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Holistic Journey to Health From Ground Zero

by Anastasia Ashman(more info)

listed in mind body, originally published in issue 87 - April 2003

Introduction

In August 2001, I was a radiant newlywed of 36: healthy and fit at 58 kilos, a writer working from my skyscraping home, my daily view glorious with the Hudson River and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But as a resident of New York City's immediate impact zone, known to the world as 'Ground Zero', when my neighbourhood descended into chalky chaos on September 11th, life as I had been living it was erased.

At windows five blocks away, I witnessed the horror and helplessness, simultaneously safe and very much in danger. When the towers collapsed, my building was shrouded in a debris cloud that shut out the light of day and muffled the sounds of firemen shouting and sirens wailing. Eventually the smoke and debris filtered into my apartment, stinging my eyes and nose. I had to leave. The police were evacuating the entire neighbourhood and soon the electricity and water to my building would be cut. I hurriedly packed a bag with what seemed like necessities, not knowing when or if I would return, or where exactly I was heading. I chose a bottle of water; valerian and kava kava tincture to calm my nerves and help me sleep; a vial of Bach's Rescue Remedy flower essence to bolster my health during the grief I knew would surface when the adrenaline wore off; saline eye drops and nose spray; analgesics; a tin of tuna; money, and our passports.

Ten days later the building management invited my husband and I home, to unwelcoming streets filled with emergency vehicles and heavy machinery, National Guard troops and the international press corps. Inside, the tap water ran brown and murky, and a ghastly smell was developing in the elevator shaft. Outside, the air was still choking with dust, and the pile, as we called it, continued smoking for three months. In the days and weeks and months that followed, when most could turn off the dismal information overload with a remote control, every waking hour - and every sleeping hour for that matter - was dominated by the din of demolition, reversing lorries and news helicopters. There was no rest, and no nightfall, as natural darkness was suspended for months by the high-powered lights of the 24-hour recovery effort.

Despite the massive disadvantages of living in view of the disaster, I sensed benefits. At least I was connected to this horrible thing happening in the world. I imagined I was dealing with it better than others, head-on. I could look out the window and comprehend why bombs were dropping on the other side of the world. I tried to explain it to people.

Usually every day was better than the last, with only one growing aggravation: the tourists whose Ground Zero pilgrimage made it difficult to truck food and sundries home from far off shops. Sidewalks became clogged by sight-seers with masks over their face and rhinestone American flags pinned onto their jackets, perusing mementos of the attacks sold by street vendors. I had no patience for these people.

Toxic Like My Environment

But I didn't really have patience for many people. I had stopped answering the phone and lay on the couch watching television, eating chocolates and cookies. The fact is, my health seemed to drain away through that hole in my neighbourhood. Under the guise of being kind to myself and not demanding more than I could deliver, I became as toxic as my environment, resorting to retrograde coping mechanisms like sugary childhood comfort food and anti-social behaviour.

Returning to poor nutritional and exercise habits with a vengeance, by winter I was 65.5 kilos and suffering from physical and emotional ailments like recurring sinus infections, headaches and conjunctivitis, back pain, breathing problems, clinical depression and irritability. But as a Ground Zero survivor, I also had a small voice inside declaring, "I'm glad to be alive!" This dual reality of neglectful, abusive behaviour towards my health and the ecstasy of being alive did not compute, but it did draw my attention to a life-long pattern. I have a history of sabotaging my health whenever life becomes traumatic, in effect doubling my problems.

Then, when renewed feelings of devastation ambushed me at the sixth month mark, further unsupportive indulgences failed to offer relief. Cyclical, detrimental behaviour like chocolate and potato chip bingeing was no longer defensible or desirable. Instead such sugary gorging appeared to be an act of desperation and addiction rather than a gift. I finally admitted the destructive phenomenon that has dogged me and declared it unacceptable.

However, identifying my problem was not enough to triumph over it. The tendencies that September 11th sent me hurtling toward are ones I realized I must overcome in order to live the vibrant life I desire. I decided to relearn health, and to make sustainable adjustments to the ways I nourish myself mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually - most especially in a crisis. But I would need professional help to obtain the tools.

