My Biggest Secret

I started typing this post about Langkawi but got completely distracted by this secret I’ve been hiding for years…

First off, I can’t believe I was headed back to Langkawi!  I had been in Malaysia for just over a week and I felt like I had done absolutely nothing except waste time and money.  And now instead of headed to a new destination, I was going back to where I began.

The last 16 hours had been a whirlwind of exploration in George Town Penang.  From night markets to night life to early morning art walks, I conquered that city in the little time I had left.  While the city was quaint with cute artsy culture, I was secretly so excited to get back to chill vibes and easy island living.

You’d Think I’d Get Used to This Traveling Thing…

After a 2km walk in the blistering heat carrying everything I own, a 3 hour ferry on the choppiest seas, and a 30 minute taxi ride, I was finally back in Langkawi at Zackry Guest House, my home for the next few days.  I arrived early in the evening and decided that I needed to make the most of my time in Langkawi since I’d backtracked to come here.  No more wasting time and money.

Way easier said than done.

As soon as I arrived, I plopped into my comfy semi-private dorm bed and couldn’t be bothered to move.  Doing nothing all day can be exhausting!  It really can!

My body wanted to sleep, my brain wanted to watch Netflix, but something deep inside me screamed, “GET THE F*** OUT OF BED!”

I reluctantly obliged.

Reset by the sunset

The sun was just about to set and the beach was so close, a 5 minute walk at most.  I forced myself out of bed and across the street.  I have no idea why, but this 5 minute walk was the longest 5 minutes of my life.  I was literally dragging myself across the street.

I know it always looks like rainbows and butterflies on this side of the world, but there are so many times where I am just so tired or so blah and really have to talk myself into moving.  The rest of the world has weekends, whereas I’m supposed to be doing something cool every single day.  Introverted at heart, talking to people and sharing my space with strangers 24/7 really drains me!

My biggest secret

In 2009 I contracted mononucleosis for the 3rd time.  For those of you who don’t know what mono is, it’s an illness that causes extreme fatigue, swollen glands, a horrible sore throat, fever, etc. and last 2-4 weeks.  Most people can’t get out of bed when they have mono and it’s just a terrible overall experience.  But after 2-4 weeks, you get better and life goes on.

Not for me.

Here’s the thing… you’re not supposed to get mono more than once.  Once you get it, your body builds antibodies and you’re fine for the rest of your life.  If that’s true, how did I get it again?  And what was going on with my body?

Mono #1 and #2 weren’t too bad.  Honestly, I can’t remember so I guess that’s a good thing.  But mono #3 was a nightmare.  I was so sick that I was forced to medically withdraw from University and spend 3 months chained to my bed while my parents took care of me back at home.  Most days I barely had the energy to walk to the toilet, let alone do anything productive.

This was my own personal hell.

While I recovered enough energy to return to University, I never bounced back to the bubbly, upbeat, overly energetic person I once was.  It was crippling.

It took nearly 1 year for the doctors to figure out what was going on, and when they did, it was too late to recover.  I was finally diagnosed with chronic Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue (6+ months of continued illness).  So now what?

So now here’s my biggest secret… with the assistance of countless doctors, specialists, nutritionists, holistic practitioners, etc., I finally came to the realization that I was going to need medication to help recover from this problem.  I was devastated.  I didn’t want to take medication.  I didn’t want to be dependent on anything for my health.  I really thought I could beat this (or at least live with it)….

…And I couldn’t.

I needed help

If you know me, then you know that taking medication is my ultimate last resort.  And sadly, I had reached that point.  Popping caffeine pills just to stay awake for a few hours is not okay.

While this may not be a big deal for some of you, it was HUGE for me.  And even bigger to admit that I “needed” something to feel “normal” again.

I took medication for years to help recover my energy levels and rebuild my immune system.  I tried to wean off of it a few times, but almost every time, my energy levels would come crashing down and I’d have to go back on it.

Before I left to travel, I had been medication-free for almost a year.  I felt so insanely happy to have overcome that hurdle, until one day, something felt off and I couldn’t shake the exhaustion.  Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and then finally I caved and called my doctor.

She was mad (and unaware) that I stopped taking the medication in the first place.  Oops.  And she recommended that I resume “what was working” and go back on it immediately.

While the meds helped tremendously, no one warned me that I would eventually run out while traveling.  And when you run out of something like this, it F**** your whole body and mind up, BIG TIME.

Not only do you have insane withdrawal effects such as flu-like symptoms, body aches, muscular pains, etc., your energy levels deplete to such a low point that you feel way worse than you ever did before.  Lucky for me, I got to experience this while traveling. ((sarcasm, of course))

The real reason I was in Hanoi for a month

This first happened in Hanoi, Vietnam.  I ran out of meds while I was there and I genuinely thought I’d be okay, just like before.  I never wanted to take them anyways so I pretended that this was a good thing and I could conquer this “mind over matter” style.

That was an epic fail.

I was trapped in Hanoi for a month.  While I loved the city and welcomed the break from always being on the go, I was really there for so long because I physically could not move.  I don’t like to admit this stuff because I’m one of those people who believes I can conquer anything, but this is the truth, and what’s worse than living in the shadows behind a handful of lies?

