Food is something that I’ve really always struggled with.
My Dad is Lebanese, and even though my Mum did the cooking when we were growing up, we ate a lot of multicultural food (yum!!).
I grew up eating fresh, seasonal food, a lot of it from our own garden.
My mother taught me how to read the nutrition panels on the backs of packages (you wouldn’t find things like chips or muesli bars in our lunchboxes – when I shop now I can still hear her saying things like, “Whoa, look at much sugar one muesli bar has in it! or “See how most of the ingredients in those chips are numbers?”). Soft drink or juice was a special treat for birthday parties. For afternoon tea we foraged from the veggie patch. But, despite our healthy lifestyle, I was still always that bit overweight.
A few years after I got married, my metabolism, which had always been slow, just ground to a halt. I started piling weight on. I was no longer “just a bit overweight” – I was hugely overweight.
I tried all kinds of different things, but nothing helped. I was confused.
I ate healthily and I exercised as much as my health allowed me.
Eventually, I went to my doctor, and he referred me to a dietician / nutritionist. I went to see her, armed with my food diary, and she confessed that I ate more healthily than she herself did! Shaking her head, she told me that there weren’t any tips she could give me – I was already doing everything she would usually suggest. All kinds of people chimed in with suggestions: “Have you tried drinking more water? You just need to exercise more. You’re obviously eating too much. No one would be overweight it they just matched their calories in/calories out…”
Then my digestive system joined the strike. I started reacting to lots of different foods. I did an elimination diet, and found I was sensitive to amines. I cut them out as much as I could, and my digestive problems eased a bit.
Then I cut out preservatives, additives and colourings from my diet. It was hard – preservatives seem to be in everything now – even healthy things! But I stuck with it and I lost six kilograms… in the first week. The weight continued to melt off every week. Over the next two years, I lost sixty kilograms. Yes, you read that right. Sixty. Kilograms.
Turns out the preservatives / additives / colourings were suppressing my metabolism. They were literally preserving my fat. As soon as they were out of my system, I felt my metabolism wake up. I then had one of the best periods of health I’ve had since I was fourteen. For about a year, although my Dysautonomia wasn’t gone, it was easier to manage. I was able to walk into town to grab a few things, and walk home again without any big dramas. I could teach piano four afternoons a week.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Although my metabolism was quite happy now, my digestive system still wasn’t. Slowly, more and more intolerances started creeping in.
It looked like this:
Tomato is fine
Tomato is okay a most nights in the week
Tomato is alright, but I can’t have it two nights in a row
Tomato is tolerable once a week
Tomato = unimaginable pain and sickness
Tomato = call the ambulance
*repeat this process with every food known to mankind*
I’m not kidding. It got to the point where the only thing I could eat, for ONE AND A HALF YEARS was “Freedom Foods” brand rice cereal (like cornflakes, but made from rice) with A2 milk. That’s right – every meal, for one and a half years, was cereal. It was the only thing I could digest. The doctors tried supplements (and my digestive system said, “Nope!” and I’d be violently ill). So they tried intravenous vitamins and minerals (and my veins said, “Nope!” and would make clots). It got to the stage where I was so malnourished my organs were decomposing – my body was literally breaking them down to steal the nutrients from their tissues. Thankfully, I found a wonderful clinical naturopath. She did some testing, and discovered that I had none of the enzymes that you need to digest food. My digestive system had literally packed up and vacated the premises.
Not being able to eat food SUCKS. Trying to cook dinner for your husband without being able to taste the food to adjust the balances of the flavours is hard. Going out to a restaurant with friends and sitting watching them eating is hard. Going to other people’s houses and explaining that no, there really is nothing they can cook for me, is hard. Being laughed at over the dinner table when guests come and see me eating cereal for dinner, that’s hard too.
