Author Archives: Belladonna Took

About Belladonna Took

Into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, at constant risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic. A wife, a mom, a daughter and sister, kind of a grandma. Until recently a full-time dog rescuer, now more concerned with rescuing myself. User of dog hair as accessory, decor and garnish. Technical writer, strategic thinker, occasional entrepreneur. Voiceless poet and storyteller. Born again Christ-follower and former missionary schoolteacher chewing on some uncomfortable questions. Ignorer of rules, challenger of assumptions, believer in miracles. Skeptical libertarian, equal opportunity despiser of politicians and assholes. Gonnabe gardener, wannabe beekeeper, Monsanto-hating tree-hugger. Morbidly obese chocaholic, with a horse I don't ride because I might break him, and if not he would probably break me.

When rescue fails

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Last week a thing happened, and I feel.

The problem with words is, we talk too much. They get overused and shabby, and when you really need them to say something they’re worn out and not up to the job.

But something happened, and I must tell, and words are what I have.

Where to begin? I’ll start with this text from the Hubbit, received while I was at a writer’s conference in Seattle in September. That’s as good a place as any.

“Scarlett died unknown causes. Suspect the food as several dogs don’t wanna eat it. Am buying new food.”

There was also a photograph. If I hadn’t read the text first I’d have thought she was sleeping.

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Scarlett – what she really looked like.

Scarlett was one of our rescues … I’ve told you I rescue dogs, right? Kuja and I started a small group last year. So far we’ve rehomed around 75 dogs and 30 cats, and also helped owned pets that needed vet care, food, and so on. Anyway, Scarlett was a beauty. Her mother was a Belgian Malinois, daddy was a German Shepherd / husky cross. She was the last pup left from an accidental litter, and when she came to me she was around eight months old and still didn’t have a name. Her people hadn’t been cruel to her, but they’d never wanted her, and it showed. She was pretty shut down, and I figured she’d be a good project for Peter Pan.

I’ve mentioned Peter Pan but never explained his place in the Took menage. He showed up several years ago with a teenage girl we knew. They pitched a tent in the backyard and all was roses for a day or two, then early one morning I saw her spinning her wheels as she roared down our driveway, and I went outside to find him forlornly folding his tent. That’s when I learned he was homeless. He was just a boy – 22 years old, and had spent the years since he aged out of the foster system couch-surfing and drifting back and forth across the country.

Well, he stayed for a few days, which turned into weeks, then months, until he was ready to move on in spring of the following year. I was sorry to see him go and missed him – both the help around our farmlet and the laughs. He’s high a lot, which makes him giggly; this annoys the Hubbit, who is sternly anti-weed, but amuses me. He showed up again a few months ago – I told you how happy I was to see him. Anyway, he took his puppy training responsibilities seriously. Scarlett didn’t warm to him – she was a shy pup, easily scared – but I kept encouraging and advising him, and he kept her with him all day as he went about his work on the farm.

Then we took in Cairo, a a gangly, goofy Malinois pup produced by a backyard breeder who sold him then wouldn’t take him back when the buyer changed his mind. (Mals are like velociraptors – not for the fainthearted.)

dog watching GIF

I already had my hands full with our other foster, Cojak, a German Shepherd with a dangerous dog label that I’ve been rehabilitating. But it was no problem – it’s as easy to play with two puppies as one, and I hoped Cairo would bring Scarlett out of her shell. Peter Pan started going around the farm with two puppies prancing around him. He got less farm work done but I was good with that; the dogs were more important.

It saddened me that that none of the dogs really liked Peter Pan. He tried so hard to win them over, coaxing and loving on them … I felt bad for him. It didn’t help that Cairo got banged up in an encounter with one of the cows, when he was out in the pasture with Peter Pan and got too close to her calf, and also both pups got badly stung by yellow-jackets while out in the shop with him. They were miserable, with their swollen faces and crusty, oozing sores, and they clearly blamed him for the hurt. I kept reassuring him and offering advice – “Don’t force it – let him choose to come to you and then reward him” … “Don’t try to bribe them; just let them know you keep treats in your pockets, and wait for them to come and ask” … “Give her space – she’ll come to you when she’s ready”. My advice was good – it worked. Puppies love treats.

Then it was September, and the conference, and before I could go I had to process a pile of adoption applications for a commotion of chihuahuas we’d rescued from a hoarding situation. So I was distracted, and when Peter Pan mentioned that some of the dogs were off their food I didn’t pay attention.

