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 sugar and out and I was eating really clean meat. That was a huge change for me. I finally felt some relief. I have been following very strict paleo for years now, with a few changes — doing more of an autoimmune protocol with an Ayurvedic twist on it, so it’s more plant-based but I still eat meat.
That has been so important for me, but it wasn’t until I found my functional medicine doctor, Dr Lekos, that things really turned around. He met with me for two hours the first time we talked, and I love him so much. He was crying with me while I was telling him my story, just like, “I don’t know how you have functioned. I am so sorry, this is so sad. You’re so young.”
And he said, “You do not have fibromyalgia, I guarantee you. We are going to do all of these tests,” he said. “I think you have Epstein-Barr, leaky gut, SIBO, and your bacterial levels are probably off so you just have so much bad bacteria that it’s just weighing you down”.
Long story short, he was completely right. I had everything he thought and more. The MTHFR gene on top of that. When we started treating for the Epstein-Barr and the SIBO, my gut was able to calm down and then I could treat the actual leaky gut symptoms and just get really clear on my diet.
I started doing ozone therapy for the Epstein-Barr, as well as a few other things, and I’ve incorporated the celery juice from Medical Medium. I’m just getting really clean and detoxing. I had lead and arsenic in my body, so we did a methylation to get that out. You talk about the toxic buildup, that is what I was having, just over the years my body just built up all of this crap and it finally exploded.
I had so much heat in my body. In Ayurveda, they believe that autoimmune disease is very much from the gut, of course, but you have heat in your body. So your immune system is on fire. Until you get that fire down, your body can’t heal. Between Dr. Lekos and Marta at Seria Spa we worked on getting the heat down in my body, so making sure I was definitely not having any alcohol, any stimulants, caffeine, anything spicy, because that really builds the heat in your stomach.
I calmed all of that down, and I feel better now than I have in 20 years. It was all about getting to the root cause. It was so important to do that and then do the emotional work and realize all of the different traumas that I have experienced that brought this on as well as not living authentically for myself.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: Thank you for sharing all of that. Was there some moment where you just thought enough is enough, and just said, “All right this has got to stop”?
Kelli Tennant: I just kept thinking back to the day before my leg went numb. I was perfectly healthy, I felt amazing. I had never been in better shape. I was 19. How did I go from that to bedridden? For me, it didn’t make sense that I should be that young and that sick on that many drugs. I don’t know what it was within me that made me want to heal this holistically, because my parents never lived that way.
I didn’t really have any friends that were in this space either, especially because we were all in college drinking and partying. I think it was really just this sense that there has to be something else, I just can’t live like this.
Once I went down that rabbithole, it was nonstop. There are so many different beliefs within autoimmune disease healing: being a vegan is the best, no paleo is the best, no you should do keto and don’t have any vegetables or any carbs. I think everyone has to do what is best for them, I’m not saying anything is right or wrong.
I just decided that I was willing to be my own guinea pig in order to find a better life for myself. Because what was happening was not working, it was making me crazy, and I didn’t want to live like that.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: Absolutely. You mentioned that you did some emotional work in addition to working with your functional medicine doctor and cleaning up your diet to heal your, let’s just call it an autoimmune disorder because fibromyalgia is whatever it is. Can you share what that emotional journey was like?
Kelli Tennant: It’s a great question. Up until last March when I quit, I had been a TV reporter for the Lakers and the Dodgers for five years. In December of 2017, my body hit a wall and I was back in bed again unable to do anything. I was severely depressed and anxious. I lost about 15 pounds, I couldn’t eat.
I went on disability leave from work for five months, and at the end of that I ended up quitting because I felt like my body was trying to tell me something. Something was really wrong, and it was a combination of a lot of things. I didn’t feel like the environment was healthy for me. There were a lot of toxic relationships that I had in my personal life and in my professional life.
I was just surrounded by a life that I didn’t want anymore. I had done my best, I had done it for as long as I could, and I got to a point where I was no longer fulfilled. I felt kind of dead inside and the things that were happening in my life just didn’t serve me anymore. After going through my own health journey for so long, I wanted to help people, I wanted to have these kinds of conversations, and what I was doing didn’t allow for that — it was sports, obviously it doesn’t fit.
