Food & Friendship: Learning to Live with Dietary Restrictions due to Chronic Illness

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In this photograph, I have successfully brought together two very good friends from different walks of life. I met Kelly in Hammond, Louisiana where we both attended elementary school, and I met Heather at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. After college, Heather eventually moved to Seattle, and Kelly, wanting to get away from Hammond for a while, also moved to Seattle. There you have it! Two of my best friends in life ended up in the same city, and I was visiting family in Portland, which meant that Seattle was a short train ride away.

What I didn’t tell anyone at the time was that, on one of the train rides to Seattle, I broke down in tears in the bathroom. I don’t remember if that happened during the time this photo was taken or the second time we met up, but, nonetheless, my future had big changes in store for me.

I was diagnosed with a painful bladder condition called Interstitial Cystitis in August of 2012 after suffering for a few months with what I thought was a UTI. There was no presence of bacteria in my urine, however. It turned out that Interstitial Cystitis (IC) can cause symptoms of severe UTI. I also struggled with chronic chest pain (Costochondritis), chronic dental pain (neuralgia), and chronic back pain. Doctors said they didn’t know what caused IC and that it was incurable. The pain was unbearable.

After I did more research, I found out that one of the most prominent theories about IC is that it is a systematic autoimmune disease where your body attacks its own healthy tissues, including the bladder lining. One of the most successful treatments for autoimmune diseases is to do some kind of dietary intervention by eliminating trigger foods like gluten, dairy, sugar, and processed foods. These kinds of foods are difficult to digest or have an inflammatory effect. I was desperate to feel relief from the pain, so I got on board with the new diet, which wasn’t easy for someone who grew up sugar-obsessed. I could devour an entire King Cake while searching for the tiny plastic baby. I wasn’t exactly a rabbit eater. I didn’t even like salad.

Enough about me. It turns out that both of my best friends (and my best friend’s mom) would know exactly what I meant by having health problems and needing to eat differently. Kelly had struggled with her health since 3rd or 4th grade when they put her on Ritalin for ADD. She explains what happened next:

“When I got into 8th grade I started having chest pains and visited a cardiologist, the long and the short of it is I ended up spending most of my 8th grade year at home and started homeschooling. Ok, what have I been diagnosed with? Honestly, I’ve seen so many doctors and they all have something different to say it’s hard to keep up. When I saw my 1st Cardiologist he told me I have tachycardia, which is a connective tissue issue and causes low blood pressure. When I was in College I saw a different cardiologist, since my other one moved, and he diagnosed me with something else but basically told me as long as I exercise regularly I shouldn’t have any issues. When I came home to the states, I saw a naturalpathic doctor, which being few and far between in Louisiana tends to be very expensive(but worth it). She told me I have a DNA mutation that causes my body to block folic acid, so I’m not getting the amount I need. I also have a vitamin b12 and b6 deficiency, thyroid issues, etc. These all can cause the feeling of being tired all the time, concentration, etc. She immediately put me on vitamins etc to help.  She told me that alot of people that get diagnosed with add or adhd are misdiagnosed because it’s actually in imbalance and they aren’t getting the vitamins and minerals they need! She also tested my blood type, since she’s found that the “Eat right for your blood type” has worked for her patients. I found out that I actually need to be on the Paleo diet.”

Kelly also suffered a severe UTI while studying abroad and was put on antibiotics for months, which caused a severe overgrowth of yeast. As a result, she had to follow a strict diet, which she explains:

“I live in a house where there are non meat eaters, but not as strict on food as I am so it’s difficult.  I basically still don’t eat gluten, dairy, carrots, mushrooms, sugar. Every so often I eat fruit, but ones low in sugar I stick to blueberries mostly. I eat meat, chicken, and veggies.”

Heather has also seen a naturopathic and teaches her son about the problems that gluten and dairy causes. I was surprised when we went to dinner to hear her young son talk openly about having problems with gluten. When I was his age, I had never heard of gluten. I didn’t know anything about a healthy diet. In elementary school, I drank chocolate milk from a plastic bag. It was like a Capri Sun because you had to jam a plastic straw through it and hope you didn’t jam the straw all the way though creating a leak. I would only drink the chocolate milk and eat the warm roll. I rarely ate any other food for lunch. Basically, I specialized in eating gluten and dairy. Pizza and ice cream were my favorite foods, and I’d still be eating them to this day if it weren’t for wanting to shut off excruciating pain that was ruining my life.

I often feel like a food freak because I can’t eat gluten, dairy, corn, soy, processed sugar, white vinegar, processed citrus fruit and many other foods. But when I think about other people around me, I realize that we are all fast becoming food freaks. Chronic illness in young people is on the rise, especially autoimmune disease. (Read The Autoimmune Disease Epidemic), and the failure of modern food to be safe and free of chemicals, genetic engineering, and environmental pollution coupled with a lack of caring about the nutrition of children has created a generation of chronically ill people.

Kelly said that her family generally ate healthy when she was growing up because her father has a higher degree in nutrition and health sciences. No single cause can explain every case of chronic illness. Recently, the World Health Organization has blamed processed meat on higher rates of colon cancer. But what about the other food that the bacon-eaters were eating? There are too many undefined variables. Who knows!?

When you experience mysterious health problems and doctors are unable to help you, you have to turn somewhere. More and more people are turning to dietary changes, though no one should be forced to do so. Chronic pain and chronic illness are personal, a private world of agony felt in our own bodies. Nothing has brought me more relief than eating differently and having friends who understand why I need to do that for my health.

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About pennapril

feminist, activist, poet
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