For more than a decade, I struggled with crippling food allergies. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a position like this—either with chronic pain, or infertility, or migraines, or hormone imbalance or extra weight that just won’t come off—where it’s clear there is something “off” in your body but nobody can figure out exactly what, and so there seems to be no solution and no end to your suffering.
But if you have, you know how completely trapping it can feel.
And the other thing you know, if you’ve ever been in this position, is how hard it is to talk about what you’re experiencing. I didn’t talk about my food allergies for years. Mostly because phrases like “bowel movement” and “loose stools” don’t exactly seem like polite dinner conversation but also because anytime I tried to talk about it, I worried I was complaining or drawing attention to myself, or making a big deal out of nothing.
It was easier to just say, “no, I’m really okay. I’ve got this covered. Things are under control. My suffering is nothing compared to so-and-so.”
But I was really sick.
Some days I would have such bad diarrhea it would make me afraid to leave the house. Most nights I would lay awake, praying for my stomach to stop hurting. My diet consisted of, basically, Saltine crackers, diet coke, easy mac, french fries and the occasional bowl of cheerios with soy milk. So super healthy, in other words. But these were the things that seemed to cause me the least amount of pain.
And still, I made a handful of trips to the emergency room. The doctors would ask me what my pain was like, and the only thing I could think to tell them was, “it feels like I’m digesting needles” or “…I think my insides are bleeding.”
All their tests came back negative.
Celiac and Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis and colon cancer and a number of other things. They even tested me for lactose intolerance, which I was convinced I had, but nope… that test came back negative, too. Nobody could explain what was happening to me.
And then, finally, a glimmer of hope. A diagnosis. A specialist I was seeing ordered a test, just on the off chance, and the results came back positive. Dietary Fructose Intolerance (DFI).
The solution they gave me was to avoid fructose (the sugar found in fruit, most vegetables and of course High Fructose Corn Syrup) for the rest of my life.
I’ll never forget taking the list of “approved” foods to the grocery store for the first time, wandering around for an hour and a half or so, reading labels, and putting everything I was used to buying back on the shelf. After close to two hours, I came home with several bags full of food I had to (gasp) cook myself.
I started watching the food network, learning how to make my own food and finding some peace in nourishing myself.
You would think this would have fixed everything, but no.
When I started following the diet my doctor recommended, my symptoms dissipated. At least there was that. I was able to sleep through the night with very few stomach problems. My chronic migraines stopped. I stopped making those “fun” little trips to the emergency room. Within a few months, I dropped 20 pounds. It’s amazing what your body can do when it isn’t fighting an uphill battle all the time.
But my diagnosis also meant that three times a day—at least—I was reminded of my limitations. This was back before people were talking about things like “Gluten Free” or “Paleo” or GMOs and organic. This was the age of Atkins, people. And the way I saw it, I had two choices. Either I could spend the rest of my life being the girl with food allergies or I could disengage from the whole corporate eating ritual altogether.
So I all but stopped going out to eat with friends.
Honestly, it never felt super worth it anyway. I would order a plain piece of chicken—cooked with no oil or seasoning (because it was too much trouble to ask what was in the marinades and mixtures), on a salad, which was usually a bed of iceberg lettuce, with no tomatoes or carrots or dressing. $15 to be embarrassed and anxious and mostly miserable.
Suddenly I became the problem, the topic of conversation, “Can Ally have this? Can she eat that?” Or I would bring my own food, packed into little tupperware, like a total loser, and eat my wierd-o food while everyone else pigged out on pumpkin pie and stuffing. I always felt left out, or like the “problem” everyone else had to solve.
In fact, there were times I just ate what was put in front of me—all the while knowing it would make me sick—just to avoid the public humiliation.
One day, someone I knew suggested my problem wasn’t just physical.
I’ll never forget it. “Have you ever considered…” she asked, “that your food intolerances might be connected to your fear and anxiety?” And while you might think this suggestion would be a glimmer of hope for me, a light at the end of the tunnel, it wasn’t. I found her comment insulting and so completely impolite and out of line, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.
And then weeks.
It taunted me. It infuriated me. How could she…?
After that, I didn’t want to, but I did begin to see some parallels between the physical symptoms I was experiencing and my fears and insecurities. For example, I would often think to myself, after refusing an invitation to go to dinner, about how left out I felt—how this “always” happened to me, how nobody really understood what I was going through and how I was invisible and insignificant.
I also noticed how the pain would flare up during times when I was under a lot of stress—one time when I was in a job that was a terrible fit for me and another time when a close friend of mine committed suicide. My symptoms would come back, in full force, even though I was eating all the same foods that had eliminated my symptoms months ago.
This was just enough to keep me wondering, keep me guessing that maybe there might be more to this than just the physical.
But I wasn’t convinced.
I kept the possibility of healing in the back of my mind.
I would research and try a new diet where you’d be really strict for a few weeks or months and then re-introduce the problematic foods. I worked with a naturopath who walked me through an elimination diet and suggested I cut out gluten for good, so I did that.
I tried a product called Juice Plus—a whole food supplement that contains the real, whole fruits and vegetables, which are picked at their optimum freshness and then condensed down to capsule form. I thought maybe this would be a good way for me to get some of the nutrients I knew I was lacking, without the fructose itself. I also hoped it would bring healing for me, as it had for so many others.
I tried acupuncture and essential oils and yoga and probiotics and a dozen other things. I drank bone broth. I did fermented foods and all-organic and paleo and a Whole 30.
