The Kindness of Strangers

Homeward bound.
Homeward bound.

I was traveling at the beginning of the new regime. On Inauguration Day, I witnessed the protests at a different statehouse, one that had defended slavery and bore the marks of a broken nation. On Saturday during the Women’s Marches, I walked the red clay trails of a state park, marching with all in spirit. On Sunday, we arrived in New Orleans for a much-needed vacation from the burdens of a country already spinning out of control, and found ourselves in an emergency room.

My husband became very ill with a bad infection on the 8-hour drive, and so we checked into our hotel and headed straight to the nearest emergency room. What followed were three days of uncertainty and fear in a strange city where we’d never been before and knew no one. Three days of an endless stream of nurses and doctors and housekeepers and aides who spoke in odd accents, from all walks of life and every corner of the globe, with compassion in their eyes and caring in their hearts. Three days of hearing and seeing the city’s poorest and sickest soothed and treated along the ER bays and hospital wards. Three days of witnessing what the world is like from outside my comfortable little box. Three days of relying on the kindness of strangers.

After spending our entire stay in The Big Easy living moment to moment, the drug-resistant infection finally turned a corner and we were cleared to go home on a beautiful spring-like morning that the natives thought unseasonably cold. Everyone on the staff shook our hands and told us how sorry they were that we never got a chance to see the real New Orleans, to taste her food, hear her music, savor her spirit. They told us to come back and give their fair city another chance.

And we will. But I feel like we’ve already experienced her soul without ever setting foot on Bourbon Street.

Food for Thought

Beef-Butternut Stew with Pear and Thyme prepared from Mickey Trescott's beautiful Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook.
Beef-Butternut Stew with Pear and Thyme prepared from Mickey Trescott’s beautiful Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook.

Over three months into the Paleo Approach and Autoimmune Protocol diets (AIP for short) and it’s time for an update from my (rather grubby and well-used) kitchen. As faithful followers of this blog may recall, I began the elimination journey back to my hunter-gatherer ancestors’ fireside feasts on the first day of August. And, despite the formidable lists of forbidden foods and ingredients, bounty from this year’s autumn harvest has been my saving grace.

Every week, besides our usual visit to the regular grocery chain, I travel to a local orchard’s farm store to consciously purchase pastured meats, as well as fresh cider and the perfect cooking apples for homemade applesauce and crisp. I buy fermented raw kraut from the Saturday farmer’s market, and gorgeous multi-colored chard from a vegan/GF restaurant that grows its own vegetables behind the building.

I’ve taken to hanging around the organic sections, and familiarizing myself with strange, misshapen fruits that hide their beauty on the inside. Sarah Ballantyne, well-known AIP author and cook, challenged herself to buy and prepare any exotic produce that she’d never seen before. I’m not that adventurous yet, but I’m making friends with some pretty homely root vegetables.

As winter sets in, I’ve stocked up on every kind of squash and lined them along my counter, where they wait patiently for me to whip up enough courage to cut into their hard exteriors before softening them up in a slow-roasting oven. I’ve discovered that braising in a tightly covered pot can tame any wild beastie or vegetable into delectable submission. And I utilize everything, from poultry innards and bones, to the tops of beets and fennel — nothing goes to waste if I can help it.

Granted, all of this takes commitment. If I still worked at my old job, I wouldn’t have the time or energy. Slow food can take hours, even days to see results. Crock pots, pressure cookers and heavy cast iron utensils can take a toll on your arms, patience and wallet. Our lack of space in the new galley kitchen often leads to a frustrating dance while family members prepare different meals for separate diets. More than once I’ve caught myself longing for the generous side-by-side fridge that we left behind as cabbages and cauliflower roll out of our currently overstuffed apartment refrigerator.

But is there a payoff, you ask? How about no more joint pain, considerably less inflammation even after injuries, weight loss without your friends becoming alarmed, and lower doses of medicine, all while chronic conditions grow quiet or go into remission. The benefit to eliminating misbehaving dietary culprits, however socially painful, is that when I reintroduce them, I can usually tell within a day or two whether we can play well together yet. If not, the offending foe is placed on a back burner for another day.

While I had hoped for these intended results, what I didn’t expect was the spiritual connection I’ve discovered from taking this often rocky road to recovery. As in life, I’m learning not to wait until I’m starving and desperate to cook and nourish myself. This should be second nature, but in the modern world, we find it so easy to reach for the quick, impersonal calories of convenience that leave us unfulfilled and a little sick. Now, I can take a bite into something that has slowly simmered and stewed in the warm glow of an Indian summer afternoon, and really taste the thought in it.

