This post originally ran as a guest blog at www.myhappypath.com. A big thanks to Shanie for sharing it!
“You have got to be kidding me.” Those were the first words out of my mouth when the hematologist told me he thought I might have celiac disease. It was my first visit to see him to get a handle on my long-term severe anemia. It had NEVER occurred to me that a GI problem was at the root of it. And while I had heard of celiac disease, I had compartmentalized it in my brain as a weird, maybe psychosomatic thing. I knew that it required drastic food restrictions, but beyond that, I didn’t know much.
As I proceeded through months of testing to determine if it were really so, I learned a lot about celiac. That it’s an autoimmune disorder that attacks the lining of the small intestine, triggered by gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley, and maybe oats. That there is gluten EVERYWHERE: Breads, baked goods, pasta, cereal, veggie burgers, soy sauce, soups, sauces, and most packaged foods. That the only way to address celiac disease, which can’t be cured, is to go on a gluten-free diet FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. If I didn’t adopt a gluten-free diet, I would be exposing myself to a host of other unpleasant short-term conditions and a plethora of long-term health implications that would ultimately shorten my life. I was a little freaked out. Okay, I was a LOT freaked out.
Once the celiac diagnosis was confirmed by way of an endoscopy and biopsy of my small intestine, I began the gluten-free diet. I had been a vegetarian for many years, a vegan for a shorter amount of time, and had given up alcohol and chocolate for good too. I was a pro at giving up stuff. But all of that was my choice, based on my principles or my sense of what was right for me and my emotional, physical and psychic wellbeing, not a medical requirement. And gluten seemed to be EVERYWHERE.
I felt sorry for myself. Never again could I safely eat in a restaurant (or so I thought). I’d have to give up all of my favorite foods in the world with no reasonable replacement (or so I thought). No more pizza, no more Chinese food, no more vegetarian steak sandwiches, no more cookies. Never again a “real” birthday cake. Poor me!
But then a crazy thing happened. I grudgingly started the gluten-free diet and suddenly the gastrointestinal issues (gas and bloating – apparently not everyone enjoys them every day) went away. I had no idea that my “normal” was other people’s “feeling lousy.” My afternoon brain fog lifted – I thought I was just suffering from age-related memory issues. I never got another canker sore! Okay, maybe this gluten-free stuff was going to be okay.
Shopping and eating out were still a problem though. I did not approach it with relish. (And no, not all relishes are gluten-free, har har.) I had been a student of using techniques to raise my happiness set point (keeping a gratitude journal, looking for the gift of any situation, approaching a challenge as an adventure rather than an obstacle), and realized I was looking at the perfect opportunity to practice my happy skills. Here’s how I reframed my thinking:
Before: I can’t eat anything!
After: Good thing I LOVE vegetables, lentils, beans, rice, and quinoa since they are naturally gluten-free.
Before: I’ll NEVER be able to go to my favorite restaurants again.
After: I get to explore a whole new world of restaurants that I might never have tried otherwise.
Before: My family is going to think I’m a huge pain in the neck.
After: I’ve returned to cooking, which I enjoy.
Before: Other people are going to think I’m a huge pain in the neck.
After: I can figure out a way to take care of my health and model appropriate self-advocacy and self-assertiveness for others.
Before: None of my friends will want to eat out with me or have me over.
After: I can figure out ways to make it easy for them, AND I can find or create a new circle of friends who get it.
You get the idea. I have come up with a whole bunch of new favorite recipes and figured out which of my old favorites were already or could be adapted to be gluten-free. I’ve devised strategies for finding gluten-free friendly restaurants. I’ve honed my vocabulary to describe my dietary needs to make sure I don’t get glutened while eating out or at a friend’s house. I formed a gluten-free meet-up group to find others who are in the same boat. I can be a coach and advocate for others who are learning to live gluten-free.
And how wonderful is it that I have a disorder that can be completely controlled by diet alone? No lifetime regimen of pharmaceuticals! And so cool that I can rely on healthful fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds and novel (to me) grains to help maintain a healthy weight! Celiac is actually a blessing! Why was I ever so distraught? I have taken on the quest for the perfect gluten-free pizza (in restaurants, mixes, and frozen), my family can display their love and support for me by learning to read labels and looking out for me at restaurants and making me gluten-free cake for my birthday, and I can make a difference in the lives of others.
Frankly, at this point, I wouldn’t change a thing. What started out as a life sentence was really the beginning of a whole new and exciting chapter in my life, a new adventure in my journey to happy and healthy.