Thursday, October 30, 2008
Four years ago, when I joined Teach for America and began teaching first grade I started to experience unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. Naturally, I thought that the stress of teaching twenty little people to read was the root cause of my troubles. But if that were true, then my symptoms should have disappeared when I gave away my best pocket charts, locked the classroom door for the last time and said goodbye to my identity as Miss Rennie.
Of course they didn't. They followed me across three continents and at least as many jobs and doctors. Clearly, I couldn't blame it all on the first graders. A particularly astute gastro specialist in California indicated that a blood test pointed toward Celiac's Disease, an allergy to gluten (a protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats). Because I had just shared a year's worth of meals with a Celiac's sufferer, my kiwi friend Hannah, I knew exactly what such a diagnosis entailed.
And I wanted no part of it. Hannah had gotten used to her diet, but it seemed incredibly inconvenient and miserable to me. How could I consider giving up bread and my other wheaty essentials? I'd always considered cake and pie to be more like hobbies or even old friends than favorite foods. I decided that as long as pain wasn't one of my symptoms, I would ignore this condemnation of a diagnosis.
I was symptom-free in Australia until mid June when I got another flare-up of gastrointestinal malaise. However, it wasn't until I read that Celiac's sufferers are at increased risk of bowel cancer and infertility if not adhering to a gluten free diet that I decided that I had to face the music and find out if I truly was glutarded.
A blood test confirmed with 99% accuracy that I did have a gluten allergy and an endoscopy (an outpatient tubey down throat procedure) complete with creepy internal pictures left no doubts. I have Celiac's Disease and the cure is staying away from wheat forever. Period.
For once, I didn't cry. I said farewell to gluten with a stylish high tea instead of a mournful funeral. Mickey and six friends met me at the Victoria Room in Darlinghurst for an afternoon of treats which don't have an appealing gluten free alternative: tea sandwiches, scones, biscuits and cakes.
My first week on the gluten free diet was difficult. I was traveling in Queensland for work and attended catered lunch meetings that offered only sandwiches. I came prepared with nuts and dried fruit, but I almost cried thinking that I wouldn't have the willpower to keep saying no to sandwiches. The second week was even harder because I met with a dietitian and learned about other items that were off limits: preservatives that you'll find in barbecue sauce, candy, soy sauce, chicken stock, mayonnaise, medications, etc.
Indeed, it seemed like wheat was in everything and that eating out at restaurants and friends' homes was always going to be difficult. I also feel terribly guilty when I think about how this diagnosis will effect Mickey's diet. He's loyal to me and has been avoiding some of his favorite foods because he'd have to eat them alone. Even if solidarity with me got old, it would still be inconvenient for us to prepare two of everything.
However, I cheer myself up by thinking about the things I can still enjoy: chocolate, sushi, ice cream, Mickey's gluten free pancakes and more. Even more encouraging is the fact that my symptoms are already improving and that I will begin to absorb nutrients better. I had wondered why I've made such little progress with weight training and building muscle. Now, the world had better watch out. I'm getting strong and healthy.