Picture yourself in fourth grade…not quite in middle school, probably easily distracted, definitely still carrying around Lisa Frank folders (those were still cool then, I promise).
My fourth-grade self was all of the above. YouTube and the internet were just becoming prominent in my life, and all of a sudden the world was my oyster. I was so fascinated with the fact that I could find information about anything and everything with the push of a button.
Somehow this led me to Mercy for Animals, and the subsequent videos about animal abuse. One particularly disturbing video was about factory farming. As I saw baby male chicks thrown into a grinder for dog food, I swore from that day forward I would never again even so much as think about eating meat.
I had never liked meat to begin with, even as a child. My parents practically had to pull teeth to get me to eat even so much as a sausage, and I always fought it when my dad put grilled chicken in his homemade Alfredo. On top of that, my stomach always felt unsettled and heavy after eating meat. Even at 10 years old I knew my digestion differed between eating veggies and a plate full of steak. Pair that with the video of atrocities I had just witnessed, and I had a pretty convincing argument to go vegetarian.
Little did I know that this would mark the beginning of my downfall.
In the years following I learned more and more about the environmental impacts of our food system as well as indulged in way too many fitness magazines. This combination increased my paranoia and led me to cut even more out of my diet. Cheese, milk, and yogurt were the next to go during middle school. Most bread and processed grains came next, substituting in whole grains wherever I could. I followed this cut with certain fruits and veggies that had the highest environmental costs in their production processes. Last to go was fish due to overfishing practices and damage to coral reef systems that my family has always loved to explore.
In high school, I went completely organic with the very few foods that were left in my daily diet. My meals now consisted essentially of the following: fruit for breakfast, salad for lunch, and veggies and some form of grain (usually whole grain pasta) for dinner.
However, not long into this process I had started to notice changes. Towards the end of middle school, I noticed a difference in my intellectual capabilities. I had always been naturally gifted in school, but I was now struggling with some subjects that I had always found to be incredibly easy.
By the time high school rolled around, I couldn’t study for tests anymore. I wasn’t able to retain information like I used to, and I struggled to keep up in class.
Not only had my academic capabilities faltered, but my athletic capabilities had as well.
I had always been a very active child. I had participated in gymnastics and figure skating since age three and added in basketball and soccer in my elementary days. I started swimming competitively in middle school, and eventually added track in when I hit high school. In middle school, I always placed towards the top of my class when it came to fitness testing, but all of that changed when 8th grade rolled around. A sudden and unexpected weight gain left me slow and lethargic.
My normally happy and pleasant demeanor started to fade as well. I retreated into my shell more often and had a bad habit of snapping at my parents over the smallest things.
After talking with a doctor, she assured me that all of these changes were normal and chalked everything I had experienced up to puberty.
I wasn’t entirely convinced. I was frustrated and started working out and restricting my diet more to compensate. I worked out year round and did circuit training and weight lifting with my high school’s football team. Even with consistent workouts and my extremely healthy diet, my weight continued to fluctuate in both directions. Both my academic and athletic performances were still lacking for the effort I was putting in, and my mood hardly improved.
By the time college rolled around I was extremely unhappy. A less than successful senior swim season and an overall disappointing senior year left me feeling empty. That paired with faltering friendships, a breakup, the death of a teammate, and the stress of transitioning to college, and I had hit my breaking point.
About a month into my freshman year of college, things went from bad to downright scary.
I was having trouble recognizing faces, and I had forgotten all but a few of the names of people I had grown up with. Meeting new people at college became nearly impossible due to the fact that I would forget the encounters soon after they happened. Remembering new names became impossible. I had started to lose word-finding abilities as well, which made it hard to hold even a simple conversation with someone, let alone write the essays my classes were demanding. My vision was consistently getting worse, and I had all but lost the ability to feel strong emotions on either end of the spectrum. When it got to the point where I couldn’t remember what I had for breakfast just hours earlier, I knew something was seriously wrong.
My first stop was to my college’s psych department where I was handed a number to call and quickly dismissed as “a typical depressed freshman”.
After visiting a couple of doctors, I ended up with a referral to a neuropsychologist. A couple more visits and some extensive testing later, the doctor handed me the tentative diagnosis of prefrontal syndrome or frontal lobe disorder. This is a degenerative disease (meaning it gets progressively worse with time) and is sometimes considered to be the first stepping-stone towards dementia and even Alzheimer’s.
Since Alzheimer’s and dementia run in my family I accepted this diagnosis, but also couldn’t believe it to be true. How could it be possible that my brain was failing me at only 19 years old?
