I was in a new grocery store, in a new town, alone in a new state, wondering if I’d find my new car in the parking lot when I returned. I’d mustered the strength to turn off my new Roku and crawl out of bed, feverish with a gnarly virus that seemed to start as a cold, but by the weekend was the full-blown flu. And I had no food in the house. Or, rather, I had no food I was able to eat anymore that wouldn’t be ill-advisedly fed to the ducks below my balcony instead.
I’d just purchased sliced medium cheddar and a new box of whole grain waffles I’d never open. The cheddar sat expectantly in the fridge next to the two containers of unopened yogurt, near the half-eaten eggs, light mayo, and string cheese I would later throw in the trash, despite the fresh box of Lactaid tablets I still had under my bathroom sink. In the door was a nearly full bottle of light ranch dressing I didn’t know what to do with and soy sauce that would now go unused.
I stumbled through Fred Meyer, unable to concentrate, deciding how much food to throw into the cart before giving up and scrambling back to bed. I passed the butter, cheese, yogurt, and milk without a second glance. I slid by the eggs, eyeing them with a whimper. I skirted around the candy aisle where my beloved Dove dark chocolates would remain forever, and the frozen foods I’d never bothered with anyway.
I halted in front of the bread. I picked up the healthiest, nuttiest, seediest, whole wheat-est loaf I could find and read the label. Sugar. I picked up another loaf. Sugar. I tried rye and potato bread, and I scanned the label on the muffins with the nooks and crannies. All sugar. I gave up on bread and set out to locate a bottle of non-creamy salad dressing. Light dressing. Sugar. Balsamic dressing. Sugar. Natural anything. Sugar. Cough drops. Sugar.
Then I read the label on the Veganaise.
I put it back and wondered what I was supposed to mix with tuna now, and what I would even put it on, since I am apparently done with store-bought bread.
I crept into the soup aisle and picked up my favorite sick-time chicken noodle soup in a box. Sugar. And egg noodles.
It had been years since I’d read labels beyond the exclamations on the front that screamed, “Local! Organic! Healthy!” As I wiped my sweaty brow and tried not to drop from weakness and chills, it dawned on me I would no longer be able to eat anything I didn’t make from scratch, and just then, I was too sick to cook.
How am I supposed eat out anymore? How will I socialize? I wondered. I’ll become more of a recluse than ever and die alone for sure!
I wanted to plop onto the cold, hard floor and throw a spectacular tantrum in front of all the cereal I would never buy again. I mourned the decaf lattes I would never drink. I mourned bananas and blueberries. I even mourned grapefruit, but only the juicy red kind from the farmers market.
What am I supposed to have for breakfast now? I thought. I can’t have oatmeal and tea every day!
This was a sick joke for a woman whose motto is “food is my replacement for sex.”
If an adult with a fever pounds her fists on the grocery store linoleum and screams into the abyss, and none of her loved ones are within miles to witness it, does it really happen?
After an hour trolling the store, my reading glasses perched on my nose, coughing into the crook of my arm, trying not to sneeze on other customers, I brought my weird assortment of half-vegan-half-not goodies to the counter, forgoing the sparkling water I couldn’t find because I no longer had the energy to stand.
As I unloaded the cart, the checkout dude looked perplexed.
Join the club, buddy.
I wiped my snotty nose on my sleeve and fought the tickle in my throat, as the teenager rang up my sugar-free steel-cut oats, sugar-free organic chicken broth, carrots, celery, rice, strawberries, agave syrup, crackers, olives, sardines, unsweetened almond milk, blanched almonds, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, peppers, avocados, spices, Earth Balance vegan butter spread, and tofu. Then he grabbed the giant ribeye off the conveyor belt and asked, “Who’s the tofu for?”
Fifteen years earlier, the nurse at the outpatient surgery center hooked me up to an IV in anticipation of the Demerol and Versed that would make me “forget” the impending EGD procedure in a blissed-out, semi-awake state. The doctor was late. The longer I lay there hooked up to the IV with no drugs, the more nervous I got. He finally arrived in a hurry, administered the drugs and said, “Goodnight,” with a smile.
For months before, I kept returning to his office to explain my lifelong and worsening symptoms with no results, unending stomach pain my biggest complaint. He never believed me. I was 30, too young to have anything wrong with me. What a silly girl I was. He asked me repeatedly during each visit, “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?”
He sent me to the hospital for expensive x-rays that weren’t covered under my insurance, mostly to placate me and fill his wallet, I imagined, tests that involved drinking barium and holding still for much longer than an anxiety-ridden patient can handle without feeling traumatized. I referred to myself as a “guinea pig.” The tests showed nothing. I was angry and continued to live in pain, my guts bloated and blocked.
