The migraines hit more often, lasted longer. Daily I tried to work around the chronic fatigue, stomach upset, achy joints and hormonal hijinks. But the darkness of thought! This I couldn’t dodge. I had no clue that the bitter negativity and self-sabotage of my inner world might be connected to what I ate or drank. Mental health was separate from the flesh, having to do with one’s mettle, or family history. The body did its own thing, a lesser entity than the ever so rational mind.

Then I watched my daughter’s autism improve–due to nutritional strategies we learned from other parents. The disorder was long pegged a tragic, incurable, psychological state of being. Experts once agreed autism was a mysterious, lifelong mental illness, calling it “childhood schizophrenia.” Yet our daughter’s horrid moods and physical distress improved vastly once we changed her diet and addressed nutrient deficiencies, our cabinet shelves sprouting supplement bottles like barnacles on wooden ships.

Could it work for me?

Finally, after tracking what foods made me go “twisting in the wind,” as my husband called it, the culprits were found. Gluten, dairy products, caffeine, alcohol and white sugar: goodbye to all that. “What’s left?” wailed friends as I avoided their entrees at potlucks: “soon you’ll be only eating Styrofoam!”

If only they could understand! I wasn’t just reaching a clearing, but changing my diet was akin to easing into a “new” personality: the woman I’d hoped and dreamed was there beneath the turmoil.

Our stories: true or false?

So not only did I drop 30 pounds, gain a calm colon, and end the monster migraines–my emotions, and the thoughts they sparked, changed profoundly. During this time I discovered the writings of Julia Ross, (The Diet Cure, The Mood Cure; Penguin Books), a clinician who utilizes diet and nutrients, notably amino acids, to pull people up from down.

Ross speaks of “false moods,” versus true emotions, and this concept hit me like a ton of bricks. Yes, to be human is to experience grief and suffering that can be devastating. But for centuries people have turned to counseling, prayer, rest, or holding on mindfully while emotions run their course. Why now for so many of us are those time-honored strategies not working? Why for so many individuals is depression chronic? Why do we turn to drugs like Paxil and Zoloft in record numbers? Ross boldly asserts that certain emotions are meaningless imposters in our lives, hence the concept of false moods (check out www.moodcure.com).

It’s not only the chronic nature of our serious blues, but their caprice that signals a false mood. When one just seems to “snap” without knowing why. Crying at every sentimental trigger the media has to offer. Unrelenting, self-hating, fault-finding inner talk. Unexplainable loss of sleep or concentration, addictions to chocolate or worse, the worry that never lets up. Without knowing how to spot these false feelings, we begin to own this way of life as our story. But could these sad tales be prevented?

New traits within

I was so convinced that trouble was my lot, I fell upon everything about this moniker known as “alternative mental health” via books or Internet search, devouring the good news with hope at last. With a family history of schizophrenia and suicide, it seemed I’d always been dodging what relatives called “the family disease.” Many times I believed I had one foot in the door of its dark and silent house. So when deleting certain foods from my diet challenged these notions, I needed to name the components of this new way of being inside my mind.

The first newcomer was a true body-mind gift. Energy! When I gave up my “bad mood foods,” it meant less naps, more physical movement, more sense of accomplishment from finally seeing a project through—whether organizing the kids’ playroom or reading a book cover to cover. Seven years later, I marvel that my concern is now the opposite: too much stress from operating as a “human doing.” For most of my lethargic life, I never would have tried.

Increased energy was a dream come true. But what a surprise when entire categories of morbid self-talk simply disappeared. These were things I’d worked on in therapy for decades: paranoia, fear of success, and relationship addiction. I’d had some excellent experiences in therapy, and many letdowns. But the re-ordering of my thoughts to the positive—simply from living without certain foods and beverages–put the whole efficacy of the enterprise into question.

