Monday, November 30, 2009

A gluten-free Thanksgiving

I had my very first gluten-free Thanksgiving this year.

Why? Well, I was diagnosed with celiac disease in September. Here’s the gist: When I, or anyone with Celiac, eats foods containing gluten, meaning wheat, rye, and barley, the small intestines are damaged, and food does not absorb properly into the body. This can cause a whole host of problems, and left untreated can lead to malnutrition and even intestinal cancer.

Celiac is treated through diet. By eating a gluten-free diet, the body of a person with celiac can amazingly heal itself over time, typically taking around 6 months to de-toxify, and many of the symptoms begin to subside or reverse themselves – sometimes almost immediately.

Needless to say, this diagnosis was life-changing, and I am still going through the process of adjusting to this new lifestyle.

I began to realize that I was physically ‘falling apart’ a few years ago. A few months after turning 34, I woke up one morning and noticed that I had lost almost all the range of motion I had in my left hip. I, of course, went to the doctor, and then another doctor, and then another, but not one knew what was wrong with me. It took a few short months for the hip injury to become progressively painful, and I continually lost more and more range of motion. After years of tests and a variety of doctors’ visits, I had relinquished myself to ongoing chiropractic care and yoga as treatment for my undiagnosed hip injury. It did help, but it didn’t go away. I continued to persist though, and I finally received a diagnosis of osteo-arthritis in 2008.

But I just couldn’t believe that I had arthritis at such a young age. The diagnosis just didn’t work for me. The whole thing sounded strange, and I knew intuitively that my hip was locked up for some undiscovered reason. I just didn’t know what.

Around the same time, I became incredibly anxious every time I rode in a car. I used to love car drives, and suddenly, almost overnight, car rides became torturous. I saw the walls of parking garages caving in all around me, and in my mind’s eyes, I saw other passenger cars driving across lanes on major highways into our own almost causing major collisions. The parking garage walls were not caving in though, and neither were the cars on the highway. I logically knew this, but anxiety had taken over. And, I found myself staying at home more and more, not going out and living the life I had once lived so vivaciously.

I would get so tired, so drained of energy. I also found that the psoriasis I had since I was 18 (an auto-immune skin disorder which I now believe was the first sign) suddenly began to spread uncontrollably. My arms were covered with itchy and very uncomfortable red bumps.

I was seriously falling apart, and I didn’t know why. Meditation, exercise, healthy eating just weren’t cutting it. It was bad.

In all honesty when I first received the news that I may have celiac, all I could think was: What? No more croissants? And then, thinking of my diabetes, I said: Why must I always feel deprived? As a child with diabetes, I was not able to eat sugary treats or candy. I wasn’t able to eat the same foods that other kids my age were eating. I felt left out, not like everyone else, and yes, lacking. So now celiac too?

I actually didn’t know that I was being tested for Celiac. My endocrinologist (diabetes doctor) threw the test into my routine lab work. I was sitting in the doctor’s office looking at the test results when I saw in red writing: “Celiac – 12”. Normal is below 5. The endocrinologist sent me to a gastroenterologist.

The gastroenterologist asked me a series of questions, like: Have you ever been diagnosed with arthritis? Do you have any skin ailments? Do you suffer from anxiety? It took a few seconds until it hit: Celiac is serious; it’s not just about eating gluten-free and giving up wheat. This could be the answer to my why-am-I-falling-apart questions. The gastroenterologist performed an upper endoscopy (seriously not a big deal) and I learned 10 days later that I have celiac. The treatment: Go see a dietician and eat a gluten-free diet.

Gluten-free living started in early September, a few short months ago. Lior and I scouted out all of the stores, learned about all of the brands, and found out what to look for when reading the nutrition facts. Gluten can be found hidden in unsuspected places, like soy sauce and rice mixes. As everyone saw how distressed I was about giving up gluten, they reassuringly told me: “Awareness of gluten-free diets has grown so much over the last few years. There’s a whole world of gluten-free cuisine out there.”

It’s actually true, but when I was first diagnosed, I felt so deprived of things I love like pastries, cookies, pasta, and breads, and going out to nice restaurants that it wasn’t consoling. Some of the most trying situations though were figuring out how to handle awkward social situations like invitations for dinner and lunch meetings.

