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Eating to Live

Confessions of a Binge Eating Carb and Sugar-holic

I was a sensitive, deep feeling kid, and I started stuffing my face to quell the emotions at an early age. During the hormonal fluctuations of my teens, my mother was traveling for her work a lot, and I was left by myself frequently. I guess paying for a sitter wasn't an option. I guess loneliness wasn't factored in. My capacity for self care was grossly overestimated by my mother. She was in Europe doing a book tour for her international bestseller, and I was left to my own listless, wandering, deeply hungry devices.

My cravings didn't stop at food. There was a party that I almost never made it home from. I'm sure lots of American youth can attest to similar near disasters... but being fifteen and falling over drunk all by myself in  a dangerous part of Brooklyn is pretty dramatic stuff. An Hispanic family parked near the corner, their van stuffed to the gills with all their living relatives, saved my life. They helped me get to a subway stop that would lead me to my stop in Manhattan. A couple of kids on the train saw my condition and threatened to mug me for my fudgsicle. But somehow, against all the odds, I made it home with nothing worse than a sprained wrist from having fallen.

A friend of the family, having heard about my condition when I left the party (I had puked all over the host's parent's white sofa), called the next morning to check on me. I don't remember if I told him about never telling the cab driver that the location I was describing was in MANHATTAN, not BROOKLYN (e.g. 9th Street and 5th Ave. in Manhattan and 9th Street and 5th Ave. in Brooklyn are two very, very, different places!). I did tell Bob about my wrist. I am sure I shrugged it off the way that young people can do so cavalierly having absolutely no clue that they have just come within inches of tragedy.

My mother may have been on another continent, but she wasn't clueless. After she got home she signed me up for a six week wilderness camp for the summer.  We would hike the Olympic Peninsula, the snowy Cascade Mountains, and, one of the most profound experiences of my life, climb the summit of Mount Ranier under a full moon.  The day before hiking to the summit house at 10,000 feet we practiced doing self-arrests, where we would basically throw ourselves backwards down the mountainside and then throw out a pick axe into the face of the snow and grab hold of it with both fists to stop our fall.  On the rope team, in our cramp-ons and headlamps, the sun rose in a splendid array of colors and the oxygen thinned.  We sat down for a few minutes to put on another layer so we wouldn't chill as we ate our gorp, and I thought I would vomit and that my legs would fall off. I felt I couldn't get up again, the ache in my thighs was too much. I wept. I had never been through such a grueling challenge in all my life!

The experience was grounding, for sure. The I Climbed Mount Ranier t-shirt I picked, on a budget too slim for tourist t-shirts, was orange-- emblematic, I think, of the new boldness and strength that I was experiencing as a person.  When I returned to school that year, I was not necessarily less lonely, but I was more sure of myself. I had forged a nice friendship with a blonde girl from Connecticut-- I can't remember her real name-- I think it was Rachel-- she had decided, while on our trip, to start going by the name of Cream.  Another boy went by Sky. And then there was Puddin' Head.  We were a motley crew of teenagers trying to come to grips with ourselves during the trying passage of adolescence. We each felt like a circle trying to fit into a square. While I never adopted one of these hippy names, I could definitely identify with the sentiment behind rejecting one's given name. We were rejecting so much of what we felt was being foisted upon us by the adult world. Tremendous hypocrasy and greed and materialism and the vapid absence of spirituality.

The names probably didn't stick, just like the friendships didn't stick, and I went back to my solitary, albeit deeper, more thoughtful experience.  I also returned to the sweets-- I was a sucker for almond horns--and sometimes I would buy a giant bag of peanut m&m's. My mother was working. Nobody objected.

At some point I recognized that my eating and my weight were out of control. I visited my brother in college, and had a heart-to-heart with his roommate, who I think saw something of himself in me as he watched me downing jumbo bags of candy. He said, in a very gentle and non-threatening manner, "You don't have to do this."

I went back home and became a master of the art of self control. I allowed myself one Dannon lowfat yogurt for lunch at school.  Then for dinner I would eat a turkey sandwich from the corner deli.  I remember making myself chew each bite 20 times. The meal would last so long I was bored by the end of it! I'd have no interest in eating anymore. My jaw was tired from chewing. If I wanted to eat a candy bar, I would bring up my method acting drills from another summer class and make myself believe that the Hershey's bar would taste vile.

Like most of my peers, I spent much of my adulthood thinking in terms of calories. I never owned a scale, I never tried to pinch an inch (well, lie, I did) and I never really bothered to keep close track of things. I felt as long as I was active, I would burn the extra calories. Indeed, heavy excercise seemed to regulate my urges. When I was active, I craved salad. When I wasn't active, I craved carbs.  Sugar and dairy were pretty much a constant.  

I was never an amazingly healthy eater (I stopped at spirulina and wheat grass, for example) I was never an amazingly bad eater. At least, according to conventional wisdom. 

