E v e r y t h i n g,
it turns out.
Well that probably seems obvious. We need to eat food. But really, how does the food we eat affect us? How do we decide what to eat? These can be touchy subjects for me. I have used food for much more than simply providing fuel for my body. The act of eating can be a source of comfort, of punishment, a distraction, or medication to numb pain or grief. What I have yearned for much of my adult life is to develop a relationship with food that reflects a strong desire to nourish myself when I eat, and to let this call that springs from both my body and my heart, lead me in choosing the foods that I eat.
A few years back, four of my friends and co-workers took a class taught by a local herbalist who we’d come to know and respect. I chose not to attend the class, but each week I was all-ears the following day, to hear what they had learned the night before. It all made sense to me, but I wasn’t ready, or maybe wasn’t uncomfortable enough – or scared enough. Yet.
After the deaths of my brother and niece I sadly lost the small inspirations I’d cultivated regarding how I fed myself, and embarked on a kind of grief and rage-induced eating frenzy. I gained weight and eating had once again become a way to escape what churned in my heart and soul. My body responded over time with joints that began to ache more and more, appearance of a skin rash and increasingly restless sleep. Our culture often attributes at least some of these symptoms to “aging” and, aging or not, the pharmaceutical companies are certainly ready to sell a pill that supposedly will offset our discomfort. I was subtly beginning to accept that maybe all these aches and pains were just going to be with me from now on, and was barely aware of my surrender to the fate of mid-life aging. Although I did know some who were champions of long-life without these little demons nibbling away at our vitality, they were wearing me down, wearing me out. I was beginning to give up.
On one deeply dark, wet and cold February night last year, I looked long and hard at myself. I knew that I was heading for serious health challenges if I did not change my ways. And again, I heard my mother’s words, words she’d shared just a few months before she Crossed Over. She told me that all of her health issues (high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes accompanied by horribly insidious neuropathy in both her feet and hands, and a struggle with maintaining a healthy weight much of her adult life) were a result of her own choices regarding how she moved through each of her days. None of her problems were hereditary. In an uncharacteristically intimate conversation she pleaded with me not to travel the same road because she could see that I was heading in that direction.
On this February night, calling out to some unknown source for help and guidance, for divine intervention, for courage – I remembered Kathy’s class. “Kathy’s Class!” I shouted to myself. “Kathy’s class.” I had not thought of it for many, many months, but here it was, whispered to me by some sweet angel. I went to Kathy’s website, and by some grace, a new session of her class was scheduled to begin in exactly two weeks. With this information, I took a last gasp at an old way and proceeded to eat like crazy. I made myself sick. Really. I scared myself with the force of my response and in the midst of it, I was struck by grace again: an email arrived announcing cancellation of the class I’d signed up for. This left me with a choice: I could just forget about it and continue eating myself…to death…or I could sign up for a class that was to begin not in two weeks, but ONE – saved again by an angel. I remember the date, 21 February 2010.
Salvation. One week. My plea and the response I received were sobering to me. My eating calmed down. A bit. I knew that I could make it until the class began, that I would follow through with this decision. During the first class of that first session, there was one particular statement Kathy made that I continue to hear. She is a practicing herbalist and has also published many papers and several books in the area of herbal medicine. In this first class she said that at some point it dawned on her that there was something crazy about a very common healthcare model in this country: we continue to prescribe medicine and/or take medicine ourselves (whether it be pharmaceutical drugs or herbal medicines derived from plants) to treat symptoms that are largely caused by what and how we eat. She wondered…why not just change how we eat?
Why not, indeed?
Here’s what happened to me when I did just that.
I began the elimination diet that she had developed, on a Monday. I have been going to a yoga class twice a week for several years and because of this am acutely aware of how my joints function. Just five days later, on the following Saturday morning, I sat down on my yoga mat on a wooden block just like always, but when I sat down, I hit the block with a shocking thud. My joints were so flexible, so surprisingly, shockingly flexible that I landed with an unexpected velocity, because all the usual resistance in my joints was gone. My yoga teacher, who is also acutely aware of my joint flexibility (or lack thereof), looked at me with similar great surprise. When I stood up to stretch a few minutes later, I looked down at my feet to make sure they were positioned correctly and let out an audible yelp. I hadn’t even really been aware of the swelling that had been slowly plumping up my feet. What I saw when I looked down were two slim feet with lots of space between each of my toes. “Ah, look at my feet!” It’d been FIVE DAYS…only five days.