By the time I received the Hubbit’s text he’d already buried her, and he flatly refused to dig her up again for a necropsy. (Yeah, I’m that wife. But I was right this time.) Peter Pan had found her just before she died and was devastated. Cairo was also sick; they rushed him to the vet, where he went onto a drip and had a bazillion tests, all of which came back looking scary but inconclusive. We sent the food off to a lab to be tested, and I fantasized angrily about the costly vengeance I would wreak upon the manufacturer … but then those results came back negative.

Cairo had a series of follow-up visits with the vet, but remained a sad, sore, floppy puppy. X-rays revealed two broken ribs and a cracked vertebra – an ugly shock; my cows aren’t friendly but they’re not mean – it didn’t make sense that she’d hurt him that badly. The vet prescribed crate rest and various medications, but there was a grim set to her jaw, a look in her eye that told me that, after more than ten years of taking my dogs to her, I had been judged and found wanting.

He failed to get better, and at some point he also broke his lower left canine. It just snapped, revealing raw nerves . I figured he must have got it caught in the wire crate (he sometimes worked at the gate to get it open) or maybe got it hooked in a bone and yanked it out with excessive force. (Everything a Malinois does involves excessive force.) He also had a large hematoma inside his left ear; he was on crate rest with leashed walks but with a Mal that doesn’t necessarily mean much – they have a way of breaking loose and playing hard. Not that he was doing much hard play, poor puppy – but what else could it be? Odd that the tooth and the hematoma happened at the same time, and were on the same side of his face, but … Well, at least a hematoma isn’t life-threatening, and when he was neutered we had the tooth removed – an easy fix. I just hope that as it heals his left ear will once again stand up properly.

Meanwhile the vet noticed that he “walked funny”. “There’s something else going on with this dog,” she muttered. Could he have panosteitis? His face was still swollen, the lesions on his nose weren’t healing properly, and the lymph nodes in his throat were swollen. Could it be juvenile cellulitis? But when I tried to discuss it with her she wouldn’t quite meet my eye. She suggested we hand him off to another, bigger, wealthier rescue, because we’d already run up a sizable bill, we couldn’t afford all the diagnostics she wanted to do, and she wasn’t offering any more discounts.

Back home the other dogs were doing well on their new kibble but he wouldn’t eat, so I started cooking for him – elk, home-raised eggs and veggies, home-made bone broth. He began to get better. I thought gentle exercise might help, so once again he was out with Peter Pan as he worked around our farmlet.

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Destra

Then Destra collapsed. Destra is my girl – my first Malinois – an 11-year-old I’ve had since she was a puppy and came to us to recover from the injury that eventually cost her a hind leg. She has an inoperable thyroid tumor wrapped around her throat, so we’ve known for a while her time was limited. She threw up everything in her gut, but once that was done she wasn’t in distress. She just wanted to sleep, wouldn’t eat, and couldn’t really walk. I googled “how to tell my dog is dying”, and all the symptoms checked out. So I made her comfortable, kept her company, and left the care of the other dogs to Peter Pan. Eventually I snugged her up to a hot pillow and went to bed, expecting her to be gone by morning.

She wasn’t. When I sat up in bed and looked at her, she was sitting up and looking at me, and she made it clear that getting her outside to do her business was my most urgent priority. (She didn’t like to be carried but looked very regal in a wheelbarrow lined with blankets.) By the next day she was moving under her own power. I started feeding her the same food as Cairo, and she quickly recovered.

Reading over this I see that I’ve left out so much – but it’s already too long. I just don’t have the space to tell you about the cat Peter Pan found lying dead in the south pasture, or the three perfectly healthy hens that dropped dead without warning. I don’t know if it’s relevant that we brought home a Chihuahua mama and four puppies born by emergency c-section and two of the babies died. One was the runt but the other … I was sure he’d make it. But neonates die, after all – especially after a too long labor, when their mama is still exhausted and too stoned to keep them under the heat lamp.

And then there was Argos. I told you what happened to him. He survived that first night. A test for toxoplasmosis came back negative. The leptospirosis test needs to be confirmed but is a probable negative. Yesterday’s follow-up with the eye specialist revealed that he’s doing well. His eyes may recover fully, but if they don’t … well, he’s a Malinois; he’ll figure it out. Only it makes me crazy that we have no idea what happened to him. We can run test after test, we can speculate about trauma, but we can’t know.