But for thirteen years or so I have suffered from bouts of severe intestinal distress. I would have violent "attacks" in my gut that resembled food poisoning-- I would become breathless and dizzy and red, my back would hurt and I would puke until there was nothing left to puke and then I would keep puking.  The first time it happened I was walking home from my job at the school. Before I could make it there, I began to experience lower back pain that had me doubled over. The first couple of times I had these attacks I ended up in the ER, where I would be heavily medicated. After awhile I stopped going to the ER, familiar with my course of symptoms, reassured that I was at least not going to die right then and there if I didn't go to the ER.

I saw the Specialist, worried and wanting to get to the bottom of it.  He looked at me and said that I looked like a healthy young woman.  He held a little smile on his face as he listened to my symptoms, and suggested, skepically, that I could consider a colonoscopy, but that I was pretty young for that.

I walked out the offfice feeling confused. He had not taken me seriously. I began to doubt myself. I never did the colonoscopy (who would want to, especially when the specialist seems dubious of the need for it?).   I continued to suffer these sporadic, debilitating attacks for years.

The attacks seemed to subside during my pregnancy (except for once, when I got scary cramping pains after eating nuts at about six months along), and after the birth of my son they didn't return. But then, over a year ago, I began having troublesome gastric symptoms again.  I thought I had a diverticulitis condition (through the years with these attacks, it was determined again and again that seeds and nuts had been part of the equations), and when I couldn't get an appointment with my doctor I saw a nurse practitioner who put me on two antiobiotics simultaneiously-- the prescribed treatment for diverticular infection.  I got very depressed while on them, cried every day, and the gassy, volcanic situation inside me just worsened.

At the end of their course I was alarmed to see that my condition hadn't been addressed by the meds. If anything, it had become worse. I was reassured by a nurse that the antibiotics were still at work in my system... The following weekend, with tenderness in my ribs, I went to the ER.

The doctor looked at me like I had two heads, and told me I seemed very anxious. I said I was anxious because I didn't feel well, and I didn't understand what was wrong. She was about to write me off as a sniveling hypochondriac when my gut started boiling and gurgling.  Here, I said.  Right here.  She put her finger over this spot on my left side, over the large part of my large intestine. She felt the activity and ordered a chest x-ray.  They found big pockets of gas
 and diagnosed me with some strange condition called Splenic Flexure Syndrome.  She told me to go on a "low residue diet."  "You want to eat fiber," she explained, "but you can't, like, eat brocolli and celery at the same time."

I went home relieved that I wasn't going to be medivacced, and glad to have some kind of explanation of things that I could research and learn about.

I had a colonscopy  with the specialist at the start of the summer.  He shrugged off the ER diagnosis, saying that is sometimes what they diagnose when they can't come up with anything else.  He told me my colon looked fine, and that I wouldn't have to return for ten years.  "But if you continue having symptoms, you can come in for a consultation."

My symptoms by this point included the heavy presence of phlegm in my stools. At some point during the spring, I began developing subcutaneious cysts.  I had pain in my joints that would come and go. At one point I purchased a wrist brace, thinking that writing a lot more had given me carpel tunnel syndrome.  By the end of the summer, these cysts were sometimes very large, and had a bruising effect on my skin.

It was a five week wait to get in to see the new doctor.  When  I got there, she rushed me through a report of my symptoms, breatthlessly explaining that she had little time. A baby was about to be born upstairs.

She ordered some tests. I left the lab with this huge plastic bag and about eight sample kits, feeling wretched and humiliated. All of these separate samples? Really? Oh, and I would need to book the follow-up with the new doctor right away, since there was now a three month wait to get back in.

I went home planning to be a good patient.  Then instantly felt defeated. Was I supposed to bring these samples in as they occured? Or should I stockpile them on a bathroom shelf until I have amassed them all?

Did I really need a doctor to tell me that all this mucuous was not normal?  Why didn't anyone seem to have a clue about what the presence of mucuous in one's body might indicate?  Why wasn''t I getting any answers sooner?

Enter my mother, at Christmastime, armed with a book she'd found called "Breaking the Vicious Cycle: Intestinal Health through Diet."  Elaine Gotschall, the book's author, went back to school for biochemistry in order to learn how to help her daughter overcome her diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis.  What followed was the foundation for a new way of eating, a diet rich in proteins, fats, and vegetable fiber, and absent of most carbs found in grains, sugars,  and things like white potatoes.

The mucuous build up in my colon, I read in her book, is the result of my intestinal lining's effort to protect itself from further damage. The cells of the intestinal lining responsible for the absorption of nutrients should each look like a foot, with little flagella like things on the toes that help break the food down into useful amino acids that can be absorbed through the intestinal lining into the blood. Instead of having nice healthy foot shaped cells, the cells of my intestinal wall look like feet that have been amputated across the arch.

If I had not interfered with this process by taking out of my diet things I never thought I could have lived without, my body would eventually have become exhausted by these protective measures and lubricating mucus making. The mucus production would have stopped. And my damaged intestinal wall would have become ruptured.


To be continued!!!