Now it’s…less hard. We’ve been working on my digestion for over a year. I can now have lamb, beef, chicken, eggs, avocado, salt, peeled apples, ginger and honey, as well as overcooked carrots, beans, spinach and zucchini. It’s a made a difference, not just to my physical health, but also to my mental health. I can now have an enjoyable meal (lamb chops with boiled egg and avocado anyone? Yum!). I can eat things with different flavours and textures. I can eat something more “normal” when other people come over for dinner. It’s just inexpressibly better.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately. And I realised something important: food is like mental health. Just go with me on this – okay?
The things I eat make a difference to how I feel – the last five years have really driven that point home for me. But I see lots of people taking this to an extreme, advocating food as a way to cure your illness (and not just Dysautonomia: there’s even diets to ‘cure cancer’). I also see lots of people on the other extreme, insisting that what they eat makes no difference to their health (sorry, science disagrees! *)
So how does that relate to mental health?
Well, when I first started getting sick, doctors kept insisting to my Mum that I must be depressed / anxious / attention-seeking. They decided that symptoms we don’t understand = mental health problem.
They were wrong. But I know a lot of people with invisible illnesses have been treated this way. Unfortunately, this can lead to three extreme views.
1) Some people get quite cranky if anyone (medical professional or otherwise) dares to inquire about their mental health, because doesn’t that person know that they have *invisible illness xyz* (and because they don’t have *invisible illness xyz* AND a mental illness, nobody does). This is sad, because it ostracizes those who do have mental health struggles in addition to other illnesses, visible or invisible.
2) Others have mental health issues but hotly deny it, because they feel like having a mental health issue invalidates their other invisible illnesses. They fought so hard to get *invisible illness xyz* recognized as not ‘just a mental health issue’, that they feel like having a mental health problem as well undoes all their hard work. I’d hate to see someone refusing to seek treatment or help for their mental health problem, because they were too busy worrying about how they’d be treated by others (medical professionals, others with different illnesses, or even healthy people) after diagnosis. And yes – some doctors and nurses can be bums when they see a mental health diagnosis on your chart. But get help anyway – your health is important.
3) There’s a final group of people who have *invisible illness xyz* and a mental health illness, and seem to think because they have both, everyone has both. They berate anyone who denies struggling with mental health (which, incidentally, inflames the category one people, and leads the category two people to just deny it all the more adamantly. So…just saying…not helping anyone).
So I’ve decided… can we please stop with the extremes?
Let’s leave that for the sports nuts.
Maybe instead, as a group, we could focus on creating an environment where it’s okay to be different. A place where we listen to each other more than we tell each other what to do.
You’ve gone gluten free, and it’s really helping? That’s awesome!
You’ve tried diet changes and found that it didn’t help your symptoms? That’s a bummer – I’m sorry to hear that.
You have dysautonomia and depression? How can I support you?
You have IBS? What can I do to support you?
You have a list of illnesses longer than my arm? How can I help?
Maybe, when you have a quiet moment to think, you can examine your thought processes and see if any ‘extremes’ have snuck in. See if any of those ‘extremes’ are impacting on how you treat others, or how you go about seeking treatment for yourself.
I know I’m guilty of being the category one person sometimes, when it comes to mental health. I’m striving instead to be more patient with those who ask about my mental health. At this time, I don’t have any mental illnesses, but maybe one day I will, and I’ll be grateful that they asked.
It’s frustrating when doctors lump all invisible illnesses into the “mental health basket”, but I’ve learned this is frustrating for both those with, and those without, mental health struggles. Just like coeliacs who feel they aren’t taken seriously when people treat gluten-free like a fad, those with mental health issues probably feel like they’re being treated unjustly when anyone who doesn’t fit in the usual box gets lumped into their box.
Mental health is a real thing – not just a box to shove people in when they don’t fit into your other filing system.
* What you eat may make no difference to how you “feel” now, but it certainly does make a difference to your overall health. If you haven’t already, I strongly suggest you watch the movie “Fed Up” (2014), to see the science explained.