My husband Lior, the amazing man and ‘chef’ that he is, could see how distraught I was. For those of you who know us, you are well aware that we’re total foodies. And so, he started digging up recipes for dishes and cuisines from around the world that are gluten-free. Our family and friends jumped on board as well – sending articles and recipes and buying whatever gluten-free product they could find.

Lior began to create great food that just so happens to be gluten-free and more oftentimes than not, diabetes friendly. Talk about a challenge! Sometimes, he uses a gluten-free product, such as pasta or a baking mix, and there are times that he tries to figure out gluten-free solutions so that we can eat nice meals – like binding agents. Turns out gluten acts as a natural binding agent in baking. Who knew? So he figured out some techniques to help along in the binding process, like soaking apples in cream to bind them together into a gluten-free apple pie.

We’ve become accustomed to eating more at home, asking lots of questions at restaurants, and bringing a dish with us to friends’ houses. Slowly, I have began to realize that this really isn’t that bad; it’s even fun when Lior creates some fabulous new dish I had never eaten before - like homemade Bolognese with creamy polenta or a low-sugar chocolate Ganache cake with chestnuts. Yum!

Before you know it, Thanksgiving was around the corner, and I began to fret about not having my favorite stuffing with gravy and cranberry sauce. No fear though! Lior was in the process of planning with my mom – who has also taken on gluten-free living as a project – a Thanksgiving holiday like no other!

I went to the chiropractor before the holiday began for my regular adjustment. After my chiropractor’s routine range of motion hip check, he casually, yet happily, informed me: “Ophir, your range of motion in your left hip is the same as in your right.”

I, of course, didn’t believe him and made him check again. But it’s true; my left hip is pretty much back to normal!!!! Can you believe it? Suddenly tapioca starch and rice flour don’t seem so bad! Up until this point, I was crying about how I might forget what regular bread tastes like. Now it’s more like: My hip is back!!! This is totally worth it!!!

During Thanksgiving weekend, Lior pointed out to me that I am much less anxious. We rode down to my parents in the car, and I hardly cringed at all. My skin has gotten much better. I am less drained, mellower, and the color has come back to my face.

I can feel how my health has improved, but is all this no gluten stuff worth feeling deprived though? That’s when I realized that I have a choice – feel deprived, or learn how to feel abundant. It’s up to me, and only me.

As I sat at our Thanksgiving table eating the most delicious gluten-free meal you could ever imagine, feeling incredibly full and having eaten way too much, I did in fact notice how grateful I am – and yes, abundant. Not for the food, although I was grateful for that too, but for the amount of love and care that my family put into making a meal that I could enjoy along with everyone else. And feel totally normal. Actually, I felt better than normal.

And I thought: Why do I consider the ability to eat a pastry as abundant? You may say that my feelings of deprivation, or seeking abundance through food, are related to living with diabetes since the age of 3. It’s true. I was not able to eat the same foods as everyone else, and sometimes I didn’t even necessarily want to eat them. I just wanted to feel normal.

But it’s much, much more than that. I think that our society lends to it. Most people feel abundant when they have lots of money, lots of things, and yes, lots of food. Have you seen the portion sizes at American restaurant chains? Let me tell you: That is not normal! We are overwhelmed by ads telling us to buy, eat, buy, eat, and then take a pill to drown out all the unhealthiness we ingest.

When in actuality, eating a large meal or having lots of stuff never really brings us true abundance. No matter how much food or money we have, it’s never enough. We are always left wanting more. So I will quote a bit of advice from Oprah: "When you feel the need for more arise, ask yourself, what are you really hungry for?" Most of the time, it's really not a Big Mac or another pair of shoes.

We are seeking true abundance.

And what's really funny is that we already have it! Abundance is all around us. You just need to know where to look. The deepest, most profound feelings of abundance come when we are aware of the love, gratitude, and compassion we have for ourselves and others. Moments of gratitude can be found in the simplest things. Love starts with love of self. Compassion requires listening to the people in our lives, and really hearing what they have to say.

And I would like to thank you for listening.

