On Day 14 of the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, things were going well. Yesterday, as I’d cooked my squash, I’d felt my best in several weeks. Maybe even the best since being diagnosed with colitis three months ago. All day my energy was steady and good; I’d had no stomach discomfort at all; I felt relaxed and at peace. I had just one BM, and although there was diarrhea as always, there was no blood.
It was impossible not to get my hopes up about this diet.
Today I ate an actual meal for the first time since starting the diet. I’d added a new food every day for a week, so by now I had a bit of variety to choose from. Adding new foods so quickly was technically cheating–I was supposed to be waiting 2-4 days between adding items. But at that rate it would be months before I could eat many things at all, so I was accelerating the diet’s pace. If I noticed any changes for the worse, I could always backpedal.
I could now eat:
- Broiled ground beef, turkey, fish, lean pork, and chicken soup.
- Eggs, homemade probiotic yogurt, and dry curd cottage cheese.
- Peeled, cooked, pureed apples, carrots, and squash.
- Cooked spinach.
So this morning I sautéed spinach, scrambled an egg, and dolloped applesauce on my plate with a sprinkling of cinnamon. On the side I finished off my latest mason jar of yogurt mixed with honey. It was so beautiful, to see this plate of healthy, colorful food in front of me, a real meal at last. I savored it.
Meanwhile, I pondered a recurring issue that had come up again last night. I’d had two friends over for tea, an unusual circumstance these days–fatigue and other symptoms had largely isolated me in the last two months. But I’d been emailing with Jess and Maggie about digestive issues, and Maggie had struggled for years with IBS and gastritis and had tried all sorts of diets, and I felt they would both understand my needs if they came over.
We sat in the living room by the big window, the lake shimmering outside. I watched as they sipped their tea, sticking to my SCD grape juice just to be safe–I didn’t yet trust anything not specified in my diet. Jess listened with interest as Maggie and I described our various woes and remedies, then we talked about what we were doing right now, getting together with friends, and how we had stuck with just tea, and how hard it was to socialize around food.
“I haven’t quite figured it out yet,” I confessed.
“It’s hard,” Maggie agreed. She said even after years, she hadn’t figured it out either.
Looking at my food now, on Day 14, I mused about how triumphant I felt cooking a meal, and yet how foreign and paltry my meal would seem to most of my friends. My standards had completely changed in the past two months, and it was one more thing that now isolated me.
The first time I tried to be social on a special diet had been just after Ron and I returned from Morocco and Spain. I had recently begun to understand how serious my illness was, and to drastically alter my diet for the first time. Suddenly I couldn’t eat high-fiber foods, high-fat and fried foods, legumes, dairy, or wheat. So when friends invited Ron and me to brunch at a restaurant, I was nervous. I didn’t quite know what I’d eat. But I figured I had to learn sometime, and if I went hungry I could just eat afterwards, back at home.
We arrived at La Brioche, one of Madison’s best brunch joints, bustling on that Saturday morning. Cheerful people packed the tables, the air thick with the scent of rich pastries, bacon, sausage, and eggs. The sights and smells of the restaurant made my heart sink. My mind was split in half. One part of me tried to stay present, out with friends on a Saturday morning enjoying a festive atmosphere. That was what I’d normally do here. I’d done this countless times; such meals had always been carefree and relaxing and fun. But the other half of my brain–much more than half, actually–saw everything through new eyes. I couldn’t be as carefree as I’d been in the past. I now had a disease. I had to be careful what I ate, and it was going to be a challenge to find something to eat here.
I bit my lip as I scanned the menu. Around me the seven others at the table, including Ron, murmured enthusiastically about all the different options. The eggs benedict sounded so good to them. (I couldn’t eat it–it was served on a croissant, and the asparagus would have too much fiber for me.) Or, oooh, the vanilla challah French toast! (I couldn’t eat the creme Anglaise, or the caramelized pecans, or the berries.) Or what about the house cured wild-caught salmon omelette? (The cream cheese, chives, and tomato were all out.)
I kept my eyes on my menu and tried not to look distraught. I was determined not to seem like a victim, not to draw too much attention to myself, since I’d already be asking for extra things from the waitress and I didn’t want to seem any more self-absorbed than necessary. I fought to come up with a useful mantra. Health: a lot of those foods weren’t really healthy, anyway, with all their cream and fat. Right? I tried to muster an inner superiority to comfort myself. I worked to conjure images of healthy friends who also might abstain from many of these foods.
But it didn’t work. Mostly I just felt awful. I had not felt this utterly left out since my shy, lonely days in high school.
Perhaps the worst part was knowing that just months ago, I, too, had been able to look at a menu with nothing but happy anticipation. Now I was abruptly cut off. Separate.
The only thing I could find that suited my diet was the spinach and chevre omelette, without the chevre. The menu said “All omelettes served with a spring mix salad and a slice of sourdough baguette,” and I knew that was meant to sound appetizing, but I couldn’t eat either of those things. I asked the waitress if I could have roasted potatoes instead.
