I have a serious case of Writer’s Block. I blame it on my “diet.”
I am following a version of Dr. Oz’s Elimination Diet in an effort to uncover a food allergy that may be the root of my headaches and other daily woes. It doesn’t sound that bad on paper. I rarely eat processed foods and have been gluten-free for over two years. I like vegetables and don’t rely too heavily on meat. I am sure I can suck it up for 21 days.
It isn’t until after I sign a “personal contract” to bind myself to this goal that I see a checklist of things to do the week before starting the diet.
Cut out coffee. (Screw that)
Cut out alcohol. (Hell no)
Cut out chocolate. (Have mercy)
I realize, too late, that the diet is aptly named because it eliminates one’s will to live.
I immediately start to bargain with myself. How about I just cut down on my consumption of these daily necessities? Everyone knows that coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate have been scientifically proven to have major health benefits. Duh.
Maybe I need to report Dr. Oz to Quackwatch.
Five days in and ugly thoughts start to take hold. If I look at another plate of kale and brown rice I think I might stick my head in an oven. Yet, as the wife of a lawyer, I know that every contract is open to interpretation and ex post facto amendment. I object to this cruel and unusual punishment! Then I negotiate a sweet deal for myself and agree to stay away from Hershey bars. Instead I will eat only raw cacao to curb my chocolate cravings. The caca, er, cacao tastes a little like chewing tobacco; but I’m getting used to it.
I’m also juicing; but I’ll deny it unless I’m forced to testify in court like Alex Rodriguez’s nutritionist. It’s robbery, what they charge for a 12 oz. cup of parsley and ginger sludge that promises to give me super-human energy and detoxify my body with bowel-wrecking expediency.
Twelve days in and despite a little menu tweaking, I am struggling. I am foggy and tired. I can’t concentrate. So far, all the diet has done is eliminate all of my creative thoughts. Readers of my blog will have to be forgiving of my feeble attempt to entertain and inspire this week. My dreams are dark and fixed on the absence of everyday pleasures: My family waves goodbye to me from a window of a train as it disappears into the mist and my beloved HGTV channel is nothing but static. I haven’t felt this forlorn since the 2011 NBA lockout.
It’s time for a road trip.
I have found that a drive into the country works wonders to free my mind. I head north on I-94 and then turn off on a rural road that hugs the Illinois-Wisconsin border. This farmland is familiar. The cornstalks are dried yellowish nubs, the red barns need painting, and the clouds shift like cats stretching after naptime. I am a lone traveler in these parts now that apple picking season is over.
This is not a typical road trip. The drive is absent of whiny children without internet and a husband who whistles through the chorus of Stairway to Heaven. There are no desperate calls for bathroom breaks and no Goldfish crumbs to clean up. I think of this as a business trip since there is much work to be done. The open sky is a blank sheet of paper waiting for me to write on. The act of driving forces me to submit to my thoughts without distraction of a cell phone or a computer or a To Do list of errands.
I hear a song from The Long Run by the Eagles and it takes me back to 1979, on the night I spent in Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, as the sign read back then.
I visit the hospital to finish being fit for a brace to treat scoliosis.
The objective of the brace is to stop the progression of a curvature in my spine during my “adolescent growth spurt.” It will be worn at all times except for showering. The medieval-looking contraption made of rigid leather fits like a horse saddle around my pelvis. Metal bars run the length of my body, front and back, from abdomen to chin, from lower back to the base of my skull. The cage is held together with screws and bulky cinches and makes fluid movement impossible.
A chastity belt! my dad jokes.
The sleepover is unexpected, perhaps due to last minute adjustments to the brace. I don’t remember having anything of comfort with me. My mom quietly slips away. Doctors and nurses and technicians go about my business without talking directly to me. Without explanation, I am taken to a seemingly abandoned wing of the massive building.
A nurse sizes me up as she rifles through a pile of secondhand clothes in a catchall room. For bedtime, I am given a hospital gown and someone else’s underwear. For the following day, a pair of brown corduroy pants with flare bottoms leftover from the Flower Child era and a sweater with a wide collar sewn into it. Although I am twelve, the nurse must sense my nervousness and adds a stuffed bear to the meager dispensation.
