I was a bit of a goody two shoes as a child. I followed the rules and worked hard at school and at gymnastics practice. I wasn’t perfect; I pilfered the odd cookie from our kitchen snack drawer, snuck out of the house (once) as a teen (and got caught), and got drunk my senior year of high school, but otherwise I was pretty compliant. And when I got sick I tried following the rules to get healthy. I spent years taking 20+ supplements every day without fail. I did everything my doctors told me to do. I even spent the better part of a year following the extremely restrictive Autoimmune Protocol diet (AIP) which aims to reduce inflammation in the body in order to improve autoimmune symptoms and promote healing. In addition to lifestyle guidelines such as stress reduction and sleep hygiene there are strict food guidelines. For 10 months I avoided ALL grains, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts & seeds, and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers and their spices), vegetable oils and anything processed. I was limited to grass-fed meat, pastured fowl, wild-caught fish, healthy fats such as avocado, olives and coconut, and most fruits and vegetables. It’s like the Paleo diet on crack. This is not an 80/20 diet. There are no cheat days allowed. It may be a healthy diet, but it is almost impossible to maintain. Somehow I managed to follow the AIP (and most of the lifestyle recommendations) for those many months…but it nearly drove me crazy. I was hungry much of the time due to a lack of starchy foods (I got really tired of root vegetables) which made me irritable, and I became bitter about my restrictions as the months passed. There were no dinners out, no late nights, not one cocktail. And though I initially felt better my health plateaued after a few months. However I forced myself to follow the AIP for another half year because I was convinced that I just hadn’t given it enough time. I know that this protocol has been helpful for many people suffering from autoimmune conditions, but I believe the stress of following such a restrictive diet negated any positive effects I might have experienced. For almost a year I wasn’t able to fully relax. I felt like I had to be constantly vigilant about my diet, stress levels, sleep, exercise, etc. Stress promotes disease, while joy heals. I eventually realized that I needed more joy in my life and I stopped the AIP…cold turkey.
I learned a valuable lesson from this experiment. I learned that following the wisdom of my inner voice will always be more important to me than following anyone else’s rules. This voice tells me to listen to my body, to honor my intuition and to trust my gut (literally). It tells me when doing something that brings me joy is more important than following doctor’s orders.
In my present life, I sometimes consciously make decisions that could have a negative impact on my health. I might stay up late to watch just one more episode of The Americans, eat foods that my body doesn’t like or dance around the living room (when my adrenals would probably prefer that I stay in bed). There are already so many limitations on the life of the sick person that following that perfect health promoting diet, going to bed by 9:00pm every night, meditating daily, or getting exactly the right kind of exercise in precisely the right amount can be just another way of crippling our joy (along with being totally unsustainable). Sometimes we need to break the rules and allow ourselves to feel carefree for a little while. Even if it hurts us. Because when you often feel like crap, does it really matter if eating that chocolate before bed is going to mess with your sleep? What’s a little more crap? Sometimes, in a moment of being completely OVER my illness, the exquisite sweetness of the (gluten, dairy and soy free) chocolate seems worth the racing heart rate and night sweats that might later appear. When I expend most of my energy on a beautiful hike one afternoon, I know I might not feel well the following morning. But I believe that the joy I experience while hiking and the memory of that hike will promote healing even if I end up back in bed. Joy heals.
And I am a proud rule breaker.