New Commitment to Health - A Holistic Programme

I contacted holistic nutritionist Janet Walker, a graduate of New York's Institute for Integrative Nutrition and a member of the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. Together we embarked on a personalized six month programme of nutritional and lifestyle counselling to overhaul my life.

I told Janet I not only wanted to build a healthful new foundation for myself, I also hoped the changes would support my marriage and the family I hope to grow. Trying to become pregnant at 37, I recognized the priority to enact and maintain a healthy existence. Being a newlywed who had spent the past year on a high-protein low-carbohydrate Atkins style diet with my husband, I wanted to return to a grain-based, mostly vegetarian, sea vegetable and soy rich diet and take my non-holistic Turkish husband with me. But I didn't want to overly stress our meat-eating marriage in doing so.

The multi-faceted programme would entail 12, hour-long private consultations; macrobiotic cooking classes; the seeking of other specialists and bodyworkers; 'journaling' and keeping a food diary; homeopathy like flower remedies; physiological and personality testing to guide Ayurvedic treatments, among numerous efforts to induce me to take better care of myself, reconnect with my community and deepen my faith in healthful options.

Although Janet's nutritional training and orientation integrates both Eastern and Western health systems, our programme adhered to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition's tenets of 'no rules and no dogma'. We set out to find what worked for me. Aiming to strike a balance between carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, protein and fats, we focused on adding beneficial foods while minimizing less desirable ones. Yet we acknowledged that food was just a small part of how I nourish myself.

Feeding the Body - and the Soul

"Food is secondary," the nutritionist told me. "Primary nutrition is that which feeds the soul." Together we determined that my lust for life required a diet of focusing on the writing career I care about; prioritizing the people and things I love; and cherishing the time and effort it takes to soothe my fiery Pitta (consitutional type in Ayurvedic medicine) disposition.

At each meeting, Janet and I made an inventory of my nutritional choices for the past two weeks, my mood and energy levels, weight and digestive function. She gave me a metal tongue scraper so that I could clear the hurdle of old cravings by removing all traces of mucus from meat, dairy, sugar and other processed foods from my tongue and start my new diet with fresh taste buds. An early recommendation to start the spring was a detoxifying drink first thing in the morning to prepare my system for the day ahead. Warm water with lemon, and as a weekly ritual, adding maple syrup and cayenne pepper to make what Janet called a master cleanser. We discussed chewing to notice the food that I eat and allow for its proper absorption. Janet also prompted me to be creative in the kitchen, to allow my good instincts to surface and to enjoy them. "The longer you can eat well, the better you are going to feel," she said. "You'll be regenerating."

To detoxify and tone the liver after a meat-laden diet, Janet prescribed astringent greens like dandelion. But when I tried the greens in May, I developed a pain under my ribs on the right side. We identified it as a liver reaction and Janet asked me to eat radishes, pears and seaweed and to supplement with milk thistle to purify the liver. By June, the ache had receded and by the end of that month, it had gone and havsn't returned. When my digestion was upset by the changing diet, she offered white rice and carrots to settle my stomach and pro-biotic supplements like acidophilus. She suggested I substitute green tea as a healthful way to perk me up in the afternoons and wean myself off the carbonated and caffeinated soda Diet-Pepsi, which leaches nutrients. Her gift of The Self-Healing Cookbook[1] augmented my understanding of relationships between food, mood and cravings.

After each meeting with Janet, I capitalized on my enthusiasm for health by visiting a nearby natural food store and stocking up on whole grains like quinoa and millet and buckwheat, which I slowly inserted into a diet completely lacking them during months on the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet. I would roast and cook the grains in quantities large enough to serve several times in the coming days and put a small pile on my husband's plate for a taste. He devoured them without the resistance I had anticipated.

When I repeatedly complained about my sugar addiction, Janet and I began to analyse what sugar has meant to me since childhood, to identify the chain reaction its use and abuse causes. Foremostly, Janet promoted a compassionate approach to the ingrained craving, explaining that my body physically needed it, and it was okay to select it. She emphasized that by brutalizing myself with guilt at eating sugar, I was making the ingestion of it poisonous. "It's like a little guilt bomb," she said. I appreciated the counselling of compassion and acceptance, since my tendency is to be a harsh taskmistress.

