I have not eaten flour, dairy or sugar in four months. In the morning, I enjoy my steel-cut oats with fresh almond milk. For dinner, I prepare quinoa and salmon with steamed vegetables. Frozen cherries are my dessert of choice if I want to cheat. I do not drink soda, coffee or beer. Instead, I opt for half my body weight in ounces of water per day. Despite what you may think, I am not a health freak or a food snob — my diet is not a choice but rather a necessity.
About a year ago, I became so ill I was forced to leave school. Over the next several months, I was hooked up to countless machines and stuck by hundreds of needles. I felt like a human pincushion, and at one point, I rattled like a pill bottle.
Even with my doctors’ and parents’ best efforts, I continued to deteriorate to the point that standing in the shower was too much physical exertion. Walking down the steps to the kitchen was a Herculean task. I was literally wasting away. Worse still, my ability to sleep disappeared. I was prescribed enough sedatives to put down a baby elephant, but still I laid awake for much of the night. A sleep study confirmed I never entered the REM phase of sleep.
Eventually, an infectious disease specialist diagnosed me with a rare autoimmune disorder that accounted for my cluster of symptoms. She explained that some people recover from my condition in one to five years. Other people never recover. In any case, there was no specific treatment protocol, and she could only attempt to alleviate my symptoms. However, even that possibility was bleak.
At 21, I entered the realm of “managed care” primarily populated by the elderly, people four times my age. As my doctor explained, I needed to make “significant lifestyle adjustments,” which essentially translated to moving as little as possible. Even a simple task would leave me in bed for the rest of the day. Still, I saw few, if any, improvements.
I was desperate. I distracted myself by exploring and trying different treatments: graded exercise therapy, bee venom, the Teitelbaum protocol, herbal remedies, Xyrem, raw juice cleanses and antiviral drugs. Nothing had a noticeable or sustainable impact; mostly, they made me worse.
Then, I started to read. I devoured any information pertaining to my condition. I found there was one common theme: food. I began with an elimination diet, cutting out the foods I ate regularly and slowly adding one food at a time. I ultimately nixed gluten, yeast, dairy, sugar (including all fruits), starchy vegetables, anything fermented or aged (vinegar, cheese, alcohol, et cetera) and caffeine.
After addressing these changes, I discovered virtually every food I had eaten for the first 20 years of my life I could no longer eat — no bowl of cereal or fruit for breakfast, no sandwich and soda for lunch, no rice, pasta or baked potatoes for dinner. I eliminated the Holy Grail of the American diet and the staple of my own diet: bread.
I quickly realized sugar and flour had a stranglehold on my food selection. Without them, I did not know what to eat. Sugar is in everything, and gluten is in everything else. The only bright spot was that gluten and sugar — especially when processed — are, to put it dramatically, toxic. Humans are not evolved to digest processed grains. And America’s obsession with sugar is evident in any grocery store, as even “healthy” foods are laced with the stuff.
The first two weeks were rough. I was often struck by an overwhelming ache for carbohydrates. My family watched me struggle, and I was ready to convert back to my old eating habits. If anything, my Spartan diet was making me worse. I decided to suffer through another week.
Then something odd happened: I fell asleep without Ambien for the first time in eight months. I continued the diet, tracking my progress. My heart rate slowed. I could tolerate moderate exercise. I slept more soundly; eventually I tapered off several of my medicines and kept improving.
I have been on the mend now for three months. If you saw me today, you would never guess how sick I was only a few short months ago. I still have an autoimmune disorder and always will. But I am back at Georgetown and hopeful for the year ahead.
In the end, I am grateful for every day. Bread is a tragic casualty, but I think I can weather the storm.
David Freenock is a senior in the College. CHRONICALLY ME appears every other Tuesday.