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Mapping Uncharted Territory

by Deborah Page Johnson

My son Zach was diagnosed with multiple food allergies and chemical sensitivities several years ago. My reaction at the time was, "This is impossible! We can't survive without these things!" So began my new life. I felt like a pioneer exploring uncharted territory.

Zach was born by emergency C-section after a very difficult pregnancy. Throughout his first year, he was colicky 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He had rashes and hives, spit up all the time, and didn't want to sleep. Worse, he had a personality like the child in the movie, "The Exorcist".

For the first years of Zach's life, my husband and I had no social life. Out of pity, my in-laws came over every Saturday night so we could get out. A few hours was all they (or anyone) could handle. At restaurants, we would notice couples out with their calm babies. We felt like failures. This was not how we had imagined parenthood. My husband and I figured this was the "worse" part of "for better or worse."

When Zach was 2-1/2, we took him to a specialist, a psychiatrist, since our family doctor could find no reason for his bizarre behavior. Our baby was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a chronic condition characterized by hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and inattentiveness. The psychiatrist put him on a drug called Dexedrine and scheduled us for special play sessions to show us what we were doing wrong.

Tests had revealed that Zach had a high IQ and was very verbal for his age, but the medication caused him to stutter horribly. One evening at dinner, he looked at us with tears in his eyes and stammered, "Why can't I talk any more?" We immediately quit the expensive play sessions and the medication.

I didn't know how to proceed. Then one afternoon, my mother called and told me to turn on the TV. Dr. Doris Rapp, a nutritional expert, was on a talk show, making a compelling case for the link between food and behavior. The real-life examples she cited hit so close to home that I had to know more. I bought Dr. Rapp's book, "Is This Your Child?" and then began the search for an environmental allergist. I interviewed 12 before finding one who agreed that food does affect behavior. I had never been in a health food store before, but I ventured into one.

In time, I became a regular customer. How does one express how profoundly a change in diet can affect one's life? We learned that Zach (and I) had raging candida overgrowth and vitamin and mineral imbalances. We discovered that wheat made Zach violent and abusive. Eggs and dairy made him bang his head into the floor. The chemicals in new carpeting made him lose focus and control. The polyester in his bedding combined with apples made him a bed wetter. (Cutting out apples helped, but it wasn't until we switched to 100 percent cotton sheets when he was six that the problem stopped completely.) The list of Zach's sensitivities was long.

Over the next several years, we struggled to come up with a lifestyle that would work. We learned how to manage Zach's behavior with diet and an environmentally safe house. We replaced all carpeting with hardwood floors or ceramic tile. No fragrances were worn or allowed into the house. Only environmentally safe household cleaning supplies were used. We bought only fragrance-free toilet paper and tissue for the bathroom. We removed the curtains and had blinds and wood shutters installed on the windows. The furniture was eventually replaced with 100 percent cotton upholstery and 100 percent cotton slipcovers. Our wooden furniture was solid wood, not pressboard. We hooked a five gallon distilled water unit to our kitchen faucet and put filters over all showerheads. We installed an air filter to clean the indoor air.

With these changes, Zach miraculously settled down. But carefully crafted "safe bubble" ruptured when Zach entered school. Determined to keep our son mainstreamed, my husband and I brought in the experts. Once again, the testing began. We were told Zach had ADHD and related disorders, and we were faced with a choice - medication or a special school. We chose medication during school hours. All medication was discontinued in junior high.

We've since learned that a number of studies suggest a link between ingestion of gluten and casein with worsening symptoms of ADHD (and other related conditions on the autistic spectrum). Gluten and casein are certainly the main culprits in managing Zach's behavior, so we strictly avoid them. He no longer is on any medication and follows a greener diet.

Today at 18, Zach is a sweet, sensitive, intelligent young man heading off to college. He has learned to keep track of his diet and sometimes struggles with the food choices he must make, particularly those that make him appear different from his friends. Through a careful combination of special diet,, a healthier house, and behavior modification techniques, Zack has blossomed into a happy, energetic teenager.

What we've found after years of trial and error is the right balance that works for Zach. We have our good days and our bad days, depending on what he's been exposed to and how he follows the diet. It isn't perfect, but real life isn't about perfection. It's about finding a livable balance.

My husband still wishes he could buy Zach an ice cream cone or take him to a baseball game and let him eat a hot dog. But I don't look back. We've let go of the old ways and moved into new territory. And I have my child back. That's all that matters.

Deborah Page Johnson is a food coach and author of The Feel Good Food Guide. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons.

This article appeared in the Fall 1993 edition of Sully's Living Without Wheat magazine.