A medical diagnosis proves to be a blessing in disguise as it forced me to make healthier choices
I knew I was unhappy both emotionally and physically. I spent most of the first half of 2014 feeling sick with headaches, chest pains, upset stomach and unbelievable fatigue. All. The. Time. I felt myself drowning. And the noise in my head that berated my choices – or lack thereof – was drowning out God, making me feel all the more alone in my struggles.
Of course, it’s human nature to dwell on the things we fail at, on the things we don’t have, on the things we can’t have, on the empty spaces left behind by people that used to fill them. I fall victim to it, rattling off a litany of complaints more often than I suspect is ultimately healthy for me.
But I know there is a different way to be, and I daresay, a better way to be: living with gratitude for what is. Recognizing the blessings amongst the hardship might not always be easy but there is peace and grace that comes in the ability to do so. Changing a mind set on seeing the negative to seeing the positive can be difficult, especially when you feel overwhelmed. It takes work and it can test faith. I know this because I’ve been living it.
I’m succeeding more than failing these days at being grateful for the blessings in my life. I’m learning that just like a photograph, empty spaces provide a counterbalance to the rest of the composition. So I am practicing seeing the empty spaces as opportunities to breathe, to re-access, to nurture a part of me that I’ve been neglecting and, most importantly, to let myself feel that emptiness and to be okay with it. Not filling the emptiness with bad choices has been a real test but it’s been an important part of my journey over the summer.
Up until late June, I would experience pains in my chest so severe that they would keep me up at night praying that I would be okay. My mind jumped from thought to thought: heart attack? Panic attack? Tumor? I fell asleep nearly every night in fear that I might not wake up. It had been going on for months and the stress of fitful sleep coupled with fatigue that was beyond mere sleep deprivation made it more and more difficult to go to work. Despite limbs that felt ten times heavier than they were and headaches that made me want to curl up in a fetal position and not move, I would drag my battered body out of bed and head to work never having called in sick because I was too tired to move. I willed myself to move.
The sheer amount of fatigue kept me from cooking healthful meals during the week when time was at it’s most precious. I would gravitate towards the closest burger or taco shop drive-thru on the way to work or on the way home from work. Sometimes both. Blogging projects on the weekends were hit and miss on the health-o-meter but at least I was making and eating real food and not eating processed, convenient food.
Still, the aches and pains were growing in numbers. I have, for as long as I can remember, suffered from severe iron-deficiency anemia. My body doesn’t produce the enzyme needed to properly utilize iron ingested either by pill or by food. So the anemia gets worse and worse until finally, it is so debilitating that I find myself at the doctor’s office.
In my early 30’s, my doctor sent me to a hematologist who determined that the best course of treatment would be iron infusions. At the time, the treatment course would be 6 hours at a time, sitting or laying in a recliner, with rust colored liquid hanging off an I.V. pole, a needle that had taken a minimum of two attempts to insert piercing my hand or arm, three days a week for up to three weeks every 12- 14 months. It was brutal. Once I hit my 40s, medicine had improved and I found myself going three times total per treatment course and the time between courses was increasing to 18-24 months.
The last time I had an infusion was 2011. Blood tests in 2012 and early 2013 showed a lowering of ferritin in my blood but still within normal range. All but my thyroid and a severe vitamins D and B12 deficiencies, were normal.
My fatigue and chest pains grew so all-consuming that they finally got me to the doctor early this past summer - June 19, to be exact. On June 20, my doctor called me to tell me that blood test results were in. My thyroid was completely out of whack, my vitamin D so low that she had never seen someone with a number as low as mine, my B12 was nearly depleted and my anemia so bad she was surprised that I was still able to work. These numbers weren’t a surprise. No, the devastating news she saved for last: I had developed diabetes. I sat in silence for a few minutes. “Pre-diabetes, right?” I asked. No. My A1C was 6.6. Pre-diabetes was 5.7 to 6.4 with 6.5 and above being diabetes.
There was a part of me that knew I’d been playing Russian roulette with how my eating choices where affecting my health. Nonetheless, I was in shock, then anger, then depression. Depression that lasted the entire weekend. That weekend, I was making my final churro recipe to shoot for this blog. How ironic that I would be making such a treat this very weekend of my diagnosis. I’d been teasing to it for weeks on my social media sites. It was a good recipe. I didn’t want to not post it. There are people out there with a normal working pancreas who could still partake of my creation and enjoy it, I rationalized. So I pushed forward. I ate one and sent most of the batch over to a relatives house to remove the temptation that my depression might not be able to withstand.
By Sunday evening, my depression turned to determination. When my doctor asked me if I were okay and if I had any questions she could answer immediately, I asked only one thing: “Is it reversible?”
“Where you are, yes,” she said. "But it will take hard work.”
So that evening I got onto the internet and Googled understanding A1C and new diabetes diagnosis. I reached several sites that spoke to living with the disease and managing the disease. I spent some time on those sites and grew increasingly frustrated. Finally, I typed in ‘reversing diabetes’ and I got a ton of hits for paleo bloggers and a few ‘miracle’ supplements, etc. But one site caught my attention, “The Blood Sugar Solution” and as I read through the site, I grew hopeful that yes, indeed, I would have a chance to correct some of the damage I’d put my body through.
First change to happen in my diet? On June 23 I gave up white food: everything made with all purpose flour, no potatoes, no white rice, no white sugar. If you read this blog regularly, you know I love to bake sweets with granulated sugar. You know I love potatoes and Mexican rice. And that morning, I decided to say goodbye to them. By end of day on that Monday, I’d added an 'eat only occasionally' list that included more of what had been my go-to veggies: peas, corn, carrots. I also decided no more, albeit diet and artificially sweetened, sugary drinks. Only water, decaf coffee, the occasional nonfat milk in my latte, and tea. And no more boxed and highly processed foods that contained more than five ingredients or ingredients that I can't pronounce.