I wanted to learn how to break the physiologic bond to sugar. Janet suggested the inclusion of root vegetables in my diet to squelch sugar cravings and I discovered that the more grains I ate, especially millet, the less I required sweet foods. I began to prepare squash more often when I needed a sweet treat.

But I was also receptive to addressing the psychological ailments for which I prescribed sugar, reasons like insecurity, doubt and fear. It was useful to recognize sugar as the drug it is, and understand that I would best avoid it until I have more 'sobriety' around it, to use an apt expression by Dr Christiane Northrup, who mentions in her Honoring Women's Wisdom[2] audio series - a gift from Janet - that sugar addictions occur more often in alcoholic families with sugar turning to alcohol in the body. This concept particularly resonated with me, since memories of childhood sugar over-indulgence are punctuated by visions of my alcoholic but no longer drinking father filling a glass container (in the shape of a pig, no less) with fifteen pounds of jelly beans and chocolate eggs every Easter; and recollections of his unparent-like rule that we could eat our birthday cake for breakfast if we chose to.

Accepting the notion that it's difficult for me to make good food choices when emotional needs are not being met, let alone avoid that most tempting substance sugar, I set out to tackle the root causes of my sugary stress responses, along with my post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. I began to see a clinical psychologist and Janet gave me a journal to record my dreams in order to get in touch with my subconscious mind, and to daily list my reasons for gratitude. We worked to identify interconnected sources of blockage in my work and health, and I recognized a link between congested relations with my mother and certain writing pieces too leaden to take flight.

We also brainstormed the psychological reasons for difficulties I've had breathing, with a likely emotional cause being a lack of breathing room since my husband has been working from home with me. Still suffering from chronic shortness of breath, I continue to see medical experts, and monitor official reports on the quality of the air at Ground Zero and its effects.

Working the Body and Lightening Up

Janet recommended I see other specialists. Since my back pain was so acute I had to roll out of bed in the morning, I engaged a chiropractor for spinal realignment. Meanwhile, my holistic healer referred me to other complementary medicine practitioners like acupuncturists, massage therapists, energy healers and chakra readers to help me relax and become more focused. I did not made appointments with them all, but having their contact information has been a step.

Janet and I discovered in our meetings that I struggle with time and people management, and set about experimenting with ways to calm and centre me without inciting the burning, laser-like energy of my Pitta personality. To live life from place of less confusion, Janet suggested I make more of an effort to prioritize my tasks and my goals, eliminating things and people that are not supportive.

We performed meditations and bodywork. Janet took me on grounding guided visualization exercises and gave me head and neck massages. In keeping with my Ayurvedic type, her touch was light and soothing rather than penetrating like the deep tissue Shiatsu I normally prefer. It was an important revelation to grasp that such an intense experience is inflaming and not the result I seek.

Attempting to introduce more exercise into my routine, we kept this gentle approach in mind and instituted 45 minute daily walks along the waterfront by my home, and 20 minutes of yogic stretching each morning, along with light weight-lifting.

We explored manifestations of my health in my physical presentation and I decided to 'lighten up' my dark intensity by stripping the black dye out of my hair. The salon procedure resulted in a more natural look according with my desire to be naturally healthy.

Janet also emphasized more self-care activities and routines of renewal, like warm baths at night and the use of an essential oil salt scrub which sloughs dead cells while filling the room with heavenly plant energy. She supplied a vial of Self-Heal, the Prunella vulgaris flower essence, to keep self-care in the forefront of my consciousness. When we discussed defending my sleep needs and style to a husband plagued by insomnia, Janet confessed that she too sometimes has trouble accepting her husband's ability to sleep long and soundly when she can't. "This is an instance when my work teaches me", she blushed, thanking me for sharing my experience.

