MY BIG TOE … MY PROTECTOR
Chronic pain as allergy detector
here’s a wonderful restaurant on the Venice boardwalk named Figtrees. For many decades a favorite treat was to go there for breakfast. One highlight was their scones: delicious and only somewhat hydrogenated. In those days I wasn’t much concerned about those kinds of details.
Until one day I needed to get caught up on some paperwork later that day.
It took tremendous effort to stay focused.
The next week, I had my scone … and then, as an experiment, tried to focus on some detailed technical work. Not the kind one enjoys; the kind that one has to do to get to the work one enjoys.
Same story. Writing was like pulling teeth (on good days, like today, it flows like water.)
I realized, eventually … that the problem was the scone. As delicious as it was it was also making it impossible for me to get any work done requiring discipline and focus for the rest of the day. After a good night’s sleep, I’d be able to focus again.
That’s when I realized I needed to give up wheat. This must’ve been around, oh … 2001 or so.
In my late thirties I was making art and seeing patients in a cozy two bedroom loft apartment. I lived in the loft and the bedrooms became treatment rooms.
One Monday after a particularly memorable weekend I realized too late that I’d neglected to clean up the common space. I had about five minutes to act.
I grabbed a large box and filled it with debris. Then … not wanting to wait for the elevator, I ran down two flights of stairs to deliver it to the garbage bin in the parking garage. You can see this coming.
With old skateboarder instincts I actually managed to make it running blind down the stairs. But I didn’t see the corner of the doorway leading into the garage as it caught the upper corner of the box. It was a big box.
My feet swung out from under me. My right big toe caught the doorframe with a SMACK! I was moving so fast my foot hit the doorframe and bounced back under me before I could fall. I staggered backwards and caught myself, then finished my errand.
Everything Comes Around Again Eventually
With all the tricks up my alternative medical sleeve I managed to heal my foot in a few days (prompt action is key.) And then I pretty much forgot all about it.
Until about ten years ago.
That’s when my old injury slowly began a journey that’d end with it becoming my friend, my guardian, my watchdog, my teacher.
And also occasionally a bit of a pain. Which, to my mind, was often much the same thing.
My wife’s brother makes shoes, and sends a few pairs to us occasionally as gifts.
But he makes them for Chinese feet, which means they’re a tad small for mine.
Once he sent me a pair of dress boots that were so luxe, so cool … I couldn’t help but bring myself to start wearing them everywhere I went.
So there I’d be, strutting down the streets in my Chinese-made knock-off high fashion boots … my feet aching and teaching me what every woman who’s ever been inviegled into wearing heels with pinched-toe shoes has known since she came of age. Even so … they looked so good I figured I’d just power through the pain. Sound familiar?
The day came when my foot hurt bad enough I decided I’d had enough. I threw those toe-pinching boots away, vowing never to repeat that particular mistake.
But my big toe didn’t stop hurting. Instead … it slowly got worse. Apparently my mistake was more serious than I thought.
I Meet The Enemy … and It’s Breakfast.
I live in a very dense part of Los Angeles allowing me to walk when I’m doing daily errands. My schedule was packed; I had no extra bandwidth for self-care. I did my best to ignore my increased limping … until the day when I realized I’d started planning my days around minimizing the number of steps I’d need to take. That’s when it finally dawned on me that I needed to take action. I needed to learn what, if anything, I was doing to make that old injury worse.
Besides bad (but very stylish) shoes.
As it happened … around that time I was working on a project with Shelley Davidescu, MFT, a mental health therapist in the San Diego area. I was videoing Shelley talking about her own experience with a carb-and-wheat-rich diet, how it had given her brain fog. I’d been hearing more and more about wheat allergies and, like most sensible folk in those early days of gluten awareness, had been skeptical.
But I do try to be skeptical of my own skepticism. I find I miss fewer important things that way: judgment blocking information as it so easily does.
At the time I was addicted to my morning granola and almond milk. Had been for years. Now … I coach people all the time that the things that inflame them are often things they’re addicted to. Foods. Aromas. Generating drama. Thrill-chasing.
So I had to finally take my own advice. I dropped the morning granola.
My pain lessened and my walking improved immediately.
I began doing errands when I wanted to, rather than ganging them all together to keep my steps to a minimum.
My mind cleared. I began having much more productive mornings.
It’s funny how long it can take us to get around to doing the things we know we need to do for ourselves. Especially caregivers. We can be the worst.
Diet Extremes Rarely Work. The Middle Road is Best.
I always tell clients it’s rarely the things we do once in a while that undermine our health in any serious way. It’s the things we do every day we need to keep an eye on.
There’s two more insights that flow from that one:
- With rare exceptions, it’s best to not try to give up one’s favorite treats always and forever … even once one realizes that they’re pro-inflammatory. Instead, simply turn pro-inflammatory staples into delicacies: relatively rare rewards rather than daily comfort food.
- As always, baby steps are better than giant steps. Changing one’s daily habits is hard. Want to stick to one’s health resolutions? Don’t attempt too many at once.
These days … I have a very different kind of relationship with the Pain in My Big Toe.
I consider it my friend, my teacher, my guardian angel, my watchdog.
I find these days that every single time I indulge one of my old pro-inflammatory treats … the next day My Big Toe makes sure to remind me about it. It doesn’t make me limp anymore … my pain goes from nothing to a 2, maybe, on a 1 to 10 scale … but it does whisper in my … well, not my ear exactly …
Now if one is constantly exposed to a variety of pro-inflammatory influences … urban air pollution, noise, the Standard American Diet (SAD), stressful family or work relationships, vaporized mercury from coal power plant emissions … and if one’s diet isn’t yet rich in cofactors and nutrients that support metabolism and our detox pathways … the pro-inflammatory “background noise” in one’s environment might be so loud as to wash out the effects of removing just one or a few pro-inflammatory factors.
But as a practical matter I find that’s rarely the case.
Almost always … if one becomes a good enough health detective to spot the things that inflame us … removing them or supplying more of the nutrients our own bodies need to deal with them (and this can be a bit different for each of us, according to our genetics) will almost always produce enough of a noticeable improvement to light our way forward.
That’s where having a good guide can come in handy.
Like … for example … My Big Toe.