Those who benefit from kratom, an herb closely related in makeup to the coffee plant, have an array of stories to tell. However, in all of my years of interviewing those who advocate for the plant, I have not come across a more profound story than that of Nina Ajdin.
Life in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian war:
While she currently lives in the United States, the world Nina was born into and lived in for 10 years was a literal warzone. “I was born in Bosnia and lived there through the whole Yugoslavian war from 1992-1996,” Nina stated. For an unimaginably excruciating four years, the now 29-year-old lived without heat, electricity, or power. It was a struggle to obtain even the barest of necessities needed in order to thrive, in order to live. This included water. It’s hard to imagine anyone, let alone a young child and her family, risking their lives for something most of us take for granted. But that’s exactly what Nina endured. “We stood in lines for hours waiting for water,” she stated, adding with a quiver in her voice, that she was “shot at” while doing so. The family was forced to shower with “only two-litres of water.” They burned household goods, including furniture and other possessions, in order to keep their body temperatures warm enough to avoid death.
The dangers weren’t only when Nina’s family had to venture outside. “We had to hide downstairs in the basement because there were so many shells falling, and snipers.” Nina described a time when she was innocently standing at the window of her own house. Her older brother screamed for her to get down—and just in time. It was only seconds later that the home, already in shambles, was hit by a grenade. Without heeding to her brother’s warning, Nina wouldn’t likely be here to tell her story.“If he had not told me to get down that second, I would probably be gone,” she said.
Life came to a standstill when, at the age of about 4-years-old, Nina nearly lost her life. And so began the lifelong medical problems that she is still haunted by and battling from to this day. “I started getting really sick, and I spent months in the hospital,” Nina explained, adding that she “literally looked pregnant” due to water retention and malnutrition. “I was skin and bones because of the lack of nutrients.” Doctors continually misdiagnosed the young girl, unable to pinpoint an exact cause of the ailments she was suffering from. “I weighed about 10 pounds when I was 4-years-old,” Nina said, emphasizing that medical facilities during wartime were nothing like what we are accustomed to in the United States. “So I was basically the size of a newborn…we [Nina and her family] were in the hospital, basically waiting for me to die. I had about five different diagnosis’, none of which were actually accurate. “Members of the media requested to take photos of the sick child, which Nina’s mother refused; she did not want to take the chance of her daughter looking back and seeing the physical condition she had been in.“She didn’t want me to be even more traumatized than I already was,” Nina stated.
Post offices that you and I take for granted were not in place in Bosnia. A good family friend, whom fled the war to Germany, was able to obtain powdered milk for Nina. Through familial “connections,” paired perhaps by the power of divine intervention, the package was delivered—and she credits the formula, along with bananas, for saving her life.
This, I learned, was only the beginning of Nina’s childhood, if you can even call her early life experiences a “childhood” at all. The joys and innocence that typically come with youth were not only stripped by war and severe malnutrition, but she also described being brutally bullied. While Nina’s parents aren’t “religious,” her father was born Muslim, and her mother was born into a Catholic family. Because the war was largely based on religion, the young girl became a victim of what she had no control over. When other children discovered her family’s history, Nina became a target—and still bears the scars as a constant reminder. “I can remember being thrown into piles of rocks,” Nina explained. “And I’ve still got scars on my legs from it. I had to walk home from school literally bleeding from my legs down to my ankles…it’s hard for a child to comprehend such darkness and why those things were happening.”
Life in the United States:
Fast forward to the year 2000, when Nina and her family, after a grueling process, were finally allowed admission into the United States. At 10-years-old, the preteen was in a state of shock upon arriving in New York City. “I was looking at all of the grass and the houses, and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, everything is so perfect here,’” she said. “Where I was from, everything was literally ruined. Every single building was falling down, or was on fire, or there were holes in them from bullets.” The family then settled in Naperville, Illinois. Little did Nina know, life would be still be extremely difficult, albeit in a completely different way. The “dream life” of being in America started to fade, and her medical troubles began to emerge the same year. This is when Nina thought, along with doctors, that she was suffering from eczema and began prescribed topical steroid treatment.
Topical Steroid Addiction:
Soon the rashes started to spread throughout her body, causing excruciating pain. During the same timeframe, she became physically addicted to the steroids. According to nationaleczema.org, “Topical Steroid Addiction” is defined as “a clinical adverse effect that can occur when topical corticosteroids are inappropriately used or overused, then stopped.” The well-spoken woman, whose accent makes it sound as if she was born and raised in America, admits that she overused the steroids, but not intentionally or even willingly. The burning pain in her skin—which caused her to sit in a bathtub for “hours upon hours” as the only relief—simply fueled the need to apply more.The pain would get so intense that Nina screamed in horror, causing neighbors to make sure she “wasn’t being tortured.” Nina described the “rashes” as “head to toe burns.”At 17-years-old, Nina began to lose her hair, and that’s when “things really began to go downhill healthwise,” according to the woman.