Planning for the future, we talked about my aversion to medical invention in the quest for a baby, and the many benefits of self-nurturing to become pregnant. Janet's gift of Dr Christiane Northrup's health manual Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom[3] led me to purchase another book which addresses this issue in detail. To conceive mindfully, I am just starting to read The Whole Person Fertility Program,[4] which among other things, suggests that readers investigate the messages they have internalized about child bearing. Fertility is simply a new avenue of health to pursue.

Outcome

All in all, the programme was a subtle and cumulative journey. My major struggle was also the biggest lesson and ultimate revelation. I realized intentions need to be complemented by mindfulness. Accepting intellectually that a certain practice is healthful is one thing, but actually benefiting from that knowledge takes dedication and a supportive environment. Janet's programme revealed how mindful I must be in order to live the healthy life I imagine. She couldn't do for me what I couldn't do for myself. The more choices I make to treat myself with care and respect, the better chance I have of staying on track.

There have been a lot of changes. Certain physical ailments have since cleared up: the puffy, sticky eyes in the morning, trouble focusing and the sinus-like headaches that I experienced from December 2001 to May 2002 have disappeared. I do strengthening and loosening exercises for my back every day and the pain has been dramatically reduced. I have dropped 5 kilos. Consistently drinking water, my skin looks and feels better. I am no longer a slave to chocolate, with the past Halloween being the first time in my life that I did not ingest any sugar - and I didn't miss it! I've eliminated caffeinated sodas and coffee completely. I sometimes insert kale into my diet.

Still more changes remain to be made. I have not yet attempted preparing legumes on a regular basis, nor have I discovered more uses of tofu and tempeh. I have yet to feel completely comfortable with the amount of greens Janet recommended. However, my husband and I have been eating more fish and like to snack on whole flax seeds while watching television.

Rather than replacing outright the way I had been living, it seems the lessons of the programme have slowly seeped into my life and the one I share with my husband. Recently he announced that he might eat brown rice if I can find brown basmati, a surprise after earlier resistance to the hardy grain. "The arugula flowers look good today," he alerted me by cell-phone from the greenmarket, wondering if I know whether we can serve the rocket blooms to dinner guests. (When they are in season they make an elegant and tasty salad to serve your to friends.)

In order to see her, I've also instituted a new habit of meeting a friend, an expectant mother, at a greenmarket rather than socializing at a restaurant where I don't want to eat. She told me she feels very well cared for by me. The compliment resounded since I desire to be happily of comfort to friends and relatives. That's the kind of person I hope to be. To succeed illustrates that I feel whole enough to share: quite an improvement from being a woman who couldn't bear to answer a ringing phone just six months before.

References

1. Turner K. The Self-Healing Cookbook: A Macrobiotic Primer for Healing Body, Mind and Moods with Whole, Natural Foods. Earthtones Press. 2002.
2. Northrup Dr C. Honoring Women's Wisdom. Audio Cassette. Sounds True. 1999.
3. Northrup C. Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing. Bantam Books. 1998.
4. Payne N and Richardson BL. The Whole Person Fertility Program: A Revolutionary Mind-Body Process to Help You Conceive. Three Rivers Press. 1997.

Bibliography

1. Workman Jennifer. Stop Your Cravings: A Balanced Approach to Burning Fat, Increasing Energy, and Reducing Stress. Free Press. 2001.
2. Lad, Vasant. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Lotus Press. 1984.

Further Information

Janet Walker, Certified Holistic Health Counsellor, Tel: 011-718-768-1721; www.innergrain.com
Institute for Integrative Nutrition, 120 West 41 St., 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10036 USA Tel:(212) 730-5433 www.integrativenutrition.com
American Association of Drugless Practitioners, 708 Madelaine Drive, Gilmer, TX 75644-3140 USA Tel:011-903-843-6401 www.aadp.net
Newsletter: A Real Life: A Reminder of How Good It Can Be: www.areallife.com
General information: info@aadp.net
Find practitioners in your area: members@aadp.net

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About Anastasia Ashman

Anastasia Ashman is a freelance writer who lives with her husband in New York City. Her writing on art, culture, cuisine and travel has appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Village Voice.

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