While I loved Hanoi (especially Chien Hostel), I legit did not have any energy to get out of bed most days, not even to shower or brush my teeth.  It was a nightmare.

I finally told someone

One of my best friend’s who I met while traveling surprised me in Hanoi and together we motorbiked the Extreme North Loop, an epic adventure and one of my all-time favorite experiences.  I have no idea how I had the energy to do this, but I did it and it was amazing!

Until it caught up to me…

I didn’t want to admit to Lee what was going on, but when we arrived back to Hanoi and he watched me sleep for almost a week straight, he knew something was up.  This is so unlike me.  I finally caved and told him the truth.  He was furious that I put my health on the back burner and let things get this bad.  He’s always been my voice of reason when it comes to this stuff.  Without him, I definitely would’ve skipped my monkey bite vaccinations in Laos, as they were just too challenging to find!

What’s a best friend for if they don’t take awkward and embarrassing photos of you while sleeping?

Temporary solution

I figured there had to be a solution to this problem.  After a ton of research, I found a similar medication in Bangkok (Thailand) so I booked a flight and headed to Thailand.  I bought 2 months of extremely expensive medication and hoped for the best.

Surprisingly it worked wonderfully.  That is, until I ran out again.

Bangkok was the only place where I could find this stuff and sadly, I was so over going there.  I had already been 4 times in the last 6 months and come on, once you’ve been to Bangkok, you quickly learn that once is enough.

Max Pankow backpacking

I felt so defeated

I felt like I set myself up in the worst kind of way.  I told you how paralyzing the exhaustion was, but that was nothing compared to the insane body aches.  I legit had a limp for months after Hanoi because my muscles were so fatigued and I had to start taking pain medication for my back just so I could get out of bed and move.

The worst part about all of this is that the exhaustion makes you feel like you’re starving all the time… so you eat and eat and eat… and while I LOVE to eat, I don’t love my clothes being 2 sizes too small, my wallet nearly empty, and my abs transformed from a 6 pack of awesomeness to a 6 pack of muffin tops.

You think you’d be able to exercise or something to balance it out but my body hurts so badly and my energy level is at an all time low so that’s out of the question.

Maybe it would be different if I was at home where I could actually fuel my body with healthy foods and an exercise regiment and the simple comforts of everyday living, but I’m not, and I’m NOT going home just to sort this out.

Decision time

I knew I was about to run out of meds again, so I had a decision to make.  Do I go back to Bangkok and stock up or do I try to beat this thing?  The logical answer is Bangkok, duh, but I’m too hard-headed for that.

After bouncing the idea around with my mom, I decided to lessen my meds and see if I could handle it at half the prescription strength.  That would save me a lot of time and and a ton of money.   I’m not sure that’s what we agreed on but that’s what I decided so here it goes!

About a month ago, I began this insane challenge once again.

Side Note: I highly do not suggest this to anyone, especially while traveling.  Plan ahead and take care of yourself.  I wish I could say the same about myself but I can’t and this is my story…

It was terrible

Lessening my meds was terrible so I did the next logical decision and about 2 weeks ago I said, F*** this, and I stopped everything all at once.

Another Side Note: Don’t do that. Ever. Please. Listen to your doctor.

Anyways, I stopped my meds just over 2 weeks ago and while I was happy to continue to keep this information to myself (like I have for the past 7 years), a few days ago I found myself unleashing every detail of this story to a stranger, and after getting it all out, I felt insanely better.

I think it was his jaw-dropping reaction to this story (and a few others that I told) which finally altered my perception.  For the first time I didn’t feel shame or weakness or stupidity, I felt strength.

So How’s My Health Now?

It’s okay.  I have great days and not so great days.  Some mornings I feel like I can conquer the world, other days a Netflix marathon is in full effect.  It’s been tough, but manageable, and way better than Hanoi.

If you’ve noticed how insanely slow my travel has been lately, this is probably why.

I’m awake most days and adventuring as best as I can.  It’ll be an adjustment, but I’m confident nothing (not even this) will get in my way.  People still comment on my overwhelming positivity and high energy so I must be doing something right.

Back To The Story from Langkawi…

The first few days I rested in Langkawi because the immediate cut of the medication was a total energy drain.  I tried my best not to nap, so in turn, I watched nearly every romantic comedy on Netflix and almost all of Blacklist Season 4.  A fair trade under the circumstances.

I loved Langkawi and welcomed the change of pace.  I extended my stay from 3 days to 10, and I tore that island apart!  I hiked up mountains, swam in waterfalls, uncovered secret beaches, and of course, tried every amazing Malaysian meal I could get my hands on!

Operation repeat Langkawi was a success!

Current Status

My body is finally starting to feel better physically and I think this time around it’s all going to work out, it has to.

My limp is nearly gone (thank goodness) and my back is feeling a lot better after having a stranger kneel on my back and crack it while laying on the dirty pavement floor.  Yes, that really happened.

That’s the stuff behind the scenes that no one wants to share.  I’m currently sitting in a garden in the beautiful Cameron Highlands typing this up with gorgeous weather, a cool breeze in the air, and a warm cup of coffee by my side.

I’m slightly starving (like always) and overwhelmingly tired, but I can beat this.  And I hope you’re along for the journey when I do!

So here’s to the adventure, let’s do this!

Max Heart Signature



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