I was in a lot of pain and very sick, but also realized that I had some serious self-work that I had to do.
I got off social media for that whole time, completely disabled it, so no one could follow me or send me messages. I just went completely dark off of the internet. I started meditating every day and really tried to calm my mind. I started reading a ton and thinking about what would truly make me happy and also what was triggering me.
In the television industry, it’s all about how you look. People have the TV on mute, and they’ll just be judging how you look. Being a girl on television, I had become the “hot TV reporter” or whatever, and that was really where the value was. Then you look at social media’s impact with that as well, I was constantly looking for likes. I was just living for people to tell me, “You look good. That was so good.”
I needed all of that validation because on the inside I didn’t even really like myself. I felt like, “Okay well all they care about is how I look, that must be all that matters.” I didn’t take a second to think, “Oh I’m actually smart and I’m good at my job and I’m engaging and I’m fun and funny. I make people feel good when I’m talking to them.” I had to disconnect from needing that external validation, and that was one of the hardest things that I was dealing with for sure.
To your point about what worked, it was really just quieting my mind, and becoming more aware of what was triggering me on a daily basis and who I was living my life for. Because when you have all of this noise you can’t even hear yourself, let alone connect with your higher self or really hear yourself being guided.
I really believe in angels and having guides and I’m very into psychics and all of that stuff. For me, I couldn’t even hear my own intuition because I was so obsessed with reading people’s comments about me on Instagram. I was like, “How can I separate those two and really get clear on who I am and what is best for me?”
My journey over the last year has been getting super clear and now interviewing other people who have done it, or are in the midst of doing it in order to just find themselves, truly find themselves.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: It’s certainly quite a journey to find yourself. As you know from your experience, good health — emotional and physical — doesn’t just happen to you, it’s about taking action. Can you tell us what rituals or routines you do on a regular basis to help yourself keep well, inside and out?
Kelli Tennant: The first thing would be to start morning journaling. I think, in terms of the emotional component, that is really important. I’ve been doing it every day this year, and I’ve already seen it change my life. I feel more connected to myself, I feel like I’ve been able to let go of a lot of the noise.
The other thing that it does is allow you to start seeing trends, because when we’re thinking things, we have millions of thoughts all of the time so it’s hard to track. But when you’re writing it down, you can see what themes come up day after day. Or if something triggers me, because it’s on paper, I can notice that something was bothering me that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
Sageing also is really important to me and the people I’m around. A lot of people think it’s very “woo-woo,” but if you think about it, we’re all energy, there’s good energy and there’s bad energy, and if you want to cleanse your space and really create a place where you can heal and be clear, sageing is a beautiful, ancient way of doing that.
All you have to do is get your smudge stick, you light it, the flame goes out and then it smokes. You open the doors or the windows and you do it in a counter-clockwise motion and you just ask for the negative energy to leave and you create intention within your space.
Even if people don’t believe in that, and it’s something that you just do because you think, “Maybe it will help? I don’t even know,” that ritual of just asking negative energy to leave your space or your body and bringing in positive is a beautiful thing. You don’t even need to believe in the spiritual thing, it can still work.
Another thing that has worked for me is the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet with sort of an Ayurveda twist. I do the autoimmune protocol, but I don’t eat pork and I do less meat. I do it much more plant-based. But what it does is it gets all of the inflammatory foods out of your body and it allows your immune system to calm down and not be on fire, and then you can heal the leaky gut.
I have done that on and off for years, but when I have done it, when I have severe leaky gut for at least nine months, everything heals and I feel the best I possibly can and that is how I eat today.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith: Thank you for sharing your story with myself and the WellBe audience, it’s a beautiful story.
The recovery story above is anecdotal and specific to this particular individual. Please note that this is not medical advice, and that not all treatments and approaches mentioned will work for everyone.
If you can relate or have a story like this, share your experience in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.