A comment popped up on the blog recently, from “A concerned chinesegrandma enjoyer”:
“HELLO CHINESE GRANDMA, HOW ARE YOU? I HOPE YOU ARE WELL. WHAT THE FRICK HAPPENED TO THE WEBSITE?”
Ha. And ouch. I deserve that.
For years I was here for you all with food, guidance and ideas, and then I dropped off without an explanation. It’s a long story, and I’ve been reluctant to post it here, in this little oasis of easy everyday cooking and practical tips. But it weighs on my mind to have left you all hanging.
I keep telling myself I’m coming back to the blog now that I’m feeling better, but I can’t say if that is absolutely true. The last few years have fundamentally changed my relationship to food. I’m still cooking all the time, of course – because no matter how mama feels, people gotta eat. I still find cooking gratifying, and I like passing down knowledge and habits that my children will take with them as they leave home. But my personal experience of food has dimmed after the long health journey I’ve been on.
So…what the frick happened?
I had to rebuild my system inside out, from guts to skin. It’s taken a while. I was kind of a hot mess.
I suffered for years with chronic eczema, an itchy, rashy skin condition that had plagued me since infancy. I had mild-to-severe suffering for decades. And then I had intense suffering for seven years before I couldn’t take it anymore.
The cure took another four years. I’m finally emerging from a very dark tunnel.
Like many sufferers of chronic illness, I had many years of trial and error. Dermatologists only offered symptom management: steroidal creams that became less effective over time. It seemed clear to me the skin disease had to be a symptom of an underlying issue, and I wanted to address causes, not just dampen symptoms. But I had no idea what the issue was.
Was the eczema triggered by allergies? I tried eliminating any possible allergenic foods from my diet and irritants from my home environment. Was it an internal deficiency or imbalance? I gulped a rainbow of herbal supplements and every detox treatment known to the internet. Bacteria? I took bleach baths and tried antimicrobial solutions. Faulty skin barrier? I rubbed on scores of skin creams, oils and ointments. But my eczema continued its unending, erratic vacillation from bearable to unbearable, no matter what I tried.
In 2015, my aunt in Seattle, whose health had never been great, fell very ill and lost the use of her limbs. She went to live in a nursing home, and her daughters and my mom (her sister) took turns feeding her at her bedside for weeks at a time. The trips were hard on my mom, but she was effusive about my cousin’s daughter, Karen, an acupuncturist and holistic doctor in Los Angeles who would make trips up to Seattle to treat her grandmother. After Karen’s treatments, my aunt’s pain would be significantly reduced, and at times she would even regain some use of her arms. My mom felt that if anyone could help me with my skin, it was Karen.
I first saw Karen at the end of 2017 and implemented her nutritional advice over the following year. In the spring of 2019, I told Karen I wanted to be a real patient, not just a cousin pestering her on the side. Karen said she could help me get better, but it wouldn’t be easy. She said things would get worse before they got better. I said ok.
That summer I suffered intensely, relentlessly. My face and body were covered with red, itchy rashes. I resolutely powered through the days, trying to get through normal life as I scratched furiously with no relief. At night I was exhausted but could not stop clawing myself long enough to fall asleep. My sheets were blood stained from the itching. All my life I had thought there was one thing to look forward to when I died – being free of my skin. In the dark of the night I imagined the relief of unzipping my skin and letting my soul fly free.
That was just the beginning. The next six months were crazy. My face blew up so severely I almost couldn’t see out of my swollen eyes, and I was so inflamed my skin was weeping fluid. My lymph nodes were so swollen my doctor insisted on a biopsy to rule out cancer. The skin on my body went from bright red, like I was sunburned all over, to dark brown, much darker than my usual tan color. Then the skin thickened, like alligator skin, before it turned wrinkly and loose, like 100-year-old Benjamin Button. And then it all peeled off, for weeks. I felt like a molting reptile.
There was other fallout. My hair, for one. Despite the horrendous appearance of my face, I kept my hair tied back for months, because I couldn’t take any more irritation of anything touching my face. Later I lost an enormous amount of hair, as well as most of my eyebrows. I had hives every day, twice a day, for several more months. It was a parade of bizarre maladies. I felt like a one-person freak show.
The first year was intense. The second year was much better, though not without its own assortment of freaky flare-ups, like the month my forehead swelled up like like Worf’s from Star Trek.
Now I’m finally good. Not just good: normal. I’ve never in my life had normal skin. But my eczema is gone. Even my dry skin is gone. My skin isn’t perfect, but it’s blessedly normal.
I am always thanking Karen for saving my life. She thanks me for sticking it out. She says most people don’t. But once I began, I could not go back. Would not go back.
The process was like a gut remodel of a home, except this was literally remaking my gut and my skin – which the Chinese say is a reflection of the gut. There was a lot of demolition to start, an epic mess and toxic cleanup before the slow grind of rebuilding. Not only did I have to live in the construction zone, I was the construction zone.
But I stuck it out, delays and mishaps and all. I’m still working on the long punch list of cleanup items, but the major construction is complete. I have a new home. I am older but weirdly much better physically than I have ever been.