Monday, November 23, 2009

All boxed in....

I never really wanted to be defined by my diabetes.

Today, I turn 38, and I just came back from a great weekend trip to New York. My husband Lior and I ate fabulous foods like Asian-Cuban fusion, walked the streets and felt the energy, and of course, went shopping. A big part of the trip, and perhaps not so coincidentally, was our visit to a Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim.

Kandinsky was born in Russia, spent many years of his artistic life living in Germany, and died in Paris when he fled the Nazis.

Kandinsky was always on the cutting edge of art. His belief was that artistic expression comes from a place of spirituality or "inner self", rather than painting from form as his predecessors had. For example, rather than painting a chair as you see the chair, find how your inner self relates to the chair and paint from that place of stillness. Kandinsky's art is labeled for us as abstract, because his images are hard to define, and his improvisations (as they are called) are Universalist. When Kandinsky looked at a mountain view or listened to music, he felt he could portray that feeling, his inner sense of that experience, through the colors he chose, the brushstrokes he painted, and the shapes he portrayed on canvas.

When the Russian Revolution rolled around in 1914, and Communism prevailed, Kandinsky was dismissed by his fellow in-the-box Russian artists. From what I've understood of Communist Russia, people were boxed into roles. If you were a physicist, that's who you were until the day you died - a physicist. A carpenter was a carpenter. A teacher was a teacher. And so on, you get the point.

In Communist Russia, people were not fully seen; they were not seen as their true, whole selves.

So, Kandinsky moved to Germany to teach at the famous Bauhaus school.

And so here I am, on my birthday, in 2009, completely moved by this man who had the courage to change his life to live his true self.

I went through a bit of an identity crisis until recently. Up until that day that my sense of self switched up a bit, I spent most of my adult life traveling, exploring, reading, journaling, and all while unknowingly at the time, trying to desperately figure out who I am and where I belong on this Earth.

Let me tell you, I’ve read a lot of books, and many provide lots of questions to ask yourself. I attempted to answer them all. Questions that all boil down to: Who are you? And, I found myself journaling like mad making list after list of all the descriptive words I could think of.

Woman, writer, traveler, American, Jewish, curly-haired, diabetic...

Not that these labels are good or bad, but they just didn’t quite seem to fit. There was clearly something that I hadn’t figured out about myself. And I felt completely unsatisfied by them; something was missing. So, I gave up. What was the point? It didn’t help me figure out who I am.

Little did I know at the time, but I was boxing myself in. My list of words and boxes may have been longer than they were for people in Communist Russia, but by boxing myself into labels, I wasn’t allowing myself to be my true self.

I had this grand realization while meditating actually. There are no words that can describe me. Actually, there are no words that can describe any of us. Words simply describe a situation, but those situations can change. And then who are we?
If you had spent your life, thinking of yourself as a traveler, and then suddenly find yourself without the ability to travel for whatever reason, well then, what happens to your sense of self? If you think of yourself as a wife, or a mother, or an aunt, and one of your family members passes away or leaves, well then who are you?

Well you either cease to exist if that’s who you are, or you realize that we are all of those words, all of those descriptions, all of those labels boiled into one indescribable being that is way too grand for a couple of little boxes.

I don’t have to define myself as a diabetic. It’s only one brushstroke on the whole canvas.

Thank you, Kandinsky.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monkey on my back

I just could not get the phrase "monkey on my back" out of my head this week when trying to come up with this week's blog entry.

And for whatever reason, I kept connecting the phrase to my insulin pump. What was writer's inspiration trying to tell me - that my cute little pump that has improved my life by leaps and bounds was actually the monkey on my back?

I don't know about you, but when I'm trying to figure out something deep and meaningful in life - I turn to Google. I entered the phrase 'monkey on my back' in the search box and was a bit confused by the first search result. Steven Tyler of the rock band Aerosmith actually sang about the 'Monkey on my back' on the 1989 album Pump.

Creepy, huh?

In that song, Tyler is referring to his monkey - crack cocaine. Why was writer’s inspiration sending me to a rock band’s song about drug addiction? Although also a drug, insulin is not so similar to crack.

Mind you, I am not comparing insulin dependence to drug addiction. Please bear with me here.