And that’s true for this whole horrible story. We can add 2+2 and pick a number. We can speculate, extrapolate, assume. But there’s not a lot we can know.

Yes, okay … I skipped over the thing that happened last week. Fine. Let’s end this.

I was out, and the Hubbit called and told me to get my ass back home because he’d just caught P beating Cairo. I passed P on the way and my foot lifted reflexively from the accelerator. He looked so lonely, such a gangly, lost boy walking an empty road on a gray day. “I can take him into town, or to a friend – at any rate, someplace warm,” I thought. “We can talk in the car. There has to be an explanation.”

But then I let my foot drop back onto the accelerator pedal, because the truth is we’d started to wonder about him before that day. The Hubbit had never trusted him but held his peace until I confessed my fears. Then we’d found a private place and prayed together: “Lord, please reveal the truth, and give us the wisdom to know what to do.” We’d borrowed a motion-activated infrared camera and hoped to borrow more, so we could monitor the house and workshop. I’d begun to watch him more closely with the dogs, intervening when they didn’t want to go with him, feeding them myself rather than asking him to do it. I told Kuja, “It feels like we’re cursed. Like there’s something evil loose on our property. And really I’d rather encounter some Halloween-style ghost or ghoul than…” I didn’t want to say it, but she knew. She knows one doesn’t just casually abandon someone, whether they have four legs or two.

Of course there was no ghost – just a changeling, a wicked sprite masquerading as a human boy.

So anyway, the Hubbit and the Cool Dude walked into the house and heard Cairo screaming. They rushed to him and found that P had somehow folded himself inside the big wire crate to get at the puppy, who was crammed up against the far end. P was stomping Cairo with his army boots. He scrambled out, made some asinine excuse about Cairo having pooped in his crate (there was no poop, and anyway, what the fuck?)

That was five days ago. Since then, I’ve taken over most of P’s chores. One of them was to put out food and water for the invisible barn cats and clean their litter box. I find they’ve gone from being invisible to not there at all. The food and water I put out is untouched, the litter box unused, and mice scurry boldly all over the shop.

On the other hand, Cairo has gone from being a sad, listless puppy to a wonderful lunatic, leaving a wake of destruction wherever he goes.

Cairo mug

Cairo. This is from a couple months ago, before he got sick. In fact I think it was taken just a day or two before the horrors began with the wasps. Can you imagine hurting this?

I feel ashamed that I didn’t pay attention when Cairo and Scarlett tried to tell me they weren’t safe. I feel stupid that I was so slow to figure out what was happening. I feel betrayed. Sickened. Abused. Disillusioned. Angry.

I think of the lost boy that I thought I knew, that I thought I could trust, that I thought I could rescue, and I feel bereaved.
Have you ever trusted someone, and thought you and they were walking the same trail, only to realize the person you trusted may never have existed outside your imagination?

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Also goats and cows

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If you follow Rarasaur (and you really should) you will find that sometimes she takes hold of your brain and turns it upside down like a pocket in a washing machine, and extraordinary things fall out. This is what fell out of my brain this evening.

I have never milked a cow. A friend, then a neighbor, tried to teach me to milk a goat, and she gave me goats milk that was delicious to drink and made wonderful soft cheese. The Hubbit and I were just just a few years into farming. All things seemed possible. So I decided I needed goats of my own.

Then one day the Hubbit saw two nannies on Craigslist who had been pets for a few years and were being given away for free. They had never been bred, or milked, and we found out after we brought them home that they weren’t really that accustomed to being pets either. I liked them, though, and I named the Saanen-cross Mary, and the La Mancha became Dulcinea.

This is a working farm, and everything is supposed to earn its keep. That is The Rule, as laid down by the Hubbit. (It doesn’t apply to my old horse or any of the dogs, all of whom are more cuddly than useful, but he is adamant that the exceptions stop there. More-or-less. Sometimes The Rule doesn’t really apply to me either … but I’m also always up for a cuddle.) My point is, there is no room for virgin goats on a working farm. Our next door neighbors had a billy goat, so we invited him over for a visit.

Billy goats have a bad reputation for reeking and raunchiness, and it’s entirely justified. This billy, and apparently he wasn’t unusual, would make himself irresistible by sticking his head between his front legs and peeing on his face. I think he peed pure acid, because his face was covered with raw bald patches. If we went out into the pasture he would rush up and try to rub it on us – behavior we appreciated about as much as the ladies did. In the end, however, he did what he was there to do and went home, and in the fullness of time Dulcinea and Mary produced kids.