All Day in Bed

Cold Company

Well, you can guess what happened. Nothing decadent, sexy or even mildly provocative about catching that family head cold. Sadly, I was the final holdout felled, despite all my sacrifices in the kitchen to chicken soup gods. However, if you’re turned on by flannel, hot water bottles and VapoRub, then by all means read on.

Piles of crumpled tissues aside, this is a useful opportunity to get to know your nose better, and to realize how far sinus pain can travel. Why, that old wisdom tooth war wound just comes alive from the caress of packed nasal passages, not to mention renewed fantasies about lockjaw when one is unable to open the mouth wide enough to spoon in chicken soup originally meant for others.

Even in the privacy of the bedroom, appearance means everything. Bed head takes on a whole new meaning, particularly when you are unable to see anything in the mirror because of excessive eye watering. Lingerie must be chosen carefully, good coverage for the inevitable cold shoulder, but easily removed during blasted hot flashes that this particular virus is fond of triggering for me.

The unique opportunity to lounge would be enjoyable, if I could stop sneezing long enough to work on my perfect Hollywood pose. As for entertainment, since I don’t have the slightest idea how to sterilize my phone, laptop or TV (yes, that far across the room) when all this nasal precipitation is over, my only amusement is to blearily predict what the cat will do with empty kleenex boxes strewn about the room.

The rest of my family keeps their distance, even though they are the ones who gave me this plague. My allure these days is solely dependent on whether they need anything that only I can provide (e.g., passwords, location of checkbook, last will and testament, that sort of thing). And after everyone else falls asleep, I’m guaranteed an intimate evening alone with my stuffy thoughts by the light of all-night syndicated sitcoms, while my thumbs get a real workout playing revolving rounds of Candy Crush and Farm Heroes.

So you see, the 24-hour bed deal is not all that glamorous. And as for romance, believe me, the only thing steaming up around here is my vaporizer.

Life Without Bread

DSCN7168
I can look at it, smell it, touch the crust and make patterns on the counter with the crumbs. I just can’t eat it. Not right now. Maybe not ever.

As longtime readers may recall, after four years of searching for answers to a wide range of afflictions, I was finally diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis in 2003. And, for the most part, I have succeeded in managing this genetic autoimmune disease (predominately seen in the female population) that causes our bodies to attack their thyroids.

But I knew from my own research (even the specialists don’t want to admit to anything until pressed) that all bets are off upon entering menopause. And admittedly, I looked forward to saying goodbye to some of the unpleasant playing rules of perimenopausal thyroid disease.

I just wasn’t sure how well menopause and Hashimoto’s would play together, which one would dominate, which would imitate the other, and whether one or both would become unmanageable enough to require medical attention. Considering my poor track record with western medicine taking my symptoms seriously, this is always the path of last resort.

So, I focused on diet, and bought plenty of fans. I downed my vitamins and took myself outside for exercise and Vitamin D. I got rid of all those turtlenecks. My hands weren’t perpetually cold anymore. And life wasn’t too bad, at first.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, the balance I had so carefully maintained began to erode. (If there are any guys still reading at this point, hang in there. This could pertain to you, although I’ve cleared a room of dudes by bringing the issue up at a dinner party.) Sure, there were the expected hot flashes and heart palpitations, the embarrassing memory loss, the sudden fits of hormonal rage when someone cuts in at the checkout line.

What I didn’t anticipate were severe digestive issues in the way of constipation, bloating and gas. The joint and muscle pain grew worse, my heart fluttered after meals before keeping me up at night. I began to feel hyper and dizzy right after I ate, or around 3 am despite going to bed feeling just fine.

And since one autoimmune disorder can invite home other autoimmune buddies like Celiac and Irritable Bowel, I decided it was time to eliminate. First to go were the delicious microbrews my husband loves to bring home in his growlers. Suddenly, the pain in my feet and legs started to recede, and I reluctantly realized why I could barely walk during yearly vacations when we like to visit local breweries and nurse a couple of pints every evening.

Next went the daily sandwiches I made religiously with “healthy” whole wheat bread. Instead, I fixed myself a green salad with spinach leaves, walnuts and lean meat or tuna.  Mysteriously, the extra pounds I couldn’t budge for three years began to drop off. Mind you, I was still eating sugar and fat in various forms to keep my sanity.

