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Food intolerance and loss of identity
You want to be the you you were before. I get it. Making space for a shifting identity.
The other day I bought a fruit that is seldom seen here, fejoia. It is fragrant in a kind of tropical pineappley-green-mint-guava kind of way. I saw it at the feria (farmer’s market) closeish to my house and picked one up and smelled it, decided, on the basis of my body’s reaction (interest, not disgust) that maybe, just maybe it would be ok.
And I thought of the old Eileen. Pre-histamine intolerance Eileen. She went to Colombia and went on a tour of the main market in Bogotá. She ate pitaya, anon, mangosteen, chontaduro, all fruits she’d never tasted before, or only seldom had before. She ate almojábanas (a slightly sweet cheesy bread) for breakfast, drank cup after cup of coffee and later went out for a big fancy meal with wine and cheese and so much seafood. It was her identity to be this person, who knew about food, who enjoyed food, who wrote about food.
But she is me, this Eileen, or she was me. My identity was wrapped up in going places and tasting things. Over the course of a year, I would go to multiple wine fairs and in a season easily go to 20 different wineries, mostly for work. I ate at restaurants all over the city, and a friend and I had a popular instagram about food in Santiago. I’m a moderator of a food group for Santiago on Facebook. Food is who I was.
I had always been excited about collecting and disseminating information, aware of restaurants, taste profiles, new foods, wineries, and the strong associations we all have with the foods of our youth. Food was incredibly important to me. Not more important than it is to you, I have no interest in competition. But let’s just say, it was easily in my top three.
And then one day it was over. Over a series of months I was sick and sicker and in the end (which it turns out was not the end) I was reduced to a few safe foods and everything else made me unwell for days. Travel was terrifying, in addition to the fact that I could become terribly sick at any time, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat anywhere that I went. Dinners out? Out the window, off the table, no way, no how. I felt I was tethered to the house, a place I knew I could make safe food for myself and where if I got sick I could deal with it alone.
This not being able to eat or drink like I had before was the biggest insult. The isolation, the fear, and the huge shift in identity. Previously I had been adventurous, uncomplicated (except that I didn’t eat meat, but that’s not so complicated in most settings). Friends commented I had a “stomach of steel” re: legumes, fried food, cream, spicy food, etc. I was very attached to this identity, and kind of wrapped myself up in it. I’d get into conversations with indie winemakers about their processes just for fun, take sip after sip of their wines, looking for that black pepper, that blackberry, that lemongrass. An invitation to a restaurant where everything was out of my control, one of those tasting menus with who-knows-what on it, and every third dish was fermented? Count me in, and although this is not my favorite way to eat, it is fun to see what people can do to push the envelope. And none of it made me sick. Until it all did.
Previously I had given passing thought to people who had food allergies, near whom you shouldn’t eat peanuts or tree nuts, nor offer them mushrooms, or wheat. They gave me pretzels instead of peanuts on planes and I accepted them, thankful that I would not get anaphylaxis if I ate the wrong thing. But also (at the time), blissfully ignorant of the huge insult to self that many allergic/intolerant people had suffered when it turned out they couldn’t just walk around freely in the world, unworried about what they might eat or drink. Plans could be dashed with a speck of gluten in the piri piri sauce, cancelling plans at the last minute, as a friend reported in that she had “been glutened” while i was visting her in Portugal and now might be sick for days.
Now that it’s me (though no anaphylaxis, at least not yet), I know something that I didn’t know before. That people with food intolerances and allergies may be stressed and worried and flummoxed and on-edge and uneasy and most of all, they may feel a tremendous sense of loss. That, if like me, food had been essential to their social, professional and sense of self, then the moment they had to suddenly rejigger what they could eat, lost many favorite foods and even some nostalgic childhood ones, something important disappeared.
And it can feel devastating.
The frustration of not being able to eat just anything can leave you feeling not just hungry, but wholly unsatisfied. Left out, socially isolated and like one of your main go-to-pleasure points has been rendered treacherous.
I just want to hold some space for you if you feel this is you. That if you feel your identity has suffered an insult, social possibilities curtailed, and pleasure center short-circuited it’s because it has. I want go tell you that I know, and I care and it sucks.
Feeling a distance between who you are now and who you used to be, or would like to be is awful. That feeling of loss of identity is huge, and seldom discussed. There’s a lot of “eat this, not that,” yay, this thing is just like that other thing that you used to eat, even better,” and not a lot of “I get it, I feel you, I know.”
So let say: I get it, I feel you, I know.
I am not going to tell you to get over it, get beyond it. But I do know from personal experience that if you trip over the same rock enough times, you’re going to have to find a way around it, or sign up for a life time of stubbed toes. Put another way, unhappiness tends to lie in the difference between how things are and how we wish they could be. One of those things is malleable and the other one isn’t.
So on a day when you’re feeling particularly optimistic and charitable with yourself, I suggest suspending some disbelief, and thinking for 30 seconds of the new you that you can become. Who listens to her body, who feels well, who finds creative solutions to untenable problems, whether that’s bringing around a tupperware full of rice or a safe granola bar or a bag of almonds, or eating before you leave the house to go somewhere.
But also give your self some space to mourn that loss of identity. I promise you you won’t become no one. You might just become someone new.
PS: this has been sitting in drafts for forever. In the meantime I got a breakthrough infection of Coronavirus, post two (Sinovac, dead-virus) vaccines and two weeks. The irony of suggesting to other people that the loss identity is surmountable as I go from a thriving, marathon walking workouty person to this person who sits on the couch and dreams of her next nap is not lost on me. More Eileen Covid news here on the newly revived blog. So that’s at least one good thing to come out of Covid, so far I finally fixed my ailing blog. I feel like there is more good to come. It will be different. But I will still be me. (also, mild case, no lung involvement, so thankful, but so very tired).