I have always seen food as a necessity of life but never something upon which I spent a lot of time or precious energy. I have had a basic awareness of healthy eating but I would not have considered myself a ‘Health Nut’ by any stretch of the imagination. I have never been a salad eater and could honestly say that green vegetables were something I ate because I knew I had to, not because I truly enjoyed them. I am a parent who started out making homemade, organic baby food and then reluctantly slipped into a world of fast food, convenience items and a diet low in anything truly healthy; chicken nuggets, fish sticks, pizza, burgers and Kraft Dinner.
I am a pretty good cook and when I put my mind to it I can put a nice meal on the table. However, I have been worn down by three picky eaters with different likes and dislikes but who can agree on a passion for chicken nuggets. As I have slipped further and further off the home made organic food bandwagon, there has been a little voice in the very back of my head asking; ‘is this the best for your kids, Katie?’ I knew it was not the best for my kids but I didn’t know any other way and by the end of the day I was tired and dinner was just an inconvenience I wanted out of the way. I had become a belly-filler rather than a body-nurturer.
Little did I know that when Michael was diagnosed with ADHD all that would change radically. I knew that the junk food was unhealthy but what I didn’t know was that the supposed healthy, nutritious food could be just as damaging. That is, until I watched Michael’s body react violently to a ‘healthy’ food he has been eating all his life.
After our highly successful trip to Whole Foods to find all the dairy alternatives, Michael was adapting like a little trooper and seemed to be enjoying all his alternatives. I wasn’t really aware of any difference in Michael’s behaviour and, to be honest, I kind of wondered whether the whole naturopathic approach was just a bunch of ‘hocus pocus’. I was so determined to try everything before we went to pharmaceutical medication I wondered whether I was just burying my head in the sand before the inevitable filling of the prescription. However, I also had to remind myself that the biomedical approach was going to be slow and I needed to be patient.
Ten days after removing dairy from Michael’s diet, I went back to see Sonya (our new naturopath) for the 90 minute intake appointment. It was the most fascinating and relaxed medical appointment I had ever experienced. I have become accustomed to talking as fast as I possibly can at appointments with my family doctor because my appointed time slot seems to be over before it has even begun. However, at the naturopath it is an entirely different story; it felt like Sonya had all the time in the world to begin unravelling the complexities of Michael’s physiology. Sonya took a family history so complete that she started to draw connections and see patterns through both sides of Michael’s lineage that would indicate potential issues in his complex physiological puzzle.
Sonya seemed particularly interested in my medical history and general health. As I spoke at length about my overall health (particularly feeling sick after almost every meal, a sensitive gastro intestinal system, nightly sleep disturbance, mild to moderate anxiety and very bad eczema), Sonya mentioned that Michael’s dairy intolerance probably came from me. She also suggested that I was most likely gluten intolerant and vitamin B12 deficient. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Michael’s life that was shifting so radically, it was mine as well. By the time I left the intake appointment (which ended up being 2 hours) I was off dairy, gluten and processed sugar and was on vitamin B12 injections every three days. I am thrilled to report that seven weeks into my new diet, my eczema is completely gone, my mild anxiety is better than it has been for years and I have already forgotten what it feels like to be sick after meals. Yay!
Just before the intake appointment was ending Sonya mentioned that it would be a good idea to test Michael for food allergies and intolerances. She felt that we would have a much clearer picture once we knew exactly what foods were affecting Michael’s delicate system. She told me that Michael would have to go back on dairy for a week leading up to the appointment so that he had enough of it in his system to get an accurate baseline. I booked the appointment for a week and bounced out of the clinic feeling excited to tell Michael that he could go back on all his favourite foods for seven whole days; it would be like his dairy swan song!
To celebrate the new (however short lived) freedom to eat, I decided to take the kids out for pizza and ice cream after school. As predicted, Michael was over the moon as he sat in Pizza Pizza and indulged in three pieces of his all-time favourite food. The look on his face was absolutely adorable as he talked excitedly about all the treats he was going to have in the coming week. We decided that pizza for breakfast was going to be a little over the top but that he could indulge within reason. We tripped happily home from Pizza Pizza and spent a leisurely time in the local ice cream parlour before going home. Michael was thoroughly sated and dreamily happy as I tucked him affectionately into bed that Friday night. Even as he was drifting off he was telling me all the things he wanted to eat that weekend.
Michael and I are the early risers in my family and I was already up and enjoying the quiet the next morning by the time Michael appeared to join me on our lovely front porch. We sat and chatted and I noticed that he seemed a little more fidgety than usual for so early in the morning. Michael’s frenetic energy usually takes about 90 minutes to kick in after he awakens, but that morning he was already bouncing out of his chair and energetically frenzied from the get-go. I thought nothing of it as he went off in search of his Nintendo DS to pass the time while he waited for Zachary to awaken.
