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It’s the middle of winter in Tasmania but Pete and I are relaxing under the shade of an umbrella after a very hot day of sightseeing the other side of the world. It had been more than 30 years since I explored the streets of Amsterdam which is a city I used to feel very much at home in during my high school years. Whenever I felt a bit rebellious I would jump on the train to Amsterdam heading for excitement instead of my usual train to boredom/tedium at high school in the opposite direction. I would return home feeling refreshed and inspired at the normal time and my parents would be none the wiser.
Today after chilling out with the help of a strong Dutch coffee at a cafe an almost forgotten memory surfaces in my brain. I say to Peter:  ‘Do you know that I should have been dead 13 years ago?’

Peter doesn’t even look surprised…that’s the beauty of a long term relationship (34 years in our case) you can just say whatever pops into your mind even if it is completely random. He realizes that I am talking about one of my teenage aspirations to become an artist and live in Amsterdam and commit suicide at age 39….

Pete, who is a man of few words, just nods in agreement. The silence gives me an opportunity to reminisce over my childhood and bouts of mental illness I experienced during the course of my life. It is only with the wisdom of hindsight and years of treating clients, as well as spending 2 months in a mental hospital at age 46 that I admit to the fact that mental illness was a silent partner in my life for long periods of time.
Hindsight gives us a lot of clarity so perhaps I should scrutinize my past to see if there is something worthwhile sharing. I was born in Uitgeest in 1962, the second child of five in a loving family. We lived in a very old section of the town, with a history that dated back to the 1600’s and we grew up amongst farmers who had known each other for generations. It was a very close knit community. Neighbours would celebrate each other’s birthdays and mourn each other’s ill-fortunes. As children we used to roam outside all day and feel safe. The adults in the street never had to worry about us kids. We used to pop into the neighbours whenever we felt like it and play with other kids amongst the cows in the stables or in my dad’s breadcrumb factory. We played hide and seek in the barns and orchards and rolled around on the piles of old bread destined for bread crumbs. It was an ideal childhood in many ways.

I was a sunshiny kind of girl, not shy and not super outgoing either and enjoyed every part of my life till I was in my early teens. I remember riding to school on my pushbike one bright summer day and going from thinking that life was amazing to having an overwhelming sense of depression and anxiety. Without warning my childhood as I had known it was finished.

Not long after that I became so ill with depression that I couldn’t get out of bed. I was 13. I didn’t know what had hit me; I felt such a deep despair that even the thought of suicide to end it all was too much.

The blackness had appeared so unexpected and was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to talk about it so I didn’t.  I had gone from being an adventurous, happy go lucky girl to feeling “there is no future for me or anybody else…   how come humans can stand this much suffering?’ in a matter of days.

When the feeling became so intense I could no longer bear it I would go to the toilet and vomit, which felt so disgusting that it almost matched my mental agony and gave me a few moments reprieve. My parents were worried and called up the village GP who had delivered every child in the family and knew us well. He came out for a home visit, scratched his head, listened to my heart, looked at my tongue, poked my tummy and as he straightened up and towered over my deflated body on the couch in the living room he announced in his usual booming voice ‘bed rest and antibiotics!’

I duly followed his instructions and stayed in bed for a whole week, fortifying myself on antibiotics till the world took on a semblance of normality and I was able to go back to school. For many years afterwards I couldn’t read books that were too gruesome or literature that was too ‘deep’ otherwise I could feel myself being pulled into that fearful black abyss. (Luckily we didn’t have a TV and we never watched movies so my nervous system was protected from the harsh realities of injustice, suffering and inequality in the world).

I coped by channelling my energies into studying hard and being creative. All my spare time was taken up by being a tortured artist in the sanctuary of my bedroom (which I shared with 2 siblings). I found that if I kept busy it gave me a sense of purpose and bolstered an innate sense of pride, which was the opposite to falling into that massive gaping hole which was always lurking on the periphery of my awareness. My approach to life became ‘healthy living and keeping busy’. However I knew that sooner or later the internal pressure was probably going explode to the surface again and just in case that happened I had a backup plan: to commit suicide at age 39. It was somehow comforting to know that I could end it all myself after having done my best for all those years.

Fortunately for me the Universe had different plans for me and sent a young bloke from fresh from the Tasmanian wilderness across my path when I was 17. It worked! Opposites attract: introverted national parks and wildlife ranger meets extroverted girl from the city and live happily ever after. We got married within 14 months and I emigrated to the remotest part of the world, leaving Amsterdam and suicide behind me.

