Saturday, August 13, 2011

Diet Change: My Disgusting Trigger

This gets a bit ugly at a point. Some of it’s hard for me to write, and it may be uncomfortable to read, but I’m writing it. Don’t read it if you don’t want to. Overall, it’s very positive; it leads to good things: it triggered a transformation in  me. But you’ve been warned.

Eating well is an ongoing struggle for me. I grew up on fast food, specifically cheeseburgers, French fries, tacos, and pizza. In fairness, I think my parents’ generation—the baby boomers—were thrust into a great nutritional disadvantage that has only recently been realized. I look at my grandparents’ generation and I compare that to my parents’ generation, my own generation, and those up-and-comers younger than me. There’s a point where, dietarily-speaking, we got off-course, and it has and continues to affect each generation differently. I think the prospects are improving. But I do feel like my parents’ generation, in particular, was handicapped a bit in the diet department.

Why do I think my parents were at a disadvantage? As I often do, I’ll oversimplify, but I think there was a combination of reasons. For one thing, women were starting to enter the workforce at a much higher rate. For those with families, time became more limited. At the same time, while dealing with this decrease in available time and likely increase in general fatigue (who likes to do anything after a long day’s work, really?), there was an increase in ready-made or quickly- and easily-prepared processed foods. Supermarkets thrived (and of course they still do). Fast-food restaurants started popping up on every corner. Convenience stores. The options seemed endless, and just so darn easy. And there wasn’t a lot of information on all these new foods or the ingredients contained therein—how good or bad they are for a person. No one even really knew there was a difference between, say, a hamburger they pressed out and fried at home or one they bought at Wendy’s. These processed foods were there, they were easy, they filled Caloric needs, and so many of them taste damn good. I could go on about this, and maybe someday I will, but suffice it to say I think I started out with a dietary disadvantage, too. And I don’t blame my parents for this; it’s just the way it went. I was raised on processed foods.

Our household was a busy one. I have an older sister—older by about three-and-a-half years. Both of my parents worked—my dad in a factory, often pulling the night shift (which would allow him a bit more time with his kids, even if he was sleep-deprived [which I would never have caught onto]), and my mom as a nurse, managing her schedule so she was always available for us. And my parents were great about encouraging us in performance and activities. We excelled in school, we played sports year-round, and we managed to steal any bit of free time my parents may have dreamt of conjuring up. My parents never missed a single sporting event we participated in. If we both had an event at the same time, my mom would go to one and my dad to the other. They were the best, most supportive parents a kid could hope for growing up. They never complained or even showed visible dissatisfaction at the schedules they were forced to maintain. I could never express how deeply grateful I am for the upbringing I was given. I love my parents so dearly.

Back on topic, though, I think a lot of that busy-ness (not business [HA!]), combined with the aforementioned easy foods and my unwillingness to eat the unknown (I can be quite stubborn), helped start my diet down a…less-than-ideal path. I loathed wheat bread, but would eat the white stuff. I loved sugar, which is only natural, although the sugars were highly refined. (I’d empty packets into my mouth.) I ate processed meats on my sandwiches or peanut butter loaded with hydrogenated oils (which no one cared about at the time—everything was [and much still is] filled with hydrogenated oil of some sort), but I never ate jelly. I ate potato chips, corn chips, and pretzels. I ate cinnamon toast slathered in margarine and covered with white sugar. I'd eat spaghetti, but only with a particular canned (and completely lumpless) sauce. I loved Wendy’s. I loved Taco Bell. I loved Long John Silver’s. I’d get the same thing each time I went to any one of those establishments. Wendy’s: double cheeseburger, ketchup and mustard only, large fries, large soda. Taco Bell: four hard tacos; or five; sometimes six. Long John Silver’s: chicken, fries, and an extra order of crumbs. Always the large soda. Yes, and I ate that fast food several times per week.

~~I should maybe note I’m mostly remembering my high school days and beyond here, blending in to college, and much of that time I was able to drive myself around, and these were the “restaurants” where I chose to eat—they weren’t forced on me.~~

I loved soda. I would drink several cans or bottles per day. Several. Four. Five. Six. More? Probably.

I stocked enough Totino’s pepperoni “Party Pizzas” in my freezer to last through an apocalypse, and if I was home and didn’t want to leave, a burnt-to-a-crisp frozen pizza was my meal of choice. That, and a soda or two.

If I HAD to eat a vegetable, it was corn or green beans. I counted French fries as a vegetable.

What wouldn’t I eat? Pretty much anything I didn’t specifically note above. Seriously. I didn’t eat broccoli or carrots or salads or squash. (Okay, I'd maybe eat a "salad," but it consisted only of lettuce, cheese, and I'd drench it in Catalina dressing so I didn't taste anything else. Oh, and artificial bacon bits.) I didn’t eat apples, bananas, peaches, or any fruit what-so-ever. None. I wouldn’t drink orange juice, or any other juice. I wouldn’t (and still don’t) drink milk. Rarely a nut other than a peanut.  

I was young and highly active, though, so most of the probable effects of that diet were squelched by all that activity. I stayed thin, at least. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the visible effects were squelched. I looked healthy.

When I was 20 years old, my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. He’d put off a trip to the doctor way too long, and it was only about a year after that diagnosis that my dad died. He was 50 years old. I won’t claim that made me give any thought to my diet, but the stress and emotion of it all pushed my body in a direction that ultimately forced me to give it thought. I started having some stomach problems. I pretty much ignored them.

