Among the most impressive items shining proudly in my Winning at Life trophy case is my Mobile Peace Prize. I earned it not for brokering peace among warring nations or disarming a volatile dictatorship (that’s a Nobel Peace Prize, but I can see where you might confuse the two), but for something almost as difficult: refraining from using a mobile device to post a knee-jerk comment on a Facebook post, thus averting a potentially violent flame war.
On this particular occasion, a gluten-free diet backlash article and post weaponized itself menacingly on my newsfeed. Don’t get me wrong, I have been confronted with many a belittling post and snarky joke on this topic in the past few years, increasing in frequency as gluten awareness has grown.
In the past, I sometimes attempted to disarm these taunts politely and logically, naively hoping to squeeze a minuscule drop of the flood of compassion and understanding that I regularly enjoy as a breast cancer survivor down to us celiac sufferers. But for a small but vocal handful of people, “gluten-free” continues to be synonymous with “high-maintenance hypochondriac yuppie.”
On this day, instead of defending the gluten-free diet, I took a deep breath to calm myself and decided to put myself in this person’s shoes. I imagined what it must be like to be a non-celiac: to take a trip to the grocery store where you are able to buy absolutely anything without doing any research whatsoever, needing no special app, no bifocals to read the fine print on labels, no 1-800 numbers to call companies to check on ambiguous ingredients like “natural flavoring.” I thought about perusing Pinterest recipes and being able to make any of them without any modification. I envisioned dining at a restaurant and ordering exactly what you felt like without having to interrogate an overworked, exasperated waiter about the one or two dishes on the menu that seem like they should be safe, asking about their ingredients, method of preparation, and the kitchen’s protocol for avoiding cross-contamination.
I pictured socializing at parties and potlucks and friends’ homes without having to horrify each stranger and new acquaintance with the revelation of personal medical information, or without seeming like a snob or an anorexic by refusing to eat anything, or without offending people whose company you enjoy by grilling them about the spread, risking being black-listed due to your whiny, pain-in-the-ass needs.
I realized something: Missing out on all those experiences that we celiacs get to experience every single day adds up to a hell of a lot of unaccounted-for time.
In addition to the above, those of us who can’t eat gluten find much of our waking hours conveniently filled up with desire, longing, and nostalgia. Unlike the rest of you, we get to daydream about pillowy soft bread warm from the oven, about yeasty doughnuts, flaky croissants, buttery baguettes, deep dish doughy pizza, exotic strains of bougie beers. All that visualization and pining over that which can never be—well, it fills up more of the day than you might expect.
And then there’s the time non-celiacs don’t spend suffering the physical consequences of accidentally getting glutened, despite all their vigilance.
I mean, shoot, when I sat down and really thought about it and did the math, I started to feel bad for people who can eat gluten. They must accumulate a suffocating glut of extra time in their days.
Time to hear the word “gluten-free” over and over again in the media and from friends, lurking around every corner and rearing its head when they least expect it. Time for the phrase to worm its way into their psyches, like fingernails on a chalkboard, until one day, for some people, it apparently reaches the point of physical torture, where any mention of gluten imprisons them with fear and rage.
I began to truly understand how my gluten-free lifestyle is oppressing them.
There are people who have been living with celiac for decades, but for some non-celiacs, the last five years or so of this merciless gluten-free trend seem to have been so damaging and so psychically painful that by this point, merely reading the label “gluten-free” on a menu or grocery item has become absurd and painfully offensive, causing them to experience involuntary, sometimes lethal amounts of eye-rolling and scoffing. The only way they can mitigate their discomfort is by mocking and shaming people with an incurable, life-threatening autoimmune disease. I see now that, for some, there is no choice. Their own sanity and survival are at stake.
OK, yeah, it may be true that people with celiac disease selfishly like seeing the gluten-free label, having been burned in the strangest ways in the past by foods that are supposed to be free of gluten by their very nature—by, say, hastily buying a salad kit in the produce aisle that you didn’t realize came packaged with a hidden packet of croutons which happened to have a tiny tear in the plastic, or ordering an omelet from a restaurant that secretly adds a dollop of pancake batter to the eggs to make them deliciously fluffy and deadly, or eating a piece of bacon from a friend who heard the super-handy tip that sprinkling flour on bacon before frying keeps it from shrinking.
But none of those things are healthy people’s problems. This is still America, and no one should be forced to hear or read the term “gluten-free.” In fact, from this point on, we should agree to make “the g word” socially unacceptable because, for some non-celiacs, the term itself apparently causes more pain and suffering than the actual protein does to the body of a celiac.
Earning that peace prize wasn’t easy, but on that day I fulfilled my solemn duty as a celiac to preserve the peace, to keep my petty problems to myself, to smile through the flames of being gaslit and being told our medical conditions are all in our heads, and, most importantly, not to burden the already difficult lives of the healthy with the irritating woes of the infirm.