Sadly, pasta, pizza and other wheat products were soon to follow. Last to be crossed off was the whole grain cereal I had eaten every morning for decades. Never one to climb aboard the fad diet bandwagons, I found myself searching for gluten-free products in the health food aisles, ashamed to admit to my foodie family that I had gone over to the Paleo dark side.

But there is something to this madness. As I watch my parents and older relatives become immobilized by crippling arthritis and unsuccessful joint replacements, vascular inflammation leading to high blood pressure and stroke — all despite an incredibly diverse diet full of organic homegrown vegetables, pasture-raised meat and local dairy, nothing processed — I have to wonder.

Let me be clear. I am not against grains. I love wheat (especially the fermented kind). But just as my genetic forebears have left their calling cards at the door to my health, so too have they given me a hint about my origins, a map to what kinds of foods kept my bloodline alive back before mankind was a sure thing. Perhaps we all possess a built-in guide to what makes us thrive based on where our family trees began. This ancestral diet digest is not, unfortunately, what I’ve been following or even acknowledging.

My own earliest memory centers around Mom leaving slices of white bread in the toaster too long because I loved to watch the curling wisps of smoke and craved the charred black edges of burnt toast.

Ironically, the worst part about giving up the bread that nourished my beginning sense of self is baked into a profound loss of belonging. And I strongly suspect I have the ancestors to thank for it.

End of Summer As We Know It

Pieces of me keep falling off. Like an overused machine, I find parts to future prospects in the grass. Worn. Cracked. Trampled by life.

My primer is slowly detaching from the body of my youth, as I frantically pump in any elixirs that worked in the past.

I push forward, coughing through polluted expectations, trying to stay within the lines.

Then one back wheel stops propelling along in time so that I waltz sideways into forces of nature, head down against the straight-line winds of loss and age.

Losing precious momentum, I find myself wandering all over my world, cutting short where I shouldn’t, but leaving thickets of doubt to grow unchecked.

Eventually, I’ll end up in the garage, undrained, unwinterized. Obsolete.

Hoping on the spark of a prayer that I start up in the spring.

Hot Flash

It can happen anywhere, that hormonal malfunction of the bodily furnace — along the non-refrigerated grocery aisle as I gaze at hot sauce for instance, or while merely contemplating the possibility of self-inflicted exercise, or often right after I pull on my sweater.

No matter. I can take it, I mutter to myself when bedtime rolls around.

But the nocturnal version is a whole other animal — waking up with an unwelcome passion, sweating from the wrong kind of combustion, fanning faster than belles at a debutante ball, kicking off the sheets like a two-year-old.

There is no time to take cover. It roars in with the solar flares of a thousand searing July afternoons, prickling the skin like sunburn, smelling of baby oil and bonfires. I hear the tinny beat of beach radios as polka dots from a long-gone bikini flash before my eyes.

I’m wondering what I’ve done to deserve this. Am I still holding the iron too close to my face? Have I been caught sipping illegal beers during illicit decadent dinners with underage carbs? Is it worth the raging forest fires while getting my fix from strong coffee and good chocolate?

And then it is gone.

I come to my senses only to find my head in the freezer.

Again.

Photo Friday: Making the Cut

Ever wake up to a pillow covered in hair? Your own, that is. Welcome to the deforestation of my head.

It is shedding season around here. I join the cat and dog, contributing to rolling tumbleweeds that roam this house. My poor spouse harvests strands off his laundry. The birds outside are nesting in it.

Bless my maternal grandfather for this. Bald as a cue ball. My spiritual twin growing up, we had more in common than I thought.

Worrying makes it worse. And right now, my hormones are as steady as a feral cat in heat. Or Charlie Sheen.

Since my bangs have grown out, it’s time to visit my hair stylist. I’m ready to go short, I announce. Can’t kid myself any longer.

Never one to do anything halfway, I like to see where I’ve mowed. Before I can regret it, a good pile of mostly brown stuff lays at my feet, thanks to an understanding hairdresser.

With The Who’s “hope I die before I get old” ringing in my ears.

I sit in the salon chair, reminiscing about another rite of hair passage. Twenty-eight years ago, I signaled the end of a bad relationship by leaving my waist-length hippie hair for a stylish bob. An English major’s nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald.*

Which prompted one of my classmates to slide his desk up behind mine in writing class.

“Nice hair,” whispered the voice of my future husband.

*For his jazz-age drama of women’s coiffure in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”

A Minimalist Moment: Walk This Way

One of the mandates to come out of my recent dance with Hashimoto’s (and the ongoing run-in with menopause) is to practice some sort of regular exercise. You might as well have asked me to do an exorcism. In fact, I’d be far more comfortable expelling evil spirits out of my body than tying on a pair of running shoes.

