“Be strategic,” Dorothy Mullen said to a board member of Suppers. “There’s nothing better for fundraising than having your founder come down with metastatic cancer.”
Tears wiped. Business plan meetings scheduled. Moving forward.
This is the story of “Dor” Mullen, founder of Suppers, a learn-by-doing program where people learn to cook, taste, and feel their way to vibrant health.
Here is her story. And here are some of our stories. We are among the many who want to keep Suppers going. Not just to honor and remember Dorothy, not just because Suppers is so important to so many people, but because we believe Suppers — and its principles — have the power to make Princeton — and New Jersey — and the nation — healthier.
— Marion Reinson, member of the Suppers transition team
by Dorothy Mullen
‘No” I wrote next to line 7. The phlebotomist was assembling vials. “I don’t give permission for disposal of my tissue specimens.”
Three of us sat for an hour waiting in areas progressively closer to the phlebotomist, who handed me eight pages of fine print to sign while he put on his gloves. “Don’t people read these documents?”
The phlebotomist — whose profession I just learned how to spell — said, “People just sign them without reading them.”
It’s a cultural expectation — similar to signing the work order for getting my car serviced — that documents prepared with the benefit of attorneys be signed with a straight face by everybody else.
This time it was different. At age 63, I was two weeks into the surprise diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. The doctors had said that someone with my diagnosis had a median survival time of 10 months without the new immunology treatments and two years with the therapies.
With my 26-year-old daughter and my RN girlfriend standing by me, I entered a system I’d managed to avoid for decades. The phlebotomist’s gloved hands notwithstanding, I divvied up the documents for us to read. He called Central to find out what he was supposed to do so he could get blood from a patient who wrote “No” on line 7.
My time line of medical problems started with ear infections and antibiotics; a mouth full of silver mercury amalgam in adolescence; followed soon but with no observed connection to previous treatment by anxiety, digestive pain, phenobarbital, and ulcer diets. In my early 20s, gagging every morning was average; abdominal pain was a given; and I was diagnosed as a universal allergy reactor, reacting even to the saline solution that was supposed to be the negative control.
When I was 29, married and with one child, I entered a psychiatric hospital. I had been to a dozen different practitioners for my laundry list of ailments, and each had found something to treat. None of them figured out what was really wrong. By all accounts, I was a hypochondriac, depressed, and with suicidal ideation.
When the social workers in the psych hospital told me to weave a basket, I wove a basket. When they told me to hop like a bunny I hopped like a bunny. I was a model patient for a month. I wanted to get out of there. “This feels so medical,” I told myself. I was certain that I was not the crazy one, that I had not been diagnosed properly yet, and that mental illness was only one aspect of this larger issue.
I coped the best I could when I got out. As I weaned myself off enough Xanax to sedate a horse, I used daily exercise to keep panic at bay. I ate better and better and started vegetable gardening. I read books and accumulated a lot of wisdom that would help other people later but didn’t help me then. I couldn’t resolve my own health problems, but I was gathering information and messages that would lead to the program design years later when I founded my nonprofit organization, the Suppers Programs (U.S. 1, November 26, 2008, and May 2, 2012).
Suppers has grown from five people eating at my kitchen table to a network of support groups with 30 volunteer facilitators. We provide local solutions to the global problems caused by processed foods and environmental toxins.
When I founded Suppers, I put myself out there as a model of healthy eating in my community. Now, I asked myself, what would the diagnosis of stage four lung cancer do to my reputation? Did I turn overnight from a model to an imposter?
So I am motivated to write this article by a desire to do damage control: I don’t want anybody giving up on green living just because Dorothy Mullen got cancer. I don’t want anyone giving up on supporting their gut biomes with homemade sauerkraut just because my microorganisms didn’t save me. Given my history, it makes sense to me that I got cancer, even though there is none anywhere in my family.
Picking up the history: In my late 40s I was hobbled by joint pain I could no longer conceal. A friend who works with autistic children said I had a lot of the same symptoms as her mercury-toxic patients and told me where to test for it.
