The Balancing Act
Organize, Simplify, Energize, Empower
by Alicia B. Pitzer for Sully’s Living Without, Inc. a lifestyle guide for people with food and chemical sensitivities.
Pam Tollefson makes it her business to bring harmony and balance into people’s lives. Owner of the Feng Shui Design Institute, Tollefson is a practitioner of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of environmental placement and design. She confers closely with her clients to help them live and act efficiently, comfortably, and successfully by bringing the patterns of nature into their personal space.
Finding that delicate sense of balance is all in a day’s work for Tollefson. But it hasn’t always been that way.
During the first 39 years of her life, Pam Tollefson was sick. An unbroken pattern of ill health began in her infancy and continued unabated into her adult years. As a child, she was consistently anemic.
“I was always failing blood tests. The doctors would diagnose iron deficiency anemia and load me up with iron, but the massive doses of iron made me sick, so I stopped taking them,” she says.
Easily fatigued and with little energy, she marked her childhood by trips to the doctor’s office for a series of illnesses — strep throat, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever. She eventually developed a heart murmur. She had “achy bones” and suffered from nagging digestive problems, swinging from chronic diarrhea to constipation.
“I basically felt miserable all the time,” she says.
Mind Over Matter
As a teenager, she began suspecting that her health problems might be linked somehow to her diet. She discovered she felt better if she cut out fat and greasy foods, so she began to watch what she ate. As she grew older, she started to think of her body as a kind of prison, yet she learned to put mind over matter, finding strength within herself to go through the motions of life even when she didn’t feel well. The strategy worked. She finished school, got married. But when her first child, a daughter, was born in 1971, her steely resolve could no longer control the symptoms. Her body caved in. “After the baby was born, I was down to 89 pounds. I had really severe anemia, along with diarrhea, gas, and bloating,” she says. She consulted various doctors, who diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome and called her a nervous new mother. The symptoms lingered throughout her second pregnancy and persisted into the next decade. Another round of doctors and tests came up with nothing more than the diagnosis of severe digestive problems and the ever-present anemia.
“The doctors told me I was neurotic, unhappy, and that this was all in my head. I look back and call this period in my life my zombie years,” Tollefson remembers. “I walked around like a zombie. I was just surviving.”
Finally, she found a doctor, a gastroenterologist in Wisconsin, who examined her and assured her that her complaints were legitimate. He found various signs of malnutrition, which included muscle spasms, very low calcium levels, and osteomalacia (a bone disorder) from severe vitamin D deficiency. With this physician’s support, she consulted the Mayo Clinic, where she was admitted for tests. The results of a bowel biopsy revealed the culprit — celiac disease, a hypersensitivity to the gluten in wheat, rye, barley, and sometimes oats.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system reacts to gluten in the diet by damaging (flattening) the villi in the lining of the small intestine. Healthy villi are crucial to proper absorption of nutrients from the bloodstream; when a person’s villi are damaged, he or she is at high risk of developing malnutrition, even with a balanced and nutritionally dense diet. Celiac disease is genetically linked. The only treatment is complete avoidance of all gluten-containing foods.
The diagnosis of celiac disease was a startling revelation for Tollefson. It was a relief to learn that her condition not only had a name, but that there was also a treatment — the elimination of all gluten-containing foods. It meant a major change in her diet, but Tollefson made the switch with relative ease.
“It wasn’t difficult for me to make the necessary adjustments in my diet. I have will power when it comes to food,” she says. “And considering what the diagnosis could have been, I felt lucky to be able to treat my condition with something as simple as a diet change. I don’t have to monitor my blood. I don’t have to have part of my bowels cut out. All I have to do is not eat certain foods.”
With gluten removed from her diet, Tollefson began the climb to good health. After 39 years of being malnourished, improvement came slowly but steadily.
Feng Shui: A Question of Balance
A lifetime of illness had made her ultra-sensitive to subtle shifts in the environment that many people might not detect — a slight draft from an unsealed window, an overhead light with too much glare, a sense of disproportion in certain rooms. She had specialized in interior decorating and in floral design and landscape, and she used her background to learn more about feng shui (pronounced fung schway), an ancient Chinese discipline using the principles of nature to create harmony and balance in one’s personal space.
Feng shui literally means “wind and water.” Based on thousands of years of observation by the ancient Chinese feng shui masters, it deals with the flow of chi, or energy. It encourages people to become more aware and in touch with themselves and their surroundings. The concept of feng shui intrigued Tollefson — the practice gives time-tested guidelines for bringing order and symmetry into a home or business. It is a tool to promote good health.
“One of the major principles of feng shui is creating balance, harmony, and regularity. Feng shui helps find and sustain a supportive environment to nurture overall health and peacefulness from physical surroundings,” Tollefson says. “Feng shui is not anything bizarre or weird. It’s based on good common design sense. You want things to be evenly balanced, and you want to incorporate nature in the elements. You want to make space supportive of whatever you’re doing there.”
Feng Shui Institute
She studied the practice in California and China under Asian feng shui masters and became an expert practitioner. In 1992, she founded The Feng Shui Design Institute in Milwaukee, and expanded the Institute to Chicago in 1996. Now she applies feng shui’s principles to bedrooms, kitchens, and offices around the country, using the proper placement of furniture, color theory, and the five Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) to create spaces that appeal to all the senses.
“I’m always working on making people more comfortable in their space, and they do respond. That’s my goal as a feng shui specialist,” Tollefson says. In feng shui, one’s home or office is seen an extension of oneself. “Wherever you spend the most time, your surroundings should support you,” Tollefson says. “For example, there is a spot of power wherever you spend the most time — it could be your bed, your desk, your stove. You want your desk to face the door so that you can see who’s coming at you. You shouldn’t have to expend energy, even subconsciously, preparing to be interrupted from behind. If you can’t move your desk and chair, you can use a mirror.”
Tollfeson says she gets good results from simple changes, such as repositioning a bed, rearranging furniture in a room, or fixing a door for better alignment. She works with clients to find their best direction for placement. She also advocates simplicity, which means removing clutter.
“In order to better support us, our homes need to be orderly. Our environment impacts us at every level. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to let go and get rid of stuff. Our lives have reached such hectic levels, that many of us are living in chaos. We need to simplify,” she says.
Other feng shui tips include using mirrors and multi-faceted leaded glass crystals to bring more sunlight and full-spectrum colors into the home, hanging wind chimes or strings of bells to create pleasant sounds and lift energy, and working to minimize exposure to electromagnetic power fields. Tollefson says that helping her clients, which now include restaurants and hospitals, create healthful surroundings brings her a gratifying sense of meaning, particularly when she recalls the chronic ill health that plagued her during the first half of her life.
“You get a sense of regret — all those wasted years of misdiagnoses and suffering!” she says. “Yet look at the sensitivity and skills I developed. I feel that feng shui was what I was meant to do. I discovered how to create a home that is perfect and that supports my health. And now I do that for others.”