Dulcinea & Kids (1)

Dulcinea and three brand new babies

There is nothing in the world as enchanting as a baby kid … except a whole lot of baby kids . I wish I had photographs, but this was before I had a phone with a camera on it, and anyway I’ve always been more interested in just looking than in recording. With baby kids in the pasture it’s about impossible to get anything done, they’re just so much fun. I set them up with logs and tires and random other odds and ends, and they spent their days leaping on, off and over. It’s the best part of having a farmlet!

Then, when they’re six months old, if you live on a working farm, your husband puts treats in a bucket and leads them around the side of the barn while you sit in a stall on a hay bale with your hands over your ears, and their mamas cry and cry, and you cry with them, and for days afterwards they glare at you with their yellow slotted eyes. Young goat is delicious, but it’s hard to eat; you feel like a cannibal.

This post started out being about milking, so, to get back to my point… The reason the nannies had to have kids was to bring in their milk. These were specifically milking breeds. You have to milk them and it’s better not to let them feed their babies; their udders get huge, and when kids nurse they slam their hard little heads into those udders and cause damage. But my two ladies would have nothing to do with my rude, clumsy fingers, and in the end they developed lumps of scar tissue from the relentless head-butting, which made it milking them properly impossible.

We tried keeping milk goats for two years, during which my neighbor continued to supply me with milk for cheese (so delicious! Such a frustrating reminder of my farmwife failings!) The first year my first Malinois, Destra, killed one of the babies, which was hugely traumatic. The second year she murdered two of them and I’d had enough. Kill day was just a couple weeks away and I couldn’t face inflicting more pain on my girls. (The cows really don’t care. They’ll stand and watch the kill guy do his work, and then mosey off with their latest calves to find another patch of sweet grass to munch on, and by the next day they’re not even calling the missing members of their herd. But goats are different. They know.)

I feel a bit weird writing about this, having sort of dedicated this post to Ra, who I think is vegetarian. But … well, this is what fell out of the pocket in my head, so I’ll just run with it, I guess.

Anyway, I found a goat rescue and we loaded up Mary, Dulcinea and their three remaining kids (the rescue later named them Wynken, Blynken and Nod and found them a job together as lawnmowers) and we drove in the truck for seven hours, across the Cascades and then up the I-5 almost as far as the Canadian border, and then five-and-a-half hours back home again. (We didn’t get lost on the way home.) The Hubbit has never quite forgiven me for this, and I will likely never get to have goats again, but that’s probably just as well. I have arthritis in my thumbs now, so milking is no longer possible.

Our cows don’t need to be milked. Their udders get large, but their calves can drink all the milk they produce and the head-butting doesn’t seem to bother them.

Rugen - Granny and Grandpa farm's house

Rugen, my grandparents’ farmhouse in the Northern Transvaal. I look at this picture and I can smell the Cobra wax polish that made her floors and furniture gleam. I can taste the pawpaws, blessed with the last coolness of the early morning. My grandmother kept peacocks and I loved to collect their tail feathers, but she would never have them in her house; she said they were unlucky.

When  I was a child my grandparents had a cattle farm in the Northern Transvaal in South Africa. They raised mainly beef cattle, but they had a few cows for milk. When we visited I went every morning to the milking shed, and then I followed the buckets of milk to the room with the cream separator. I had my little tin mug and I was allowed to hold it under the spout where the warm milk foamed out, and whenever no one was looking I’d stick it under the spout to steal the thick yellow cream.

Then my grandfather would take me out into the orchard and we’d pick a few pawpaws for breakfast. My grandmother would slice them and clean out the shiny black wet bitter-tasting seeds, and after we’d eaten our pawpaw she’d dish up big bowls of hot oatmeal or mieliemeal porridge and sprinkle on a thick crust of sugar, and I was allowed to pour on as much cream as I wanted.

Let’s talk. Have you ever milked anything? Or drunk fresh cream? What would fall out of the pockets in your head if I turned you upside down?

Night watch

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It’s nearly 5.00AM. I’ve just wakened Argos. In 15 minutes I’ll rouse him again, and again 15 minutes after that, and again, until the Hubbit wakes and takes over for a while so I can sleep. Argos is irritated by this. He grumbled at me the last time I woke him, 15 minutes ago, when I stroked him and called him a good boy. He hurts and he’s tired and he just wants to sleep, but the vet said he might have a concussion and can’t be left to sleep for 24 hours.

