Three months ago, I choked on a bite of croissant on my drive into work. Like, had-to-make-myself-throw-up-to-be-able-to-breathe-again choked.
I pulled over. I wretched into a napkin. And I sat on the side of the road, wiping the lack-of-oxygen-induced tears from my cheeks and wondering what the hell was going on with me.
It wasn't the first time I'd gotten food stuck in my throat — it had been happening periodically for months. Usually, I’d swallow repeatedly until it eventually made its way all the way down. Uncomfortable, yes, but never completely terrifying.
Those other times, I always chalked it up to user error — like I took a bite that was too big in the midst of my regular shoveling-lunch-into-my-mouth-whilst-multitasking schedule. Or I just somehow forgot how to swallow. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’m notorious at my office for once choking on my own spit.
But something pinged in the back of my mind as I sat on the shoulder of the road and waited for my hands to stop shaking. My intuition radar was telling me I couldn’t ignore it this time. It was the first time I seriously considered talking to my doctor about what was going on. So I did.
In my most paranoid moments in the days leading up to my appointment, words like “tumor” and “cancer” floated through my mind, despite my repeated efforts to keep them at bay. During my more logical moments, I convinced myself that my doctor would tell me it was post-nasal drip, or swollen glands. Something benign, made dramatic by my overactive imagination.
Instead, she seemed concerned and perplexed. She told me everything was probably fine, but since she’s an “err on the side of caution” type of doctor — really, a good doctor to have if you ask me — she wanted me to get some tests.
So off I went to a gastroenterologist to experience the joy of an endoscopic exploration of my esophagus and stomach.
When I came to, I lay on my recovery cot and was drowsily dumbfounded as she showed me and my husband pictures of the inside of my esophagus. I knew, even with only half my wits about me, that what I was seeing wasn’t normal.
She pointed out the clumpy-looking white cells that coated my insides. “That’s yeast.”
My diagnosis: eosinophilic esophagitis, also called EE or EoE by those of us who don’t find that the word “eosinophilic” rolls off their tongue. It’s a chronic immuno-allergic disorder that causes white blood cells to build up and cause strictures in your esophagusover time.
EE is a pretty rare condition — one that wasn’t even really diagnosed until about two decades ago. Often, it’s caused by undiagnosed food allergies. And we could only assume that was the case with me, too.
I waited three weeks for my appointment with an allergist. And in the meantime, I drove myself crazy Googling my condition. Terms like “elimination diet” and “dysphagia” were all of a sudden normal. My husband and I would have extended conversations, trying to guess what source of sustenance could possibly be the culprit. We scoured lists of potential causes.
And I’d think to myself, “Don’t let it be coffee. Please, let it be anything but coffee.”
It seemed obvious to me that it would be something I’d incorporated into my diet as an adult — like the aforementioned caffeinated miracle bean. After all, how could I have a food allergy my whole life and not know until now?
It never occurred to me that it could be something I’ve been consuming my entire life on an almost daily basis.
But sure enough, it is. My allergist poked my back with a bunch of allergen-filled needles and told me not to move for 15 minutes (has she tried not to move when her back is incessantly itchy?). Then she told me that, yay, I’m not allergic to coffee. But I am allergic to wheat, dairy and shellfish.
She said the words I’d already familiarized myself with - elimination diet, which requires me to completely stop eating the ingredients you tested positive for and wait to see what happens. And she sent me on my way.
My reaction was delayed. On the car ride home, I went from, “Hey, at least I know now,” to “wait a second, what now? My husband just made crab cakes for my birthday a few weeks ago? Don’t shellfish allergies make you go into anaphylactic shock? Maybe she poked the wrong back?”
The full weight of this new information didn’t hit me until I’d pulled into my driveway and considered the two other ingredients I had just sworn off.
Wheat. Dairy. That was like 80% of my diet.
It’s a credit to my husband that he was able to keep a straight face when I walked into our house, plopped down on the couch, and burst into tears as I tried to tell him my news.
Yes, I realize how First Worldian this problem is. But me and pizza, we go way back. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of standing in my grandmother’s kitchen and helping her put toppings on her handmade-with-love pizza pies.
When my daughters and I had our weekly “ladies night,” it almost always involved making one of those cheapo store-bought frozen pizzas. My love for pizza was so notorious at work that people stopped asking me what I’d be getting for lunch whenever we hit up the food court because I only ever had one answer.
Without any warning, a food that symbolized bonding and comfort and stability was off the table. For pretty much the rest of my life.
There were a lot of ridiculous tears in my household during those first few days. Not just because of pizza, but because, seriously, so many things have wheat in them. The can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup I planned to eat for lunch that first day had wheat in it.
The impact on my diet and my lifestyle was instantaneously far-reaching. Visits to the grocery store were no longer mundane and repetitive, but full of stress as I frantically scoured the ingredient list of every item I chose to see if it was a yay or a nay. Usually it was a nay. The fact that my very favorite granola bars — that I briefly hoped had no wheat — were a nay almost made me cry in public.
Sorry, freaked-out lady standing next to me in the breakfast food aisle.
I felt guilty every day — that my husband decided to give up many of the same foods I could no longer eat in solidarity. That both my mother and mother-in-law were trying so hard to incorporate my new dietary restrictions into their meal planning when we came for visits. That my well-meaning coworkers and grad school classmates kept suggesting gluten-free items to me and I had to tell them that, yeah it’s surprising to me too but gluten-free isn’t wheat-free. Thanks for trying. Sorry I’m the worst.
I felt bad that I made other people feel bad when they were just trying to help.
I felt bad that I felt bad for myself, because in the realm of life-altering health issues, this one really could be oh-so-much worse and life-altering.
Acceptance came about a week and a half later, in the form of a pre-packaged bag of mini-carrots. My oldest daughter pulled it out of her coat pocket after school and said, “Mom, I saved these for you from my lunch. I checked the ingredients. No cheese, no wheat. You can eat them.”
It was one of those lightning-bolt moments — the quick and sudden realization that it was really time to stop feeling bad for myself. Because as hard as I tried to hide it, even my kids had noticed how hard I was struggling with my new diet.
Because yes, we can’t have pizza together anymore, but we can have carrots. Because I’m extremely lucky to have family and friends that care so much about my health. Because instead of being angsty about what I can no longer have, I can grateful for the little things, like the chance to live without being afraid of choking on my food. Like my health. Like mini-carrots and the love that comes with them.
We’re still trying to figure out whether there are other issues that have aggravated my EE — like acid reflux, which made me miserable daily when I was pregnant and still crops up from time to time. But since I’ve made peace with my allergies, I’ve found there are some pretty big bright sides.
I feel healthier. I’m losing weight. I sleep better. I don’t constantly find myself clearing my throat. And I’m more conscious than I’ve ever been about the ingredients that I put into my body.
We’re still trying to figure out the perfect recipe for a wheat-free, cheese-free pizza at home. And yeah, maybe I told my husband yesterday that I sometimes daydream about a deep dish slice. But here in reality, I’m more and more grateful every day for my pizzaless life.