I’ve been talking a lot recently about my tendency to want to control and “fix” my life, buying into the false belief that if I just do ____, I’ll never have problems again. I’ve also mentioned that in light of my severe endometriosis diagnosis, I’ve attempted to modify my diet, based on a lot of recommendations and success stories. I’ve never gone into the details of my new diet before because I’ve been waiting for March, which is Endometriosis Awareness month, to roll around, during which I fully expected to detail all the ways that you, too, could have victory over this disease by following my methods. However, that story is a little different now, because I’ve decided that my modified diet has become both one of my compulsive ways of trying to control my life and bad for my overall health.
What was this diet that I’m now giving up? First, about a year ago, it was giving up gluten/"too many” carbs, then later conventional dairy, then most sugar and red meat and processed food. Along with this, I had read that flour and sugar are bad for ADHD, so I really doubled down on avoiding those, including trying to limit my fruit intake. My pain and digestion both improved after going off gluten and dairy especially, but I was still having other health issues and symptoms (more on that later). I’d heard that some of the issues I was still having could indicate an underlying, unrecognized food sensitivity, so I thought that if a few big restrictions were good and seemingly worth it, more were better. So when I read a few weeks ago that you should test all of the common allergies to see if they help make your ADHD better, I went for it -- I decided to cut out all eggs, soy, nightshade plants (including tomatoes and peppers), chocolate, oranges, and apples for a few weeks, after which I would reintroduce them and see if they were problematic. This was after agonizing for days about whether my time would be better served by the GAPS or FODMAPS or Autoimmune Protocol Paleo diet.
And I was miserable. I walked through the grocery store during this time and craved every single thing I couldn’t have. I knew that the latest round restrictions were temporary, but I was terrified that, after testing, I would find out I had sensitivities and have to cut them out for the foreseeable future. I’ve always loved food and eating out, and being gluten- and dairy-free had already been sad enough. I’d basically already been eating a diet of mostly vegetables, some meat, beans, and “healthy” carbs, and I was sick to death of it. I started becoming increasingly sensitive to and loathing of the smell of vegetables; I thought there was something going bad in our fridge, but it was just cauliflower that now smelled TERRIBLE to me. I was starting to hate my life and not wanting to get out of bed because 1) most of my day was now about figuring out what I could eat and not enjoying whatever that was and 2) I was exhausted. I decided to quit the ADHD allergens test and immediately felt relieved -- I hadn’t really noticed a difference with them out of my life anyway.
But I also started questioning the other diet changes I had made, because the fact that I was exhausted also started to get to me. After all, wasn’t I eating “better” than I ever had in my whole life? But I couldn’t deny that there seemed to be some unintended negative consequences of my zeal to have a better diet, and the theory that it was just because my diet still wasn’t “good enough” didn’t seem quite right. I’ve been seeing a naturopath for that last 6 months, and I had recently completed my second round of blood testing, which showed that my morning cortisol was lower than it had been six months ago (a sign of adrenal fatigue, aka exhaustion) and that I was looking pre-hypoglycemic, which also hadn’t been a problem 6 months ago. This was after months of taking a ton of supplements and “improving” my eating. Even though I had less pain, my overall health seemed to be getting worse. And to make matters even more frustrating, I started having other symptoms of endometriosis come back that should have been taken care of already with the changes I had already made.
After doing some more reading, I realized that with all of my restrictions and obsessions with eating the right food, I probably wasn’t eating enough food in general, especially carbs. Most of my new symptoms were aligned with it, and so did my original problems my naturopath was trying to fix. It seems like the solution would be to keep up with the diet and just eat more of the “approved” foods, but the problems ran deeper than that. One was that it can be hard to eat enough calories if you’re only eating “healthy” food. But the other was that I realized that my relationship to food in general was getting pretty unhealthy; I was becoming truly terrified of a lot of different foods and had a lot of symptoms of orthorexia, an obsession with eating the “right way” (and I’m not the only woman with endometriosis who has gone down that path). The only thing that would be legitimately okay for me to be so afraid of would be gluten if I was celiac, but since I hadn’t tested for celiac before going gluten-free (don’t do that!), I didn’t even know if that was justified. And, ironically, the stress that I was experiencing about food was probably only going to make my endometriosis and ADHD symptoms worse. I actually now think stress in general is the bigger root issue for my problems than food ever was, and the bigger “chronic” lifestyle change I need to incorporate for managing my chronic illness (I’ll write more on why I think so next week), so I certainly don’t need any added stress from restricting my diet.
I had really underestimated the effect that food stress was having in my life, or at least I thought the stress was warranted, because it’s hard to argue against eating more healthfully, especially when it promises to make your chronic illness better and when that illness as severe as mine is. After finding out how bad my endometriosis was and how it meant that I might not be able to have children someday, I felt desperate, and it was easy to feel that anything I could do to possibly make it better was something I HAD to do. If I didn’t, my endometriosis getting worse or infertility would be MY fault. This attitude became as extreme in my mind as “If I eat one piece of cheese or a donut, I am putting my ability to have children in jeopardy.” And it was easy to carry this extreme-responsibility sense over to treating my ADHD, especially since I'm not taking regular medications for it because they might make my endometriosis worse. This, my friends, is not a great way to live your life, and especially not a great way to make it less stressful. I’ve realized that it was so tempting for me because it offers the illusion of control that I’m always after. If I eat ___ and never eat ___, I will guarantee that ADHD and endometriosis don’t affect my life. But the reality is that I don’t have complete control over my health, and as I’ve learned, even things that I think will help can sometimes have unintended consequences.
So even if some people have great success in managing their ADHD and endometriosis by vastly restricting their diets, or testing and eliminating food sensitivities for health problems in general (and I know plenty of people who have!) I’m realizing I can’t be trusted to use that method well. I have too many control issues to completely restrict any kind of food from my diet, because I can’t help but go overboard. I’ve realized that all food options have to be open to me in order to eat enough and in a non-disordered way.
I’ll get tested for celiac after eating gluten again for a while to see if I really do need to give it up completely, and even if I’m not, I suspect I’ll probably end up naturally eating less gluten and dairy than I did in my pre-diet days, because it does seem to help with pain. But I only want do things like that because I’m figuring out what’s best for my body and respecting it and not because I compulsively feel forced to follow certain “rules” out of fear. In general, my philosophy is going to be to “Eat the food, Tina!” as Napolean Dynamite said, and to focus my efforts on reducing stress, while of course, trying not to make that the next “cure” for my problems. More on that next week.