I had to listen to the song, perhaps Steven Tyler would take me up among the clouds, blow me away (no pun intended), and sweep me to divine inspiration.

Yeah, that didn't happen exactly. I can't say I really like the song. It was a bit painful to hear, and I felt no state of euphoria. Aerosmith does tell a story in that song though, which I do find worth sharing with you; here are the lyrics:

"Woah, it's me
But I've been dyin'
Got to get that monkey
Off my back
Fortune teller look into my eyeballs
The wrinkles on her face about to crack
She said, "You best believe it, you ain't goin' nowhere,
Unless you get that monkey off your back"
Well, I make believe the devil made me do it
I was the evil leader of the pack
You best believe I had it all and then I blew it
Feedin' that fuckin' monkey on my back
If you put it in a spoon then I won't do it
Some timbers made my house was just a shack
And then you draw the line
When all your friends are dyin'
You got to get that monkey off your back
Crystal ball is where you chase the dragons
She said now, "Bring me home his head inside a sack"
But now you'll find your crystal balls are draggin'
Got to get that monkey off your back"

What I got from the song: Steven Tyler’s addiction to crack cocaine kept him from truly living. Aerosmith did really well in the 1970s, but drug addiction haunted the band, holding them back from influencing the rock scene, and it would take rehab to become one of the best rock bands of all time.

You can find many stories of people facing their battles and finding insiration out there nowadays. Oprah has a million of them for you. What I found interesting about this particular story though - from 1989 - is that Tyler calls the song 'Monkey on my back' - and not 'Get this monkey off my back'. Tyler clearly wants to stop abusing drugs, but this song is more about awareness. He is aware that the addiction has kept him from living life to his potential. Just read the lyrics again if you don't see it. Tyler looks into the future as he stares into the crystal balls, in other words, the drugs, and he is absolutely aware that he 'ain't goin nowhere' as a drug addict. This song isn't about rehab. It's about the moment when he looks into the drugs, and sees a dark future if he continues on that path.

In that moment, he becomes aware of his monkey, of his pain, and is able to transform his suffering into realizing his potential.

Steven Tyler's lesson became my lesson. Am I aware of the monkey on my back? Is this a lesson in realizing potential? Goshdarnit, my monkey isn't the pump; it's the diabetes.

I wasn't always conscious of my diabetes. I believe I am now on most days, most of the time. But I must confess that I have to become aware of the diabetes every morning when I wake up, and remind myself that it's there, and that there's work to do. I propose that it's much like being a drug addict.

I'm not talking about going with the motions. I've been doing that for over 35 years. I'm talking about awareness that only comes when the mind is clear of clutter. Some call it meditation, others creativity, and others prayer. But when you become aware of whatever dis-ease is holding you back, awakening naturally follows. And potential is realized.

Shock the monkey to life...

Monday, November 9, 2009

What's in a number?

I seek epiphanies. I love that moment when a light bulb goes off, the heavens open, light streams through the skies, and whatever discovery I've made lightens my world for a moment and ultimately changes my life, and sometimes even those around me.

That's how it felt when I had my blood sugar epiphany.

Some background: Diabetics are supposed to check their blood sugars on a regular basis. The blood sugar check provides us with a number that lets us know if the amount of sugar in our bloodstream is right on track, too high, too low, or borderline trouble-waiting-to-happen. I check my blood sugar around 8 to 10 times a day. The good part about checking blood sugars is that the number provides all diabetics with information for taking appropriate action - bring the sugar up, take the sugar down or leave it as it is.

The trick is keeping the numbers at a healthy level, and trust me, that is not an easy feat. You see, lots of things affect blood sugars besides sugar - exercise, food, amount of insulin injected, stress, hormones, and more. The unpredictability of all this can be quite frustrating and physically exhausting.

The big epiphany - and inspiration for this blog - came one day about 4 years ago. I was sitting around with some friends at work. I felt a little funny, and knew that I needed to check my sugar. I pulled out my meter, pricked my finger, and tested. When I read the number, I must have let out a good, "Uffff," while thinking to myself, 'Why is it so high? What did I do wrong????'

