Hello and welcome to episode 85 of the podcast!
This week I caught up with Vanessa Cullen who shares her very personal and painful journey through sickness, grief, heartache, depression and a high fat/low carb diet to find her way to healing and a whole food, plant-based diet.
Read more of Vanessa’s story below:
Hi, my name is Vanessa Cullen and I am very pleased to meet you!
I live a low waste, plant based life in one half of a suburban duplex in Sydney, Australia.
By day I own and manage a B Corp certified business strategy and interior architecture studio; Forward Thinking Design, where we create ethical and successful restaurants, stores and other commercial and social enterprise/not for profit brands and facilities. By early morning, and of an evening, I trail run, swim and practice yoga, experiment in my plant based kitchen and hang out with my partner, his kids, our families and friends.
I was born in 1981 and am the eldest of three children with a middle sister and a younger brother. My Dad is English and Mum is second generation Italian. At two years of age I was diagnosed with Nephrotic Syndrome and was in and out of hospital for years until entering ongoing remission around the age of ten-twelve. Between my standard Aussie diet, fluid retention, stunted growth and steroid treatment, I was a heavily obese child. Thankfully my parents encouraged us to play plenty of sport and my competitive nature drove me to represent my schools and clubs in soccer, swimming, golf, netball and hockey, preventing my weight issue from spiralling out of control.
My upbringing was loving but extremely tough as I was exposed to alcoholism, abuse and mental illness within our extended family. I learned resilience and took refuge in my sports and my studies; excelling as an A grade student.
I was an awkward teenager and my academic achievements did not help me fit in at high school. I was badly bullied, grew bored of competitive swimming, put on more weight and became deeply depressed. During my last year of secondary school my sister suffered a sudden and catastrophic brain haemorrhage as a result of an Arteriovenous Malformation. For a long time we didn't know if she would live and if she did, what condition she would be in. Mum and Dad stayed by her side whilst I took on a significant share of looking after my brother and I. This experience wore heavily but forced me to be strong and self sufficient as I balanced home responsibilities with studying for my final exams.
After learning to walk and function again, my sister then suffered a stroke exactly a year to the day after her brain haemorrhage. Again we went through the trauma of wondering if we might lose her, and again she was forced to rebuild her world from scratch. About this time my G.P and university counsellor both agreed that I was suffering from Clinical Depression.
This sounds like a terrible story so far but there is one way in which it isn't. I didn't stay on antidepressants for long because one of my core beliefs was galvanised by the experience of what happened to my sister. She went from being the most popular, intelligent, beautiful and athletic girl, to being ravaged by her own body; changing her life and identity forever! I had always believed that life is fragile and fleeting, but this experience elevated this belief to a conviction. It took the best part of the next decade to build within me but I now really understand that we only have this moment, this breath, right here and now, to make the most of everything. This gave me courage and a sense of urgency to seize every opportunity with both hands and if it weren't for all these tough experiences, I would never have learned the resilience, strength and motivation that has made me who I am today.
In 2003 I started my interior architecture business and have built it steadily from being a 'one woman band' to being a successful company. It hasn't been easy, and time and time again I've wanted to just give it up, but being my own boss has given me the freedom to live by my own moral compass, follow my dreams, find work/life balance and become well recognized as a business leader.
These days I am a much happier person than I was during my teens and twenties. A positive change in my life resulted from a playful bet made with one of my best friends a few years ago. I was complaining about having tried every diet, and not being able to lose weight no matter how much I exercised, when he lightened the mood by wagering that I could not go two weeks without pasta, baked goods and starchy carbs! I never shy away from a good challenge so I took him on and, to my astonishment, I suddenly started to drop some SERIOUS weight! I continued this lifestyle change past the two weeks and was soon able to get up earlier, stopped having to fight off massive energy slumps at 3pm each day, my skin became clear, my yeast and digestive issues vanished and my emotions became balanced. I had never felt so clear headed and energetic. Experimentation with reintroducing different carbs, one at a time, revealed that highly processed and wheat based foods made me feel unwell again whilst gluten free, minimally processed carbs like sweet potatoes, rice and other wholegrains were fine.