This went on for a decade. I tried everything I could think of.
And yet nothing worked. Progress, maybe, but no real healing. My hopes were always dashed. Each time I would feel more demoralized than the last.
A little over a year ago, I started seeing a therapist.
And about six months into our time together, she told me something that piqued my interest. She said, “I work with clients all the time who work through their emotional symptoms and then their physical ones all but vanish.” It felt reminiscent of the phrase that woman had said to me so many years ago—about my food allergies being connected to my emotional state. Except this time I knew she was right.
Why is it that the most helpful thing we can hear in the moment is also the most difficult?
As she and I talked more about this, I realized that so many of the emotional things we were working on together mirrored the things I had, for so long, experienced with food. Feeling invisible or “different” or constantly left out translated to never being able to participate in this those holiday get-togethers, dinners or group gatherings.
People-pleasing or always deferring my own needs for the sake of others translated into my tendency to eat foods that made me physically ill just so I didn’t have to bring up my food allergies or draw attention to myself.
A fear of being vulnerable or asking for help translated into my inability to talk openly about the struggle I faced with food on a daily basis.
The more we talked, the more I began to see the direct connection between what was happening with me physically and my emotional struggles.
Can I be honest?
There was a tremendous amount of fear in this realization for me. If my external world reflected my internal one, and if I had the power to shape my physical symptoms by addressing my emotional ones, what did that mean for me? It meant I had a huge amount of responsibility, first of all, and activated all my insecurities about not being good enough.
Could the reason I hadn’t found healing, despite all my effort, be because I was somehow fundamentally flawed?
What if other people deserved to be healed but I did not?
The more we talked about this, the more I realized my fears were keeping me from the healing I desired. And when I could calm my fears and actually listen, what I knew—deep, deep down, was this: healing is not a passive event but an active one. We must participate in our own healing.
It’s a “get up and walk” kind of thing.
So I made a few commitments to myself.
First, I told myself I was going to believe for my own healing, no matter how long it took. I would continue the things I had done before—acupuncture, essential oils, good diet, Juice Plus, etc—because I knew they had helped me with symptoms and pain and I knew they were part of my progress. But I was going to incorporate an emotional aspect as well.
I was going to work through what was happening inside until it showed up on the outside.
I also committed I wouldn’t do this alone, so I started talking to my closest friends about my allergies and their symptoms.
Two of my friends specifically—Betsy and Katie—would call me each time before I came over to their house and say, “now, remind me: can you have carrots? I’m making soup, but I want to make sure you can eat it.” I’m not sure they’ll ever know how healing it was for me that that was their response to me. I was terrified of being an inconvenience, of being left out, and their gestures of love showed me my fears were unfounded.
I belonged. I was welcomed. Even if my food allergies were an inconvenience, I wasn’t an inconvenience.
I committed to celebrate even the smallest victories in my healing, something that did not come naturally for me. I would not undersell myself or expect too much.
I refused to feel defeated.
I told myself, over and over, “you deserve to find healing.”
And only as I felt compelled, I began reintroducing foods, one at a time. I started really slowly at first—just a bite of a banana one day, and then another small bite the next. I reminded myself that I was in control of this process and that I could stop anytime I wanted. “You have choices” I would tell myself, which was something I was telling myself in my emotional healing, as well.
I had luck with a little bit of banana, so I moved on to blueberries. Then tomatoes. Each time I would eat something that used to make me sick, I would say to myself:
“This is good for me and my body knows exactly what to do with it. My body will take what’s good and get rid of the rest…”
As soon as I started having some success, I gained some momentum. I tried more and more foods, without any problems. Pineapple and honey and peppers and tomato sauce and orange juice and everything a little faster and in bigger quantities. And before I knew it, I was eating nearly everything again.
Foods I hadn’t touched in fifteen years. A miracle.
But to top off everything, after more than a month of eating all my new foods with no symptoms, I found myself in a particularly stressful circumstance—one that triggered all of my fears insecurities—and within seconds, physical symptoms returned.
It wasn’t until I removed myself from this situation, set a boundary, and talked to a friend about what I was going through that my symptoms eased again.
Why am I telling you this?
Not only that, why am I writing the longest post I’ve ever put on my blog to tell you this?
First, I know I’m not the only one who is feeling trapped by some kind of physical ailment—migraines or endometriosis or Cancer or food allergies. And I know physical illness, along with it’s obvious physical symptoms, comes with many emotional ones as well.
Hopelessness. Vulnerability. Fear. Distress.
And while I am not making any direct comparisons from my unique and specific situation to yours, I do want to say: our outer world so often reflects our inner realities. The connection is not always direct or specific, but if you’re like me, considering the connection might give you some insights you weren’t able to see before.
Also, one of the greatest lessons I learned through this whole process was this: we have power to shape and shift the world around us. We don’t have total control. But we have more control than we give ourselves credit for. And the physical world we experience is often a reflection of the emotional world we carry inside.
Finally I want you to know, if you’re on a healing journey (aren’t we all?), don’t give up.
It may take so much longer than you ever imagined to find your healing, and healing my come in a way you never imagined or expected, but that’s okay. You have time. And the journey itself is so important. You’re learning and gaining along the way in ways you don’t even realize. You’re growing and changing and becoming along the way, and people love you so much—enough to call you and ask you about carrots—if you will let them.
You deserve to find healing. So don’t give up.
I believe a regular practice of writing directly impacts my ability connect with myself and find healing. Not convinced?
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