While looking at x-rays in an ER one late night when I thought I might need emergency gall bladder surgery, another physician once asked, “Has anyone every told you you’re full of it?”
But my current doctor was now about to stick a camera down my throat, and we would see, once and for all, what was wrong with me, only he didn’t wait for the drugs to kick in.
He promised I wouldn’t remember anything. I remember everything, except the recovery room.
I sobbed as I choked on the thick tube with the camera on the tip. He told me to relax. I cried some more, unable to communicate to the doctor, “Take this fucking thing out of my throat! You’re killing me!”
He pointed to a large screen, where a bright, clear image of the insides of my stomach appeared: a fleshy, wet, gurgling bag of raw skin.
“Everything looks normal,” I remember him saying.
I gagged and cried harder. Then I blacked out.
If that gastroenterologist hadn’t died soon after my procedure of surprise liver cancer, I would write him a letter today to explain, at 45, I finally know what’s wrong with me. I could prove it to him with lab results.
I’d say, “See! I’m not a malingerer after all!”
After a blood test and a tedious, ghastly three-day investigation requiring liquid poison in test tubes, biohazard bags, and stir sticks, I awaited my results with trepidation. Was it a bacteria imbalance, or was my beloved food the culprit all along?
On September 17th, I stared at extensive, disturbing bar graphs that suggested my body has antibodies that “react” to a strange assortment of stuff, and here it is: casein, cheese, milk, whey, yogurt, eggs, coffee beans, sugar cane, brewer’s yeast, bananas, blueberries, cranberries, grapefruit, lemon, pineapple, clams, crab, amaranth, sesame seeds, and mushrooms.
From this day forward, the doctor said, I should avoid all these items. My initial reaction was one of denial.
There’s no way. I can’t do this. I will just suffer. How will I live without these things? Isn’t there a magic pill I can take instead?
“What about wine?” I asked, panicked. “Can I still drink wine? Does it have brewer’s yeast in it?”
She said the brewer’s yeast in wine was “negligible,” and it shouldn’t be a problem. She also said whiskey was fine because it’s distilled.
Well, thank fucking god for that. If I must give up chocolate, I sure as hell can’t give up all alcohol.
But I won’t miss beer. I always knew that shit made me feel terrible.
I put the paperwork aside and tried not to think about it for the rest of the day. On the 18th, I got serious about listening to what the doc said. I would give this a serious shot because, if it worked, it would change my life.
Within a couple weeks, I didn’t really miss cheese anymore, and I only miss sugar on certain days, like when my nephew’s homemade Oreo cookie birthday cake was staring me in the face. (I had one bite.) In an unexpected twist, now, when I read labels and find food that only has ingredients that don’t bother my insides, I think oh my god, I can eat this!
And it turns out, you can have rolled oats every day for breakfast. I top them with strawberries, agave, almond milk, and nuts, which I never used to eat, and the outcome is delicious.
But I still have anxiety about eating out. I don’t want to be that person, the high-maintenance one who requests special treatment and this and that on the side. I have always prided myself on going with the flow and eating everything somewhat healthy that’s put in front of me. I even apologized to my family and told them I’d try not to ruin their good time.
And that was part of my problem. Not standing up for what’s best for me. Talk about the ultimate in not practicing self-care, then lying awake at night, with a bowling ball stomach that perpetually made me look five months pregnant and sounded like a Demogorgon. No thanks.
The tests were expensive—also not covered by my insurance—but it was worth it because I never would have determined what food I shouldn’t eat on my own. I was focusing on the wrong things. With steak and sautéed mushrooms, I thought it was the steak; with sushi, I thought it was the raw fish, not the soy sauce, which contains brewer’s yeast. And I thought I was lactose intolerant, but in addition to that, my body rejects dairy completely.
The thing is the results seem legit, and I was skeptical. I often wake up with a flatter, pain-free stomach that doesn’t drag me down. When I finished eating at a restaurant after ditching the buttery sauce that was supposed to come on my dish, I felt, dare I say, fine. And I never feel fine.
Everyone has been so supportive, especially my family and close friends, who have given me suggestions: nutritious gourmet vegan and fish recipes, yogurt made from cashews, pasta made from vegetables, breakfast bowls, and a bread recipe I can make myself. I never thought I’d be this person, but here I am. With a lot of planning and a lot of questions bestowed on restaurant staff, I will be a better version of me, and my body has been begging for this for decades.
Bye, Pizza Port. It was scrumptious—and excruciating—while it lasted.