Since the ways of the gluten-free diet have gained a tremendous amount of popularity in recent years, I figured I'd shed some light on the first part of my journey to wellness: finding out that gluten and I are SO not BFF.
The beginning - 1981: I've had stomach aches all my life. I was a colic-y baby -- apparently with quite the talent for projectile vomiting, according to my parents -- and my earliest memories are of having debilitating pain in my stomach. Although it was intermittent, it was always lurking. I never went more than few days without a bad stomach ache, and despite many examinations by pediatricians, they never went away for good. I largely learned to deal with it, especially since my childhood was basically a whole host of medical issues. In addition to the chronic tummy troubles, horrible allergies (I'm alarmingly comfortable getting injections, since I started getting allergy shots when I was 3), asthma, repeated bouts of bronchitis, and chronic ear and sinus infections were all the status quo. Whatevs, right?
Fast-forward to 1997: When I was 16, we moved from Colorado - where I'd spent almost my entire life - to rural Pennsylvania for my Dad's job. While I wound up making awesome friends and loving my new high school, the stress of the move appeared to push my stomach over the edge that it had been teetering on for so long. Sharp stomach and abdominal pains landed me in the ER (where a highly unsympathetic attending was convinced I was pregnant, despite the fact that I'd barely even kissed a boy at that age - my protestations to this point fell on disbelieving ears, to my epic frustration), I had to take days off school because the nausea would be so bad, and there were days when, for no apparent reason, eating anything would leave me doubled over in pain.
One of my best friends had mentioned that her mom had something called a gluten allergy. I had no idea what this newfangled idea was, but when her mom explained it to me and mentioned what the symptoms were, I remember thinking, "Huh, I wonder if that's what's going on with me. I should ask my doctor about this." Ask I did.
"That's a bullshit, new-age, witch doctor idea," my doctor said with a scowl. "There's no such thing as a gluten allergy."
Being so young at the time, it didn't even occur to me to push back against such a hostile reaction, nor did I think I should dig up more information. If my doctor had so resoundingly debunked this theory, then it must be a load of bull. So I carried on, and I eventually just assumed that the stomach pain and general misery were just going to be something I'd have to live with.
Fast forward to 2002: "What's that thing on your foot?!" I was a senior in college, and was sitting on the couch with my boyfriend at the time when he suddenly pointed in horror to a weird nodule on the top of my right foot. "Oh, dude, my feet are bony and screwed up," I said with a shrug. "It's probably on the left one too."
But then we looked at my left foot, and there was no nodule to be found. Panic set in; an uncle had just died of cancer weeks earlier, and I was convinced I was about to suffer the same fate. My inner monologue sounded something like "HolycrapIbetItotallyhavefootcancerIprobablyhavetwoweekstoliveaaaaaaaaaaagggghhhh."
So I went to the doctor, got a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, and waited nervously for my consult and inevitable death sentence.
"This is osteoarthritis," he said while looking at an X-ray of my foot. "It's fairly advanced, too. The nodule is a bone spur, which built up because the cartilage in your feet is so worn down."
Now, I'd had no injuries to my feet. There was no reason for a 21-year-old to have osteoarthritis, and certainly not an advanced case. I was relieved as hell to realize that I didn't have some heinous, incurable foot cancer - but I wondered how I managed to get osteoarthritis about 40 years before most people do.
Fast-forward to 2008: My parents and I were all back in Colorado (I was going to grad school about 80 miles from my hometown) - hooray! However, my dad had been getting sicker and sicker for months. I was pretty alarmed by this; on recent visits home, his skin looked gray and waxy, and my mom had told me that he'd been so fatigued that he couldn't make it through a day at work without coming home to take a nap. He'd been having a lot of digestive issues too, so his doctor sent him to a GI specialist for extensive tests.
The diagnosis? Celiac disease. It all made sense, and a biopsy presented irrefutable proof that gluten was now persona non grata in my Dad's life. My mom called me the next day and said, with the absolute conviction of a mom who's been dealing with her child's chronic health issues for decades, "Lillian, I've been reading up on Celiac, and you need to hear this. This explains everything. The stomach problems, the IBS, the chronic asthma, the arthritis -- everything you've been dealing with for 27 years is listed as a symptom of Celiac. I think you need to cut out the gluten, ASAP, and see how you feel."
My mom, who has an uncanny knack for being right, was right again: I cut gluten out of my life that night, and I noticed an improvement within a few days. My feet didn't hurt as much, my stomach aches were fewer and further between, and my asthma rarely ever rears its ugly head.
There are no words to describe how relieved I was to finally figure out what was going on. After 27 years of never knowing if I'd be able to go more than a few days without stomach pain, not being able to tell if tomorrow the pain would again get so severe that I'd have to spend the day in my bed curled into fetal position, I'd resigned myself to the idea that things were just always going to be this way. Suddenly that was no longer the case, and I was thrilled.
Do I miss gluten? Sure! When I'm around a fresh-baked pizza, I salivate like a damn Pavlovian dog. But I remember the years of both chronic and often acute pain, and that quickly squelches any desire I have for pizza and beer. Going gluten-free can be hard -- but if it's what your body needs, the benefits are immeasurable. I'm happier and healthier at 30 than I ever was at 20, and it's awesome. :)
|With my girls on graduation day in 2008 - a few weeks after I went GF, and I was already feeling better!|
(Part II, coming tomorrow, will be why I went vegetarian - stay tuned!)