What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Considering what I had for breakfast, toasted brioche, and for dinner, spinach gnocchi, I'm genuinely befuddled as to how I did it. But I did it, alright. I spent 2 long, comatose years not eating wheat.
When I was 21 and finishing college, I had a bout of stomach issues; sharp pains and digestive troubles. BBC speak for trapped gas. A random GP I didn't normally see suggested I eliminate gluten from my diet. I had a history of food allergies as kid, so it seemed reasonable.
"So just stop eating cake and stuff?" I asked.
"Yeah, and pasta, bread, cereals, cookies, most snack foods, fried foods, a lot of condiments, waffles and french toast and some ice cream, white tortillas, certainly Doritos, some shampoos and toothpastes. Anything with gluten in it."
"So Pop-Tarts are fine?"
He cocked his head, handed me a complimentary trial-size TUMS and told me he'd see me in a month. That was our last visit together.
I heeded Dr. Stop Tart's advice and gave up gluten, although my stomach felt little relief at the time. The notable side effect from my gluten freedom? I lost 15 pounds in a little over a month, going from 145 to 130.
"Well this is a nice surprise!" I thought, determined to keep on with the new diet. Months from graduating with no semblance of a post-grad plan, in the midst of a multi-disciplinary thesis project, I decided to concentrate on maintaining the weight loss. I should have been eating whole pizzas alone.
My friends were wary of my diet.
"So, guys, turns out I'm allergic to GLUTEN."
"Were you allergic to gluten last week when you ate my bag of mini Entenmanns?" My friend Lisa asked, with whom I once planned to get matching Friendly's tattoos.
Despite the skeptics, I got lots of compliments. People commented on how healthfully I was eating. A plate usually filled with lasagna and sandwiches was now sporting raw cut cauliflower and lone slices of naked turkey.
Though some claim the benefits of a gluten-free diet, even for those who aren't full on coeliacs, the diet's nutritional success depends on replacing wheat with other grains like quinoa or rice. I didn't cook for myself, or do much research on going GF, so being left to my own devices meant weaseling together pitiful meals. Lunch might be the cheese off someone's pizza and a few peanut butter rice cakes. Dinner was a handful of garbanzo beans, a bag of spinach and Diet Coke. Bon Appetit!
I had no concept of how to feed myself well anymore, and thought first and foremost about what I “couldn’t” have; not about what I craved, and certainly not about what gave me energy. The positive attention for slimming down made the restriction more confusing. I was noticeably more irritable and tired (in a friend’s words: "not fun") but the weight loss still garnered congratulations akin to removing a certain weapon from a certain rock.
Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen says, “The mind is like the wind, and the body is like the sand; if you want to know how the wind is blowing, look at the sand.” After I graduated, I really kicked the no gluten thing into high-gear, then started counting calories and skipping meals. I added daily running to my consistent dancing and yoga. I continued to lose weight, and within the third month, I lost my period.
Red flags were popping up loud and proud, and willfully, if not insanely, I ignored them. My anxiety skyrocketed and my energy depleted. At first I obsessively worried my ammenorrhea meant pregnancy.
"You think you're pregnant even though you haven't had sex since before your last period?" my mom asked.
"Medical oddities happen!" I shot back, tossing a dry salad.
I started going to doctors. I figured there would be a way to get back on a menstrual cycle and maybe boost my mood without having to change my new diet. One doctor asked me initially; “Don’t be offended by my asking, but, are you starving yourself?"
Well, no, technically I was eating. A lot of trail mix and baby carrots and seltzer. That was the only time I was outright asked if there was anything disordered or restrictive about my diet. I withheld information because I knew my behavior was amiss; compulsive spooning of almond butter does not a dinner make.
“Maybe my iron is low,” I suggested when I thought I saw the word “feeble” scribbled on a medical pad.
After awhile, I gained back some weight and was maintaining a steady number, 140, which was not a weight that alarmed anyone. When asked what was I eating, I gave the right answers. Like magical grandmas, I thought the doctors would sense what was wrong with me and tell me what to do. Most doctors didn't think my gluten freedom and my amenorrhea were necessarily related, and maybe, in a sense, they weren't.
"Seems like stress" said one gyno,* sketching a picture of my under eye circles, “you need to rest and relax.”
(*This same MD I once saw at the supermarket buying two 24 packs of Diet Coke and a pound of Red Vines. "As a doctor, should you willfully ingest all that phenylalanine and Red 40? Shouldn't you know better?" This scrutiny while I clutched 4 pounds of grapes, a Lara bar, a Sprite Zero.)
Before I chose gluten freedom, I had never been particularly concerned with my weight, even during my teen ballerina years. I detested being so preoccupied with my diet, and that sheepish loathing manifested in other odd behaviors. Most of the time I avoided any conversation about my body, until at random, I would ask incessant questions about my weight to anyone who would listen and wouldn’t immediately stop loving me, like the guy who made juices at the co-op and my brother: "You think I'm fat? That I've gained weight? Just tell me the truth."
They told me to shut up, to stop obsessing, being vain, that it didn't matter what I looked like. It wasn't about what I looked like, really, it was about what I felt like. I didn't know how to begin talking about how foreign this behavior felt to me, and asking about my weight seemed the only way in. I didn't know how to manage this compulsive, utterly dreadful relationship to eating.
My mom, who weathered a few of those question storms, was particularly concerned. "You're looking a little…grey" she'd say, handing me a bowl of cheesy polenta with vegetables and meat. "There's no wheat in this, clammy palms."
I didn't think to ask her, at the time, about how to deal with some of what I was feeling about my body. My mom, a former model who spent years having a turbulent relationship with her body, could have at least commiserated.
But no one ever wants to hear it from mom. Especially such a lean mom.
It wasn’t until a 3-month trip to Glasgow, Scotland that I started eating wheat again and with it, regular meals. I attribute it to traveler's glee as much as anything; it was the first time I felt happy and relaxed since I left school. My twinkling, guileless Gal Abroad eyes saw pink-faced Glaswegians lining cobble streets eating breakfast pastries and bacon rolls.
“Y'all know how to live.” I'd think, as a lone bagpipe began to play.
Maybe it was the distance from home, but it felt easier to see what I had been doing with food and face it with a bit of honesty. It so happened that trip found me with people who weren’t worried about the calorie content of their scones; which seemed considerably healthier than my vulcan gripped “gluten allergy.”
Christmas day, exactly one week after I got back from Scotland, I got my period for the first time in almost two years. (And they say Santa stops bringing gifts after 18.)
We so often talk about eating a certain way because of how it connects to how our body looks or how we want it to look, rather than how our body feels, what it wants, what it needs to function as an organism. I wonder about the boundaries of eating disorders and disordered eating, and on the flip side, I wonder what being healthy really means.
As I write this, I've just wolfed a half bag of tortilla chips, and there is a bit of salsa on the keyboard. I'm still learning how to feed myself, but I’m done with the strict rules. The more I learn about self care, the more I notice how rarely I see examples of cultivating listening relationships to our appetites, without qualifying food as good or bad or acceptable diet food. I too have found the idea of stopping to listen to my body, what it craves and asks for, a revelatory idea. Something that hadn't occurred to me. Maybe something I’d forgotten.