My dad picked me up after the appointment and I shared the news with him. Having lost his mom to Alzheimer’s six years previous, he looked defeated and offered up a, “I’m so sorry, Bug. We’ll figure something out. It’ll be okay.”
Would we figure something out? I was sick and tired of going through so many doctors appointments, tests, and exams. Was it really going to be ok? I was ready to give up. What was the point of continuing school if I couldn’t remember anything or meet anyone? How was I possibly going to function as an adult if I couldn’t complete even the simplest of tasks? Would I even be able to hold a job? And what about my emotions? Would I ever be able to feel happiness or love again?
The next few months passed in a monotonous blur. I felt like a zombie. My body was present – waking up, walking around, and eating – but I didn’t feel like I was part of it anymore.
Trying to put me in a better mood, my mom suggested I read a new fitness related magazine she received in the mail. She remembered I used to love them.
I flipped through it during a break between classes, not really paying attention to the content.
Then an article caught my eye.
The title read, ”Whole-Body Psychiatry: Nutrition For Mental Health”
Intrigued, I read the first line; “Mental health is not all in our heads. Nutrition is an oft-ignored — yet incredibly effective — way to manage mental illness, including schizophrenia.”
The article opened with a description of how many of America’s chronic diseases (i.e. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression) have certain root causes, and that the whole person should be treated versus just a few symptoms.
The clip from the article states:
“Integrative psychiatrist and author Hyla Cass, MD, concurs. “Psychiatry is the only specialty that doesn’t test the organ involved, namely the brain,” she says. “If you have heart disease or hepatitis or diabetes, doctors will perform lab tests to monitor the system in question and treat accordingly. But if your inflamed brain shows symptoms of mental illness, all of a sudden they don’t consider the brain an organ anymore — they think we have to talk people out of that illness. Talk therapy and even the psychiatric medications can be helpful, but first we have to approach the biochemical root cause.” [Full article here]
It continued to explain how schizophrenia patients were treated by filling the gaps in their nutrition, with some even showing improvements that exceeded those met by medication alone.
I felt as though I was finally seeing the light after walking for months in darkness.
I immediately called my mom, and together we went in search of a good nutritionist to get me started.
A few weeks later I found myself in the office of Dr. Bogolub, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. She had me go through my typical daily diet, and looked at me sternly after.
“Molly, you’ve had only one meal in the past week that had even the slightest amount of protein,” she said. She asked me when I had stopped eating meat, and after looking at me with disbelief said, “You’ve been starving your brain for the past 10 years.”
A blood test and a vitamin workup confirmed her suspicions. I had pushed my brain past the tipping point and had ended up with a protein deficiency, which translated to a chemical imbalance in my brain. Since the amino acids in a person’s brain rely on protein to function, mine had essentially stopped working. This resulted in the symptoms I had been experiencing.
The following weeks I did a complete 180 on my diet. I cut out pasta and the remaining carbs, since these were causing my blood sugar to spike. She pushed to have me eat meat again, but I refused for moral and environmental reasons. We compromised by adding seafood back into my diet for a minimum of 4 meals a week. I was now required to eat a certain amount of protein at every single meal.
She prescribed me vitamins that I was lacking, and others that would help aid in the restoration of my brain’s chemical balance. I also started a temporary low dose serotonin upper to help speed the process along.
The payoff was almost immediate. After only a week, my mood improved drastically and I was able to make it through an entire day without needing a nap.
Fast-forward a year, and my life has completely turned around. I’ve become incredibly involved with my on campus job and a dance club at my school. I switched my major, and now love all of my classes. I now have two jobs, one internship, and three brand ambassadorships that I tackle along with being a full time student.
For the first time in years, I finally feel like myself again.
The healing process has really only just begun though. My weight still fluctuates, and I have bouts of forgetfulness, but nothing to the extent that it was before. I’ve come a long way, but I know that I still have a long way to go before I can say I’m 100% again.
I thought that by eating “healthy” my body would take care of everything. However, I wasn’t listening to what my body really needed. I kept cutting things out for fear of their effects on me, but in reality the foods I cut out were what my body needed the most. Every body is unique in its nutritional needs. There’s no one size fits all diet, and I’m living proof that just because cutting something out worked once upon a time for a girl in a fitness magazine, doesn’t mean that it will work for everyone.
One would assume the most difficult part of this process would be the dietary changes, but honestly that was the easy part. The hardest part for me to deal with has been the knowledge that I unknowingly did this to myself. It definitely gets me thinking, mostly about all of the “could haves”. Maybe I could have been valedictorian, maybe I could have excelled in sports, maybe I could have done so much more…could have…should have.
However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience it’s that focusing on the past does absolutely nothing for your future– and my future looks very bright indeed.
Image via Ellen Bankston