Nearly five years ago I was struck with terrible, breathtaking, sharp shooting pains just behind my eye. Frighteningly sudden, these episodes would leave me dizzy and disoriented, sometimes coming in waves throughout the day. I found it difficult to live a normal life. After many scans, numerous specialists, and some time I was diagnosed with cluster headaches. A cousin to the migraine, cluster headaches are thought to be one of the most painful experiences a human can endure and are often referred to as “suicide headaches.” You can imagine how pleased I was to get that diagnosis.

“Hey Erin, great news! You don’t have a brain tumor like we first thought. You just have something that science doesn’t really understand and doctors don’t know how to treat. It’s pretty much the worst form of chronic pain and your life will now be completely different. But don’t worry…it’s totally not a brain tumor.”

Commence the stages of grief. I denied, I bargained, I did everything we humans do when faced with something difficult and finally came to accept it. I found ways to cope and mitigate the pain but I still experienced them. I got on with my life the best I could.

Years later, we’d just moved to San Francisco and I managed to develop a painful sinus infection. The only doctor I could find that could see me on such short notice was an osteopath, a D.O. rather than an M.D. Not knowing or caring what the difference was between the two, I booked my appointment. I just wanted the good doctor to write me a prescription for some antibiotics and send me on my way. During my visit with this new doctor, I learned pretty quickly what sets DO’s apart. In case you don’t know what makes an osteopathic doctor different, here’s a quick explanation:

Like all allopathic physicians (or M.D.s), osteopathic physicians complete 4 years of medical school and can choose to practice in any speciality of medicine.  However, osteopathic physicians receive an additional 300 – 500 hours in the study of hands-on manual medicine and the body’s musculoskeletal system.

Osteopathic physicians hold to the priciple that a patient’s history of illness and physical trauma are written into the body’s structure. The osteopathic physician’s highly developed sense of touch allows the physician to feel (palpitate) the patient’s “living anatomy” (the flow of fluids, motion and texture of tissues, and structural makeup).

Before I’d even settled into my seat, Dr. Carrey (not his real name) explained his process. “I’m going to ask you a series of questions. I want you to answer simply, briefly, and without extra nonsense. Then I’m going to examine you and I’ll give you a diagnosis.” He meant it, too. If I gave him a roundabout explanation, he’d cut me off and repeat the question until my answer was concise. Over the course of two hours I went through my entire medical history with him and when we reached my cluster headaches, he surprised me.

“Doesn’t sound like cluster headaches to me,” Dr. Carrey said. “I’d have to test to be sure, but I suspect it’s an allergy.”

“I had an allergy panel done, I don’t have allergies.”

“Yes you do. The panel determined you weren’t allergic to pollen or dust or anything environmental, so what else could it be?” He sat semi-patiently staring at me, as if the answer were written on his forehead and I was too dense to notice. My mind raced through all the types of allergies I’d ever heard of and landed on…

“…food?”

“You got it. There’s something in your diet that’s causing these headaches. It’s the only thing that’s followed you from England to Africa to here.”

Because of that one doctor, that one conversation, I was able to pinpoint the exact allergen and eliminate ALL of my crippling headaches. For the first time in years I felt like myself. I wasn’t living in a fog of chronic pain, carrying the disorder around like a weight on my back.

You see, I don’t entirely buy into the whole idea of skeletal manipulation but there’s another aspect to osteopathic medicine that I discovered that day.

DOs practice a “whole person” approach to medicine. Instead of just treating you for specific symptoms or illnesses, they regard your body as an integrated whole.

Dr. Carrey saw me as a whole system whose parts were connected and intrinsically related. My liver does not function independently from my body. My lymphatic system is not isolated. If I don’t brush my teeth, I have a greater chance of developing heart disease. I am a sum of all these things. The half dozen doctors I’d seen prior to Dr. Carrey treated my headaches but he treated meI didn’t know it then but cluster headaches are also known as histamine headaches. What do you take to tamp down your allergies? Anti-histamines. Would’ve been nice to know that…Not only did my headaches disappear, a whole host of other issues vanished as well. I didn’t realize how horrible I’d felt until I shook free. 

Great story, Erin. What the hell does this have to do with anything? I can hear you thinking.Sick Uncle Sam

The problems we face in the American education system are like my cluster headaches. Our government is like my body and that mystery allergen messing everything up? Rampant corruption.

I use the word “rampant” specifically for the synonyms:

  • excessive
  • raging
  • unchecked
  • aggressive
  • uncontrollable
  • flagrant
  • ungovernable

The corruption runs so deep and is so thoroughly accepted, we don’t even recognize all of it anymore. We’ve lived so long in a state of raging, unchecked, aggressive corruption, it’s become commonplace! You don’t even have to look that hard to see it.

In addition to education, I care deeply about the future of natural gas drilling in the United States. You want to see corruption at work? Look to the issues that surround fracking.

“Residents are afraid to speak up,” says Diane Siegmund, who points out there is “a lot of fear” among the residents, those whose lives are being uprooted, those whose health is being compromised, and those whose economic benefits may be compromised if fracking operations are reduced.

“As long as the powers can keep the people isolated and fragmented,” says Siegmund, “the momentum for change can never be gained.” The experience in Dimock and Jersey Shore is seen throughout the Marcellus Shale region.

People I know who have leased their land to gas companies worry constantly if they’ve done the right thing. Thing is, if you live long enough on the edge of (or deeply entrenched in) poverty, receiving a monthly check for more than your yearly salary goes a long way to quell those fears. Gas companies bank on it.

Americans are overworked, financially stretched far too thin, and we’re all terrified to rock the boat. Life has gotten so difficult we don’t want to risk making it even worse. We don’t even realize how bad things have gotten because we’ve kept our heads down for far too long. When we finally hit a breaking point where enough is enough (say our profession is under constant attack or our drinking water can be set alight) it’s almost too late. Fighting that injustice requires sacrifices some are just unable to make. Corruption banks on it.

If you forgive my mixing metaphors, I fear we are frogs in slow-heated water, unaware we’re soon to be boiled, unwilling and unable to jump out and save ourselves.

Inequality, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration statistics, lobbying, campaign financing, voter rights, environmental protection, food quality (and price), tax rates, health care, net neutrality…all these things are related. How often have you heard education activists talk about poverty, home life, and health care playing a huge part in student learning? We know there is so much more to education than teacher quality and curriculum.

There are dozens and dozens of different activist groups fighting each one of those very important issues I just listed. All these things are intrinsically connected. They’re all symptoms of a bigger issue. The source can all be linked back to a plutocratic government that ignores us, distracts us, hurts us, does not represent us. Our lives are showing serious signs of damage and disease because of the pestilence that is corruption.

Like the cluster headaches, fatigue, pain, and depression that ruled my life for years, Americans are in a sorry state. We’ve gone through the stages of grief and landed on acceptance. We can’t remember how good we used to feel, a distant memory growing blurrier every year. I survived through the pain and tried to maintain my quality of life but only when I eliminated the allergen did I thrive.

We will never heal until the allergen is removed.

We will continue living in this fog until we shake the weight of corruption.

We need to stop treating the headache and start addressing the whole body.