It might not be a concussion. We’re not sure what it is – whether he ingested or inhaled something toxic, or ran into something spiky, or stuck his head into a bush or a hole and got clawed by something – we just don’t know. But the vet thinks most of the signs, although confusing, point to a head injury, so that’s what we’re going with, for now.

Here’s what happened. I was sitting at my computer, working my way through Trevor Noah Steven Colbert Seth Meyers interspersed with random actual fake news bits and also dog rescue stories, because sometimes you just have to have a happy ending…

…and Peter Pan, who won’t try to talk to me when I’m wearing headphones, put a scrap of paper on my keyboard.

PP's note

“Argos is running into things. I just noticed this 5 minutes ago. Not sure what’s wrong. I just saw him do this as I went outside for my little walk.”

I ran outside and found Argos cowering on the edge of the veranda, an embarrassed look on his face, his eyes swollen and bloody.

The vet I trust wasn’t answering her phone, so I raced to the emergency clinic. His eyes are scratched and bleeding, with abrasions and puncture wounds in the inner eyelids. He has a puncture wound right in the middle of his forehead, but no other bites or scratches anywhere. He is blind. His blood pressure was high, his heart rate was slow and irregular, and he is still lethargic.

The very young vet was baffled. She had never seen anything like it. (There are probably quite a few things she has never seen anything like. She is really very young – not just by comparison with me. It terrified me that she and her array of beeping machines was all there was between us and an intolerable outcome.)

She flushed out his eyes, treated him for inflammation and pain, put him on an IV drip and ran blood work, then disappeared for a long time. After a while I asked whether he was coming back, and a tech told me she was “doing research”. This didn’t entirely reassure me.

And it didn’t help. When she reemerged she still didn’t know what was wrong with him. I called home and demanded that the Hubbit haul Peter Pan out of his shower to answer questions. That’s when Peter Pan mentioned that Argos had been hassling the cattle and Vos, my big old horse. He might have been inside the corral with them. (I have no idea how he gets into the corral, but he does – and no amount of fence-fixing stops him. He’ll go for a little bit of forever without bothering them, and then he remembers How Much FUN It Is, and he notices that my attention is Elsewhere, and he figures out or creates another way through the fence.) Anyway, I passed the information on to the vet, who decided he’d been kicked in the head. She wanted to do x-rays but I said no, ignoring her disapproval, hammering down my guilt, because there’s not a lot we can do about a bad non-human head injury in this town over a weekend (specialist care is at the vet school a couple hours drive away), and $350 was too high a price to satisfy her curiosity. I said we’d simply assume he was concussed and proceed accordingly.

Then I turned down her invitation to keep him under observation. More hundreds of dollars that we don’t have, and for what? He wouldn’t tell her if he felt worse or different. I brought him home, where he belongs. He followed his nose unhesitatingly from the car to the front door and for a moment I thought he was okay after all, but then he tried to go onto the grass to pee and fell off the veranda. He still can’t see.

It’s getting harder to wake him. Last time I called him several times, then petted him, and finally took his collar and shook him before he raised his head, searching for me in the darkness of my brightly lit office. (It’s possible that he’s ignoring me; he does that, sometimes. That’s the hope I’m hanging onto.)

The vet said if it was a bad head injury, he might become increasingly disoriented, even have seizures. He might never regain his sight. He might die.

I’m pinning my hope on the fact that he’s too darn stubborn to quit.

He’s loud and pushy and he won’t listen to anyone who isn’t me. He’s covered with scars because he won’t quit challenging the other dogs – he thinks it’s all fun, a game, getting up close and screaming and whacking them with a toy or body slamming them until they can’t stand it any more and try to rip his head off. If he gets out when the Hubbit is on the tractor he screams with excitement and bites the tires (and then I get mad at the Hubbit for not bringing him back inside, because if he managed to sink his teeth into the rubber and the tire kept rolling it could break his neck), and if we take too long driving through the gate he bites the front of the car (he’s broken his teeth mangling the number plate ). He’s mean to the Hubbit’s little princesses and ignores the chickens right up until I decide I can trust him (I can’t) and he won’t-won’t-won’t take his stare off the cat. He sneaks onto our bed when we’re asleep, and spreads out and makes himself heavy until I wake with a cramp all the way from hip to toes. When he’s outside and wants in, he stands up and hammers so hard on the french door and windows with his scimitar toenails that he’s scratched the glass. When he’s inside, sometimes he covers my head with kisses to let me know he wants out … and sometimes he just pees on the furniture.