Or so I thought….  We cruised along happily till I was 26 and I was pregnant with number 4. Suddenly I started to suffer from inexplicable panic attacks at night. Only at the time I didn’t know that they were panic attacks. I would wake up in the middle of the night with blood coursing through my veins, my heart doing summersaults in my chest and the mind hammering at the door accusing me of all sorts of things. It would feel as if the suffering of the entire world was pressed into every cell of my body and it was almost more than I could endure. I would sneak out of bed and pace the floor, or sit on the rocking chair in the lounge room madly rocking away to calm myself. Nothing made sense anymore and once again the world was doomed. Eventually I would go back to sleep and wake up feeling weak and washed out the next day.

Eve was born, life went on and I coped fine till I was 36 when we moved to the North West and I had another rough patch, with panic attacks and depression. However it only lasted for a few months and I got by using sleeping tablets at night. 

When I was 46 the same old mental illness returned, only this time it didn’t go away and it hit me a lot harder than even before. Within days I wasn’t even able to leave the house or have visitors because my whole body would shake and tremble. I knew I was in deep trouble when I went for a coffee by myself in Latrobe and I had to race outside when the coffee arrived and sit in the car for half an hour to catch my breath while wiping the sweat from my forehead all the while madly sucking on a temazepam. I realized then that on top of everything else I now had agoraphobia. I who had always loved the company of people now couldn’t bear to be around anybody!

When we were kids my dad used to repeatedly tell us to ‘act normal, then we would be crazy enough’. Obviously this had become my subconscious motto and I had always done my utmost best to ‘act normal’ while the twin towers were continually crashing down inside my nervous system. Even when I was in the grip of the worst panic attack, where a normal person would roll around on the floor hyperventilating, I would still continue on with a smile on my face. I had always managed to bluff my way through the trickiest situations. That was until I turned 46 and my mental power of which I had always been so proud of suddenly deserted me.

But before I fully admitted any of this to myself Peter and I went to Hobart for a short break. Did I say a short break? It turned out to be the big breaking point. We were staying in the inner city and as I calmly pretended to enjoy the shops and display a semblance of normality my nervous system was screaming to run for safety. Only there was nowhere to hide, because it was all happening inside my own body.  In the end the agoraphobia was so bad that I dissociated from by body for hours at the time which gave me a horrible feeling of spaciness. Other times I would acutely re-experience the feelings I had when I was dying from a car accident 2 years earlier which turned my insides into jelly and caused me to shake and tremble all over. The only reprieve I had was when Peter took me into a remote forest near Hobart and we found a little sanctuary under a huge tree at the edge of a creek. Finally my heart stopped racing, only to start again as soon as I noticed some tourists in the distance.

There was no denying it any longer: my nervous system was out of control.  I booked myself in to see the GP. She recognized the signs immediately and organized for me to see a psychiatrist the next day. I still didn’t think I was ‘that bad’ and made light of my own ‘craziness’ to the kids when we sat around the table that night. It came as a shock to the whole family when the psychiatrist wanted to admit me to a psychiatric ward on the spot after he interviewed me.  Peter had to work the next day so Eve took me to the hospital in Burnie and we unpacked my bags together. I was still making fun of myself in front of Eve while she helped me settle into my room but the minute she left I buried my head in the pillow and slept off and on for 3 days. After 3 days the nurse told me it was time for me to join the group and start doing the planned activities.

It was a time of soul-searching and enforced rest. My whole life I had only been able to relax if I knew I had a list of jobs to do afterwards. (Being a mum of six kids living on a hobby farm this was never a problem). That was the only way I permitted myself to do nothing. I was always one step ahead of myself, planning the next project while still wading halfway through the current one.

At the hospital we were trained in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), exercised, did craft activities, had blood test to determine the state of our biochemistry and the other patients were given shock treatment but I refused. Medication was compulsory but I found that it made my anxiety worse, so when I came home after 2 months I immediately stopped all medical drugs. My nervous system was still in tatters and it wasn’t till I had my first kinergetics session that I felt a real change in my body.

