Lately, there has been a fair amount of talk in the media about milk. Is it really fit for human consumption? Is it to blame for the ‘diseases of affluence’ that afflict mainstream North American and European (First World) cultures?
I don’t know. I do know i can’t digest the stuff.
I grew up on a farm, milking cows, drinking fresh, whole, unpasteurised milk in plenty. My mom’s family, of European heritage, had been doing so for generations. My dad, raised in the poverty of Reserve life, was deeply proud of being able to feed his children well, and first time visitors at our house learned quickly, children eat first, and eat all they want. And that bounty included milk. Everybody knew, milk was the best food you could get.
I remember learning to milk cows, and the sense of pride i felt as my skill and speed slowly gained on my mom’s impressive standard. There is a divinity in milkcows, and milking by hand is a form of communion with that divine. It also taught me a thing or two about rhythm, which is fundamental to performance art skills.
So, i loved cows, loved dairy in our lives. It wasn’t until i left home to go to school in the city that that love became unrequited. At first, i thought it must be the fault of processed, cartoned milk. And it’s true, for a time, i could still manage whole milk, after i’d lost the ability to digest carton milk. But, as i researched the insidious effects of dairy intolerance (lactose intolerance doesn’t tell the whole tale), i began to realise that i’d probably been digesting milk poorly for years, before things escalated to where i simply couldn’t handle it at all.
The one comforting thing in what was a very sad loss was reading (where? i don’t remember, this was in the late ’80s) that some 80% of Aboriginal people can’t tolerate dairy. I was not a freak. I was just experiencing my Aboriginal heritage. Still, i didn’t make a big fuss, didn’t want to be seen as weak, or worse, lazy and hypochondriac.
Over the years – decades – since i first recognised my intolerance, i weaned myself in stages, and found that this, too, is common. Hard cheese can be digested long after milk causes too many woes to be worth drinking. Goat and sheep cheese was the last to go from my diet. As mentioned, i love dairy animals and i love dairy culture. In fact, i craved cheese, which allergists know is often a sign of sensitivity or allergy. I heard the warning bells, but the craving and the sheer delight in the taste clamoured louder.
My gall bladder protested for years. I thought i had a ‘bad back’ from a car accident, and doctors were remarkably unconcerned about pains i’d report (lest you think i was simply ignorant and negligent, i did mention weird pains in my right side). I was ignorant, though. When i had a couple of gall bladder attacks, i didn’t know what they were.
One time, i’d just finished a very emotionally challenging theatrical performance, and collapsed on a sofa backstage in massive pain, clutching my burning gut and gulping air. I thought – as did everyone else – it was a reaction to the emotion of the event. Suck it up, i told myself sternly, and pulled myself to my feet, assuring those nearby that i was fine, fine, just ‘having a moment.’ My sister helped me walk it off, both of us sure it was emotional/spiritual pain.
(Sidebar: as i lay there, trying to regain my cool, a man came over and offered me a job, said the Elders just told him he should work with me. I felt like he, too, was regarding my physical pain as evidence of the toll of some emotional and spiritual heavy lifting. Nobody mentioned gall bladder. Nobody.)
Another time, i was biking with a rather fit friend, pushing to keep up, and collapsed. Actually, that happened twice, but i thought it was lack of fitness, didn’t know i was actually in a fair bit of physical peril. I remember joking about having a pulmonary embolism, because i didn’t want to alarm my companions, was embarrassed to fall behind, wanted to sound breezy.
December of 2013, i could not be breezy. It was all i could do to walk out of our staff Christmas lunch, and then stagger down the hall to an office where i could hit the floor, vomiting, choking, unable to breathe. Thankfully, a colleague who is also an EMT followed me and got me through it. I knew, that time, it was my gall bladder, because i’d gone to emergency a few weeks before. Not with a fullblown attack, just with an uneasy belly. I remember feeling like a fraud, in fact, and wondering, was i just exaggerating my malaise in order to have an excuse to leave my busy house for a while? I was shocked when the hospital staff got so serious, and got right into running tests. Who, me? Something actually wrong? I’m not just being lazy?
After that Christmas attack, i spent three very cautious months, eating vegan and low fat, and having as much fun as possible getting ready for surgery. And yes, i tried out the wholistic remedies. My personal conclusion is that these things do work. However, if your gall bladder is at the point of incapacitating you, take it out. The remedies would take years to reverse the years of poor digestion that manifested in massive gall bladder attacks. Any one attack could’ve caused ruptures that might’ve actually killed me. Surgery was right for me.
And can you imagine? It took lying on a floor, sweating, retching, writhing in agony, to make entirely giving up dairy a simple choice.
Dairy is my kryptonite.
The process of retooling my digestion is still ongoing.
But here comes the point of all this: 80% of Aboriginal people apparently can’t digest dairy.
In my own experience, some of the effects can be ignored, stuffed down, surmounted, for a long time if you’re motivated not to appear like a “lazy indian.”
Now i want to tell you about the other effects. Long before my gall bladder firmly quit on me, dairy also gave me a suite of effects that are more insidious and hard to pin down.
I became crystal clear about them two days ago, when i mistakenly grabbed a glass of goat milk – i thought it was coconut milk – and cooked my breakfast rice in it.
To my horror, as i sat scheduling my day, my mood suddenly plummeted. I felt as if a weight of doom and despair had landed on me. Pay attention! said my mind, this is not right. These are not just ‘feelings.’ I am often sad. I’m a poet, it’s my task to be an emotional athlete, to face the full spectrum of feelings. But this was a different kind of sad, as if some switch had been thrown.
Next, i found myself heavy, dragging a miasma of lethargy. How lazy am i? I teased myself, and switched from computer work to yardwork, which usually wakes me up. But that day, i picked up the clothesline elevator i needed to install, and could not figure out how it worked. It works, friend, very simply. You attach it to a wall, using four – count them, 4 – screws that go into the only four holes there are. A kid could sort out how to hang it. I could not. I stood there looking at it, dully. I put it down and lay down on the sofa.
The next four hours passed in a stupor. I slept, dozed, tried to talk coherently to my daughter when she came home from school. Finally managed to claw my way upright, drink a bunch of water, shake it off a bit. My eyes were still puffy, gummy, and not quite focussing right. My head still felt muzzy. Until my hubby identified the milk/coconut milk mix-up, i was flummoxed, flabbergasted,bewildered by what had happened.
What a relief to know it was, not a new and hideous freight train of physical dysfunction, but in fact my classic dairy reaction.
Milk is my kryptonite.
And if i ever write a novel with an Aboriginal super-hero, you can bet milk allergy will be their downfall.
If i write an Aboriginal spy novel, they will poison each other with milk.
Meanwhile, i’m left to wonder, not for the first time:
Is there a correlation between the high numbers of Aboriginal people who can’t digest milk, and other ill-health impacts in our community? How hard is it to overcome history of abuse, genocidal policies, poverty, when we are inadvertantly poisoning ourselves? How much of our anxiety, fear and despair might be fueled by allergens in our diet?
I’m left to wonder if Inner City School Lunch programs, which feature as much dairy as they can get hold of (because we all know it’s the best food), are poisoning the Aboriginal kids among those they serve?
How would they know? How would those kids know? Lethargy, sadness, fuzzy thinking. Inability to speak clearly. Lack of coordination. These things happen to me when i ingest milk. It’s my kryptonite.
How can we find out whether that’s happening to Aboriginal kids being ‘built up’ with dairy? How can we find out whether these well-intentioned programs are inadvertantly harming kids? Is there anyone out there looking into this?
All My Relations