Unfortunately, she was standing at the opposite end of the table. I had to almost shout to make the request. Heads turned from me to her and back again as we spoke. She smiled, nodded. “It’s an extra four dollars, but we can make that substitution.”
Four dollars, for a small bowl of potatoes?! I considered asking, “Even if it’s for a medical reason?” but quickly nixed the thought. Trying not to sound bitter, I told the waitress nevermind and turned to Ron quietly. “You can have my sides, then.”
I double-checked with the waitress that the cheese would be omitted from my omelette. She nodded agreeably. She left, and a few eyes slid my way sympathetically–my friends knew about my colitis. I tried valiantly to look cheerful. If I was going to learn to be social with colitis, I was going to have to be cheerful. I suspected people would get tired of feeling sorry for me pretty quickly.
The waitress brought our food. My first bite of omelette was heavenly; it practically melted in my mouth. “How is it?” Ron asked, and I raised my eyebrows and nodded and said honestly that it was really good. I was relieved. Then I realized what I was tasting. I opened the omelette; the inside was packed with creamy cheese. No wonder it had tasted so good.
I stopped eating, watching all the others eat for ten minutes while I waited to flag down the waitress. When I finally got her attention she fell all over herself apologizing: “I swear, I asked the cooks twice if they’d taken the cheese out.” Another five minutes later, when the others had mostly finished their meal, a second omelette was brought for me. The waitress said it would be complimentary and I thanked her sincerely. My friends’ sympathetic looks returned as I began to eat, trying once again not to stand out.
My meal had been reduced to basically eggs and spinach. (How odd, I thought on Day 14: That’s what I ate this morning, and this morning I appreciated it so much…but this morning I ate it alone without anything to compare it to except what I’d eaten recently.) Eating among others whose plates were piled with savory, delicious food that I couldn’t eat, my own meal felt merely nourishing, not appetizing. It was nothing like the meals being eaten by everyone around me.
The whole experience made me feel even worse than I had thought it might.
After that, and a couple more meals like it, I became wary of ever eating with friends. One evening I went to a potluck and ate a bowl of plain squash while everyone around me ate rich homemade tacos piled with fresh vegetables. Another time I ate dinner alone, then joined Ron and friends at a barbecue and watched as plate after plate of brats and roasted veggies was laid out in a feast. At that meal, everyone kept talking about how delicious the food was, and about other delicious meals they’d had recently (which I also couldn’t eat), and alternative ways to prepare this same food, with sour cream, for example, which, you guessed it, I couldn’t eat.
By the barbeque I had perfected the art of looking unperturbed when left out. It was surely the only way people would still enjoy hanging out with me. I buried my frustration, as a matter of social survival.
Reading Andrew Weil’s Eating Well for Optimum Health now, months later, I finally understood why I felt such acute pain from these experiences. His book is not geared towards ill people, but rather towards healthy people who want to stay well. That means that as I read it, I often felt now-familiar pangs of isolation whenever he recommended foods that were off limits to me, such as whole-grain carbs. But he also writes of the social and cultural importance of food:
Coming together to share food is a behavioral pattern we have in common with many other creatures. The word companion derives from the Latin word for bread, panis. Breaking bread together both establishes and symbolizes a fundamental social bond. A Japanese phrase for an intimate companion is “one who eats rice from the same bowl.”
…Consider the communal feasts that punctuate the calendars of the world’s religions. In fact, the words festive, festival, and feast have a common Latin root, suggesting that occasions merry, joyous, and significant are all distinguished by eating in company.
…The social importance of food and eating, like their association with pleasure, must be honored by anyone advocating eating well. Too often people who follow rigid diets in the name of health isolate themselves from the social interaction that is itself an important factor in optimum health.
For me, this passage rang true and triggered a jumble of sad questions. How was I supposed to be healthy, socially, if I was suddenly cut off from eating with friends? Was Dr. Weil chiding me for “isolating myself,” when my own rigid diet was not a choice but a necessity? Was I doomed to miss out on a crucial part of social interaction for the foreseeable future?
I knew Dr. Weil was right, though. I had experienced exactly the isolation he was talking about. I’d thought I might be able to take eating out of the social equation, eat separately from everyone else but still enjoy their companionship. But that was proving much harder than I’d pictured. Without the physical act of eating together, something vital was lost. Maybe my friends couldn’t feel it, but I sure could.
The passage made me determined to find ways to “break bread” with friends in the future. Maybe almond bread, if I stuck with this diet! For now I could bear being isolated, since my diet was so new and I was on a short-term trial. But if I stuck with it, I would have to find ways to adjust, because the current situation was just too depressing. Maybe the solution would be to cook for other people, bringing them into my home for food I knew I could eat. I knew many friends would also be up for the challenge of cooking SCD-friendly dishes, at least occasionally, if I requested it. And I could befriend others on similar diets.
Whatever the case, there had to be solutions. I didn’t want to be forever isolated from this important cultural ritual. I needed to find ways to participate.