It’s been a couple of months since I got the coeliac diagnosis and, on the whole, gluten-free is becoming a normal part of life. Yes, there are moments of cake-envy and I have yet to find a gluten-free bread that is as good as the real thing, but on a day-to-day level I’ve got used to the new regime of “free from” foods. But there’s one thing I’m finding a bit frustrating. It’s that I’m being reminded of a world from which I had escaped. A world where I am the person who studies menus in advance. The person who quizzes the waiter about what’s in the food. The person who says “I can’t”. The person who checks food items in a little book before saying yes. The picky person.
Let me say just a little about the world in which I lived when I had an eating disorder. It was a self-imposed prison where food was both feared and idolised. Eating was never about pleasure or appetite but all about calories, numbers and control. The Weight Watchers book of calories was my Bible. Meals out were an enormous source of panic and anxiety and I could be anxious for days, if not weeks, beforehand. Menus would be scrutinised and the lowest calorie option ordered. Salads were always “without dressing” and sent back if they turned up with even a trace of oil. Excuses would be made as to why I only had one course (“I ate such a big lunch”, “I’m not very hungry”). Food would be my first thought in the morning and my last thought at night. it would be most of the thoughts in-between. Food would determine where we went on holiday (it had to be self-catering). Food would determine which friends I saw (preferring to see those who cooked “healthier” meals or allowed me to serve myself rather than serving up large plates). Food even had a say on my honeymoon, as I starved all day and spent much of the afternoon scouring the streets of Annecy for a restaurant where there would be low- calorie options. That was my world for many years. A world which was all about saying “no”.
Maybe one day I will write about how I escaped but for now I will just say that when I finally stepped out of the prison and breathed fresh air, it was the most liberating experience ever! Outside the walls, life looked so different. I began to enjoy other people cooking for me. Christmas became a pleasure. Holidays were fun. Life was not about food any more. My body was no longer the enemy. I was free!
Over the years, like a reformed smoker, I became an evangelistic anti-dieter. “Everything in moderation” would be my motto and I would be critical of extreme and faddy diets. I was particularly suspicious about celebrities who followed extreme eating regimes, supposedly for health reasons. I could see right through that macrobiotic, organic, Atkins, no-carb, wheat-free mullarkey and was sure that for some it was an eating disorder in disguise. Indeed, in time, the term “orthorexia” was coined, to describe obsessionality and preoccupation around healthy eating. I wanted none of it. And so my food intake was a varied mix of healthy and unhealthy; lots of fruit and veg, lots of carbs, meat, dairy and a good old smattering of JUNK. I was happy!
Then I got this diagnosis.
Of course, having coeliac disease is nothing like having an eating disorder. I am glad to say that I’m still free. Free from anxiety and fear. Free from shame. Free from preoccupation with food. But there are moments where it’s as though I can hear the distant wail of prison sirens, reminding me of the chains I used to wear.
So maybe for others it’s no problem to ask the waiter if there’s gluten-free pasta. It’s no big deal to tell your friends you’ll bring your own cereal when you go to stay with them. It’s fine to say “no” when someone offers you a biscuit . It’s OK to spend ages looking up the contents of your shopping basket in the Coeliac society’s “Food and Drink Directory”. For me it’s a backwards step that I didn’t want to take. I was so enjoying not having to think. I was so enjoying saying “yes”.