He really is an asshole, and he’s a lunatic, a terror, a deranged genius, and the Hubbit can barely stand him.

He’s my ally. My comrade. My first defence against the Black Dog. Life without him is inconceivable.

And he’s not a quitter.

He’s not a quitter.

He won’t quit.

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Let’s talk. Whom do you love that makes you crazy, makes you laugh, and keeps you focused on what matters? Have you ever been sick at heart at the thought you might lose them?

The fast way to self-improvement

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Well, I did it again, and this time I won! I have 95% successfully completed my second water fast. I didn’t journal the first one but this time around I thought it would be interesting to track how my body responded.

As before, I jumped into this after several weeks of thinking about getting prepared to think seriously about doing it. Tuesday night I was dinking around on Facebook and I popped in to see what was happening on Aussa’s new group page, and she’d just posted her weekly challenge to set a goal and grab it by the … pearl necklace and make it behave.

Fat orangutan

Just like this. But with jeans. And my belly button is still an innie. (Source)

I was not in my happy place. It was nearly midnight, which meant I had once again failed to get to bed early enough to bounce out of bed, all full of get-up-and-go, before sunrise. (Here in the gloomy north the sun doesn’t rise until nearly 7.30 at this time of the year, but I’m pretty pathetic when it comes to sleep. I fight it like a bitch, but I need a lot of zzzzzs.) I’d been in full binge mode (aka compulsive pleasure-free eating) for nearly a week, and I felt squeezed by my XXXL jeans despite having undone both button and zipper,  and was also regretting the ice cream I’d engulfed earlier that evening in the hope that a sugar hit would keep me awake long enough to manage the half hour drive home from the vet. (It didn’t. I had to pull over for a snooze less than 10 miles from home.)

In other words, my life was once again out of control at its most fundamental level. So, of course, I sneered and hated myself and kept scrolling to read about the extraordinary successes racked up by my fellow Aussa bitches … and then my fingers took over my brain, and by the time they’d done dancing around on the keyboard I had scrolled back and announced my intention to do a full water fast, starting immediately. Then I logged off and went to bed, quickly, before I was compelled to eat something.

I started each day with two green tea capsules (for energy) and a splash of raw apple cider vinegar in water (for gut health). We’re blessed with delicious water – our well draws from an aquifer nearly 600 ft down below a thick layer of rock. During the day I drank tap water whenever I felt thirsty. I slept longer and more deeply than usual, and woke feeling refreshed. I didn’t do any extra exercise, and as the fast progressed I moved more slowly and rested more often, responding to the needs of my body.

Ask Google “What happens to my body when I fast?” if you want to invite a barrage of conflicting information, ranging from “Your muscles will shrivel up and you will diiiieeee!” to “You will directly experience Nirvana and your whole life will change forever!” The interweb is host to hordes of experts, both self-proclaimed and accredited, and it can get confusing, so choosing your guru is pretty much an act of faith. As with any faith, the smart way to go is to study what the guru says, check in with opposing views to maintain your balance, remember that if anything sounds too good to be true it probably (but not definitely) is, and over time evaluate what they say based on your personal experience.

My guru of choice is Dr. Jason Fung. He’s flavor of the month and also way too young and pretty – definite red flags – but on consideration, for now at any rate, I’m willing to hop on his wagon and see where it takes me.

Day 1 – Tuesday

I didn’t start to feel hungry until quite late in the day, and several hours before I felt hungry I was aware of other benefits – dramatically reduced inflammatory pain in my muscles and joints, no brain fog, and a happier, more relaxed mood. I was moderately active (by my low standards) and became tired shortly after dark.

According to Fung, during the first day of my fast my insulin levels dropped and my body accessed its glycogen stores to release glucose for energy. The human body keeps a 24-hour glycogen reserve mainly in the liver and skeletal muscles. That stored in the liver is available wherever energy is needed (and apparently most of it goes to the brain! For some reason I find that reassuring.) As I understand it, the glycogen stored in muscle tissue used by the muscles, not readily released to the rest of the body.

As the day progressed without any more carbs going in, my basal metabolic rate fell as my body sought to cut back on energy expenditure. Most of the pro-fasting literature I’ve read says your metabolic rate rises again after a few days of fasting, to above your normal level, but I didn’t get to experience that. Maybe next time, when I go for longer…

Day 2 – Wednesday

Woke early feeling clear-headed and energetic, but after I got up I quickly ran out of energy. No hunger pangs as such, but I was aware that my body wanted fuel. My head felt tight, as though it was thinking about having an ache, but in fact I didn’t experience any headache during this fast.

