When I was first diagnosed, I went through a period of mourning. Like full scale – I had just lost a limb – ugly cry – kind of mourning. I tried to keep myself together, but one day at my day job they announced that we’d be having an all hands meeting at a local restaurant complete with catered lunch. I went in to ask one of my bosses if it’d be ok if I brought my own food (still feeling very insecure about being “different” in front of my coworkers) and out of nowhere I burst in to tears. Here I am, a young woman in the professional world, breaking down in the ugly cry in front of a male VP. About food. I felt like I set all of the women in my office back 50 years at that moment – for that I apologize. But it was something I just didn’t see coming. And something that many people around me didn’t really understand, either.
I went home that night and called my mom and cried some more. Partly because I was mourning over my loss of ability to eat gluten – and how that had changed my life – and partly because I was so embarrassed that I had just cried in front of my boss in the way I had. She was embarrassed for me, too, and not in a “oh poor thing, let me give you a hug” kind of way. In a “OMG Melissa I can’t believe you embarrassed yourself like that. Get your crap together” kind of way. I ended up going crazy on my mom. “You don’t UNDERSTAND! It’s not just that I can’t eat gluten anymore. This changed my entire life! I have anxiety when I go out to eat now (at the two places I am comfortable eating) because I’m scared I’ll get sick!” You know how she responded? “Well Melissa, I know you love bread. It’d be like if I had to cut out mashed potatoes because I love them so much.” W.T.F? I love my mom, but that comment made me so angry. Anyone who has been diagnosed with Celiac, gluten intolerance, or some other life altering food allergy knows it’s not *just like* cutting out one favorite item from your diet. But to the rest of the world, even my own mother, they just can’t understand why it’s such a big deal. So you change your diet a little, no big deal, right? Wrong.
Celiac disease or any major diet change is a big deal. It means you change the way you eat. The way you think. It means not only do you have to cut out bread or crackers, but you have to start reading labels for meats, sauces, salad dressings, chips, snacks, CHOCOLATE. (That one just pisses me off. Did you know there is barley in a Milky Way candy bar? Who puts barley in chocolate?) It was things like that that I never saw coming. And that’s just what you have to worry about at home. Going out to eat is worse. Not only are there very limited restaurants that even offer a GF menu, but within that you have to worry about cross contamination. It can be overwhelming and crippling at times. I can’t even tell you how many bottles of pepto bismol pills I have floating around in my car because I am terrified that I will have an urgent need of pepto one day and won’t be able to find any. So instead, I carry 14 bottles around. Because 14 is better than 0. Just in case. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration on how many bottles of pepto I have in my car. But not by much.)
It wasn’t until one day we went to a local restaurant with a gluten free menu that my mom “got it”. We sat down. I had printed out the gluten free items from their website. We spoke to a manager about the items and he even brought out the ingredients so I could read the labels. Everything was fine, right? I mean, we went through every last option and it all looked ok. Except that before we even got home that night, I was crying from how much pain I was in from having been “glutened” by something in that restaurant. I don’t blame anyone there – they did the best they can. It’s just that you can’t ever fully prevent cross contamination in a shared kitchen like that. It wasn’t until that night that my mom finally said “I get it now.” She finally understood it wasn’t about me just cutting out my love of bread. And I wasn’t just being snooty about not wanting to go to their favorite restaurants. She finally understood that having Celiac disease was more than just a diet. It was a lifestyle change. And more than just that – it was a difficult change to make.
Celiac disease changes more than just what you eat. It changes the way you think. The way you live. It changes your social life. And like me, it may even give you anxiety. But you know what? It gets easier. It really does. One day you will be less self conscious about it. One day you won’t be sad that you can’t eat at your favorite restaurant anymore. One day a new restaurant will open with a gluten free menu and you’ll be so thrilled you can barely stand it. And one day, we can hope that others will understand, too. I believe that one day, they will. And we’ll have the best freaking gluten free cake to celebrate. And maybe we’ll have a great gluten free beer option by then, too. I’m happy to volunteer to be a tester. But in the meantime, you aren’t alone. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re crazy. You’re not. (Well, I can’t say that about everything in your life. But about Celiac? I’ve got your back!) It’s ok to mourn. To be frustrated at times. Just know that there’s a bunch of people here for you that know how you feel. And know that it gets better.