Over the next 18 months I also quit refined sugar and dropped from 72kg to 53kg (I am 5"1). I then experimented with High Fat Low Carb for a few years but I ended up with fatty liver disease! After turning pescetarian for about 6 months, and meeting my long-term plant based partner Jason, I eventually discovered that eating seaweed was a great taste alternative to eating fish and was finally free to try going 100% wholefoods plant based! It took some work to rebuild my gut flora but now I feel better than ever before and have immersed myself in learning everything I can about plant based nutrition. Plant based is the way of the future and I am entirely convinced, by the scientific evidence, that it is the healthiest way to live a sustainable and compassionate existence. But I digress and there's more to this story...
Life sure can be a bitch! After having lost that 20 or so kg, and a few weeks out from my Jujutsu black belt grading, AND with my sights set on stepping in the ring for my first Muay Thai fight, I ended up in hospital passing blood. I was discharged with the very vague information that an MRI had found that both my kidneys were 'polycystic', and of course, I then frantically googled this for an explanation (as you do these days). If you have PKD then you probably know what happened next... my world fell apart. My G.P confirmed Polycystic Kidney Disease and sent me to a Nephrologist. After five years of living, breathing and teaching martial arts, my black belt journey was over and I was advised to never participate, let alone compete, in contact sports again.
After gaining a positive body image I was faced with a future of grossly enlarged kidneys.
After finally embracing life I was confronted with a degenerative/terminal illness.
I've been living with the knowledge of having PKD for quite some years now. I am only in Stage 1, experience only a few symptoms and don't have any significant loss of kidney function as yet. I have embraced a wholefoods, plant based, no oil (WFPBNO) lifestyle to give my body the best chance I can. I hope that age will get me before PKD does, that I'll get a transplant if I need it, or that a treatment will become available in time. The way I see it, this is just one more reason to live every day to the max!
With martial arts no longer an option, I started entering trail running races, I bought a bike, and with the voice of my first P.T ringing in my ears I thought "You could 'try' 'athlon'?". So I did!
In my first year I enjoyed my first trail run win and two sprint triathlons, before an investigatory laparoscopy turned into a surprise bladder resection and removal of severe Endometriosis. I never knew I had Endo as I had always put the symptoms down to everything else that was going on with my body!
Nevertheless, none of this gets me down for long. I firmly believe that everyone suffers but there's enough good stuff in this world to just keep moving on. It might seem strange to hear, after all that, but most days I am happier than I have ever been before.
I went on to represent Australia in Sprint Triathlon at the Age Group World Championships 2015! These days I am an ultra trail runner (competing in distances ranging from 5km-50km), PKD/CKD advocate, health/wellbeing and sustainability activist and still full time manager of my multi-award winning company Forward Thinking Design. Recently I became the first person ever to run the length of the Shoalhaven NSW coastline – 254km over 9 days (mostly on sand), raising awareness and funds for lifestyle intervention research for the treatment of PKD.
By sharing my story, and collaborating with other change makers, I hope to give inspiration to others; not just to those who share my trials, but also to anyone interested in clean, wholefoods plant based nutrition, lifestyle health, fitness, sustainability and social impact.
I believe that life is greater than the constraints we place upon ourselves or that are forced upon us. We should not be defined by disease, or what we CAN’T do, but rather, by what we CAN do. Life isn't always fair or kind, but every moment is still another opportunity to make the world a better place and to enjoy laughter, friendship, love, sweat, achievement, bananas, chai, and the sunshine on our faces! J
Drop me a line! I look forward to sharing with you.
Thanks so much Vanessa for coming on the show and thank you all so much for listening each week and supporting this podcast and the spreading of hope.
Wishing you hope and incredible health today and always,