I took a semester off from TCNJ, where I was getting a master’s degree in counseling (see sidebar, page 26), and went to a detox specialist. I didn’t have to establish my credibility; my lab work spoke for me: “You’re a walking thermometer,” said the doctor who looked at my mercury numbers.
That was 15 years ago. I had been poisoned, poisoned by mercury.
It explained decades of nausea and digestive distress.
It explained why I was a universal allergy reactor, reacting with pink blotches even to the saline that was supposed to be the negative control.
It explained why I landed in the psychiatric hospital in my late 20s when the labs and inventories of a dozen practitioners couldn’t find another explanation for my illness, depression, and panic disorder.
It explained the crippling joint pain.
Imagine my peace of mind when another mercury-toxic patient said, “You know, the element mercury is second only to radioactive plutonium in its toxicity to human tissue.”
How comforting! I was relieved to uncover the cause, not only of my current illness, but also my longstanding mental health problems.
Nothing matched the sense-making pleasure I found in learning I was loaded with neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters that are second only to radioactive plutonium. That was 2007. Equally happy-making was learning two years ago that I had a bad gene for methylating (detoxing) heavy metal.
I was lucky I lived in New Jersey where the therapy I needed was available. I was lucky to be able to afford to pay for both health care insurance and health care.
For years and years, the treatments that didn’t work were reimbursable. The treatments that gave me my brain and my joints back were $30,000 out of pocket. (This has become typical mealtime conversation at Suppers: insurance companies pay out a lot of money on things that don’t work and don’t cover what does.)
Determined to stay positive and focused on solutions instead of complaining about the medical system, I took all that undifferentiated energy that could have become anger and channeled it into building the Suppers model.
At Suppers, we tell stories. Story telling is central to the therapeutic value of Suppers. My stupid experience (insurance-paying-for-what-doesn’t-work-and-not-paying-for-what-does-work) made a very good story to repeat at Suppers meetings. At our support groups, we often help each other avoid wild goose chasing within the medical system by recounting our experiences with it.
My history of wrong diagnoses, dumb psychological explanations, and addiction is why I needed to devote my life to not judging the addicted, the sick, and the mentally ill. I needed to help people find their paths to health by living closer to nature and to each other. “Dorothy, you take those lemons and make lemonade.” The message was clear: Take whatever you would have spent on anger and get busy on solutions.
To the rest of the world, people like me look like hypochondriacs.
I don’t believe in hypochondria. Hypochondriacs are people who don’t make sense yet to the people who are judging them.
And if their judges would give up their need to comfort themselves by assigning labels and listen more, they might be able to look at these people’s symptoms and realize that how they feel is important data.
Listening has been required at Suppers programs for 14 years. First we cook and eat together; then everyone sits under no-judgment zone signs while we speak and listen.
When I started Suppers I was doing “school gardening” at Riverside School in Princeton and was supporting teachers and parents and throughout New Jersey by teaching workshops and conferences on garden-based education (U.S. 1, August 20, 2014).
Children are easier to work with. Children eat flowers, vegetables, and weeds if you stay out of their way.
Figuring out what Suppers needed to be for adults was more complicated. Everything depended on vegetables.
That includes my family.
While I didn’t grow up growing food, my dad was a farmer at heart, and I guess he passed on the gene. He was born on Lexington Avenue in 1907 and moved to New Jersey as a child. His father died in the flu epidemic in 1918, leaving my young father to grow food for his mother and brother in their backyard in Teaneck.
The best recollection I have from his childhood is the storied dung bucket. My terrible Irish grandmother — the eldest of eight orphaned children — booted him out the door to follow the milk wagon and capture the droppings. Woe betide the lad who came back without the goods for the garden.
At the same time, my mom — a German, French, English, and journalism teacher — tended another type of garden. She made me come in all hot and sweaty from the playground to write poems. Following her path, I majored in German at Upsala College in East Orange, where I also studied Swedish.
