It all fell into place when my doctor asked me if I lost weight after going gluten-free. Two distinct experiences popped into my head: one when I was in high school, and one when I was in college.
I used to bring a sandwich with me for lunch every day in high school. But eventually, even though I was hungry by the time lunch rolled around, I couldn’t stomach it. I tried to eat it—slowly, breaking off smaller and smaller pieces because I felt less sick if I only had to swallow small amounts of food at a time. I didn’t notice what was happening until weeks had passed. I just kept thinking that the sick feeling would go away, and tried to ignore it.
After school I usually had a snack. One afternoon I was feeling particularly ravenous, so I made myself two waffles. I wasn’t satisfied, so I made two more. Why I thought I could double my usual waffle intake I do not know, but I did, and I finished those two waffles also. But I didn’t feel full. I found a leftover pancake in the fridge and ate that too. It was more fear that made me stop eating than actually feeling full. Four waffles and a pancake? Something was wrong. That’s when I realized how little I had been eating in the previous weeks. That sick feeling never went away.
I was losing weight. Often I wanted to eat, but couldn’t. A well-meaning but ill-informed teacher of mine accused me of being anorexic. That certainly didn’t help things.
The sick feeling did eventually go away. I don’t remember when, or how. But it came back one day, years later, in college.
I used to have tomato and fresh mozzarella on ciabatta bread in the NYU dining hall whenever I could. I loved that sandwich. Everything was fresh and flavorful. Even the texture of the ciabatta was perfect. I looked forward to that sandwich whenever I knew I would be eating on campus.
One afternoon I met a friend for lunch. On campus! Tomato mozzarella ciabatta! I ordered, paid, sat down, and ripped open the tinfoil that stood between me and my sandwich. The first bite.
As I was chewing, that sick feeling came back. All at once. I put the sandwich down, thinking it would pass. Nothing would come between me and my sandwich. But I didn’t take another bite. I felt too sick. Thirty minutes later, as I walked to class, hungry, I wondered what had happened.
I didn’t connect these experiences until that day in the doctor’s office years later, after having been diagnosed with celiac disease and eliminating gluten from my diet. My beloved sandwiches had been making me sick in high school, and they had been making me sick in college. Sick to the point where I couldn’t eat. Sick to the point where my already thin frame shrank.
And it makes me wonder: How many people are misdiagnosed with eating disorders who are, in reality, affected in this way by celiac disease? How many people develop eating disorders because of how food makes them feel—physically at first, and then mentally, when it stops making sense?