I spent the day being gentle with myself, resting often, but still writing and doing my regular chores. By the afternoon I was ravenous and stupid, and by evening I was still hungry, tired, irritable and floppy all over. I was also constantly thirsty, despite drinking lots of water.

101 dalmations

For some reason I cooked dinner for the male members of the household – my signature spaghetti bolognese. I don’t ever cook without tasting (I learned that the hard way – but that’s a story for another day) so I had maybe a teaspoonful of bolognese sauce and one strand of spaghetti … and then, after gritting my teeth and not eating with the men I couldn’t resist the redolence. I ate four, I mean five, okay SIX teaspoons of bolognese sauce. It was almost unbearably delicious. My stomach had pretty much given up on me by then and was hiding in a corner grumbling sadly to itself, so it was a little startled when that lot came walloping down my gullet. But the discomfort passed quickly and the relief was great!

Mind you, I was pissed at myself. I felt I’d let myself down, and was tempted to call myself a loser and just quit. But it was only meat, not carbs, and totaled well under 100 calories, so I decided to declare the fast unbroken and keep going. (Full disclosure: I ate a few teaspoons of bolognese sauce again the next night – I was just so hungry, and it was there. But that’s the only food I consumed for the 84 hours I fasted, so I feel … not good, but okay about it. Next time I’ll do better.)

To know what was happening with my body, I turned again to Dr. Fung. After 24 hours my body had depleted its store of glycogen, which activated other processes to generate energy.

  • My liver kicked into gluconeogenesis, creating glucose from amino acids.
  • In a parallel process (and I’m not going to pretend I understand yet how they are connected) it launched into autophagy, which essentially involves cannibalizing junk proteins, also to generate energy. If you want scholarly literature on the subject, Google has plenty; for those who want a greatly simplified explanation in layman’s terms, go here.
  • Meanwhile, the hunger pangs kept coming and going because of a hormone called ghrelin – and the interesting thing about that is that ghrelin will switch itself off after a couple hours if you ignore it, even if you don’t eat. Knowing that hunger won’t last makes it a lot easier to resist!

The most important of these processes, as far as I’m concerned, is autophagy. This is relatively easy to trigger – unlike ketosis, which takes longer and can be harder to sustain. All you have to do is not eat for 24-48 hours. Unfortunately I didn’t get the full benefit of it, because eating even a small amount of protein switches it off. I wish I’d known that … It might have made it possible to resist the bolognese…

Day 3 – Thursday

I’ve read about how, after fasting for a few days, your body kicks into higher energy mode. The theory is that its initial response to a lack of food is to reduce your rate of energy consumption (aka “starvation mode”), so your metabolism slows and you feel tired and sleepy. But if there’s still nothing on the menu after a couple days your body goes “Woah! Gotta fix this!” and you experience a surge in energy, as well as much greater clarity of thought – because you have to get out there and chase something down and kill it.”

I was kinda hoping to feel that way by Thursday, but … nope. I woke hungry and was tired and draggy all day. My brain was clear but I was so fumble-tongued I might as well have been catatonic, for all I could communicate. During the afternoon I went out into the garden with Peter Pan to discuss vegetable matters, and – being too floppy to pick up my feet properly – I tripped over a squash vine and went down like a dropped two-by-four. And once down … well, I lay there for a while on the cool dirt, thinking about how nice it would be simply to stay there. Getting vertical again took way more effort than seemed worthwhile!

Anyway, Dr. Fung says you go into ketosis after two to three days of fasting, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen for me this time. I’ve always struggled to achieve and maintain ketosis, even when eating super low-carb and high fat. I’m not diabetic but maybe I’m somewhat insulin-resistant; I need to learn more about it and figure out how to change.

Day 4 – Friday

I went into this fast not sure how long I’d stay with it, but determined to last longer than I did last time. About halfway in a friend called and invited me for tea, so I put her off until Friday afternoon and set my goal at noon Friday – giving me 84 hours of fasting, or 12 hours more than last time. And I made it! In fact, I think if I hadn’t had the tea date I could even have lasted longer. By Friday morning the hunger pangs were less and my head was clear and alert, although I was still physically quite weak.