Soon after graduation I married my college sweetheart, who made his career in the recycled paper industry, based in the ironbound section of Newark. We started a family. I have three children, ages 36, 31, and 26, and they all eat their vegetables. We lived in a beautiful home overlooking Carnegie Lake for eight years. When my husband and I divorced, I brought the children to my current garden on Patton Avenue, which incidentally also contains a house.
Patton Avenue is the mother garden to Riverside and, by now, probably hundreds of flower beds and vegetable gardens in our community. I run gardening workshops there for adults. My healing mission built on vegetables runs the continuum, from prevention with children to treatment with adults. I’m serving the same population — people who get sick on processed foods — separated by about 30 years of exposure.
Teachers and storytellers collect messages and bright sayings. I’ve always been a collector of messages, but my hands were usually too full to write them down properly. My pockets, file folders, and penny jars contained torn-off corners of newspaper with jotted bits of wisdom. Some survived.
Now, as I abruptly focus on end-of-life planning, the remembering part of my brain has gone into over drive.
I hear my mother’s voice. Her favorite pastime was correcting things, particularly my grammar. She was in her element correcting papers with a red magic marker. She loved correcting my misplaced modifiers (“Throw momma from the train a kiss”). Her insistent “Sit up straight, Dorothy” is serving me very well now.
Another message repeated often in my childhood was from my father. “When I get old, take me behind the barn and shoot me like an old horse.” He lived to be 102. Oh well. The farmer in me finds his message very appealing.
My family is very plainspoken. I had a few choice messages for my children: “You’ll die of vegetable malnutrition if you don’t eat your asparagus.” Probably my now six-month-old grandson will one day hear his father say, “The Pot Pie Police will give you a ticket if you pick the peas out of the chicken pot pie.” I raised three kids before I read that we aren’t supposed to feed them threats. I used bribes, too: “I’ll pay you $1,000 if you can look me straight in the eye on your 21st birthday and tell me you never smoked a cigarette.”
I’m running out of things my friends can do for me and can drink only so many cups of tea. So I asked them to share their favorite messages and started a chain based on what a close friend said:
“‘In hard times, we do more of what we’re good at, regardless of the need.’ In other words, in hard times, everyone remains intensely in character. ‘The runners run, the hiders hide.’ (I think I stole that line from a Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom.) The cooks bring soup. The gardeners weed. The judgmental criticize. The hopers hope. Don’t important messages reside within you, messages you’d like to outlive you? I’d love to hear them!”
The messages are coming in: “Why are you so calm!” “Aren’t you in denial?” “Aren’t you angry?”
“No,” I reply. “I have no unfinished business.” I have to love everyone, especially the people who don’t feel like life gave them a good deal. They’re remaining intensely in character in hard times too. One of my kids — the one who got Type 1 diabetes — voiced my new favorite message: “If I had a chance to re-roll the dice, I wouldn’t take it. I’m satisfied with the life I got.” I am too.
Much as I’d love to make anatomical gifts of my organs, I’m not sure they’d even want mine. I keep thinking my tissue specimens have value to some researcher who is trying to establish a link among heavy metals — in my case, mercury — cancer, and my bad genes for methylating heavy metals. That’s why I relied on internalized messages, “Sit up straight, Dorothy.”
That’s why I wrote “No” on line 7.
Aside from my children and a couple thousand people who eat more vegetables now, there is one more person I’d like to send a message to: my English teacher mother now sending transmissions from her grave with her red magic marker
Mom, I have a magic marker too. It lives next to my toothbrush. I use it after showers to write DNR on my left breast.
TCNJ & the Founding of Suppers
It was my friends, Susan Schor and Les Fehmi at Princeton BioFeedback Center, who put me up to getting a master’s degree, not in nutrition, but in addictions counseling. Everybody knows you’re supposed to eat less junk and more vegetables; the larger question for me was — why don’t we?