It took me a whole year to climb out of this deep hole. Then something interesting happened. Once my head started to function normal again my bowels started to play up. And I mean play up big time. Whenever I had extra stresses I would come down with a bowel blockage, which means the intestines stop moving and go for a holiday. This causes you to become so ill that it is easy to see people die from it. I continued to be hospitalized at least twice per year for acute bowel blockages, with episode of near escapes where I managed to stay at home. After 5 years of this I became so ill that I nearly died and had to have emergency surgery which solved the problem.

In hindsight now I wonder if the kinergetics treatment helped uncover the real problem which hadn’t been in my head all along, it had been my gut. From the first session on I got my life back and started to feel better and stronger every day, with the exception of the acute bowel crises, which could only be resolved by having an operation to remove scar tissue and kinks.

After a life time of psycho-analysing and studying every book and therapy under the sun I know there are lots of angles to mental illness but for the sake of this story I want to look at mental illness in the light of gut bacteria and diet. It is not as silly as it seems. Let me quote a section to you from the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) book written by Dr N Campell – Mc Bride which we sell at the clinic. Every parent should have a copy!

 Schizophrenic patients usually develop psychotic symptoms in their teens or early twenties. However, when I talk with the parents of these patients, a picture of GAPS emerges. Mothers of these patients almost invariably have abnormal gut flora and associated disorders. This means that she would pass her abnormal flora to her baby…….From their childhood health history it becomes clear that these patients were physically ill long before developing psychotic symptoms. Digestive problems, allergies and reactions to food, eczema, asthma, malnourishment, lack of stamina, hyperactivity, attention deficit, dyspraxia, dyslexia, fatigue, irritability, poor sleep, and night terrors were all common. All these symptoms indicate that the child had abnormalities in gut flora with all the usual consequences: malnourishment with multiple nutritional deficiencies, compromised immunity and toxicity, coming from the gut. The mixture of these toxins obviously was not right for making the child autistic for example, but was enough to cause other problems. In these cases schizophrenia does not come from nowhere, it comes out of GAPS.

Seeing that schizophrenic symptoms usually appear around puberty, it is reasonable to suspect that puberty plays some role in the onset of schizophrenia. It is possible that the hormonal turmoil of puberty in some way interacts with the toxins in the child’s body and tips the child into a psychotic state. It is also possible that the hormones open the blood brain barrier for some of the toxins, which were in the child’s body all his/her life, but could not get into the brain before. Another interesting possibility is something wrong happening in the maturation processes of the brain. Apparently through different stages of growth the brain prunes its receptors. The most active pruning goes on around two years of age and puberty. It is possible that at puberty opioid peptides and other toxins escaping the gut of the youngster interfere with this natural pruning process and tip the brain into psychosis….. What is obvious is that psychotic manifestation is only a progression of the physical problems in the child’s body and not a new disease appearing out of nowhere!

The toxicity produced by abnormal microbial mass in the patient’s digestive system affects the brain and causes the symptoms of schizophrenia. In order to help the patient we need to get rid of this toxicity and treat the patient’s digestive system…..

Hmmm, perhaps this sums up my life’s story and while I have had some really dark and difficult times, I have been lucky enough to escape schizophrenia. I am sure my mum’s gut flora was pretty much non-existent because she experienced very poor health all her life. She had a ‘hunch back’ and had major surgery at 17 where they took her fibula and wired it next to her spine to fortify her back. Her spine almost did a U-turn under her left shoulder blade and it is a miracle she had 5 babies naturally and never had any back pain! However she struggled with her general health all her life, she never drank water and she loved sugar and carbs. She went to her grave eating a piece of Pavlova, so it is easy to see that she suffered from gut-dysbiosis herself. (She was a very warm and loving mum, but that is not the point I am making here)

I was healthy enough by the baby standards 50 years ago. However I slept a lot, had extremely floppy muscle tone, didn’t crawl and was very clumsy. I lived on anti-biotics for frequent tonsillitis and even after having my tonsils out I used to get sick with sore throats. When I was at primary school the school dentist filled my mouth with mercury fillings as was the fashion in those days. I am sure the 25 odd fillings were completely unnecessary because I haven’t a single one since. We were terrified of school dentists who loved to drill, fill and bill. It was only 20 years later that I realized that mercury causes mental illness, kidney failure and disrupts the gut flora in a big way. I used to have a heart murmur till I was 8 or 9 and lived on iron tablets for chronic anaemia. I must have been pretty toxic because I often had huge boils, which had to be attended to by the said GP. 

