When I was in the fourth grade, the orthopedist I saw for the cerebral palsy put me on a diet. It was 1965, and I was 9 years old. The goal was for me to lose 25 pounds. His reasoning was that with the balance and coordination problems I experience with the mild CP, it would be to my advantage in those areas not to have to haul extra weight around, especially as I went on and into puberty. He wrote what I was allowed to eat and what I was not allowed to eat on a piece of prescription notepad. I can still see bits of his handwriting in my mind’s eye. The list went something like this:
meat, baked, boiled or broiled
no butter or oil
eggs, soft or hard boiled only
skim milk only
2 slices of bread a day allowed, no butter or peanut butter
jam, mustard and vinegar okay
I followed this prescription conscientiously. At his suggestion, for breakfast I had dry cereal with skim milk. My school lunch was half a sandwich, usually some kind of lunch meat, something that went with mustard instead of mayonnaise, because that was not allowed. Or just a half of a jelly sandwich, no peanut butter, a piece of fruit, celery sticks. At dinner I remember eating my pasta without the grated cheese, my baked potato dry, lemon juice on my salad. My family was stunned, especially my mother, who had weight to lose herself but did not join me in my diet, though she prepared what was prescribed. My grandmother began to tell all her friends what “will power” I had. It was the first time I had ever heard that term. It sounded strange to me to consider there was a power attached to my own will.
It was 12 years before Dr. Swank would publish his first version of The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book, which also addresses heart disease, with a low fat diet. Yet my orthopedist knew about this in 1965. Perhaps he had heard of Nathan Pritikin, but he mentioned no names. Just told my mother this is what I should eat.
Although this doesn’t remove meats, eggs or dairy completely, it gave me the experience of food without oil, butter, or cheese very early on. In months, baloney and pressed turkey and hot dogs notwithstanding, I lost all the weight. And kept it off (until I became pregnant with my son), though of course I continued to worry I was “fat,” like many girls do.
One of the things I was introduced to during the time I was on this diet was the concept of a “plateau.” I weighed myself on the family scale in my parents’ bathroom once a week. Some weeks I would lose a pound, or two pounds. Some weeks I wouldn’t lose anything. This, I learned, was called a “plateau,” and it was a normal part of the process. You just had to stay on the diet and wait the plateaus out.
I learned to be patient with plateaus. I think we are now very impatient with plateaus of any kind in our fast moving world.
Very early on with the MS, when I would get too tired, too shaky, too much like jello, I would go lay down. I had absolute faith in creating of myself a kind of plateau. If I laid still long enough, things would settle out, and I could get up and the jello would no longer shake. This proved to be true for a long time. It’s still true. But before this way of eating, each time the jello “shook,” the secondary progressive style of disease manifestation would eat away insidiously at that ability to wait things out so the “jello” could recede, and I’d never quite get it all back, find the place of recovery a little less complete. Gradually, over the years, those eroding forces gained the upper hand over the ability to bounce back. But always I would search for something that would help to restore it.
For a while that was a particular kind of bodywork called Integrative Manual Therapy. During the first years of my time in IMT, I was given a gargantuan “homework” assignment. Literally a thousand hours of holding one point to another on my body. I did this over the process of about a year a half, maybe two. I still hold points on myself when I need to tune in and help something along. The most valuable thing I learned in manual therapy was how to listen to my body. And how also the mind and the body respond seamlessly to one another in an amazing sort of immediate symmetry. In our culture we are all about what my doctor used to call “mind over matter,” which he then considered to be my approach. But I would actually say I learned that mind IS matter, and matter IS mind.
It’s profound how experientially true this has become for me. What this way of eating does is provide the best foundation there is for the body to be in good shape as it mirrors the mind, and for the mind to be a clear mirror to the body. Now their conversations with each other are much more effective when it comes to healing.
Integrative Manual therapy did not have specific protocols for treating MS, so our appointments were experiments. The practitioner I saw said she would just ask her angels to help. Sometimes we were at odds in our understanding of each other, but mostly we learned a great deal from each other during the time of our experiments. She often said I was her teacher, and I know she was mine as well, in more ways than we planned, as is of course always the case in such matters.
Recently, I saw this practitioner in the produce section of our food co-op. She gasped to see me standing there the way I now look and move. And smiled. And we hugged. She was truly happy to see how well I am doing. It was a wonderful “plateau” –or maybe summit–of a another kind altogether to feel her unconditional love and support. She said she now has a couple of clients who have MS (for a long time I was the only one) and would I forward her some information on what I’m doing, in case they are interested. She wanted to have it on hand for when she resumed seeing her clients again in September.
The first year of this way of eating, I had been very excited about pairing the manual therapy with it, and I had wanted her to read something about what, in particular, Dr. Swank had said about the physiological mechanisms for how the disease progressed at the circulatory and nerve level, so we could palpate in those areas. She sort of meant to, but was busy, and so her reading about it seemed to be indefinitely stalled. More importantly, though, the appointments, at some fundamental level seemed less and less like what I now needed. More and more what my body was telling me was to just stay on the diet and let it figure some things out itself. This made intuitive sense to me, because the “figuring out” of the suggestions given to it by our appointments had almost always been “work” for it, and although benefit came most of the time, I had to wait while it sorted these “invitations” out as best it could. Sometimes what was offered was just not what it wanted to do. So I decided to give it a chance on its own and just trust the process it was deeply involved in by responding to the diet. This was a big step for me, since before this way of eating manual therapy was my main alternative “assist.” All of it had helped in one way or another. So stopping monthly appointments was another kind of plateau I saw that it was time to acknowledge.
What’s interesting about all this to me is that for a long while I kept wanting to TELL her about how well I was doing. Mostly because I had been so very very sick at times during our therapeutic relationship and she had tried to help me. I wanted her to know I was better, that things were turning out okay. Then I let go of that. I let my desire to tell her “plateau.” I waited it out. And then, instead of striving to tell her, serendipity allowed me to show her in this most wonderful and loving of ways.
There are all kinds of plateaus. Not just the points at which you stop losing weight for a while until you start again. Some days the desire to stay motivated reaches a plateau. Some days the patience with whether others understand what you may be going through reaches a plateau. Sometimes symptoms start to get better, then reach a plateau, and just sit wherever they are.
Now I welcome all these, or at least try to recognize I have arrived at them. And remember that a plateau can mean something different to me now: place of wide vistas and new perspective. A “place” emotionally and mentally to stop, look around, and take stock. And to know in my cells that as I do this, I AM now gathering strength for the next “climb” toward more integration, more healing.