.
I have no doubt that if 16 or even 22 year old me had access to the knowledge and mindset I have now, the last 10-15 years would have been a completely different journey. This is why I created Expansive Health, as a way to share this with as many people as possible and help people gain control of their health like I now finally I have.
I’d like to finish with a quote I once came across (I can’t remember where)
“The best teachers are those who are still learning and the best healers are those who are still healing”