Midway through the degree program, I was complaining to the head of the department about Alcoholics Anonymous and how they really missed the boat by ignoring their own founder’s research on nutrition. “Recovering alcoholics require real food. What this world needs is ‘Suppers for Sobriety.’”
With a passion for growing vegetables, a new devotion to the models Stages of Change and Motivational Interviewing, and intimacy with the 12-step process, I had almost everything I needed to create Suppers. It is a heretofore well-kept secret that I don’t enjoy cooking. But cooking is necessary and so I do it. I’m finding a lot of people like me at Suppers; we don’t care for cooking alone but enjoy it as a social experience.
The first Suppers for Sobriety meeting ran in 2005. I knew from the outset that we would end up focusing on diabetes, but we started with the people who know how to “work a program.” Recovering alcoholics excel at this.
Suppers has adapted the work-a-program model to people with diabetes, autoimmune diseases, emotional eating, and brain health concerns, among others. What we do is elegantly simple: We cook together. We eat together. Share experiences and stories. And we run experiments to support each member’s efforts to collect data from our bodies that will help us heal.
Fourteen years later, the founding assumptions are holding up: People feel attached to the foods that harm them because of the tight relationship between stressors and pleasure chemistry. That makes food the primary addiction.
The good news is that it is easy, cheap, and fun to learn how to feed yourself deliciously for health because How You Feel is Data! (our slogan). We can teach anyone to enjoy the foods that will make them well, as long as they’re willing to work a program.
Disclaimer: Suppers meetings are no substitute for therapy or treatment. Suppers is about support for diet and lifestyle changes. Members take responsibility for getting professional help as needed.
— Dorothy Mullen
The Art of Diagnosis
“If I knew how to contribute my body for this research I would do it,” says Dorothy Mullen. Mullen learned to question the medical establishment when her mercury poisoning went undiagnosed. As a young mother she was labeled “hypochondriac, depressed, and with suicidal ideation” and ended up signing herself in for psychiatric treatment in a mental institution.
If a mental state can’t be explained, psychiatrists need to check for physical ailments, says Michael B. Schachter, an orthomolecular psychiatrist and founding medical adviser to the Suppers Programs. “Psychiatric issues are always multifactorial and may involve issues of toxicity (such as mercury), infection (such as Lyme and the numerous co-infections), sensitivities (such as gluten sensitivity in some people and reactions to sugar and other foods), and relative deficiencies of various nutrients including magnesium, iodine, and many other vitamins or minerals.”
But if the patient also presents with some kind of loss or stress in relationships, the psychiatrist is likely to link a diagnosis with a drug that can be prescribed. “Unfortunately, when this is done, many important causal factors may be missed, and the health and mental health consequences of the toxin, infection, or deficiency continue to develop,” he says. For mercury toxicity, he might prescribe removal of amalgam from the teeth (with special precautions to avoid absorption of mercury vapor), chelation therapy to remove the metal from the system, nutritional supplements to restore digestion and immune function, and counseling.
Mullen’s first-person account tells how she went through this process and embarked on a regimen that restored her health and inspired her to help others to eat and stay healthy.
Then came her diagnosis of lung cancer. More women are killed by lung cancer than die from breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined. Compared to breast cancer, which has a survival rate of more than 90 percent, lung cancer survival rates are only 18 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Yet funds for breast cancer research are almost double the monies available for lung cancer research.
Lung cancer often hits younger women — ages 30 to 50, and not just those who were smokers. According to Dr. Kirtly Jones of the University of Utah, one-fifth of the women who develop lung cancer have never touched a cigarette.
The symptoms for women and men are different, says Jones. Men’s symptoms might look like a persistent respiratory infection or they might cough up blood. Women with lung cancer might just think they are short of breath — and attribute that to being out of shape.
Mullen’s shortness of breath sent her to the doctor just before her 64th birthday. She has a strong feeling that there is a link between her cancer and her sensitivity to mercury. Her oncologist looked at her tumor and her smoking history (light) and said, “that’s not what did this to you.”
— Barbara Figge Fox