The Hardest Part is the Best Part

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve seen a lot of doctors and tried a lot of things to treat my SIBO. Every protocol, treatment, special diet, supplement and pill I've tried in the last two years and one month has ultimately been for one simple reason. This is all about food for me. Of course, I'm not thrilled to be bloated, gassy or occasionally doubled over in pain, but I can generally avoid the worst of my symptoms by avoiding the foods that cause them. And to be completely honest (and maybe a bit TMI), I’m so used to being constipated I really don’t know what I'm missing. When it comes down to it, what I mean when I talk about "healing" or “getting better” or "going back to normal" or “wanting my life back” is that I want food back.

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I know we all “love food” but I love food, and I always have. One of the first things my parents will say when they describe me as a child is how adventurous of an eater I was; how I was eating shrimp cocktail before I could walk, sushi from a booster seat and escargot as a 12 year old visiting Paris for the first time. One of my dad's favorite anecdotes describes me refusing to eat at Friendly's on a family trip to Cape Cod because "I don't eat at Friendly's on vacation" and proceeding to order the most expensive steak on the menu at the restaurant I made him take us to instead (I said I loved food, I didn't say I wasn't also a brat sometimes). In my pre-SIBO life, I could count on one hand how many foods I genuinely didn’t like. My only collections were of cookbooks and kitchen appliances; nothing made me happier on Christmas morning than a blender or a cast iron pan. Even in my longest, darkest days of eating nothing but soup for weeks on end when I was on the GAPS diet for a month and a half last winter to "heal my gut," the only things I was scrolling through on my Instagram feed were photos of friends and photos of (artfully plated) food.

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At my very worst a little over a year ago, there were exactly twelve foods I felt were safe to eat, and they all came in soup form. I became genuinely afraid of food; what was once one of the most essential and enjoyable aspects of my life turned into a fear of being in real physical pain. I would slurp my soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner while coworkers around me ate chips and cookies they found on the free table at the office that "didn't even taste good” and talked about the cool restaurants with live octopus they were going to that night. For months, I didn't go to restaurants or see my friends. I barely left the house for any reason other than to go to work because it took too much mental and physical energy just to feed myself.

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After exactly 54 days of soup for every meal, I stopped being able to tolerate the soup itself, and I was forced to finally move forward. I remember my first real meal after almost two months of a practically liquid diet was a roasted chicken with roasted vegetables; the chicken skin that was crunched instead of spooned was one of the most delicious things I've eaten to this day. Then, through the agonizing process that is reintroducing foods after an elimination diet, I carefully added foods back one by one. This meant a small amount of the food on day one (about a tablespoon), followed by a slightly larger amount, and after four days in a row of gradually increasing to a normal portion, if the food didn't cause any symptoms, I could consider it successfully reintroduced. Then I would wait another four days, and start on the next food. In the meantime, I kept eating the few foods I knew were safe (eggs, meat, fish, carrots, ginger, turmeric, tomatoes, kale, collard greens, swiss chard, peppers, squash), only finally, gratefully, no longer in soup form. It was electrifying then just to be able to chew.

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I can vividly remember how fragrant and nutty that first tablespoon of quinoa was after not eating any grains for months. My first sip of hot, bitter coffee mixed with cold, creamy coconut milk was a near religious experience (I missed coffee almost more than food). After not being able to eat most spices for a while (aside from ginger and turmeric) because a lot of them are "high histamine" and would irritate my eczema, the pungent smoky-sweet flavor yielded by something as simple as cinnamon was hard to believe. Oatmeal tasted like toasted milk, almost sweet and thrillingly chewy, even eaten without any of its usual toppings and fanfare. The hardest part of having SIBO became the most surprising and wonderful part of having SIBO. You can’t listen to your favorite song for the first time again, or read your favorite book, or experience your first fall into love. Well I did it. I did all of those things. With melted cheese and a bagel and coffee and soft serve ice cream and oatmeal and pizza and rosé and avocado and garlic. And it didn't just feel like I was getting back something I once knew and loved; it was a whole new experience I had never lived before. Ultimately, some of these foods had to be taken away again but for the time I had them back, however long it was, it was bliss. If anything good has come out of this whole thing—aside from improved overall health, better knowledge of myself and my body, decreased stress and anxiety, no hangovers, better sleep and yadda yadda yadda (I could even credit SIBO for finally getting me to quit smoking after 10 years)—it’s been those near miracle moments I’ve experienced tasting something again for the first time after being forced to avoid it for months or even years.

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When I went on that trip to Paris when I was 12, my mother offered more than once to let me have a glass of wine because I was in Europe and it was both legal and socially acceptable for me to do so, but I declined until I could have a glass that was served "on white tablecloths." As high maintenance as that sounds, it had to feel special or it didn't seem worth it, and once we found those tablecloths, I chose a Kir Royale as my single alcoholic drink on that trip because it was festive and fancy. Re-introducing foods post-GAPS diet was no different. I made sure that my first bites of (raw milk) cheese in months were eaten on a blanket in Central Park on one of the first warm-enough days last summer as notes of Elvis Costello playing live floated from Summerstage. Avocado returned to my life savored slowly on the deck of my parents' lake house. This past September, the only thing I really did for my 31st birthday was have pizza, buffalo chicken style, eaten in bed while slightly tipsy from the one celebratory cocktail I allowed myself. The most recent real bagel I ate was consumed only after a special trip to Zabar's made by my boyfriend (as I mentioned, he's a saint) and driven 3.5 hours outside of the city to his parents' scenic farmhouse in the middle of nowhere upstate New York to be topped with lox and cream cheese and paired with one of my favorite cups of coffee from the one restaurant that exists in that small town. I drank my most recent glass of wine—rosé, of course—after abstaining for months, on a boat at sunset. That's why we have photos of most of these occasions—they still always feel like a really big deal. 

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This is not all to say that I appreciate every single bite of food I put into my mouth now—sometimes I still eat things out of necessity, that don't taste all that great, and I don't always chew as much or eat as slowly and thoughtfully as I should. I don't appreciate every bite but I do appreciate far more than I would have two years ago. And if I could choose, no, I would have never ended up with SIBO. But I've learned so much more about food and myself and my body in this experience than I ever could have possibly imagined. I have never tasted a sweet potato as sweet, and I may never taste it that way again. One of my favorite quotes from one of my all time favorite movies is "the sweet is never as sweet without the sour," and I've never understood those words as palpably as I do today. As much as I've always loved food, and as much as it still has the ability to hurt me, I've truly never loved it more than I do now.  

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