“My parents spent over $2,000 on a wig, and only those closest to me even knew it was a wig. It looked so real.” Nina was then prescribed oral steroids, in addition to staying on the topical steroid regimen. “It was a heavy dose, very high doses of prednisone,” she recalled.“The doctors would give me tons and tons of topical steroids, while I was still on the oral prednisone, and tell me to put it on pretty much whenever I wanted…so I was lathering myself in that stuff.”
In 2011, at the age of 21, Nina moved to South Carolina. “I was trying to run away from my problems and start over,” she explained. About two years later, in 2013, Nina’s health declined even further, and she developed “kidney problems and infections.” Liver and stomach issues also followed the nightmare ordeal. While she believes the steroids had a lot to do with all of the health issues that followed, Nina was also on several other medications, including those for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], anxiety, and sleep-related issues—all related to what she had endured in her short life.The year 2013 also marked the first time Nina experienced a seizure. “I was working one day and had a seizure in the stall of a bathroom at work. I was found unconscious while in the bathroom and 911 was called,” Nina stated. More seizures followed at the hospital. Soon after, she moved back to Illinois in order to be near her family. Nina then began having “suicidal idealizations,” and started treatment at an inpatient medical facility, where she ended up being admitted three times over a five-month period.
It’s important to note that over the years, Nina was seen by dozens of doctors, and even accepted to be seen at Mayo Clinic, an exclusive and advanced medical facility, where she was told to “stay on the steroids,” and “given more.” “They gave me wet-wraps so that they [the steroids] would absorb into my body more.” she recalled. Given no hope and no concrete diagnosis, Nina said she went into “survival mode,” but “just wanted to die.”
“There was no light at the end of the tunnel,” she stated.
However, thanks to her father’s undying love for his daughter, and subsequent research, Nina learned that the large majority of what she was going through was in fact related to her addiction to steroids.“He started looking up what the mental side effects of prednisone were, along with withdrawal symptoms. He wanted to see if there was any correlation. And that’s how he ended up coming across Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW)…and he was like ‘Oh my God, this is what she has been going through!’”
Once Nina began her own research, watching videos and absorbing as much information as possible about TSW, she said it hit her—this is what she was going through. She found “most all” of the information needed through the International Topical Steroid Addiction Network. “And I was given hope again, that I could have a normal life again once I went through the withdrawal. And I was positive that this was it, I was watching a video and I was literally balling my eyes out like ‘this is the answer, this is it.’” Nina, at age 24, then rid her life of steroids, gathering all of the concoctions into a box and “started withdrawing cold turkey from there.” At the time of this interview, Nina was 10 days away from her fifth year anniversary of being free of steroids.
As she was coming off of the potent medications, a friend happened upon kratom, and Nina decided it would be “worth a shot” to see if it could indeed help her. Little did she know the enormous impact it would have.In 2014, Nina’s mother brought her a sample of kratom while she lay “screaming in the bathtub.”“I was spending ten hours a day in the bathtub at the time for its cooling relief. I was eating meals in the bathtub. Literally, nine to 10 hours a day.”What happened next helped shine a light at the end of the dark tunnel she had been headed down nearly her entire life. “With the first sample, I already felt more clear-headed, my mood went drastically up. I had a sense of hope,” Nina continued.
The woman doesn’t cite kratom as being a “cure-all,” instead referring to it as “a tool in my toolbox.” She said it has never helped with her pain levels, as it is widely known in the kratom community to assist others with. “It seems it helps different people in different ways,” she stated, emphasizing that she still suffers from flare-ups, and was actually going through the aforementioned during our interview. “I am almost always home, I do still get plenty of flare-ups. But kratom has helped immensely. Again, it is a tool in my toolbox.” “I can’t say that kratom completely helped me when I found out about it in 2014,” Nina continued. “But I finally had a sense of hope…even though I was going through this pain, I felt like I could make it through. It helps me enough mentally that I can deal with the pain better. It helped and continues to help me with my emotional and spiritual well-being.”
Starting to heal:
About a year-and-a-half ago, Nina met Jim Sourek, the president and owner of TopExtracts, an Illinois-based company dedicated to helping people understand kratom and other natural supplements. The two quickly formed a bond, and Jim hired Nina to help him with the company’s efforts. They’ve tirelessly lobbied together, explaining to local city council members and congress people the different positive impacts kratom has had on the thousands who benefit from it. “Nina is a true herb enthusiast, advocate and an overall great person to be around,” Jim stated “I am extremely lucky to have gotten to know Nina and have her be part of our small team.”
While many only associate kratom with those who are trying to get off of heroin and other opiates, Nina and Jim are on a mission to spread the word about its seemingly helpful effects with different mental health issues—not only for Nina—but for the droves of people who say they’ve also benefited from the herb in the same realm.