In spite of all this I classify my childhood as a very happy one. Regular bouts of illness and lethargy were just part of it, I didn’t know any better. When I was 17 I met Peter and after that a miracle happened: I became glowingly healthy and never had another day in bed till I had a major accident at 44. I always used to rave on to the kids how love made me strong, till Caleb, who is the fermenting and healthy gut guru, suggested a while ago that Peter probably inoculated me with super healthy Tasmanian bacteria and so restored my health to a degree I had never experienced before! I have to admit there is a lot to this theory. Perhaps it wasn’t the miracle of love after all, perhaps it was all to do with a meeting of microbes and the strong ones won! (Apparently sick and unhealthy gut bacteria can be transformed into healthy ones when there are enough good ones around.)

When I was 26 and had my second bout of depression/anxiety, we had just moved to the NE of Tasmania, Peters father had died from the brain tumour, Lisanne, our 4 year old daughter had been hit by a car  and left unconscious (thankfully she made full recovery). As if life hadn’t been dramatic enough the whole family was struck by scarlet fever. Peter and the kids were bedridden for weeks on end and I had to play a heavily pregnant version of Florence Nightingale. They only just got better when Eve decided to make her entrance into the world. So it’s fair to say that my anxiety was circumstantial. The same could be said about the next episode when I was 36 and we moved to the N.W of Tasmania leaving our beloved hobby farm behind and trying to settle all the kids into new schools, while Peter was still working in Scottsdale.

Ten years later I was recovering from a major accident which had left me with spinal injuries. My bladder had been paralysed and I was living on antibiotics for chronic bladder infections. My bowels were partly paralysed as well and I had to do colonic irrigation every second day. (In time my nerves and organs made full recovery) I descended into full blown mental illness after 13 courses of antibiotics in 12 months. It would be fair to say that I probably didn’t have a single good bacteria left in my body!

In spite of the best of care in the psychiatric ward I didn’t really get any better because the real problem wasn’t addressed: the problem of leaky gut. When you have leaky gut you have leaky brain barrier as well, and here I was munching on hospital food/sandwiches, taking drugs which are gut-unfriendly, all the while trying to get my sanity back.

It wasn’t till I met Philip Rafferty who did a big correction on Candida/mercury and other toxins, as well as taking mega doses of gut microbes and eating fermented foods that my body got a chance to recover. Over the last few years I have experienced better health than ever before. Things that used to impact me negatively or caused me to feel depressed now don’t affect me at all.  I avoid gluten and grains, hardly ever eat fruits or sugar, have lots of good proteins and fats and eat homemade fermented food every day, as well as drink kefir or kombucha. I will continue to do so till the day I die.  My health means so much to me that I also take large doses of magnesium, beetflow and enzymes every day, as well as either immunosynbiotics or fermented probiotics like 2012 blend.

I don’t consider my diet or supplements a hardship at all! I love every mouthful I eat, I hardly ever feel hungry and I enjoy my new found mental stability every day. It is something I cherish after losing it in a big way.

Since age 13 I have been incredibly health conscious and have spent decades working out the pieces of the puzzle. Including fermented foods every single day (not just occasionally as I used to do) has been the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. Now there are psychiatrists  who understand the connection between the gut and the brain, unlike 6 years ago when this was pretty much unheard of in the medical sector. There is absolutely no doubt about it: if you want to be healthy in body and spirit you need to restore your 3 kilos of life giving bacteria and keep healthy levels maintained every day by eating at least one spoon full of fermented food/drink each meal, as well as taking a good quality pre-and probiotic.

At Alchemy we continue to run fermenting classes. The next one is Friday evening the 26th September from 6-9pm. Cost is $110 and you will be able to sample a variety of fermented foods and drinks, you will make your own sauerkraut and walk away with a recipe book which will set you up for life! Stop putting your health on the back burner and learn from my mistakes. Book yourself and your partner in for this fun and hands on fermenting class and start healing from the inside out.

If all else fails find a partner from the other side of the world to introduce exotic strains of bacteria into your system. Or perhaps I can bottle Peter and share him around! Till next time, Grada

All products are available at the Purple House and Alchemy, as well as at our online shop.

For more stories on good bacteria revisit Grada’s blogs and type ‘immune system’ or ‘good bacteria’ in the search box.

We have a range of excellent books on gut health.

GAPS – $45 
Grain Brain – $34.95
Have you got the guts to be really healthy – $21.95
Wheat  belly – $29.95