This time, I broke my fast gradually. At noon I had a cup of hot, salty bone broth. About a half hour later I had a small fruit yogurt with heaped spoonful of crushed pecans, which kept me going an hour and a half. Then I had a cheddar and tomato sandwich – just one slice, not my usual two. Tea was more indulgent – I chowed down on crackers with whipped cream cheese and pepper jelly and found room for lemon cake, but after that I didn’t want dinner. In fact, I didn’t eat again until after noon on Saturday.

Since then I’ve been ramping up my food consumption, which is annoying – why this relentless compulsion to eat? Still … I do seem still to want smaller quantities, and I seem to be going longer between meals, and I don’t have quite the same desire for sugar … so I guess I’ve gained some ground.

I found, while fasting, that my mood improved greatly. Since going back onto sugar I’ve been more irritable and short-tempered. The burning, aching inflammatory pain in my joints and muscles stopped entirely and still hasn’t come back – although it will if I’m not careful. I slept very deeply while fasting, and when I started eating again I immediately fell back into my night owl habits, reinforced by insomnia. My jeans were looser, but they’re getting tight again.

Now what?

The main takeaway seems to be that very fat people are more likely to survive the initial weeks of the Zombie Apocalypse because, provided we have access to water, we’ll be able to hide away and live off our fat stores for a good long while – and when the hunger pangs don’t bite we’ll even have a jolly old time of it, because our brains will be sharp enough to joke, sing and tell stories.

UnexpectedParty

We’ll find a cozy hole and party like Hobbits. (Original illustration by David Wenzel)

But over the longer term the outlook for VFPs isn’t so good, unless our hiding place also includes some weights and an exercise bicycle.

I’m convinced that the reason I didn’t experience the energy surge I expected is that I’m starting off at a frighteningly low level of fitness. It’s unrealistic to think you can go from being someone who can just about maybe almost chase down one chicken in a very small pen without having a heart attack (and actually the last time I tried to do that I eventually had to call in reinforcements in the form of Peter Pan), to being capable of chasing down a wildebeest, merely by not eating.

This is going to take some thought. And planning. And work. And a whole lot less ice cream.

I’ll think about it … tomorrow.

Tomorrow is another day (2)

 

Let’s talk. Have you ever tried fasting? What kind of fast, and what was your goal? What was your main takeaway from the experience?

Walking with the Black Dog

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The problem with pain is figuring out what to do about it. Do you take a pill to make it stop? Do you fix what’s causing it? Or do you learn to live with it?

The problem with the Black Dog is the noise it makes when it’s tearing your heart with its teeth. It muffles nuance; the tune pain plays on your heart-bones-breath emerges as random notes, dissonant and jangling.

Black dog in the dark

I could take a pill – put the leash back on the Dog. I still have plenty – at least a month’s supply – and my doctor would willingly give more. Here’s how the argument goes (I know it well, having used it often on others): “If you had diabetes or a heart condition, wouldn’t you take whatever pills were necessary to control it?”

The problem with that argument is, it’s specious. If you have diabetes or a heart condition, the first act of a sane person is to change the way they eat, move, sleep, live. The TV commercial narratives – glowing visions of super-sized burgers and greasy pizzas followed without a pause by ads for aspirin and Tums, Lipitor, Prilosec and metformin, always with the soothing reminder to “talk with your doctor” – those are the ravings of a crazy person.

I may walk in the dark of an imaginary tunnel with an invisible black dog at my heels, but I’m not crazy. I’m on a mission to find what’s real – friend or enemy, loss or gain, joy or pain. I’ve rejected the phantasmagoria that lie in pill bottles. I want to grieve real loss, fear real terrors, fight for what’s really good. And laughter – the kind that makes the fat on your belly jiggle … It’s been a while; I need to remember how that’s done.

So here we are, the Dog and I, still walking together and now deep within the tunnel. How deep I can’t say; how much further we have to go I don’t know. Sometimes a crack in the roof lets in a beam of light, a breath of clean air. Sometimes in the darkness the Dog leaps, knocks me to the ground, sinks its teeth into my flesh – and when that happens it makes no difference whether or not I scream, because in the dark we’re alone. So far, I’ve yielded sometimes and fought back sometimes, and I’ve learned that, either way, sooner or later the Dog is sated. It comes back to heel, its breath steamy on my left thigh, my fingertips resting on its head, and we walk on, watching for light, hoping for joy.

Let’s talk. Do you live with depression, anxiety or some other mental illness? How do you deal with it? And, as you deal, how do you identify and give priority to the things that are most important to you?