It wasn’t a year—or much more than a year—after my dad’s death that I was leaving a shopping mall with my grandma and my sister, we had just eaten at Applebee’s (burger and fries for me, with a soda), and I wasn’t feeling quite right. This may get a bit gruesome and others may be embarrassed to talk or write about it, and maybe it’s hard to read, but it started a transformation, and that’s the point of this.

I really had to poop. It was diarrhea, I knew that, but I also hate using public restrooms, so I was planning to hold it until we got back to my grandparents’ house, which was maybe 15 or 20 minutes away. As we were walking out the mall doors, I noticed and commented that my palms were starting to itch. That was weird.

We got in the car, and my urge to use the restroom was increasing, but more disturbingly, the itching sensation was spreading. Up my arms. Down my legs. My head really started itching. I kept saying I wasn’t feeling right. I was rocking and swaying, clenching my sphincter and scratching my head; my arms; my palms; my legs. My sister was in the front seat laughing at me, and I know she hates that and regrets that given all that came after, but she had no way of knowing what was going on, and it’s pretty funny to see someone so distraught over needing to poop. I get that. I probably would have been laughing, too, if it weren’t me experiencing the oddness. I harbor no ill feelings about it.

When we got to my grandparents’ house, that’s when it all went really bad. I felt crazy. My body felt like it never had, but all I wanted to do was get to the bathroom, so I opened the car door and started to run toward the front door. I passed out before I got there, crashing hard on the cement walkway. I immediately came to, got up, and passed out again. Again I crashed onto the concrete. I was singularly focused. I made it in the house and passed out again, this time my chin hitting on a hard, lightly carpeted step. I’d banged my chin up pretty bad. I was probably otherwise scratched and banged from the three successive losses of consciousness, but I remember the chin. My grandma made me crawl to the bathroom, which was smart, and any humor in the situation had definitely gone.

Details of this are fuzzy for me. This honestly isn’t real easy for me to write about. I haven’t even thought about it in this much detail for so very long. I got into the restroom. I sat on the toilet. And I shit blood. LOTS and LOTS of blood. It looked like it was only blood, but I know it wasn’t. I think 9-1-1 had been called when I first started passing out, and I’m glad for that. I couldn’t get off the toilet. I couldn’t stop shitting blood. I think I was passing out. My body was going, and it wasn’t going anywhere good. An ambulance showed up. They loaded me on a stretcher and got me to the ambulance, wheeling me out on what were once pure white sheets, naked, 21-years-old, covered in my own feces and lots of blood. I’d lost so much blood they couldn’t get a blood pressure reading on me. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to death, and I’m not sure how close I actually came, but not having a readable blood pressure: that’s not a good thing. I could have died. I would have died if the ambulance hadn’t shown up. I’m sure of that.

My mom was in the emergency room as soon as she could get there, and I’d guess that was much sooner than anyone else could ever have made the trip. She would not be denied access to me, and given her profession, the staff didn’t resist much. I had stabilized a bit, but the diarrhea was endless, and the blood kept coming. I really can’t recall a lot of details. Bits and pieces. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, as I remember it. I spent a vast majority of that time on the toilet and the rest of it in bed. My ass was raw and sore from constant defecation and cleaning. I had to get my first colonoscopy.

A colonoscopy isn’t so pleasant, in theory—you get a camera shoved up your ass. And you have to have a thoroughly clean digestive tract, so you have to slug down this nasty solution to make you pass absolutely everything in your bowels, which seemed especially cruel and unnecessary since I’d been pooping every 15 minutes for the past 5 or 6 days anyway while eating essentially nothing, but they made me drink that stuff, and then I spent an hour on the toilet pooping and puking at the same time, pretty much constantly from both ends, and my vomit was the color of the Predator’s blood. I remember that: it glowed green.

The colonoscopy itself, in practice, is not such a bad thing. In fact, it was quite enjoyable. They put me under what they called “conscious sedation,” which is essentially injecting you with so much of a narcotic, in this case Demerol, that you’re completely knocked out, but not so knocked out that if they do something really wrong, or that REALLY hurts, you won’t wake up. I remember waking up at one point due to a sharp pain (they’d taken a tissue sample or removed a polyp) and seeing my insides on a little TV in front of me. That was nutty. I remember that being one of the best drug-induced feelings I’ve ever had in my life: that conscious sedation. I remember being in the recovery room, my family around me and my grandma in my immediately line of sight and saying “Give me more of this shit.” (I surely made everyone proud.)

So that was pretty much it. They removed a few polyps during the procedure, which turned out to be non-cancerous, which was obviously good. I was in the hospital for another week or so, getting intravenous fluid, being monitored, and recovering. I was diagnosed with a non-specific colitis. “It may recur, it may not, but a better diet would be beneficial. Lots of fiber may help.” I put that in quotes, but I don’t remember a specific quote. That was the general message, though. And I’d have to get a colonoscopy every 5 years for the rest of my life, especially given my father’s untimely death. I realized I needed to make changes in my diet.

The thing was: I didn’t know how. I didn’t really want to. I didn’t like any of the foods I had always avoided eating. Or at least I figured I wouldn’t like them because, well, there was some reason I hadn’t been eating them, right? (No.) I was starting to feel better. But I also continued having some bits of stomach problems. I still do to this day, and I’ve had one major recurrence similar to the one I described above that landed me in the emergency room again a few years back, though it wasn’t nearly as bad (no loss-of-consciousness, no lengthy hospital stay). Obviously I’m still alive. The logical assumption, even if it weren’t the clearly stated point of this entry, is I did make changes to my diet. It was a long, slow process. It’s on-going.  

This isn’t the path I’d planned this blog entry to take. I’m sorry. Given the length already, I think I’ll stop at that and get to the HOW of my changes in a separate entry. Man, that wasn’t very uplifting.        

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