So what am eating now? Well, I’ve been posting more and more of my new eating choices already, some more involved than others, but this braised collard greens dish I’m sharing today is typical of the new food I’m eating daily. That’s why I’m launching this new feature, Everyday Eats, to share with you my more nutritious eating choices that you, too, can adopt. They’re going to be relatively quick meals that you can have on the table in anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I was over at my parent’s house to celebrate my sister’s birthday. I joyfully chimed in the chorus of happy birthday as she prepared to blow out her candles but passed on cake and ice cream. The shame I felt having the disease, had prompted me to keep it a secret. Only a small handful of people knew of my illness. So when my father, who also has the disease, asked why I wasn't having cake, I said I was on a diet and that I had already lost 15 pounds. He asked how I lost the weight and I rattled off what I wasn’t eating. “Then what’s left to eat?” he asked. Plenty, I remember saying. I told him 70 percent of my diet now is cruciferous veggies like collard greens, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, arugula, chard, cauliflower and broccoli. The rest is lean meat, tofu, healthy fats, healthy whole grains. He made a face and said, “Don’t you get bored eating that stuff?”
I suppose I might have thought that same thing just six months ago. But I don’t now. I find it challenging to come up with ideas and recipes that support my new outlook on eating. I am not bored. I don’t dwell on what I can’t have. Instead, I see the blessings: I live in a part of the country that has access to fresh, affordable produce year-round. In truth, there is still so much I can have. It’s a matter of how you look at it and I choose to not see the empty spaces left by my old favorite foods and instead see the abundance of healthful choices before me.
As I write this, I’m down 40 pounds in just over three months time. I was "forced" to go clothes shopping this past weekend and wound up with pants three sizes smaller than what has been hanging off of me all summer. I'm scheduled for my last infusion in this round of treatment this Saturday. I'm feeling more energized. I don’t feel deprived. On the contrary, I’m excited about dreaming up new dishes that reflect my new journey and sharing them here with you. Plus, I’m slowly working on converting my favorite foods and baked treats into healthier versions of themselves. Last week, I also added an exercise component to this new lifestyle as I and a good friend have started spending our lunch hour supporting each other in treadmill workouts in our company’s onsite gym. That’s been a much needed stress reliever right smack in the middle of the day.
It hasn’t been easy, but I’m working hard at trying to forgive myself for my failures and instead to celebrate my successes. When you are used to being your own toughest critic, it takes real effort to be kind to yourself. This journey is mostly about that.
Why did I decide to share my experience and situation here, so publicly? Because being a food blogger and NOT sharing has felt so disingenuous. Food, as detrimental as it can sometimes be, it can also heal. Coming clean here is helping me to more fully face this disease and in doing so, perhaps my story will encourage you to take a healthier path sooner rather than later.
So, here’s to a better, longer, healthier, life!
Until next time, my friends, be kind to yourselves.
CILANTRO & TOMATO BRAISED COLLARD GREENS WITH A SUNNY-SIDE-UP EGG
This is a great basic recipe that I eat as an entree. Feel free to swap in kale (leave out the fibrous stem) or chard (mmm, good, tender stem) for the collard greens. This makes a fantastic Meatless Monday meal. You can, however, leave out the beans and add leftover chicken. The egg is optional but I have to say, the yolk makes for a lovely, rich ‘sauce.’
Makes 4 servings as a main dish
1 bunch collard greens (about 5-6 cups chopped)
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ large onion, sliced with the grain in half moons
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
⅓ cup diced mild green chiles (I like Ortega brand)
15 ounce can stewed or diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste (I prefer the tube concentrate)
15 ounce can cannellini beans, or your favorite white bean, drained and rinsed well
1 bunch cilantro, thicker stems removed, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 large eggs (organic free-range, if possible)
1. Cut bottom ⅓ of the collard green stem off. Finely chop remaining stem. Slice collard green leaf into thirds lengthwise, stack, then chop into 1-inch pieces. Place in a large bowl. Continue with remaining leaves. Fill bowl with water to cover. Swoosh water to rinse greens. Set aside to soak and allow dirt to settle to the bottom of the bowl.
2. Drizzle the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on medium-low heat. When oil is shimmering but not smoking, add onions and sauté until translucent and just starting to color. Add garlic, stirring frequently to keep from burning. Cook for 1 minute then add the green chiles. Cook 1 minute longer, stirring often.
3. Carefully remove collard green leaves to a strainer using tongs or your hands. The heavier stems will have sunk to the bottom of the bowl. Without disturbing the water, fish out the stems and add them to the onion mixture in the pan. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes then add the rest of the greens. Stir to wilt by half in volume. Add the tomatoes (and the juices from the can), breaking up the stewed tomatoes with your hands if using. Add the tomato paste; stir well to combine. Add the beans, cilantro, salt and pepper. Stir well. Adjust seasoning to taste. Cover, reduce heat to low and allow to braise while you make the eggs.
4. Place a small frying pan on medium-low heat. Add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. Carefully break an egg into a small cup or bowl, then slide the egg into the pan. Allow egg to cook, undisturbed, for at least two full minutes. This allows for the whites to run off the yolks, thus preventing a white film to cover the gorgeous yellow. After two minutes, carefully spoon the hot oil over the whites to until they set up to desired doneness (I like mine just set). You can also spoon some over the yolks if you like though I often skip it. Carefully remove egg to a plate and repeat with remaining eggs. Season eggs with salt and pepper to taste.
5. To serve, divide the greens between four bowls and top each serving with an egg.