June 2011 marks my three year anniversary of being gluten free. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that I was walking through the grocery store with my list of unsafe ingredients. In other ways, this lifestyle has become such second nature that it feels like I have been gluten free forever.
I remember that pride that I felt the first time I made gluten free cookies from scratch. I had heard from many sources that gluten free baking should be approached like chemistry lab -- very precise measurements are needed or else things can blow up in your face. When I mastered the first batch, I felt so accomplished that I only felt the need to display that particular domestic skill one other time over the past three years :P
I remember feeling so much healthier -- not just because I was no longer eating something that was making me sick, but also because I was making healthier food choices in general. Swapping in fruit for cookies may have been a little difficult at first, but I started feeling (and seeing) the benefits of integrating more produce into my diet. However, those benefits quickly disappear if you develop a potato chip addiction...
I also remember how miserable I felt the first time I got gluten-poisoned at a restaurant. It was within the first three months of developing my allergy. I had just started feeling confident enough in my ability to navigate food that I decided to go out for dinner with friends. Then I got very sick and had to leave the meal early. I felt physically and emotionally sick. How could I let this happen to myself? How could the restaurant be so cavalier about my food allergy? Would I ever be able to eat at a restaurant again? It was that experience that really underscored how important it is to communicate not only with the wait staff, but also managers, since wait staff and kitchen staff don't always share information. That experience also taught me important lessons about planning and trust -- plan/call ahead, but if things still don't seem right, it is better to walk away than risk your health.
I remember learning to embrace the challenge of eating. The first times I tried to explain what gluten is, what it was in, and the dangers of cross-contamination were not very pretty, but now I can confidently answer most questions people throw at me. I stopped being intimidated and missing the ease of my previous life. I learned to adapt and think on my toes. I was able to feed myself tasty, healthy food on a grad student budget. When the going was tough, I not only adapted, but thrived!
The past three years have had some ups and downs, but overall, I have learned to embrace my gluten allergy. While it is a pain in the ass sometimes, it is a pain in the ass that has helped me to become more patient, flexible, and compassionate. I plan menus more carefully to ensure that everyone will have multiple options when I throw parties. I am more willing to try new foods and explore new substitutions for old ingredients. Most importantly, I have learned to more fully appreciate how special it is to share meals with others. Every time a friend or family member goes out of their way to make sure there is something I can eat at a gathering, I feel loved and respected in a way that I wouldn't have known without my gluten allergy.
Here's to many more years to come!