Kelli Tennant was a Division I athlete in the highly competitive USC volleyball program when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and forced to end her athletic career. Within months, she was bedridden and searching for answers about her invisible illness through the conventional healthcare system.
She shared the story of how, through strength and determination, she triumphed over her diagnosis and entered into the world of wellness and integrative medicine. What follows is Adrienne’s Q&A with this empowering, inspiring woman.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: Kelli, I know you have an amazing story. Can you share your journey with us?
Kelli Tennant: I’ve been sick since 2005, basically. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2007, but never connected any of my illness or disease to the emotional trauma I’d gone through. It wasn’t until this last year when I realized there’s a direct line. All of the things you go through in your life — childhood, adulthood, whatever it is — that trauma sits in your tissues and it manifests in physical illness.
That’s been everything I’ve been teaching about. I believe that if people can start to understand that, that is everything. But I’m still working on my own understanding of what it all means. Why, at 17, did I have mono for eight months, which in turn gave me Epstein-Barr, and then I’m dealing with a misdiagnosis of fibromyalgia for 13 years, and then I find out that I have all these SIBOs and leaky gut and all of these things.
What was causing that? For me, I realized that it was twofold. I’d had many emotional traumas in my life, but the one thing that really stood out was that I was never authentically who I wanted to be. I dimmed my light to fit in because I didn’t feel like kids would like me if I shined as bright as I wanted to. All I did was help other people, fix them, take care of them, do what they told me I should do.
I think my body got sick because I was living for other people and never for me, and my body was like, “No no, we’re not doing this anymore. You’re going to turn inward and you are going to reflect and you are going to take care of yourself for once.”
It took me 14 years to really understand that. But once I did, I healed.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: Well that’s a great overview of an incredible story, but I want to get into the details. I think fibromyalgia is fascinating because it’s such a common diagnosis in America, but technically it doesn’t mean anything. If you look at the derivation of the word, it basically means pain in joints and we have no idea why. Yet we see all of these drug commercials for fibromyalgia, but nobody is asking what it means, why it’s happening, or what the root cause is. Will you tell us a little bit more about your journey with fibromyalgia?
Kelli Tennant: Yes. When I was diagnosed, I was playing volleyball at USC. I was a top college athlete, I was in incredible shape, my body was killing it. After I had the mono for eight months, I came out of that and I got in the best shape of my life.
But then one day, the summer of my sophomore year, I was at home standing in the kitchen with my parents, and my left leg completely goes numb and dead. I can no longer stand up straight, I’m bent over at the island in the kitchen. I am in extreme pain, I can’t see straight. It was like my body was just hit by a truck and I had no idea what was going on.
I had been sick before, but not in that way. It went for six months straight. I was on every drug under the sun because they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It just got worse and worse and worse. I couldn’t get up and walk five feet. It was exhausting.
For those six months they told me: “Oh we think it’s cancer.” “We think you broke your back.” “We think you tore a disc in your back.” I got three epidurals. I was on painkillers, muscle relaxers, antidepressants — you name it. Lyrica, because of the nerve stuff in my leg, which I also ended up taking for the fibromyalgia diagnosis.
I was just going through this rabbithole of conventional medicine, and at the end of 2007, my rheumatologist finally said, “You have fibromyalgia and you’re never going to be able to play volleyball again.” At 19, you’re just like, “What? What does that even mean? I’m on scholarship at USC, I’m captain of the team. We just went to the final four. What is happening?”
That was it, I never played again. The doctor basically said that because I had so many pain points on my body, I had fibromyalgia. My parents didn’t know what to do; they trusted the doctor. We all trust what doctors tell us. It was all the world-renowned USC Medical doctors, so I assumed they were right.
For the next two years, I saw more doctors and more therapists. I was given more drugs, and it was horrible. At one point I was having a total identity crisis — I’m losing my mind and my body is going crazy. I am taking this medicine. I’m going out and drinking, I’m mixing. I don’t know how something horrific didn’t happen, because I was just trying to numb.
It was terrible. Then I was hallucinating, seeing men in my apartment when there was no one, but I was seeing them because I was on so many drugs. No doctors never said anything about them, they just said, “Oh keep taking these. It will make the pain go away.” Nineteen years old.
Over the next two years, I slowly but surely started to realize it was a really bad rabbithole and I went completely holistic: I went cold turkey off of everything, and luckily I didn’t have a horrible comedown. I just started researching and figuring out what would help.
I was a vegan, I was a vegetarian, I was seeing different doctors who had different beliefs about fibromyalgia that were more holistic. My body slowly started to calm down, I think, especially after being off that medicine.
I found paleo in 2012, which totally changed my life because it got all the grains and the