A little more than four years ago, a carpet changed my life.
I came into my office one Monday and found myself choking on fumes. The building’s carpets had been replaced over the weekend, and they were noxious. My colleagues and I coughed and wheezed through our first days.
The carpet vendor, saying they got this complaint a lot with this carpet, came in and did a steam cleaning. This took some of the edge off the smell, but I continued to struggle with all kinds of reactions to what lingered.
While my colleagues adapted within a couple of weeks, my reaction worsened by the day. The strictly physical pain was bad enough, but what really terrified me was when I started losing mental ground.
I called my sister ranting and rambling one evening. I was trying to figure out what to do; I had a family to feed, and so feared the consequences of either staying or going. Stay and hurt myself further, or leave and struggle financially?
I was so incoherent in my agitation that my sister was terrified. She told me the next day, “You sounded just like Mom.”
Our mom suffered years of mental illness before she died of cancer in 2010. To hear I sounded like Mom was jarring.
I did not want to follow that path.
I found a new job, and left pronto.
What is this doing on my book blog, though?
Leaving the office was part of my path to health. Another involved–you guessed it!–a book.
My symptoms were so bad one afternoon that I called my clinic’s on-call doctor. I explained what was happening, and that I was having a hard time even swallowing my food.
“Sounds like inflammation,” he told me. “Take some Aleve.” I was stunned. After months of seeking answers, I’d found in a simple phone call something no doctor thus far had offered: a word for what I was experiencing. Inflammation.
I took an Aleve and felt relief within an hour. I also searched Amazon for books related to inflammation. I found one, It Starts with Food, that had such rave reviews I bought it and began reading instantly.
Within days, my symptoms started to subside. I started to feel relatively human again, if anxious about being set off by things like perfume, air freshener, and lotions, all of which caused my lips to swell and vision to blur.
Within a month, I was better than ever. But I was disturbed, too.
If inflammation due to environmental factors could imitate mental illness in me, what might that imply about my mom’s mental illness?
The last year was a rough one for me. In pursuit of understanding, I immersed myself in political reading and lost touch with the things I love in life. I stopped walking, spending time with friends, or doing anything that didn’t help me understand more about how America reached the point where someone like Trump could become a viable presidential candidate. I ate mostly Paleo, but with lots of beer added. The beer took the edge off my anguish, temporarily, so I kept drinking it though I could feel inflammation growing.
I kept trying to force myself back into Paleo living, but force didn’t work. Finally, a few weeks ago, I realized I’d have to dive back into reading. I couldn’t force myself to do the right thing. I had to want to do the right thing for me.
I picked up psychiatrist Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own and rejoiced. Sure enough, reading her wise, loving words was exactly what I needed to make the right choices. Instead of beer, I tried breathing exercises. Instead of coffee, I went for walks.
I rejoiced to read someone who understood exactly what I’d gone through, and who’d helped many other women become much, much healthier. I loved reading about the human microbiome, the faulty science and biased reporting around the pills used to … “treat” … mental illness in the U.S., and just how much remains a mystery to modern scientists and medics alike.
I felt good, but I felt sad, too. Reading Brogan’s words took me back to my mom.
Many of my political reads revealed a strong correlation between abuse, stress, poverty, lack of support systems, and what appeared to be mental illness. On the basis of my political+ readings alone, I was heartsick to understand that my mom’s “mental illness” might well have been simply been the understandable consequence of for too long carrying far too heavy a load, virtually alone.
Lawyer Bryan Stevenson wrote that the opposite of poverty is justice, and he nailed it. If you’d like to read how he reached that conclusion, read Just Mercy. If you’d like to know more about the many links between poverty and horrific life outcomes, read Peter Joseph’s The New Human Rights Movement.
Reading lawyers and political scientists affirming these connections is one thing; reading from a healer, quite another.
I wished my mom could have met a healer like Brogan. No healer could have undone the prior suffering, to be sure, but she could have helped my mom manage the impacts of stress, with love and compassion.
I’m reading Anatomy of an Epidemic now. Its author makes a horrifying, persuasive case that U.S. pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness has been, since its inception, driven by big pharma, regardless of widespread detriment to long-term users of most drugs.
I’m more certain than ever that innate chemical imbalances are not and were never the problem.
With every word I read, I’m grateful that I was always “sensitive.” That I stopped taking birth control pills, because I didn’t like how I felt on any pill I tried.
That I used Ativan sparingly when it was prescribed after I had a panic attack; it helped me feel okay for a couple of hours, but I felt simultaneously flat and angry afterward.
That I only tried the antidepressant I was prescribed as a sleep aid once. It, too, flattened me, to the point that I preferred insomnia to being someone else, or no one–as it then felt–at all.
And I’m strangely glad for that carpet. Without that carpet, who knows what I’d be exposing myself and my children to? Who knows what slow havoc I’d assist in wreaking on all of our systems, in this polluted world already so freely distributive of corporation-created toxins?
Yes, it made me miserable short-term. In the longer term, though, it was a core part of my journey (back) toward seeing the world as it is instead of how I wish it were. It was critical to my understanding some of what my mom suffered, and being moved to understand how that suffering is created, that its sources may be unraveled.
Someday, science might be able to explain exactly how individual combinations of thousands of toxins impact each and every individual, individually. All medics the world ’round might be able to recognize and cure–not manage, but cure–every ailing person who comes before them.
Until then, no matter who laughs, or how long, I’ll keep trusting my instincts about the limitations of what’s known today. So trusting, I’ll protect myself and my kids as best I can.
And I’ll keep being glad for folks who take to books to explain that, while there’s much they don’t know, there are some things they do know that can change everything for those who are searching.