06 June 2017


I've been gluten-free due to celiac disease since 2003. For the most part I've been awesome about managing it and the gluten-free market has improved so significantly since then that I sometimes just stop in the grocery store, staring in disbelief at all the choices that didn't exist ten years ago. I've lived in and traveled through several countries without major incidents. I don't get to eat every delicious food that crosses my path. I give up a lot of treats just because I can't be certain. I always remind myself that my health is worth more than that one amazing dessert.

I had gluten once in Bamako, in July 2014, within days of my arrival. I knew what I'd done; I recognized the pattern of my gastrointestinal distress as what happens when I eat gluten. As a precaution I went to the doctor to rule out parasites and food poisoning because I was in a new country with different food safety practices and germs I hadn't been exposed to before. They treated me for dehydration. I lost several pounds. It was a shaky start to my time in a new country but I recovered.

The culprit of the gluten was unexpected but quickly determined. Beef brochettes at a pizza place. There was so much flour being tossed around the kitchen with abandon that it covered every food inadvertently. And thus the psychological aspect of celiac disease set in. In a place where I already felt isolated by being an outsider, I couldn't frequent one of the most popular expat restaurants with my friends. One time I tried drinking a glass of wine while my friends ate but it was hard to smell the pizza and the grilling meat and watch everyone else enjoy it while I couldn't even eat the inherently gluten-free dishes.

For almost three years, all over France, Mali, Austria, Kenya, and the United States, I avoided gluten until a few weeks ago. There are two pizza places in our neighborhood and they both do a decent gluten-free pizza. I still prefer the one I make at home but sometimes I want to have pizza in a restaurant with my friends and family so I've come to rely on these two restaurants. I ordered my usual gluten-free pizza for pickup to take to a friend's house for dinner.

The pizza in question.
 By the time we sat down to eat I was so hungry that I ate two slices before I realized it was too delicious to be a gluten-free pizza. I'm not going to lie. After the initial horror of discovering it I was tempted to eat more since I was going to get sick already. But I didn't. I did finish off Mike's beer, since I hadn't had real beer, other than an occasional tiny sip, in so long.

Then I anxiously awaited the pain in the lower left side of my abdomen that usually signifies gluten poisoning. I barely slept that night, wondering if it was the gluten causing my sleeplessness or the nerves of waiting for the symptoms that caused it. By the next morning my stomach was still fine and I began to question everything that had happened. It wasn't a relief to not be sick. It was more nerve wracking than usual, knowing that I'd eaten gluten but my symptoms weren't manifesting in their usual way.

By about noon I realized what was going on. Inflammation. I'd never had it before but I knew it was a common symptom for many people. Full body ache. Exhaustion. Skin so sensitive I recoiled when Muffin tried to hold my hand. My plan had been to bring my pizza leftovers back to the restaurant to find out what happened with my order. By the time Mike got home from work I could barely get off the couch without great discomfort so he took them back for me, explaining to the manager that I was too sick to go myself.

To the manager's credit, according to Mike he was horrified. My receipt said "gluten-free" on it and my crust was clearly not their gluten-free crust. He looked up the name of the person who prepared my order so he could yell at him. He refunded us for the pizza and gave Mike a gift card for fifty dollars. He told Mike he wanted the chance to make it up to me personally, once my appetite for pizza from their restaurant returned. Two days later the manager called me to see how I was doing.

I was much better, gluten-wise, by the time he called, but the gluten weakened my immune system enough that the horrible cold Muffin had had, that I'd thought I'd successfully fended off, moved on in. I was still on the couch, although from a chest cold and sinus infection rather than inflammation.

And the thing is, unlike when I have the gastrointestinal problems from gluten, I never lost my appetite, even for pizza. Again the psychological games spring up, having to rebuild my trust with that restaurant. But a week later I was at the other restaurant enjoying a pizza while the waiter talked about how they recently changed to a new gluten-free crust that customers said was tastier than the old one. (It was pretty good, as far as gluten-free crusts go.)

Mainly I'm angry because it was one more setback after a winter and spring of injuries and illness. One more week that I couldn't run as much as I wanted to. A few more days that I couldn't do any kind of workout. It was while I was sick on the couch that I signed up for the two ten-mile races for later this year. I'm tired of being sick and injured and I really want to stay on track.

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