Unstoppable: How Amanda Bourbonais Has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Chronic Lyme Disease
Health is a precious resource and is not guaranteed to anyone. If you have your health, do everything within your power to keep it and enjoy it. Many people would give their life savings or a limb for the energy and vitality you have.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amanda Bourbonais.
Amanda Bourbonais is an online business owner and copywriter for health first practitioners and brands. You can find her at www.amandabourbonaisagency.com and on LinkedIn. She’s happy to chat with anyone who wants to start an online business, especially doing so while managing a chronic illness and/or actively improving their health. It is possible!
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Of course! I’m from Milwaukee, WI. I’ve pretty much lived in the state of Wisconsin my whole life — I grew up in and around the Milwaukee area, got my BA from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, and promptly moved back to MKE after that. I currently live downtown in an apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, and I love it. While everyone was worrying about toilet paper in 2020 (my personal disaster year was 2019, so it really didn’t feel that bad to me), I put my head down and started my career as a freelance copywriter and now I’m a little over two years into my business. I’ve had various forms of chronic illness since I was 13 years old, with the latest being chronic Lyme disease.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
I’ve had “gut issues” since I was a kid and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 13. This was managed with immunosuppressive medication through my high school and college years. Then, during college I was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease. I remember seeing the “bullseye” rash on my leg and thinking, “yeah, I do NOT have time for that. I’ll just see if it goes away.” It did go away, but that was just the beginning of my problems.
With a suppressed immune system, I never had the typical acute infection symptoms — fever, chills, body aches, etc. The infection entered my bloodstream silently and completely uninhibited. I began having serious trouble focusing at school, especially writing essays. As an English major, this was pretty much all I did during the school year, so it was very distressing. I chalked up my brain fog (which I didn’t have the language for at the time), fatigue, near-constant anxiety, lack of motivation, and depression to stress and “senioritis.” I know now that much more was going on behind the scenes. For the record, I still managed to graduate magna cum laude with a 3.8 GPA. School was my thing.
I moved home after graduation in 2016 and got a proofreading job for a large corporate retailer. It was fine for a while, but I started getting more and more fatigued, and strange issues popped up. I kept thinking I had a UTI that wouldn’t go away, but all tests came back negative. Gut issues began to creep back into my life, with constipation being my biggest issue. This was absolutely baffling because with ulcerative colitis, which I was well used to, you have the opposite problem if you catch my drift. On top of that, my hormones were totally out of whack, and I was dead tired every day after not doing much but sitting in an office for eight hours. Sometimes I would drag myself out to my car for a quick nap because I couldn’t physically keep my eyes open.
With these ongoing mystery health issues piling up, I was forced to abandon a TEFL teaching job I had gotten in South Korea. I was devastated, having worked hard to apply and pass the many tests required to get this role. (And paid housing! Three whole weeks of paid vacation! The promise of living abroad! It was the dream.) Having nowhere else to go and no energy to pursue new opportunities, I stayed in my proofreading job and continued to live at home.
Then my GI doctor told me that my body was no longer correctly metabolizing the medication that had been keeping me in UC remission for the last seven years. I would have to switch to something else. Needless to say I had a bad feeling about this, but I had no choice. I switched medications, the new med didn’t work, and I promptly went into my first UC flare since I became an adult. I went on high dose steroids, which “worked” for about two weeks and made me feel like a normal person again, and then I crashed harder than ever.
This is when things started to really spiral out of control. By the beginning of 2019, I had somehow managed to start a new job as a digital marketing associate for a local agency. I barely made it two months in before I had to quit — I was absolutely exhausted every day, I couldn’t retain even basic information, and my mental/emotional state was spiraling out of control. I barely held it together when I called them over the phone to quit. My mom drove to the office to pick up my stuff. This was the beginning of my rock bottom.
For the next five months, life was hell. I continued to try new medications for ulcerative colitis that did not work, usually made me feel worse, and cost abysmal amounts of money I did not have, even on my mom’s excellent health insurance.
I was also in the strange position of being “stuck” on the high dose steroids — they weren’t achieving their intended purpose, but every time I tried to decrease them I would end up with terrifying mood swings and extreme fatigue. (Looking back, I’m pretty sure this was due to Lyme attacking my adrenals and nervous system.) I felt crazy. I eventually attempted only 1mg decreases weekly, and even this was extremely draining. From 40mg as my starting dose, it felt like eternity to get to zero.