My claim to fame in college was that I owned no athletic garb of any kind, and the only sneakers in my possession were worn while working in the cafeteria dishroom, dispensing an odor that outstripped the puny scent of gym socks by a mile. Imagine the irony when I would later go on to finish typing an English master’s thesis in my husband’s athletic department office to the din of bouncing basketballs.

Over the years, I’ve tried, truly I have. I’ve climbed stairs given the choice, jogged my way up to three miles a day with the help of STP and Live on the Walkman, taken aerobic, step, zumba and fairly vigorous yoga classes. In an attempt to find out my body fat percentage, why I even joined a gym in the ’90s.

As a result, I lost twenty pounds and gained body fat. Now tell me how that is possible, oh Great Spirit of Jack LaLanne or any other tank-topped TV fitness guru? Guess my eastern european fat cells thought I was preparing for famine. I also couldn’t sleep at night because the evening classes revved me up too much to fall into bed unconscious. As a stay-at-home mom, mornings were out of the question since I didn’t enjoy watching my young daughter pantomime a screaming fit through the soundproof glass of the gym’s nursery.

Then there was the throwing of my husband’s hard-earned fitness stipends toward exercise equipment for the home, considering we were obviously too lazy to venture out into the recreational wilderness. The only stipulation being that any machines caught wearing an entire year’s worth of laundry for drying, ironing or mending purposes would be expelled from the property.

So, sure enough, after hanging up our hats (and coats, pants, shirts, not to mention underwear) on our good intentions, we waved goodbye to the deluxe stationary bike with heart monitor and clip-on tracking sensor, along with a very nice treadmill featuring handrails, timer, heart-rate monitor, mileage counter and a good coating of pet hair.

With our visible guilt-triggers banished (and now room for a foosball table!), I wasn’t left a lot of options. There was a brief fling with hand weights and how-to videos, virtuous printouts of sun salutations (promising myself extra time in corpse pose), bribes in the form of lavender-scented, rice-filled eye pillows and waffle-patterned mats in a pretty shade of orchid, as well as stylin’ yoga hoodies and jingling zumba hip scarves.

But what do I always come back to? The good old-fashioned neighborhood stroll. A sweet and simple standby of bygone days. Except I need to shift up a few gears to a faster heartbeat if I want to burn off the Cadbury I just wolfed down when the Easter Bunny wasn’t looking. Nascar I ain’t, but I can sure walk the talk with a minimum of requirements.

All I need is a will, a way, forgiving lycra, the wind at my back and a reasonably dry day. And my old Nano full of rocking tunes. (Okay, I know I should be all zen and one with nature without musical stimulation but I move faster to the unearthly wailing of longhaired bad boys.)

Oh, and let’s not forget the active footwear. Where are those baby pink Keds of my youth when I need them?

What Illness Tells Us

My old friend Hashimoto’s has come for a visit. I have to admit, it has been a while. He’s evidently here for an extended stay, because he’s brought a lot of baggage along this time. The contents are comprised of a good many things I didn’t want to see again. So far, he is persistent with his little gifts for me, even though I try to refuse them.

My particular thyroid disease (named after the Japanese doctor who discovered it in 1912) is a common autoimmune disorder of mostly middle-aged women, affecting about 10% of the population. The cause is not known, although genetics and environmental exposures are suspected. There is no cure, even though this disease has been identified for 100 years.

In a nutshell, my immune system has decided to attack my thyroid, the central command of all bodily functions. Why?

With very little to go on, I’ve tracked down which side of the family has given me this interesting little gene. I’ve become vigilant of the triggers — cold, stress, lack of sun and exercise, bad diet, an encroaching sense of doom. And I know that the racing heartbeat, slow metabolism, acid reflux, mental confusion, tremors, goiter, muscle and joint pain, bloating, insomnia, depression and other delights are not far behind.

When my cuckoo’s nest of crazed antibodies breaks out into the endocrine system and wreaks havoc on my day, I try to remain calm, take my medicine and wait it out. I also consider what is going on in my life, inside and out.

I’m a big believer in listening to what the physical body is trying to tell us on other levels. In my self-help wanderings, I’ve come across healers such as Louise Hay and Christiane Northrup, who interpret what various ailments indicate in the spiritual, emotional and mental realms. This line of thought is considered “wacko” by western medicine, but even its practitioners can’t deny the mind-body connection anymore.