There are many eating plans these days that in some way or another, address quieting unnecessary inflammation. This is the only plan I’ve explored and I’ll tell you why it’s been so powerful for me. The genius, the power of this method is that people find out for themselves what foods their body is nourished by and what foods cause problems. This is in striking contrast to plans that just hand out a list. There’s no empowerment in that…someone else is still calling the shots and we do not learn how to care for ourselves, how to feed ourselves healthfully. Most importantly we do not learn how to listen to the communications we receive from our bodies, which do, in the beginning, come as gentle messages, but if ignored long enough will come in the form of increased discomfort or serious pain, when the problem has grown large enough to get our attention if we’re not willing to listen.
In Kathy’s class, after eliminating the most common inflammatory foods – we personally and methodically test to see if, in fact, the food causes a problem. If it doesn’t, you then decide if it’s a food you want to bring back into your life. Here’s another great question to ask if the food’s tested out just fine…does the food feel nourishing? I was really struck by this…does the food feel nourishing? For me, that’s an enlightening new level to approach when it comes to feeding myself. That question requires consciousness while eating. That’s what I’ve been striving for all along.
My journey on this plan was remarkable. Clearly, my body flourished while eating this way and responded almost instantly. I describe the feeling inside my body, to anyone who will listen, as a body completely unencumbered…like a floppy Halloween skeleton skipping down the street…and at age 57, what a glorious state to be in. I realized that even though I’d been quite an athlete in my youth, I’d had joint inflammation even back then.
But there’s sad news, too. At this moment I am far away from that joyous state. I have not traveled all the way back to the place I was at just before beginning the class…but I’m not so far from it. After about nine months of inhabiting a deliciously floppy skeleton, I began to slide back into my old ways. It began with my birthday, ironically, or maybe not. Part of my birthday celebration included a choice to eat foods that I had already learned my body clearly could not handle well, and with several birthday celebrations in a row, I began the long, slow, and painful return to another version of myself. This is heartbreaking to me and I have learned tremendously from this wayward journey. Although I did not doubt that the plan worked, when I went off of it, I experienced all the changes in my body in reverse.
In one of Kathy’s classes she speaks about how our immune system tries to correct joint damage with its main tool – the basic inflammatory response composed of, well, inflammation…swelling, redness, excess heat. This response is just right for many problems that our body encounters, such as viral or bacterial infections by way of colds, flu or maybe an infected scrape or cut, etc. But, it will not and cannot, for example, heal damaged cartilage or other joint issues that many of us have developed as we’ve used or abused our bodies. So, instead of healing the problems in our joints, we end up with even more inflammation, along with the associated aches and pains.
While I was eating in a way that nourished my body, all the places that I’ve injured over these many years, all of them improved and truthfully in my case, all of them cleared completely. When I reverted to poor eating habits, each of the sites of injury over my lifetime, one by one, began to speak out again – to ache or function with greatly reduced range of motion. What a bizarre journey – to revisit each and every injury, both small and large, that my dear body has endured over the years of my very physical life – bizarre, yes and humbling and as I said, heartbreaking.
At this point, I want to say that not everyone’s healing may move so dramatically. What I can say is that each person I’ve spoken to in class, or had contact with through the class website, who has been diligent and vigilant with adhering to the plan that they figure out for themselves, has seen healing. Some see dramatic improvements as I did, others see a much more gradual increase in good health. Commonly, folks see better sleep, more joint mobility, and a better mental state, as well as pain reduction and weight loss. This last, weight loss, is not the main focus of the class, but if a person is overweight, and especially if that weight is stored as abdominal fat, which is now recognized as a greater and greater health risk, the weight simply falls off, or as Kathy likes to say, it melts off. Another interesting occurrence is that people who are underweight will actually gain needed weight when following the exact same plan as those who need to lose weight. Our bodies know what they need. Even folks who have longtime chronic issues see improvement.
Beginning with that first class, I have committed to taking Kathy’s class almost every session. This has given me access to people who are taking responsibility for their health in this way, as well as giving me the opportunity to continue to absorb more, as Kathy’s class is densely packed with information. It has also been extremely important for me to continue to attend class, even as I am faltering. This is a big one for me…to step through the seeming wall of shame that I have in the past, felt defeated by. This time I have, even in the midst of reverting to old, bad habits, chosen to stay connected with a path that I know is the way I want to travel, a way that teaches me how to truly nourish myself.
There are many layers to this story of mine. I have uncovered and untangled some, and continue, with more and more patience and compassion, to get to some of the rest. I miss that dear, pain-free, bouncy version of my body that I got to inhabit for a while. I can imagine that some of you who’ve read all the way to this point may wonder if I’m exaggerating the changes that I’ve witnessed in my body – both heading into and away from this great healing. I am not. I am still fairly flabbergasted by them myself…but that’s really how things shifted for me. I am just now…in these last few days, wavering, wobbling, and possibly beginning the journey back to that luscious place of healing. I’ll let you know.