By Lucinda Gunnin
I may not be there yet, but I'm closer than I was yesterday.
My foot hurt as I walked to the mailbox. Confused for a moment, I stopped, stretching my right foot and testing the feel of it. Tears streamed down my face as I walked back into the house and woke my husband with a gentle shake.
"My foot hurts," I said as I woke him and in his grogginess, he simply stared, trying to figure out why this warranted waking him up early and why I was crying.
"My right foot hurts," I repeated, adding emphasis to the word "right." His eyes widened and he grinned.
"It's working," I replied and sat on the edge of the bed, holding his hand and crying tears of joy.
* * *
The fireplace was crackling and one of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas albums was playing while I sat in the middle of the living room floor, merrily wrapping presents.
With a reach and a stretch, I pulled a box to me and immediately felt a twinge in my back. At thirty-two, I was young and in relatively good health, though about 30 pounds heavier than I should be, so I cringed and whined a bit about the pain, but assumed it was nothing major. Then I took some over-the-counter painkillers and went back to my Christmas preparations.
Through the holidays and into the new year, the twinge and pain continued, so in mid-January I found a chiropractor who managed to stop the pain with just a few treatments. About the same time the back pain ended, I noticed my right foot began to go numb and seemed constantly beset with pins and needles. Blaming the chiropractor, I stopped my treatment and went to see my regular physician.
Over the next several months, I had dozens of X-rays and two MRIs. I saw a back surgeon, a neurologist and more of my physician than I ever wanted to.
I raced to the doctor's office, demanding to see someone immediately, the day the nurse called and said my back X-rays showed "something." I had spina bifida occulta, a minor birth defect in my spine that had gone undiagnosed for 32 years.
The X-rays also showed I had a sixth lumbar vertebrae, when normally people have five, and the neurologist mentioned he thought I might have multiple sclerosis. I wept in terror.
By mid-summer, the doctors concluded that I had sciatica. They recommended I lose those extra 30 pounds and perhaps take up some strengthening exercises, maybe yoga or tai chi. For the occasional back spasms, they recommended muscle relaxants and pain killers.
For a while I walked and tried to lose weight, but the constant tripping and stumbling made the doctor's advice difficult to follow. Sitting on a curb with scraped hands and knees as strangers asked if I was okay proved to be too much.
Over the next few years, I packed on another 20 pounds and fought semi-regular bouts of incredible pain. I couldn't walk half a mile without stumbling.
After four years, and a bout of double vision, the original diagnosis of MS reared its ugly head again. This time the lumbar puncture proved beyond a doubt that I had multiple sclerosis.
I cried myself to sleep, convinced the diagnosis doomed me to a wheelchair or worse. I imagined drooling on myself and being unable to take care of my own needs. I also gave up on getting back into shape.
By the fall of 2009, eight years after the original problem, I had put on another 20 pounds and lived a largely sedentary life. The pins and needles had increased in my right foot, sliding up toward my knee. I couldn't put my feet together, climb stairs, or sometimes walk without watching to see where my right foot was as the synapses had slowed their communication with my brain.
Then, someone commented on an article I had written about my MS diagnosis and suggested there might be a link between MS and gluten allergies.
I might have ignored the comment, except it triggered a distant memory of a doctor mentioning when I was a teen that I might have a gluten allergy.
The reporter and investigator in me kicked in and I did some research. Dozens of personal testimonies dotted the Internet. Particularly inspiring was the story of a marathon runner who had been nearly crippled by MS until she stopped eating gluten. Six months later, she was running again.
Never a runner, I had no delusions of such a recovery, but the idea of walking through the mall without stopping to rest or tripping and falling seemed like the promise of a whole new life. I talked it over with my husband and he agreed. We would try a gluten-free diet.
* * *
On a bright and cold November morning, two weeks after purging gluten from our diet, I stepped on a stone on the way to the mailbox and my foot hurt.
As my husband held my hand and I cried, I tried to put into words what it felt like to suddenly feel my foot again. The diet gave me back a limb I had considered virtually useless.
Through the holidays we remained mostly gluten-free, and I felt the other MS symptoms begin to slip away.
For years, I had been told that a diet needs to be a life-changing event, a change in the way we eat and the way we think about eating. Cuter clothes and vague promises of better health were never what I needed to make the change work for me.
I needed measurable results and this time, I got it. I feel my foot!
I still need to work at the diet and overcome eight years of a sedentary life, but gluten-free means that I can suddenly walk down stairs without needing a handrail. The mental fear and distrust of my body lingers, so I worry about trying to run again, but each day my confidence returns a bit more as I discover I can walk without tripping or slide my feet together without looking.
This diet has changed my life. A healthier me is just the beginning.