Once it was common for me to spiral beyond mere “worrying about what other people think.” I obsessed on a fear of harm or betrayal, the imagined source being anyone from a nameless cashier to close friend. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, was my grim truth. With a skill that eluded my fearful schizophrenic brother, in and out of mental health facilities for decades, I could channel my delusions into the game of constantly garnering new friends or lovers, then breaking it off when they failed to meet my high standards. I took too much far too personally but stopped short, unlike my brother, of sleeping with a knife under my pillow.

After two weeks migraine-free because my shelves were clear of gluten and cow’s milk, I noticed the shift. My mind held more space: not spaced-out, but spacious. Something was missing. I was in the car running errands when it dawned on me what I’d lost.

For a change, I wasn’t assuming the worst about people on the street or in line at the post office. I’d always detested strangers, and buttressed my fear with feelings of superiority. That day I was neutral—naturally, and without trying. Nor was I grumbling inside about a friend, family member or romantic partner who’d let me down. Suddenly I realized that people were okay. It was if an open, grassy meadow appeared in my mind and the sense of being fully “in the Now” warmed like the sun.

Another gift I didn’t see coming was optimism. This was brand-new to my cynical persona who guarded against disappointment by being negative, first and always. Daniel Goleman, who made famous the intriguing idea of Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books), names optimism as a key to maturity and productive relationships (www.danielgoleman.info). The way it worked for me was that little by little, I could sustain belief in a personal strength to make good things happen.

Fear of failure or success was also transformed by another “mental” change taking place. Not only was there space for upbeat ideas, but the clarity to focus on what was real and reasonable—in relationships, in the material world. My judgment and persistence improved, so that I ceased forever giving up and starting over on the next wild scheme or attachment.

Food and more

I don’t mean to suggest that for everyone, removing bad-mood foods equals mental health. Or that such a diet ends the work. I had other mind-body issues to address as well. Killing candida yeast in the gut–with its downer brain-fog and resulting fatigue– was essential. Wrestling my hormones back into the boat with the use of natural progesterone also helped. If I don’t take my fish oil and other nutrients, I begin to slip. But I can catch myself; there’s not such a long way to fall now.

How has all this connected me to the human race at last? I’ve been married to the same man for fifteen years, raising two girls now ‘tweeners. I’ve participated in a women’s spirituality group for the past five years, a batch of strong personalities who’ve never turned on one another. Though it took the death of my father to ease the way, I reconnect with family members in a more honest, less anger-based manner. I now see the benefit of sticking around for the change and growth in people, when once it was my imperative to cut and run.

But perpetually happy I’m not. Stress still stokes plenty of “dang! I wish I hadn’t said that!” I still struggle with meeting goals and needing approval, still get anxious, sometimes depressed. The difference is, I’m not incapacitated. Moods pass, transform, sometimes show their hidden gems. I do not worry about going mad, and have learned to re-think the fatalistic attitude inherent in my bloodline toward its “family disease.”

New directions

With ever more of us–including younger and younger children–wearing psychiatric labels and fed pharmaceuticals with dangerous side effects, we are clearly in a mental-health crisis. We need a science of nutrient therapy for the body-mind now. Not just “alternatives” for those who can afford them—rarely covered by insurance, unreported by the media, dismissed by medicine-as-usual.

A new directive in “mental” health care—one that erases stigma by examining the physiological issues at hand—could sharply curtail the epidemic of damaged minds and the chronic health problems that are often mistaken for lunacy (for example, adrenal stress, thyroid imbalance, a severe reaction to a bad-mood food.) This has a chance to manifest as preventive medicine at its finest hour.

Widespread education about special diets could make them seem less exotic and difficult to implement. Understanding how food allergy/intolerance can operate like addiction is also key. Training health professionals in the science of nutrient therapy, and supporting their efforts through public funding, is crucial for those unable to make this journey on their own.

Yet the irony exists that life can be crazy, itself. I wrote this article on retreat because I couldn’t find the energy, optimism and clarity I needed for the words while sitting in my noisy, busy household. Having to balance between work, family, self, and social network is a maddening, if common enough, concern. But at least I’m not running away from my own mind these days. In fact, I rather enjoy the view from here.