Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
So begins Michael Pollan’s 2008 book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I stumbled into his work – literally, with my body into the table it was on – at the Montague Book Mill in Massachusetts, a gorgeous oasis of paper and ink which celebrates how it houses “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” This (in retrospect) serendipitous find happened last summer, when I learned I had to transform my relationship to food.
In the summer of 2015, I journeyed to Jhamtse Gatsal in India. On the way there, we had a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and I suffered a bout of severe stomach cramps after getting off the plane and wandering the city before we could check into our hotel. This discomfort endured most of the 17 hours we had to travel by jeep to get to the school over the next 2 days. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience in my life.
Eventually, my stomach settled, and we settled into the community at Jhamtse. After a few days, I became violently ill, presumably due to the same thing that bothered me in Germany. Or it started way before then and I just didn’t realize it (or refused to admit that possibility). I had a self-diagnosed case of salmonella poisoning the previous fall, so maybe there were critters still swimming around my digestive tract from that. Who knows. Regardless, I purged in both directions for several days, took a round of antibiotics, and after about 10 days, was back to relative normalcy.
When I returned home, I started to notice curious reactions to certain foods, including one of my favorites: peanut butter. I basically ate peanut butter by the jar before my India trip, and now, after a bite, I’d experience a most discomfiting rectal itch (that felt way too good to scratch). Chickpeas/hummus destroyed my gut, yielding awful pain. Processed protein products (soy and/or milk-based) disoriented me. So I slowly phased these foods (and more) out of my diet and lamented their departure. Bodies change. So be it. And after the gross reality of the India episode, I couldn’t complain too much. At least I wasn’t getting sick.
Gradually though, I noticed that food stopped serving me as a source of energy. Anything I ate seemed to bring me only fatigue. I started feeling the urge to nap more frequently; granted, I’d struggled for years with body image issues and
possibly very likely an eating disorder, during which I was brutal to my body, so in the grand scheme of things, this development made sense in (what I’m totally misunderstanding as) karmic terms. I was inclined, of course, to blame India instead of implicating myself and some deeper psychological trauma that needed reconciliation. It couldn’t be my problem, but one that was unfairly thrust onto me. It had to be India.
I understand now that such struggles are far more complex than a single origin; India was more a catalyst for necessary holistic revelation than some dark force intent on upending my sense of normalcy.
I eventually sought out a naturopath and started getting food allergy testing that revealed a host of problems. Almost everything was triggering a reaction. Rather than follow my doctor’s recommendations, I was confident I could think my way through the problem with the help of the Internet. Yes, I actually believed I could use that rabbit hole to heal myself. I staged an all-out assault on my body by jumping immediately into an unforgivingly strict diet. I thought obsessively about it. Basically, I did more harm than good, and after a month of doing this to myself (during which time I somehow rehearsed for and performed in a play), I finally surrendered to needing my doctor’s help. I got a stool test, which confirmed that I had a yeast overgrowth; I was treating myself on that assumption. From the Internet I had followed an anti-candida protocol. Candida is (evidently) a type of yeast that we all have, but it’s usually in balance with everything else in our microbiome. My candida was (potentially) taking over my body. I had also let it consume my mind, as well as deaden my spirit. Recovery takes way more than a physical approach.
I’m in the midst of another shot at an anti-candida lifestyle, which includes diet. My diet is Pollan’s dream: I eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much. But that’s one part of the lifestyle. The main thing I’m trying to work on is the emotional and psychological component, i.e. to forgive myself. So my mind’s diet consists of ample portions of self-compassion and love. Without knowing it, I had taken them off my menu for a long time. Now, I try to feast on them. Or maybe I should say, I try to commune with them.