I am an advanced reader and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is my favorite book at that time. As I am led into a massive room with an endless sea of empty beds and large windows set too high for escape, I feel like McMurphy entering a world where he doesn’t belong. Terror seizes me and I turn mute when the nurse asks if I need anything else before she leaves. I have no toothbrush, no comb, no hygiene products. And I need a bathroom bad. But I just shake my head no and climb into a bed of my choosing.
I struggle all afternoon and evening trying not to wet my pants. I dare not get out of bed. I am starving, bored, and feeling sorry for myself when two girls enter the dorm. My headboard is behind a partition and they do not know that I am spying on them from across the room. They sound like old friends reuniting after summer break. One glides by in a wheelchair and the other clicks along on crutches and leg braces. They seem to have a regular routine. I hear pop tops open and the rustle of a potato chip bag. They talk about what a blow-off senior year is and one girl mentions a new kid at school named Antonio who she wants to ask to the Turnabout dance.
Out of sheer ignorance, it has never entered my mind that a girl in a wheelchair or wearing leg braces would go to a school dance. I am picturing this as daylight fades to darkness and a radio is turned on. A female disc jockey with a gravelly voice announces a WLUP special full-length broadcast of a new album release by The Eagles.
I am vaguely familiar with the band having heard a couple of songs played on the jukebox at a bowling alley where my parents hang out. Their music is too heady and haunting and complex for my middle school tastes in contrast to the bubblegum pop I listen to on my Top 40 radio station.
But in this moment I get it.
The album plays without commercial interruption:
The Long Run
I Can’t Tell You Why
In the City
The Disco Strangler
King of Hollywood
Then “Heartache Tonight” hooks me fast and blows me away. It’s a rompy singalong song and I imagine Fun in a new grownup way, picturing a night at a pool hall that ends in a drunken brawl and a couple kissing under a streetlamp. I suddenly feel like a stupid little girl remembering the slumber party I was at last weekend when a pillow fight broke out as Shawn Cassidy’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” played on the stereo.
Halfway through “Those Shoes,” I smell smoke. It’s fragrant; but doesn’t smell like my dad’s cigarettes or my grandfather’s pipe. The girls try to suppress laughter and I mistakenly think it’s because they realize I am in their midst. They cough and clear their throat and go on listening in silence. I wrap myself in a thin, over-bleached sheet and fall asleep somewhere after “Teenage Jail.”
I wake up with the sun in my eyes and notice that someone has covered me with a hand-crocheted throw. A nurse greets me with a tray of mostly liquids and asks if I want a banana or a standard. I think she’s talking about breakfast and I request a banana; but instead of fruit, she returns with a long, wooden cart and pushes it to the foot of my bed.
“Alrighty, then,” she says brightly. “Slide on and let’s go.”
When I throw my legs over the side of the bed and walk to the cart she giggles. “Oh!” she raises her eyebrows. “You’re not crip–”
I squint, trying to understand.
“Nevermind,” she says, shaking her head at the misunderstanding while leading me away. I think about taking the stuffed bear; but something has shifted inside me. I am much older than I was yesterday and do not need childish comforts. I glance over my shoulder to where the two high school girls should have been; but the beds are empty.
The door of the dorm shuts behind me and I try not to draw parallels to myself as McMurphy being sent upstairs for a lobotomy. I am a swimmer. I am a cheerleader. I am a volleyball player. How is this brace going to impact my life? An experience like this could be soul-crushing to a twelve-year-old. Yet I fight off sentimentality.
My spine may be crooked; but I have an unyielding core of self preservation.
I try to recall the blustery finish of Glenn Frey’s one-night-stand anthem and the badass girls across the dorm who taught me about dealing with whatever hand life deals you.
We can beat around the bushes;
we can get down to the bone
We can leave it in the parkin’ lot,
but either way, there’s gonna be a
A heartache tonight I know, oh, I know
There’ll be a heartache tonight, a heartache tonight, I know, woo-hoo!
After a long drive listening to classic rock, I am not looking forward to my next meal of brown rice and kale. But I know that if I can survive a night alone in Shriners Hospital and nearly three years of wearing a cage then I can survive another week on the Elimination Diet.
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