Meanwhile, I spent most of my time worrying about what to eat or not eat and frantically scouring the internet for what might be wrong with me. I continued to see my GI doctor, endocrinologist (for the steroid issue), and eventually a therapist because my mental state was so poor. (None of them helped much beyond, “hang in there kid.”)
I became convinced that the root cause of all of my symptoms was toxic mold exposure in my mom’s house, specifically in my bedroom at the time. Testing was done, and even after it came back mostly clean except for an Aspergillus-friendly piece of old carpet in the basement that was promptly tossed, I remained unconvinced, and frankly, paranoid.
My mom and my brother cleaned every inch of the house and threw out a ton of stuff. They ripped out all of the carpet on the main floor and scrubbed the hardwoods underneath, cleaned the walls, wiped down every nook and corner. I came back to the house, slept in my all but empty bedroom, and nearly had a panic attack that night. Nothing had changed. I resigned myself to living in a “toxic” environment that would eventually kill me. If that sounds dramatic, it’s because it really felt that dramatic.
At my lowest point around June of 2019, I was having daily suicidal thoughts and even made some frightening Google searches on the subject. I never made any attempts, but it was a really scary time. My mom was afraid to leave me by myself. I was 25 and all but convinced I wouldn’t make it to 26. Talk about a quarter life crisis.
But as they say, after the darkest moment comes the dawn, and my dawn came with… a random supplement I ordered on Amazon. I had gotten into this pattern — every week or so ordering some vitamin or nutrient I thought might put me just one step in the right direction. Most had no effect, mainly because 1) I wasn’t taking enough, 2) I was super depleted by the steroids, and 3) as I found out much later, a raging Lyme infection.
But finally this one helped, just that little bit I needed: it was a cheap form of choline, a quasi-B vitamin and essential nutrient for creating the most abundant neurotransmitter in the human body, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps the gut communicate with the brain and vice versa, supports cognition, and supports mood. All things I needed serious help with.
After about two weeks of mindlessly taking an absurdly tiny amount of choline every day, I suddenly noticed one morning: I had just a little more mental energy, a little more capacity to reason. I felt a tiny bit less overwhelmed and depressed. I used that mental energy to do something that had previously felt impossible but I had been thinking about for a while. I researched and called several naturopathic doctors all around the state to find one who specialized in environmental illness (still on the mold train here). I found one who genuinely listened to my concerns over the phone and told me he could help me. I booked an appointment without hesitation, finally feeling more optimistic than I had in months.
The first thing my naturopathic doctor did (in addition to patiently answering all of my raving questions about mold and testing) was put me on high dose vitamin D, based on my horrendous lab values. I’m talking 50,000 IUs a day, 10x a standard daily dose. I now tell anyone who asks that this initial treatment is what saved my life.
Within two weeks of high dose vitamin D, I felt like a completely different person. I was pulled out of my suicidal thoughts, even pulled out of most of my depression and anxiety. Steroid decreases became laughably easy, without any mood fluctuation or side effects at all, though I still took it 1mg at a time to be safe. There was still a lot wrong with me physically, but mentally I felt… almost normal. It was like an honest-to-God switch flipped in my brain. And suddenly I had a new determination to do whatever it took to get my health back. I was finally emerging from rock bottom and started climbing the ladder back to the living world.
It was later that year, after I had been working with my ND on some of the basic vitamin and nutrient deficiencies that plagued me, that I also ended up seeing a frequency medicine specialist closer to home. She used a system called Ondamed to diagnose and begin to treat late stage Lyme disease. Now all the pieces really began to fall into place. I wouldn’t trace the onset of my symptoms to that bullseye rash back in college until much, much later, but all of my seemingly random symptoms began to make sense. Even my mold obsession wasn’t that far off, because many Lyme and mold symptoms overlap, and they are both classified under the distressing label “biotoxin illness.”
Since then I’ve continued to make significant strides in my health and have completely switched to functional and holistic treatments. I take only one medication called LDN, which my ND put me on shortly after the vitamin D and almost immediately quelled my eight-month-long ulcerative colitis flare, after neither high dose steroids or any of the latest biologic drugs worked. Other than that, I carefully follow a gluten-free, mostly dairy-free, and mostly grain-free diet and eat primarily whole foods. Admittedly, I take a lot of supplements. And I continue to do various frequency and electromedicine treatments.
