“Gluten-free is so much healthier. I’m doing it to lose weight,” another nameless gluten-free dieter attempts to explain to me.
I suppress an eye roll and heated cheeks. “Well, actually, eating gluten-free doesn’t work that way,” I try to reason, but their blank stares tell me to change the subject.
It was June of 2002.
“I got you a strawberry cheesecake smoothie because I know how much you love cheesecake,” my dad says as he hands me the giant concoction.
“Thanks, Daddy!” I shout with joy, digging into the pale pink mixture.
Less than 30 minutes later, tears are running down my face as I dry-heave into the toilet again. My dad is rubbing my back, and I’m staring through water-stained eyes into the bowl: pale pink—my strawberry cheesecake smoothie. I cry even more. Dad bought this smoothie just for me because he knew how much I’d love it, but my body didn’t care. His feelings must be hurt, and it’s all my fault, but I can’t stop my stomach from lurching. More food wants to leave, but there’s nothing left inside. I can’t remember the last time I felt okay.
It was normal. I thought being sick all the time was what everyone went through. My mom had been sick her entire life. No one could understand her constant battle between health and illness. Friends thought she was merely seeking attention, while baffled doctors didn’t know what to diagnose her with: a continual stomachache; dry, itchy skin; never-ending migraines. My sister would suffer from ear infection after ear infection, high fevers, rashes all over; the doctors thought she was stuck in an abusive relationship with the flu. My brother’s “symptom” was chronic, severe constipation.
My third grade teacher thought I had ADD. Although I tested positive, it was because I was constantly fighting a bitter war against the clouds that filled my head and left me unable to concentrate. Celiac disease takes so long to diagnose because of the multiple symptoms it hides behind.
This thing masked itself into a multitude of symptoms that I unknowingly battled day in and day out. The feeling that my stomach was twisting into a million knots. Death would feel better. Vomiting was the only way to relieve the pain. My body couldn’t digest this foreign substance that was secretly destroying my intestines. As it’s an autoimmune disease, my body would start attacking itself whenever I tried to digest gluten. The villi of my intestines had been flattened, unable to absorb any nutrients, and unwilling to deal with this poisonous substance. Whenever I’d eat gluten, my body would react within the hour.
I couldn’t concentrate. I lived with constant exhaustion and a lack of energy at only eight years old. Whenever I touched something that had gluten (like my beloved Play-doh), my skin would feel inflamed and itchy, so my legs would be torn apart by my nails.
I vividly remember the day that my brother, sister, and I went for our blood tests. I screamed and cried, more afraid of the needles than being told I had a disease. After the torturous poking and prodding was done, we all left the doctor’s office with outstretched arms showing Spongebob Band-Aids. At only eight years old, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening: Why our food changed to brown, mushy blobs of self-proclaimed brown rice pasta instead of our normal stringy, chewy spaghetti. But our bodies changed, and I no longer felt ill all the time.
The first year after being diagnosed was the most challenging. Not only did we move to another town, but we were also grappling with how to go about our new lives. There was no confidence to be found in this new journey. I was eight at the time, my sister was six and my brother four. Mom drilled us in the new ways of life, gluten-free style: No wheat, rye, oats, or barely, and always politely decline food.