Grief is bigger than death, and can affect our everyday lives
IRON MOUNTAIN — The other day I burned a pancake. The other day I let tears stream down my face after forcefully dumping the pancake onto a plate and angrily storming about the kitchen. The other day my husband just stared at me in silence, in complete and utter helplessness of not knowing what to do. Let me give you some perspective. Let’s rewind.
When I was a kid, before every breakfast, my mother used to make us eat fruit. On the mornings that I’d bound down the stairs and see a plate full of kiwi, strawberries, homemade canned peaches or orange slices I would eagerly consume my required food, but on the mornings when I would turn the corner and see bananas, apples, pears, pineapple or nectarines staring up at me, I would cringe. It wasn’t that I didn’t like these fruits. In fact, I’d usually eat them without a fuss, but throughout my childhood, these fruits, and some very specific vegetables, made my throat, lips and tongue itch. When I got older, I discovered soy milk and soy products did the same thing, and so moving forward in my life, I avoided these ingredients. In college, it got so bad that I went gluten free, because soy is in so many wheat products, but after my gallbladder was removed, I found myself able to handle gluten much better, so I introduced it back into my diet, yet I still avoided pure forms of soy.
Flash forward four years to when I was getting married, moving to another state, and job searching, and my immune system was on 10 due to the stress and chaos of it all. I chalked it all up to the wedding, though, and told myself that once it was done, I would feel better. On our honeymoon I did feel like a different person, but once we came home, it didn’t take long for my body to start retreating back into its seemingly unhealthy self. I started to put on weight for no reason, was tired all the time no matter how much I’d slept, found myself easily annoyed and irritable — I was anxious and nervous about things in my life that didn’t call for such emotion. I couldn’t handle the worry of the future as well as I had in the past and the fact that I was working three jobs because I couldn’t find one in my actual field had started to take a toll on my self-worth. All of these were new and unwelcome experiences, and after a talk with my doctor and some bloodwork, we discovered they were the direct result of an underperforming thyroid. Such a small little gland in my throat was causing it all, so we began treating it.
After months of upped and lowered doses of Synthroid, I was still reeling from not feeling like myself. I was a 27 year old woman who couldn’t seem to make my body stop acting like it was 72. My ankles had started swelling, my blood pressure was up, I had no energy and was lethargic more than motivated, my hair had started to gray. When it was determined that I had Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that is incredibly common in those with hypothyroidism, doctors said that we’d need to treat my thyroid disorder more aggressively, but no one did. I was still tired — they told me that I probably had sleep apnea and we should get it tested; my throat was continuously sore and I felt nauseous throughout the day — they told me it was most likely acid reflux; I continued to gain weight despite having a healthy diet and exercising daily — they told me I just needed to work out more.
It was Christmas when my aunt came home and gave me a book on hypothyroidism and I began reading it that I first thought of looking for help outside of the medical community, so I got my allergies tested. I always knew that I had food sensitivities. Like I said, ever since I was a kid fruit and veggies caused discomfort, and soy was egregious, so it couldn’t hurt to check it out, right? According to mindbodygreen.com, 90 percent of all thyroid problems are autoimmune in nature, and the most common of these is Hashimoto’s. This same website talks about how when a “low-thyroid problem” falls somewhere on the “autoimmune spectrum,” we “have to look at what triggers the immune system to attack the thyroid.” Interesting. All my doctors had simply told me my thyroid wasn’t working. They suggested lots of other issues that my body may be having, and talked about how I needed to treat the thyroid more aggressively because I had Hashimoto’s, but no one mentioned that I needed to look at what was actually triggering the Hashimoto’s disease itself. Gluten is one of these triggers.
After my allergy testing, I discovered I was allergic to not only all the foods I’d already known about my entire life, but also gluten, corn, rice and milk. The day I was told, I sat down with my mom, had a quick cry, and then wiped my tears, gassed up my car, and drove to Green Bay with my hubby to rebuild our pantry from the health food store. I jumped, head first, into the pool that was food allergy living and I did it without hesitation. I didn’t give myself a cheat day, or a “last hurrah” meal — I discovered, and I cut everything out. I was tired of feeling tired. Tired of nothing working, of it all, so I was going to do it right. After only a couple weeks of radically changing my diet, I started to feel more like myself than I had felt in over a year. Suddenly, even though I was still tired when I first woke up, I was awake throughout the day. I stopped gaining weight. I was happier, more energetic, and excited about little things. I didn’t feel annoyed or frustrated or irritated. I wasn’t worrying constantly. My anxiety was decreasing.
I’m not a doctor. I can’t speak to the medical validity of the impact my diet had on my life, but I can speak to the mental relief I felt when it seemed to be making a difference, but then, I burned a pancake. It had been a little more than a month since my food transition. My husband was great about it — he was excited to see me coming back to life — he loved seeing my smile as I put on shoes that had only a few short weeks before been too snug on my extra swollen feet. He ate my gluten-free meals that I made and tried all my snacks.
On that morning, when I was making him regular pancakes and me gluten-free ones, and I burned them and suddenly had a switch go off in me, he didn’t know what to do. I had jumped into my situation with full force and had never looked back, but I didn’t really allow myself to grieve the convenience of the life I had so quickly left behind.
I was thrilled to feel better, and it wasn’t something that I even considered veering away from because I could tell the difference, but when your family goes out to eat, and you realize all you can have is a salad with dressing that you snuck into the restaurant in your pocket, you feel a bit defeated. When you stand in the aisle of your supermarket for 20 minutes because you have to read the label of every item you place in your cart, and only end up purchasing 10 things because there’s only so much that’s made out of tapioca flour instead of rice flour, you feel a sadness because you’re not sure your food will ever have variety again. After you go through head after head of cauliflower in a week, and you feel like you can’t consume anymore cauliflower ever again, but then you do it anyway, you feel helpless to the surrender.
A burnt pancake did it for me. Suddenly, in that moment of cooking two kinds of pancakes, I realized this was the rest of my life. I would never just be able to be “food normal” — I would always have a hard time ordering when out to eat, we’d always have two different kinds of breads in our bread box, two different kinds of milk in the fridge — and it hit me that this wasn’t a fix for my thyroid that I would one day be able to forget. It was permanent, and my life while finally feeling more emotionally normal, would never actually be normal.
Grief is a process. It sounds silly, to say that I needed to grieve food. I never really ate that much to begin with — I love cooking and trying new dishes — but I was always the person who got full quickly, and took most of her food home in a to go box. My grief of food, was more a grief of experience. So much of our family time is centered around food — football games, Christmas Eve traditions, hot dogs at the camp — and I felt like I was going to miss out on those traditions. When we traveled, would I still be able to explore other cultures through food when I couldn’t eat so much of it? How would I create new dishes and plates when my ingredient list was so limited? My mom told me that of the stages of grief, I’d tried to jump ahead to acceptance without really allowing myself to experience the first four. Allow yourself to grieve, no matter how small the situation is. Grieve your pre-baby body, the person you used to be but feel like you aren’t anymore, an ended relationship, a pipe dream, lost ignorance, your child moving into adulthood, the job you used to have or the job you always wanted but never got — grieve it all — because grief is bigger than just death, and we are allowed to feel the raw and painful parts of life in which something meaningful is lost. It’s not about getting over it, it’s about learning to live with it, but I want to see what happens if I don’t give up. Don’t you?