I’ve been an anxious, depression-prone person literally since I can remember. I was a nervous child with obsessive tendencies. I recall most of college being on and off anti-depression medication, allowing my circumstances and mood to dictate whether or not I was going to follow doctor’s orders. It was a cycle of self sabotage and I couldn’t ever seem to see a way out.
My father died at the end of my sophomore year of college. Providentially, I’d just started therapy with the campus therapist who’d asked me to do some really, really hard work regarding my relationship with my daddy. My therapist, whom I trusted completely, also explained a lot of the reasons I was self-sabotaging with my on-again-off-again medication habits, so I was also back on the medication after much consideration and processing with him. I felt grateful that I was taking the meds consistently and in regular therapy when my daddy died. I truly feel that these tools, in conjunction with one another, were a gift from God in that season.
A few months later, I was in a “good place,” all things considered. Still in therapy, I told my therapist I wanted to wean off of my medication. I knew he wasn’t a medical doctor and couldn’t advise me to do this, but he continued to support my mental health with our sessions, and I proceeded to plan a somewhat systematic wean off of what I’d been taking for four years at that point.
I haven’t taken these medications in almost eight years.
Since then, I’ve lived a lot of life. I moved across the world, experiencing culture stress and learning a second language. I got pregnant with a precious baby girl and spent a grueling six months in the hospital while she had multiple serious surgeries. I’ve walked through a very unique adoption of my new son and begun navigating the world of open adoption. Then there’s the more “normal” stuff: bought a house, bought a car, was a stay-at-home mom, worked full-time outside the home.
More or less, the events above are listed in chronological order. Somewhere near the middle of that list, I employed a strategy for physical health and wellness. At the time, I didn’t even know it could have a profound effect on my mental health as well. So what was the secret in unintentionally finding my way to improved mental health?
I started eating mostly real food.
It has taken me a long time to say that I’m confident that a real food reset was a catalyst for my mental health improvements, but it’s absolutely undeniable. Truth be told, I’ve waited to write about this because I know there will be people who flat out don’t believe that food affects mental health in any noticeable way.
How I Found Real Food
I was sitting in the cardiac ICU of Children’s Hospital, waiting for the day my daughter would undergo a serious heart surgery. She was in heart failure. Management medications were at the highest doses possible. She needed this surgery, but we were waiting for her to gain weight. I was as much of a basket case in that season as you can possibly imagine.
I saw a friend blogging about her experience with something called the Whole30. The rules resonated with me for many reasons. I decided that day we would complete a round of Whole30 as soon as we were out of the hospital. “Let’s get this surgery, get through recovery, and get home! Then we will do this program.”
We didn’t leave for another four months, and even when we did, the work got even harder.
After much peril and many miracles, we busted out of the hospital in early March. I decided that April 1 would be the start of our Whole30. I spent the weeks leading up to it planning, preparing Whole30 meals to see what we liked, and learning what the heck coconut aminos are.
Before we started that round of Whole30, out of nowhere, our daughter was diagnosed with a rare seizure disorder and the added stress of that was almost too much for me to bear. The seizures continued fiercely into our round in April. In terms of circumstances, this was the most difficult season of my life. I was alone most days in a new apartment with a baby who couldn’t leave unless it was for a doctors appointment. She was having hundreds of seizures every single day. I’ve never felt more helpless or hopeless as a parent. We even had a four-day hospital stay in April in which I brought our Whole30-compliant food and continued the round. Many people encouraged me to “not stress about it” and just eat the convenient foods around me, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Even then, I knew intuitively that real food was part of redeeming that dark season.
I came out of that round realizing that while it was one of the hardest circumstances in my entire life, I didn’t drown. Knowing my own history with mental health, I knew my tendency to be in such a hopeless place that something snaps, I feel out of control, and I have a breaking point. To be sure, I felt deeply the pain of each new struggle our daughter was experiencing. It was like a rollercoaster ride, but I wasn’t falling prey to my past mental health issues. Looking back, I would fully expect to see a mental breakdown somewhere around the seizures and additional surgeries that came. That didn’t happen and I am certain that real food played a role in my ability to remain well.
It Hasn’t Always Been Peachy
Since that season, real food has continued to play a role in my mental health. Part of this is simply because with my victories after that reset, I became more active and mindful of caring for myself in other ways, too. However, since that first reset, I can remember a couple of moments in which I was simply not well. In particular, I’m thinking of super stressful seasons like the two months post adoption, having sick kids, new diagnoses for the kids. Indeed, these moments correlate with seasons in which I wasn’t caring for myself in the way of nourishment, movement, or rest. It really is all connected. Now, when I feel myself being “off,” I have a baseline to return to. In short, it goes as follows: eat real food, go to sleep, go for a walk, give yourself grace. That last one is most important.
Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying
I am not saying that you or anyone else should stop their mental health related medications. I am not saying the Whole30 or any other way of eating will cure your depression. Not. At. All. In the season when I was on my meds, they were integral to my overall wellbeing. I believe this. If you’ll notice, I was five years without medication before even trying the Whole30, and I wasn’t trying the Whole30 for mental health reasons.
However, here I am, telling you this story with confidence that real food has the power to transform your life in ways you never thought possible. I am certain real food was a tool used by God to keep me from drowning in a season when the waters were rising faster than ever. It was hard work to claim food for good in my life, but the hard work is worth everything for what I have gained today.