By about 9:30 that morning Simon and I were already at our wits end with Michael. He was fighting with his brothers (even more so than usual), he wouldn’t leave the cats alone and he was bouncing through the house like a manic ping pong ball. It was behaviour to which we had grown accustomed over the years but it was even more extreme than usual; Michael’s energy was so intense it felt like we were being assaulted. At one point Simon looked at me over Michael’s head and mouthed a desperate question; “what is wrong with him?” It was at that moment I realized that Michael’s body was reacting badly to the huge hit of dairy he had consumed the previous night. Saturday went from bad to worse and we wondered how we were going to get through the week. Michael had three grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch that day and real(!!!) ice cream again for dessert that night. Simon and I were absolutely exhausted by the time we got the kids settled into bed and wondered how we were going to make it through the following day.
I get up at 4:30 on weekday mornings so I have time to meditate, write and exercise. I usually give myself a break on weekends and sleep until 6:30 when Michael gets up. However, as I was falling into bed Saturday night I decided to set my alarm so that I was sure to have time to myself before Michael’s energy landed for another day from hell. It was a beautiful, sunny May morning and I was sitting on the front porch writing when Michael appeared. His energy felt even more frenetic than the previous day and it wasn’t long before he told me how awful he was feeling. I asked him to explain and he told me he felt like he had an animal inside his body. I kept quiet as Michael talked and let him draw his own conclusions; the dairy in his system was making him feel wretchedly awful. We talked at length about how Simon and I could help him through the days leading up to the allergy testing while he was still going to be feeling awful. Although they were very tough days for Michael I think it helped him to know we were on his side and supporting him.
After the seven grueling days were up, I took Michael back to the naturopath for the allergy testing appointment. Michael had dark circles under his eyes, his complexion was pale and sickly looking and he couldn’t stop yawning and stretching. When we sat down with Sonya she asked Michael how he was feeling and his candid response was heartbreaking; ‘tired, angry and sad.’ Sonya asked him what he thought was making him feel all those things and he told her it was the dairy he had been eating. Sonya’s response was fantastic; instead of commiserating with Michael she clapped her hands and celebrated the fact that we now had the first piece of Michael’s puzzle. Sonya assured Michael that as soon as he removed dairy again he would start to feel better. She also recommended taking Michael off gluten, processed sugar, food colouring and chemical additives. My chest tightened painfully as I wondered how I was going to make dinner that night; no pizza, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, pancakes or even spaghetti.
What was I going to make for dinner that night?
I am starting to come to grips with the fact that treating ADHD biomedically is a gradual process of healing the body. Therefore, there is rarely a glaringly obvious change in behaviour or symptoms. If I hadn’t experienced Michael’s violent reaction to going back on dairy I might not be feeling as committed to biomedical treatment as I am today. I know that chicken nuggets and fish sticks are not good food choices but it never occurred to me that I was poisoning Michael with something that I always thought was the most wholesome, healthy food available; milk. Over the years, Michael has probably consumed upwards of a litre of milk per day; a litre of milk on a system that is so intolerant it goes haywire after a few slices of pizza and an ice cream cone!
Who knew that a yummy comfort food had the power to harm so drastically?
As we were driving home I had a staggering epiphany; if food has the power to harm then it must also have the power to heal. It was the first time I had ever made the connection between food and healing. It was the first time I ever realized just how important each and every bite of food truly is. I could feel panic settling into my chest as I clutched the steering wheel. How am I going to feed my family? I didn’t know any way other than convenience and fast foods with the odd home cooked meal thrown in for good measure. I was deeply ashamed as the next staggering realization struck me in the chest; I don’t know how to feed my family! I knew that 90% of the food in my kitchen was heading for the garbage dump but what was that going to leave me?
As I related my epiphany and the ensuing anxiety to Simon that night he reminded me about his friend Barb, the raw food chef, and her offer of help. After I bundled the kids off to school the following day I took Barb up on her offer and shyly dialled the phone. In retrospect I realize how much courage it took to contact a virtual stranger and a die-hard foodie and admit that I am a chicken nugget mother who is suddenly way out of her depth. Fortunately, Barb is not only a passionate foodie but also a gentle and loving woman who simply wants to share her passion for great eating, optimal health and food as the ultimate healer. In a very short time Barb has become a dear friend and invaluable mentor as I navigate my way through the challenging, intriguing, and sometimes intimidating process of learning to nurture and heal our bodies with food.
As usual, I must tip my hat and offer sincere gratitude to the Universe. After my post-allergy-testing epiphany I could feel my ship threatening to go down. Life felt dreadfully scary and uncertain as I drove home that day with no idea how to make dinner for my family that night. I could feel that all-too-familiar sensation of drowning as the fear and uncertainty of my situation sunk in. However, instead of letting my ship go down even for a moment, the Universe had already lined up another angel to step in, throw me a rope and remind me that I am a powerful earth mother who already has the power to heal her family…and boy does that angel ever know how to eat!
But that is a story for another day.