This summer, when my digestive woes got bad again and I got tired of doctors shrugging sympathetically and telling me I just had a sensitive gut, I went to an alternative medicine practitioner, an Orthomolecular Nutritionist named Dan. “Microbes,” Dan said, and put me on a rigorous program.
For eight weeks, without cheating once, I starved my microbes. I ate only low-acid foods and took fistfuls of supplements. I eliminated fruit, dairy, sugar, red meat, wheat, rice, and any grains other than quinoa, millet, and amaranth. I ate carefully-cleaned organic vegetables. No tomatoes or avocados, no salt, and no heated oils. I soaked my raw almonds for 24 hours, and ate boiled chicken, fish, or eggs only every other day.
I ordered expensive aloe vera supplements from a shady Florida-based company with typos on their website. I swallowed fish oil, enzymes, probiotics, chlorella, and pills derived from mangosteen. I held colloidal silver solution in my mouth — one teaspoon before bed for five minutes — and then I spat it out. I drank only water balanced to 9.5 pH. For a while, I was allowed only 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil a day sprinkled on my food. Then Dan cut it to 1/2 teaspoon. Then none. Instead, 1/2 teaspoon of flax seed oil, which made me shudder.
Eight weeks. In my garden, the tomatoes, green peppers, plums, apples, ripened.
I wasn’t a complete stranger to this kind of regimen. If I’m a fourth generation red diaper baby, I’m at least a third generation health nut, if only intermittently so. In the ’70s, my mother, treating her allergies Linus Pauling-style, overdosed on vitamin C and blew out her kidneys. My grandmother took massive vitamin B supplements in the late ’60s and the hair around her white hairline turned dark again. I grew up with Adelle Davis and food yeast. I usually choose whole grains. I don’t drink caffeine. I believe in nutrition, organics, and local, sustainably-farmed food. I believe, to some extent, in supplementation.
And I loved being on a special diet. I loved not having to choose what to eat. For a while.
At my bi-weekly office visits, Dan read my pulses and energetic pathways with an electro-dermal reader that he touched to the joints of my fingers and toes while his assistant laid hands on the affected areas (pancreas, stomach, liver and bile ducts, descending colon, spleen). When the meter on his machine showed blockages or microbial activity, he pounded on my back while I counted backwards from thirty. Then he tested me again. “There, that’s better,” he said.
I brought in food samples to test for sensitivity. He placed them on a metal plate attached to his machine and tested my pulses while I held a metal bar in my hand. To “desensitize” the food, he pounded on my back while I held the samples and his assistant touched me, shaping her other hand into yoga mudras.
At home, I compulsively Googled each element of his treatment. The diet made some sense to me, but the rest? Quackery! Bogus! And, for some of the supplements: Potentially dangerous!
But I kept on, the skeptic in me warring with the part of me that deeply desires magic. I was fascinated by the complexity of Dan’s system — especially his obvious belief in it — the vials and charts in his office, the whirs and dials of his special machine. His program touched the part of me weary of being a responsible, rational mother. How I long for a universe where miracle cures are possible, where our world’s terrible politics and environmental realities aren’t happening. And at least the nutritional elements made sense; if he was right about that, couldn’t he be right about the rest?
Meanwhile, I lost twelve pounds. My stomach stopped hurting. I felt fantastic! Men stared at me on the street. Then I began feeling my ribs, I got calf cramps, I felt weak hiking with the dog. I was very, very hungry. And I began to cry.
I cried when my husband Bill and daughter Annie had juicy steak and my hard boiled egg — my first protein in two days — wouldn’t peel right. I sobbed the night I insisted my family eat take-out sushi, while I soaked my lettuce and cucumber in filtered water and grapefruit seed extract so I could make vegetable juice.
I nearly cried the night I made Annie pasta sauce from heirloom tomatoes and basil from my garden and didn’t even taste a bite.
Bill and Annie harvested the garden. The apples on our apple tree ripened and fell.
Dan tested my household products on his metal plate: my cosmetics and toothpaste, my detergent and window cleaner. “You are extremely chemically sensitive,” he said, handing my samples to the assistant to put on a far table in the office. “Your microbes are fighting back. You won’t get anywhere until you eliminate all the chemicals in your environment to reduce your toxic load. Clean everything with Borax or 3% hydrogen peroxide. No oils or chemicals on your body. Wash only with castile soap.”
I felt my gut clench in rebellion. Yes, we do live in a toxic environment, I thought, and I will work on it. But I know myself, and I am not extremely chemically sensitive. “Question Authority,” my radical family taught me. They meant the medical establishment. But maybe it applied to Dan and his ilk as well.
I had trouble clearing my mind and counting backwards from thirty when Dan pounded on my back that day. Thirty, twenty-nine, bullshit, I thought. Smoke and mirrors. Twenty-six. Twenty-five. What the hell am I doing here?
Later that day, I bought natural citrus counter cleaner and chemical-free toothpaste. But take away Annie’s nail polish and deodorant? Make Bill shave with castile soap? Uh uh. I wasn’t about to go all Howard Hughes on them. Motherhood and mental health are about flexibility, and on Dan’s program, flexibility was just not happening.
I began to get stressed at the thought of going back to see Dan, and my intestines started to act up again. Compounding my stress was the front page of the newspaper: the ice caps melting. Genocide, rapes, and starvation in Darfur. The world is dying on our watch.
So I listened to my gut. Fuck my microbes, my gut said.
The day before my next appointment with Dan, I called and cancelled. “I’ve decided that the program is not for me,” I said to his answering machine. My stomach immediately relaxed. I was elated! That night I ate dry, organic whole wheat toast with slices of avocado, heirloom tomatoes from my garden, and a splash of lemon. It was divine.
I want my daughter to have a mother who seizes life, not one who lives in a bubble and, gaunt, browses through the produce section wearing a mask over her mouth. Life is too short to take unnecessary risks, but too short to avoid risk, too.
So these days, I’m following my heart and palate. I can’t stop eating. Not vast quantities, but flavors. Two slices of sharp cheddar. Sushi. French toast. Next weekend, dim sum. And dark chocolate? I have yet to begin. After fifty-six days of quinoa, each element I put in my mouth is complex and satisfying, thrilling and evocative. And scary. I’ve forgotten, a little, how to eat normally. It’s pretty incredible, this food thing. Like a new lover. Like a longed-for voyage to a much-loved exotic location.
So far, my digestive system is fine; there’s tremendous freedom in trusting my gut. (Either that, or Dan’s program has cured me.)
I’d love to gain back only half the weight I lost. But I’m not stressing about it. Yes, I’ll still eat leafy greens and quinoa, avoid extra sugar and processed foods. But bring on the creamery butter and parmesan cheese, bring on the freestone peaches. My husband, daughter, and I are sitting down for a meal. Come on, microbes, let’s eat!