So what exactly was the cause of my eczema, and what exactly was the cure? This is where things get fuzzy. Gut dysbiosis, imbalances in my microbiome, my immune system overrun by pathogens. When I look back at the series of unfortunate events that precipitated my worst years, it started with a 2000-mile move with four kids from nine months to six years old, while finishing construction on a house, with all the stress of the situation and countless new environmental factors. Foolishly, I picked that inopportune time to try allergy testing, which I’d always been warned was an unreliable snapshot, not a definitive diagnosis. Within weeks of my back being pricked with a couple dozen allergens, I developed an alarming and extensive flare up of eczema. The new dermatologist advised prednisone, and I was desperate enough to say yes.
It was the worst decision ever. Prednisone wiped out my immune system, all the bad guys in my system flourished without my immune system to keep them in check – including my childhood chicken pox virus resurfacing as nerve-piercing shingles – and from there it all spiraled out of control. For seven years. Until Karen came along and slowly righted my drowning ship.
I wish I could tell you how this health miracle happened. I gave up a lot of foods for a while – gluten, sugar, potatoes, yogurt, alcohol, all fruits – but that wasn’t the cure, it was just an effort to stop arming the enemies while the good guys went on the attack. I took a lot of supplements too, some to get rid of imbalances in my system, others to help rebuild what was broken. But ultimately Karen, through her acupuncture and mystery magic, got my body to do what it needed to do but hadn’t done my whole life. She got it to work – building, cleaning up, getting rid of invaders – and to heal.
Nerd that I am, I documented the process, gross and horrifying as it was at times. I’ll share one photo, to serve as encouragement for anyone out there suffering from a chronic condition. This is 2019 vs 2021.
I wanted to tell you guys about this earlier, but I couldn’t find the words. The effort took a lot out of me. The story is bizarre and unexplainable and not what you normally come here for. But we’ve been together a long time, and I wanted to share with you where I’ve been.
I was under construction, and I’ve been rebuilt. My skin is healed, my hair grew back, even my eyebrows, sort of. I feel oddly little like tweens and teens who went through puberty during our collective Covid-19 hibernation: I’ve reemerged, unexpectedly transformed, a little unsteady and unsure of what this change means for me. I’m eating normally again, but after years of turning food from a daily joy to a daily chore, I don’t think I will ever eat in as carefree a way as I did before. More than ever, I respect the importance of food as fuel and medicine, and I gratefully salute the vast pharmacopeia that nature provides.
So that’s the update. I’m sending hugs to “A concerned chinesegrandma enjoyer” and others for your kind concern. I am thankful to be here with you, thankful for your support, and thankful for the wondrous, humbling journey of this human existence. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.
And if you need any Thanksgiving ideas, this listing is in my recipes index but I’ll add it here in case it’s helpful:
- Thanksgiving planning timeline (Google doc)
- A host’s guide to Thanksgiving
- Thanksgiving meal planning
- Buying a turkey
- Cranberry tea [post] [printable]
- Alice Waters’s carrot soup [post] [printable]
- Spinach dip (without the mix) [post] [printable]
- Three-ingredient artichoke dip [post] [printable]
- Thanksgiving turkey, dry brined
- Thanksgiving turkey, split and roasted
- Creamy chicken and rice soup (for leftover turkey) [post] [printable]
- Macho salad (for turkey leftovers) [post] [printable]
- Balsamic vinaigrette [post] [printable]
- Quinoa arugula salad [post] [printable]
- Arugula, pear and parmesan salad [post] [printable]
- Fennel, orange and avocado salad [post] [printable]
- Candied walnuts (or pecans) [post] [printable]
- Kale salad with honey-mustard peanut dressing [post] [printable]
- Shredded kale and brussels sprout salad [post] [printable]
- Kale salad with cranberries and toasted walnuts [post] [printable]
- Wild rice confetti salad [post] [printable]
- Bread stuffing for a crowd [post] [printable]
- Brussels sprouts Gjelina [post] [printable]
- Buttermilk cornbread [post] [printable]
- Easy cranberry sauce [post] [printable]
- Foolproof mashed potatoes [post] [printable]
- Green beans with feta and balsamic vinegar [post] [printable]
- Maple glazed sweet potatoes [post] [printable]
- No-cook cranberry orange relish [post] [printable]
- Quinoa with sweet potatoes, red pepper and feta [post] [printable]
- Roasted brussels sprouts salad [post] [printable]
- Roasted butternut squash [post] [printable]
- Roasted cauliflower Gjelina [post] [printable]
- Roasted cauliflower with parmesan and olives [post] [printable]
- Roasted fennel with parmesan [post] [printable]
- Apple pie with crumb topping [post] [printable]
- Apple snacking cake [post] [printable]
- Cinnamony apple crisp [post] [printable]
- Gingerbread cake [post] [printable]
- Pear torte [post] [printable]
- Pecan pie (no corn syrup) [post] [printable]
- Persimmon bread [post] [printable]
- Pumpkin applesauce cake [post] [printable]
- Pumpkin bread with chocolate [post] [printable]
- Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies [post] [printable]
- Soft ginger cookies [post] [printable]
- Derby pie [post] [printable]
- Caramel dip for apples [post] [printable]