My twin brother Doug died by suicide in February 2010, just before a massive snowstorm shut down travel and closed most business and government offices on the east coast. For a few days it was as it should be – the world stopped. After the memorial and death-related paperwork, I moved into my childhood bedroom, still wallpapered lovingly in blue. I visited hospitals, called doctors, and had conversations that made my body shake to get help for other family members in serious distress. My chest was tight and cavernous. At unpredictable times, shooting pain would volt through my heart. This was heartbreak.
The most mysterious change at first was what happened to my mind. On autopilot, I re-experienced conversations Doug and I had, first from the day before he died, then weeks and months before, all the way back to before kindergarten. Each memory ran through my head over and over, constantly changing in a painful search for a better ending than what came about. Trying to fix. Creating more time.
I was so far "in it" that although I sometimes noticed when the sun rose, it didn’t influence when I slept. One day, I watched from my bedroom window as teenagers filed down the block on what was clearly the first day of school. Summer ended? When did it start? I was out of sync, drawn inward. Three realizations got me living again.
First, I had to admit that I was destroying myself. Clearly my grief became sandbag-like depression. It's just feelings, right? But why was my hair falling out? Did cuts on my skin take that long to heal before? Why would a thirty-something develop eczema? How does one pick up a staph infection? My mind was slow, confused and unreliable. I drew maps to run routine errands, started to-do lists with the bullet “find both shoes,” and set an alarm to remind myself about soup re-heating on the stove. I could no longer calculate percentages to determine a sale price, remember new names or faces, or read articles longer than a few paragraphs. I moved so slowly that once a cabdriver pulled over to pick me up because he didn’t realize I was in motion. My thoughts were destroying my body. I recalled watching this happen to Doug. I set out to find out how this happens.
Second, I accepted that Doug would always be dead. I could keep thinking about it forever—my mind was capable of that. But others I love were alive and suffering. I decided to divert my attention to actually doing for others what I wished I had done for him. This turned out to be more challenging, surprising, and eventually more rewarding than daydreaming.
Third was the day I hit my wall. I tried running a few nearby errands, and collapsed when I got back. It took minutes to crawl up the stairs to my apartment, and I prayed that all eight doors facing the stairwell would stay closed. I had nothing left to give.
My husband was away on a work trip, which meant meals were pasta that week. I knew I needed food. This time even boiling water was too much. There was a box of pre-washed spinach in our mini fridge. I sat on the floor with my head leaning against a cabinet, and ate small mouthfuls with water. I fell asleep and when I awoke, took a shower, got dressed in an actual outfit and did three loads of laundry. It felt like I had drunk Miracle Grow. Next day’s meals reverted to cereal and pasta, and I did nothing. Then I tried spinach again, with chicken that time, and found with that I could do things.
I took a deep dive into understanding how food changes our body and mind. I learned I needed to eat protein at nearly every meal to stabilize my blood sugar, that a candida infection caused my sugar and pasta cravings and the resulting “brain fog.” I was deficient in magnesium and the amino acids and antioxidants that allow for healthy liver function, and had developed food allergies and an H. Pylori infection. My immune system was so over-reactive that I became allergic to dust and my joints were inflamed with arthritis. After twelve years as a vegetarian, I began eating local meat. I sought out a functional medicine practitioner to discover exactly what foods and supplements my deficient body needed. When I wanted to have a day with purpose, I ate with purpose.
It turns out thoughts are intended to change the way our bodies work: everything from how much glucose we use, to what hormones we signal, and when we release enzymes. Put simply, our emotional experiences use our physical resources. If we experience certain emotions over and over, eventually those physical resources get depleted. In reverse, a body can become depleted due to unique nutritional needs, gene expression, exposure to chemicals, overwork or physical stress, and the mind can experience this as mental illness. Fortunately, nature created ways to replenish, and one of the most powerful of those ways is food. We can eat for the mood we want to have.
I eventually founded JustHealth to promote the understanding that mental and physical health are interdependent. With a braver, clearer mind, I now offer suicide prevention, integrative mental health awareness, and mindfulness training workshops. Families and individuals dealing with grief, difficult moods and emotions, and mental illness in all form and degrees, come to learn about the science of emotions and how to use food as medicine. Friends, co-workers and clinicians come to learn how to help.
Health is not all about food and thoughts, but a large part of it is. If you think you’ve tried it all, but don’t know exactly which foods support or deplete your body, there is more out there for you backed by science and clinical experience. It’s just health, and a lot of healing is available in your kitchen.
Jill Sheppard Davenport is a Dinner Party host and Integrative Mental Health Educator. She founded JustHeath (www.itsjusthealth.com) to promote the understanding that mental and physical health are interdependent. Jill is pursuing a Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health.