The loudest indictment against a holistic view of chronic disease and cancers is based on the notion that we cause our illnesses. That these afflictions are our own fault, and we are responsible for bringing health troubles on ourselves by bad living and poor choices.

This argument can’t be very healing, and blame does no good in the end. In the process of living, the best therapy points us to the areas of our lives that need to be acknowledged, nurtured, or sometimes released through grief work. The body often knows what the mind overlooks or dismisses.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. It covers my throat and by its very position controls my voice, physically and spiritually. When it’s inflamed, the words I utter will become low and cracked. On its bad days, the gland pushes against my airway, and chokes back my requests for a good life. It becomes hard to swallow and take in the joy of the moment.

By force, I realize the need to relax into breath and search for the nurturing that eases my antibodies’ overly protective instincts. I have to coax out and address the fear my body holds to itself like a shield.

I’ve had a hard time speaking up over the years. During the first major visit by Hashimoto’s when I was almost 40, I saw many doctors, trying to find an answer for all my bizarre symptoms. Even when I intuitively suspected my thyroid as the problem, my hunch was dismissed by one doctor because I didn’t look like I had thyroid problems. The typical blood tests kept coming back normal, which wasn’t helpful.

No one in the medical profession would really listen to me, and I spent several winters in misery convinced that I was going nuts.

Finally, I found a nodule in my neck one cold winter night, and the blood tests confirmed hormonal imbalances. A biopsy followed. Within a week I was facing cancer, an oncologist and removal of my thyroid. At this point, I began to speak up and say the magic word: NO to messing with my neck, so close to my vocal chords and trachea; NO to irradiation and its aftereffects. YES to the inner voice.

I went to see a specialist, the top endocrinologist in the state. It was there that he introduced me to Hashimoto’s. Welcome to your chronic disease, lady, you’re one of the lucky 10%. Here’s some free samples of the synthroid you’ll be taking for the rest of your life.

I’d like to say that I’ve found my voice since then. That it’s loud and clear. But that wouldn’t be the truth. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had plenty of periods when I’ve thundered out my stories, when I’ve sung to my own happy tune and found harmony with other voices.

But the butterfly in my neck is trapped in a cocoon of inflamed scar tissue of my own making. (Perhaps that’s why it is always worse in the winter.) My visitor is slow to leave until I find the strength in my words to tell him when to go.

Meanwhile, the chrysalis waits for spring.

The Weight in the Mirror

Letting Go #16

I look in the mirror these days and see a stranger. Cliche, I know. The twist is that I see a DIFFERENT stranger every day. Sometimes I’m bloated so much that I’m reminded of Graham Greene’s Toad. Sometimes I’m dehydrated enough to have lots of wrinkles and lines from where I slept the night before. Before you think that I suffer from mental delusions, let me just say that although therapy might still be a good idea, I’m also knocking on the Crone’s door of the big M, and my mafia immune system has put out a hit on my thyroid.

And nearly fifty years spent loving food and drink doesn’t help, either. I grew up in a family of foodies. We may not have enjoyed much else, but we always indulged in the best and freshest food we could find, much of it homegrown and homemade. I was lucky to have a very high metabolism as a kid–there are pictures of me in miniskirts with toothpick legs. In fact, I was painfully thin at times. Since I’m 5’8” and like to breathe when I wear clothes, I could camouflage from myself a good deal of the bloating and weight gain during bouts of depression and the postpartum polka.

I had a wake-up call in my mid-thirties that motivated me to join a gym and take up running. Then I moved to the country to work a 3,000 square-foot garden and maintain three acres of very healthy weeds/grass with a walk-behind mower. All was undone on the eve of my fortieth year when the first vague symptoms of my thyroid disease reared their ugly heads. It would take years to diagnose, but after dutifully chugging down my thyroid med every morning, I’ve been comfortable with my weight, although it’s been steadily creeping up every year.

Unfortunately, avoiding mirrors and photos won’t work anymore, now that I’m video chatting with my college daughter every week and taking my own profile photos for the internet. The camera (and webcam) doesn’t lie. A recent high school reunion that I couldn’t attend had me wondering whether anyone would look in my face and recognize that painfully thin teenager from thirty-one years ago?

I’m always shocked at how different my mental image is from a real good hard look at myself in the mirror, or on the computer. Is that really me? It’s a puzzle. The answer, I suspect, is once again the theme for the blog this year. I’m working on letting go of the old images rattling around in my head, and embracing the baby steps of self-care and healthy habits. If I can stick to it, we’ll have to see what I look like as a healthy person. I hope I’ll recognize me.

Something about the eyes, perhaps?