Too Close to Home

Four out of five. Eighty percent of my family has been diagnosed with a chronic illness. I am crazed by my failure to convince them and everyone else I love to adopt my way of thinking about the connection between diet and disease.

What am I doing wrong?

I realize that it is insanity for me to try to change anyone. Since 2011 (seven years at this point) since I changed overnight from a junk-food junky to a whole-foods, plant-based eater, it’s still hard enough to ignore that voice in my head that really wants junk food.

But how can I just sit quietly and watch it happen? According to An Empirical Study of Chronic Disease in the United States*:

“More than two thirds of all deaths are caused by one or more of these five chronic diseases: heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes. Additional statistics are quite stark: chronic diseases are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths in the U.S., killing more than 1.7 million Americans each year; and more than 75% of the $2 trillion spent on public and private healthcare in 2005 went toward chronic diseases…What makes treating chronic conditions (and efforts to manage population health) particularly challenging is that chronic conditions often do not exist in isolation. In fact, today one in four U.S. adults have two or more chronic conditions, while more than half of older adults have three or more chronic conditions.”

MS is not even on the list, though I am among 400,000 people in the U.S. (2.5 million worldwide) with this chronic disease. Officially, nobody dies of MS. Right. MS can just make you feel sidelined from life. Which is, I guess, better than dead.

I believe that all chronic diseases are the same wolf in different sheep’s clothing. That wolf’s name is inflammation, which initiates and promotes diseases of a wide variety. Each person’s genes define how that inflammation manifests itself. The scientific evidence is so fricken mountainous that it kills me that this factoid is not common knowledge.

From both personal experience and a lot of reading/research (see my Stuff I Love section), I know that our bodies have an awe-inspiring capacity to heal. Whole foods, exercise, stress management, and so on — they will promote lasting healing. While drugs save people with illnesses from a lot of suffering, I know that those drugs do not address the root problem and have many big-bummer side effects.

I would like to run around screaming bloody murder, but I try not to be a blatant freak. And since I have no medical training, I can’t blame anyone for patting me on the head when I preach. But I do have 15+ years of experience with a chronic illness, so can’t I warn people not to jump on this bandwagon to hell?

My older brother also has MS. We have no family history of MS — yes, that’s nuts. During a visit to his home, he lovingly served a bowl of sherbet to me after a great vegan dinner that he and his wife had made especially for me, and my eyes bugged out: dairy??? Don’t you know…don’t you care…don’t…d…” I was speechless. He might as well have served me a plate of venomous snakes, given the clear science on the effects of dairy (casein) on MS. He urged me to relax because “sherbet isn’t ice cream.” I felt ashamed by my knee-jerk reaction and my doubt that my brother would ever do anything knowingly to hurt me, so I gobbled up the sherbet. While we cleaned the dishes, I guiltily checked the ingredients on the sherbet box. First ingredient: milk. Big frowny face.

My brother is six years older than I am and was diagnosed with MS several years *after* I was diagnosed. His MS is in many ways less aggressive than mine, even though he is a true omnivore. I believe his MS success can be attributed at least in part to the fact that he exercises seven days a week, whereas I go to the gym three times a week. I feel like a turd for preaching to him. That said, I fear what my life would be if I hadn’t made radical changes to my diet, physical activity, and stress.

My mom was diagnosed as pre-diabetic several years ago. I was so excited to give her the great news! Studies are so clear that diet choices can save you from the ravages of diabetes. I begged her to read The China Study several years ago, which she said she did. Still, knowing all too well my obsession, she said carefully: “I am 75, and I am not going to change.” Another big frowny face. My mother! If I can’t convince my own mother, I need to reevaluate my messaging and keep trying. I have felt responsible for just my family. I had a 10+ year head start in this world of chronic illness. I should know better how to convince them.

It was my husband who changed my mindset, but I resisted, kicking and screaming. Back in 2010, he decided to become a vegetarian based on his concerns for animal welfare in industrial agriculture facilities. I told him that I didn’t want to be “that couple” that required dinner hosts to adapt their dinners to his weird needs. I genuinely worried that he would damage his health. Then I started to read, and read, and read, and read all the reasons that the standard American diet (SAD) is doing damage to animals, the earth, our bodies, our economy, and so on. Based on a mountain of scientific research with evidence of the health benefits, particularly for chronic illnesses, I leaped head first into vegan evangelism. I wondered why everyone else wasn’t leaping with me.

Recently, my 77-year old dad admitted that he too had been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. God! I felt surrounded and defeated. Chronic illness is no longer just in statistics. It is invading my family. I am the youngest and was the first in my family to be diagnosed with any illness. I should know how to help them to prevent their illnesses.

Only one (my older sister) is free of such a diagnosis. It literally kills me that I cannot convert them all so that we are safe from suffering, if that is ever possible.

So my heart burst with joy when my dad wrote me an email to let me know that he had cut out meat and dairy for the past month, while adding, “Why again do we not drink milk?” First, I was touched that he had launched into this big change without fully understanding the rationale. Second, we! Glee! Happy dance! My frown may start turning upside down! Somebody listened! And it’s my own dad!

I do not want to watch anyone I love suffer in pain or discomfort in his or her old age. I want us all to live well with a sound mind and body until we all die peacefully of “old age” in our sleep. Why should that be a crazy dream? Nowadays, it definitely seems crazy.

We all know that saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I was the tardiest student there ever could be, so I have got to accept that others will go at their own paces. I am trying very hard to focus on myself and not be “that person” who pesters and preaches, and who my friends and family barely tolerate. Given the statistics, though, I cannot be completely passive. I will aim to offer my loved ones an example of someone who is living well with MS. That’s all I can do.


One thought on “Too Close to Home”

  1. As we learn and grow it is so hard to keep our new discoveries to ourselves. It takes time to master the art of sharing without preaching, of listening without judging, and of trusting that some of the seeds we scatter will find their time to root and grow. I like this blog because so much of it shows how different journeys find their way along various terrains – thinking fast and slow – gaining momentum sometimes and at others slowing to a backward crawl. I look forward to your sharing more about the discoveries you’ve made about inflammation – both a venomus snake and a costumed wolf – which are easy to see in a bloated tummy but hard to envision as a bloat on the heart or wart on the lymphatic system. I also hope you will share your readings on dairy and NCDs and on what’s really happening to animals that we lovingly cook for our families. Learning and acceptance are iterative processes – change is more evasive – and your blog is helping that process take the next step for many. Finally, i will look for your blogs on school lunches, food policies and subsidies. Seems like you have allot to say. You’ve got my attention and I am listening. Thank you, BlessedwithMS!


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