I recently read this post by Shauna Ahern, The Gluten Free Girl and this post by my friend Mary Fran of Frannycakes. If you’re living with Celiac, trying to understand someone who is (yourself even) or just more about humanity, I encourage you to read both posts.
It occurred to me: what if I told my truth? Or, at least, the story of the lies I was telling myself? Could that help someone? Maybe. Here we go.
I’ve spent the last two decades of my life throwing up. In high school, it was 2-3 times a week, attributed to stress & a weak stomach. My weight fluctuated (mostly up) and stomach cramps were normal. I used to fall asleep in the bathtub regularly – largely because being immersed in warm water would relieve the pain in my gut.
In 1996, I flew, by myself, to San Diego to have gastric bypass surgery. There were a number of complications and I was scared as hell, but equally scared about ending up like my parents, both of whom were morbidly obese. Almost immediately, the vomiting went from 2-3 times a week to 2-3 times a day, often more. No matter what I tried, I was sick. Everyday.
I started taking medication to quell the nausea (almost no help), and my friends started carrying bottled water & gum in their cars for me. I’d say pull over so I could jump out of the car & puke, I’d rinse my mouth and we’d keep going. It was the new normal.
Once, while I was throwing up, I heard my dad ask my mom: “what did we let her do to herself?” Frightened that I was upsetting him, and that he wouldn’t consider bypass surgery, I taught myself to vomit silently. Within that year, my parents both had bypass surgery. Without it, I’m confident I’d have lost at least one of them by now, possibly both.
I began to have additional GI problems, and a cast of doctors ran a litany of tests on me, prescribing medications as they went. None of it helped, I continued to be sick, now fighting a host of other issues as well. The upside, if there is one, is that if any of my friends need medical testing, they can call me for a real-life description and questions to ask, because I’ve usually experienced it at least once.
Your teens & twenties are hard enough without vomiting profusely, inexplicable weight fluctuations & skin conditions caused by GI flares – so although I was often the life of the party, surrounded by friends and seeing the world, I fought depression constantly. (Serotonin, the chemical responsible for regulating our moods, is made in the small intestine, and malabsorption can also cause depression. In short, if your GI system is a mess, your mind can be, too.)
With my health worsening (plus a bona-fide, movie-quality stalker & a number of other issues that better qualified me to be a guest on Jerry Springer than the Little Lebowski Urban Achiever that was expected of me) I became convinced that I would die in my early twenties. Not by my own hand, necessarily, but simply because no human body could possibly be this sick all the time and sustain life. I knew I couldn’t. When I woke up on my 23rd Birthday, I was genuinely surprised.
I felt ashamed, unattractive, disgusting even. I told myself that my friends tolerated all the gross parts about me because they loved the pieces of me that are funny, intelligent and strong. I allowed several people to treat me like hell because I felt like hell.
Multiple reparative surgeries occurred. I was still sick, my abdomen covered with scars.
I’d love to tell you that it all went away the minute I was diagnosed with Celiac & went Gluten Free. The vomiting did, and the rest of my GI issues got better over time, although I still struggle with ulcerative colitis, occasional nausea and my system will likely never function normally. But the piece in my head – the one telling me I was gross, that I had to be tolerated, that I was unacceptable – that one stuck around for awhile.
Once my body was on the road to healthy, I began to address the rest of my life. I repaired some relationships, I buried others. I replaced the toxic people in my life with some incredible new friends. I hit up some therapy & hot yoga (consider this a recommendation of both). I got back in the kitchen. Life was better, but self-doubt still gnawed at me.
I made Winehead go with me to yoga one day, and she said she wished her abs looked like mine. I looked at her like she was insane, and then I realized: maybe I was doing it to myself. If she wasn’t disgusted by my scars or my weight, maybe no one else was. When I shared these thoughts with her & a few trusted friends, I understood how wrong I’d been. It was time to take myself on and change my own mind.
I immediately thought of Janet Jackson on the cover of Rolling Stone (Google it). It’s one of my favorite images of all time. The moment I saw that cover I was stricken by how beautiful she looked, and I also immediately told myself I could never take a photo like that, since it showed her abdomen fully.
What if I stood for the camera, scars showing, stomach out, and made something beautiful out of something I’ve told myself was ugly for so long? I almost had a panic attack just from having the thought. When I found the courage to discuss the idea with James (my friend + photog) and Winehead, I expected them to tell me I was nuts. Instead, James found a date on the calendar & Winehead offered to hold my boobs (she’s a team player.) We recruited one more hand model & a couple of other friends heard the plan and cheered me on.
The day of the shoot, I was so nervous I could barely breathe. I had big plans of spray tans & double workouts in the days prior, but Sam got the chicken pox instead. So there I was, looking the way I always look, 20 pounds heavier than I’d been 6 months earlier. Listening to Vanilla Ice would have been the only way I could have felt any less “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty” – thankfully James turned on the Alabama Shakes.
Once we starting shooting, I couldn’t look at the pictures. Actually, I didn’t really look at them until days later. It was a tough night, I felt very raw and exposed (go figure.) But I spent most of that evening like I spend most of my life: surrounded by friends, while we joke, laugh & take turns holding each other up. It’s just what we do.
I love these pictures, not just because I’ve learned to love myself more, but because of the path & the story they represent.
Wishing you all the best on your path – and yes, I listen to Moby.
Photo Credit: James Collier. but you knew that.