That's when my friend said to me, "Wow, it's amazing. You judge yourself based on your blood sugar reading," and she smiled. (I'm still incredibly impressed that she came to this eye-opening and deep reflection based on nothing more than my loud, frustrated grunt.)

Time froze, the heavens opened, the angels sang, and suddenly I realized that I had been basing my whole self-value system on that unpredictable blood sugar reading. I had become attached to the numbers. What's really crazy is that the number would probably just wind up changing 10 minutes later. I felt absolutely ridiculous at the time. Seriously, it's a number. How could I base my whole self-worth on an unpredictable, ever-changing number????? Years of frustration, and my friend refuted those awful feelings in an instant.

This discovery was so big for me that I spent lots of time really thinking it through. Could these value judgments based on numbers hold true for other things as well? We all have so many numbers surrounding our lives: age, salary, zip code, weight. Have I based my self-worth on other numbers besides my blood sugars? You betcha!

Could this be true for others as well?

If this feeling rings even slightly true for you, as it does for me, or if you are getting thoroughly annoyed by my even mentioning it, then, it's a real possibility that numbers mean more to you than just a piece of information.

So here's the real deal: Our age is constantly changing - every millisecond of every day of every year. Salaries go up and down, as this economy has taught us all. Zip codes are really there to help the postman deliver the mail, and not a judgment on where you live. Weight fluctuates constantly.

The reality is: We are all valuable for who we are. It's really that simple. The numbers are simply there providing information. They let us know how many candles to buy for a birthday cake, keep a budget, and google an address. The numbers do not hold emotion or feelings. They are not making a statement as to who or what we are. The numbers are for information purposes only, knowledge to help us take appropriate action. With my blood sugar reading, I know whether to adjust my insulin or food. It's that simple. Really, it is.

Numbers do not judge; people do. I may not like the numbers I see sometimes, but that's for me to decide, not the number.


Have you had any moving epiphanies that you'd like to share? Please do in the comment box below!

Monday, November 2, 2009

In the beginning...

I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1974 at the age of three. Okay, yeah, living with diabetes is tough. You may already realize that. But this blog isn’t meant to focus on being a victim or how hard or challenging this diabetic life has been.

This blog is about taking those challenges and using them for everything they’re worth – figuring out how to live the most fulfilling and satisfying life possible. A diabetic life is a quest, a journey, filled with questions and realizations. Yes, we're all faced with challenges, and you may find that some of those diabetic challenges, questions, and realizations apply to you too.

The first really big question I remember asking myself is: Why me? I was actually advised not to ask myself that question when I was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy when I turned 19 years old. Let me just be blunt: This meant that I had a 50-50 chance of going blind. When sitting on my bed feeling really pathetic and crying endlessly, I was advised not to wallow in self-pity. You see ‘Why me?’ can be considered a wallowing in self-pity kind of question. But it kind of depends on the tone in which you are asking.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was not all enlightened at the age of 19. Oh no, it took 20 years to reach a place of relative peace living with this disease. At the time (and for many years after), I totally beat myself up for drinking alcohol at late night parties, but more so, I beat myself up for eating all of those cookies, candy bars, and tubs of whipped cream. All of those filled with unhealthy ingredients. I would sneak bites of cake when no one was watching, and stop at convenience stores and down Rollos before anyone came looking for me. What a rebel!

But seriously, after the you-may-be-going-blind diagnosis, I strongly felt that the answer to ‘Why me?’ was that I was a bad diabetic. I didn't take care of myself. That sure is a lot for a person to take on at such a young age! So, I ate a Snickers bar and a tub of Cool Whip, does that mean that I’m meant for a lifetime of blindness? That didn’t feel so good.

So I got angry: I didn’t choose to have diabetes! I didn’t bring this on myself! I didn’t know that if I ate all that sugar that I might go blind!

And so I did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed. I asked that I not go blind. I made a deal. I asked that if I continue seeing, that I, in return, would do what I can to make the world a better place, be a more giving and peaceful person. My prayers were heard, or perhaps science is just that fantastic, or both. Either way, it worked, and I received an answer.

Why me? Because it woke me up. I began to live consciously. I began to learn how to thrive with diabetes. And I can see.