It was a weeknight and I was sitting on the floor of my family’s lounge room, heaving ugly snotty sobs.
The last 18 months had seen the rash that wrapped around my neck, mouth and eyes grow angry and impossibly red. My asthma – which is severe – was so unmanaged I was sucking down a full inhaler of Ventolin a day. My eyes were puffy, gunky and grey. The ringing in my ears was now the soundtrack to the mystery of my millennial life: Why was I feeling so sick all the damn time?
It was January 2014, which means it was the height of Belle Gibson’s “heal your body with food” reign; Instagram was awash plant-based, vegan-only proselytisers. I was 20, vain, slightly stupid and desperate to figure out what the hell was wreaking so much damage beneath my skin.
Hours before my all-out lounge room breakdown, I had an asthma attack on the drive home from my part-time retail job. I had used an impossible (yet, apparently, possible) amount of medication between 9-5 and was travelling down Melbourne’s busiest freeway unable to breathe, with only an empty Ventolin cannister to fix it. I called my sister Claire in a panic, five minutes from our door, pleading she find some medication and meet me out the front of the house the moment I pulled in.
My car floor was peppered with emptied asthma medications.
None of it made any bloody sense. Every passing day, my screaming rash or asthma attack was like a puzzle. Why was I so persistently sick, when I was living the healthiest lifestyle I ever had? Like the women I so admired on social media, I wanted to be healthy. Truly healthy. The more I matured, the more I wanted to fill my body with unrefined, wholesome foods. I want berry smoothies for breakfast and spinach omelettes for dinner, Mum, not more spaghetti carbonara.
The sicker I felt, my fixation with filling my body with “goodness” only intensified.
Snacks were exclusively dried fruits (I chose apple crisps over regular chips and dates over lollies), almonds and sesame seed snaps. Drinks were limited to herbal teas, sugar-free fruit juices and long black coffees.
As my rashes began to rebel against the heavy duty steroid treatment doctors prescribed, I banished every "bad food" wellness influencers named. Milk was binned. White bread, pasta, and starchy vegetables like potatoes followed. The only meats I would eat were turkey and chicken breast.
Clean, clean, clean was the toxic message I reiterated to myself every morning I woke up feeling like shit. And so, the cycle would continue. The food groups I deemed "good" shrank, until, at the time of my January 2014 meltdown, I was exclusively eating food fit for a small marsupial.
Listen: A This Glorious Mess listener is worried about her vegan daughter, who is binge eating lots of non-vegan foods in secret. (Post continues...)
Speaking of my meltdown - I had just polished off a glass of red wine (the Instagrammers insisted one every now and then "as a treat" was okay) and felt like my body was going to positively explode when my concerned dad looked at my equally-concerned mum and asked: "What was that thing she had as a toddler?"
A mad Google search would reveal that thing that once troubled me as a two-year-old, only to disappear almost overnight and never to be thought of for 18 years, was salicylate intolerance - that is, a sensitivity to foods high in plant-based chemicals.
The foods at the top of the "VERY HIGH IN SALICYLATES" list? Dried fruits, berries, nuts and vegetables like spinach, tomatoes and sweet potato.
The most common symptoms of salicylate intolerance? Irritated and itchy skin, asthma and breathing difficulties, ringing of the ears, stomach pain, headaches and depressive moods.
... Yep. Yep.
That night I learned my toddler-era intolerance had come back with a vengeance and my diet - my exact diet - was the worst thing I could possibly be consuming. In trying to live the healthiest life possible, in trying to do everything right, I was feeding my body its own personal brand of poison.
Medicalising food was one of the most significant mistakes I ever made for my personal health.
Mum, being the uber-maternal-and-good-in-an-emergency creature she is, immediately began searching for dietitians, and the very next morning I was booked into an appointment and placed on an elimination diet.
No vegetables, no fruits, no seasonings. I was strictly prohibited from eating anything organic, anything of colour. My new diet was the antithesis to the one I once swore by: full of processed, refined, non-organic foods.
A teenage boy's dream; a body-conscious millennial woman's carby nightmare.
Within a week my asthma, rashes and mood were so much better. Within a month I felt like I had a shiny new body (with an additional five kilos, because... well... why don't you try living off cheese for a month).
Over the next year I would slowly introduce different vegetables and fruits into my diet to see what my body's threshold is, because the tricky thing is that salicylates are cumulative and levels build up in the body over time. I learned that while avocados are generally okay, I'll never be able to drink a glass of red wine or eat something containing dried fruit or cranberries ever again.
Four years on, I haven't entirely 'fixed' my salicylate problemo. I probably never will, considering salicylates are actually in the vast majority foods, as well as perfumes, beauty products and medicines like aspirin. On my holiday in Bali over the New Year I drank three berry smoothies and struggled to breathe for days.
So while my asthma rears its wheezy head every now and then, it is nowhere near the armageddon-ish place it was on that night in 2014. The rule I now follow is to avoid all fruit as much as I can, and only consume vegetables that are mellow in colour (generally the brighter it is, the worse it is for my body).
My "healthy" diet may not feature any of those "good foods" you see splashed all over Instagram, but what this whole shitshow has shown me is that there is no one diet to suit every body.
My grocery list might look like a carby disaster to you, but for me, it's exactly what my body needs and craves.
Slowly, slowly, I'm learning that's just how it is.