The shift I made to holistic health not only saved my life, but put me on the path to my life’s work: helping functional and holistic practitioners share information and publicize their services to help even the sickest people take control of their health. I love working in this space, and I’m constantly learning about health and wellbeing.
The way I took my illness and “didn’t let it stop me” was actually turning it into my reason for helping others. Which feels necessary to achieve higher goals — you have to find a purpose beyond yourself.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness?
I started a business! Not only that, but I feel like I’m making a genuine difference by sharing knowledge and hope to people who are in the same pit of darkness I found myself in.
Now I’m focused on growing my business into a small agency and helping more practitioners in a sustainable way that doesn’t burn me out. I live by the mantra “health first” — if I think it’s going to damage my health, I won’t do it. There are no compromises on that, no pushing past my limits. So sustainable, slow growth is really important to me. But I know I’m going to build a multiple six-figure business in the next few years — on my terms and nobody else’s.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
If you have a chronic illness or disability and you want to start a business or a side hustle to support yourself, you absolutely can! I often tell people that this path was the only path I could have taken in my career because I have complete control over my time, energy, projects, and clients. You can only work for two hours a day? You can manage that schedule. You know that working with certain people will drain energy that you don’t have to spare? You don’t have to work with them. You need to work from bed most days? You can do it.
I know someone who’s making five figures a month in her business and she’s had a rough go of it lately with Lyme. But she doesn’t have to worry that her bills are taken care of because she set herself up for recurring revenue by creating a digital product she sells on repeat. That’s not to say it’s easy or quick to reach that point, but it is possible. You have a skill, an offer, some piece of value to share with the world, no matter what your health status is. And you don’t have to suffer through a traditional 9–5 job to make your way in the world. If you want to make it happen, it’s possible.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Many people! Firstly, my mom who supported me for months during the darkest time of my life, and who has always supported me, even if she had reservations. (To be fair, your severely chronically ill daughter telling you she’s going to start a business and become a freelance writer does seem anxiety-inducing.) Sarah Turner, my first copywriting mentor and teacher, and a generally amazing human being. Fellow copywriters and business owners who encouraged me to keep going in the beginning and throughout the many ups and downs of business and entrepreneurship — thank you all! You know who you are.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
No pressure here, right? I think I’m bringing goodness to the world by supporting the practitioners and health first companies that are bringing real health back into people’s lives, often to people who thought they would never recover. Beyond that, I contribute a percentage of my revenue to organizations that support regenerative agriculture because I believe it’s the best way to heal both people and the planet from the ground up (literally).
And finally, I’m in the process of developing some kind of support system for people with chronic illness and disabilities to start their own freelance business and be able to support themselves financially while also living and working on their terms, to their energy, and while putting their health first.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
- You can’t always see their illness or disability, in fact I would probably argue that most of the time you can’t.
- According to the CDC, 51% of Americans have a chronic health condition and that number is growing. And I’m pretty sure this number does not include mental illness, which is also a chronic illness, so that number is probably much higher.
- You never know what someone is going through until they tell you. Always lead with kindness and empathy.
- Health is a precious resource and is not guaranteed to anyone. If you have your health, do everything within your power to keep it and enjoy it. Many people would give their life savings or a limb for the energy and vitality you have.
- Chronic illness can be a superpower. I’ve learned so much about my body that I never would have without my health challenges, and I have a window into other people’s struggles that many can never hope to understand. I don’t take it for granted, and as cheesy as it sounds, I am grateful for my health journey now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
I don’t know if it’s a “life lesson quote,” but I love this one from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode,” most widely known from the original Willy Wonka film: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams…” I think of it as a reminder that we are always the creators of our lives, no matter what obstacles we face. Never give away the power of your creativity and your ability to dream a better life for yourself and the world.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Hmm… This is a tough one. Neil Gaiman is top of mind at the moment, since I just finished watching The Sandman on Netflix, which was an amazing adaptation. I’m kind of obsessed with adaptations in general, and he’s now been part of at least two really good ones (the other being Good Omens), so I’d love to chat about that process.
I’ll also say Marie Forleo, because she is an actual ray of sunshine and has built a brand that helps people go for their dreams, which is also something I want to do.
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!