Until earlier this year, I did not know that I am allergic to the overwhelming majority of the food I used to eat. I spent, then, twenty four years not knowing how to care for my body or what a healthy body feels like. I didn’t know what it meant to feel full or hungry without being in pain; I didn’t know that most people don’t get crippling stomach pain a few hours after a meal, that most people don’t wake up aching and nauseous every morning, that most people don’t spend most nights holding their distended stomachs, wondering when this round of pain would end. Surprise, Martina! That was not normal. You did not have to live like that. Who knew…
That was not normal.
Since finding out about my impressive array of food allergies a few months ago, I’ve changed my diet radically and become, it sometimes feels, the proud inhabitant of a whole new body. The effects of my lifestyle change have been huge, noticeable, and almost totally positive. First and foremost, I feel better physically; my digestion works, I’m not malnourished and bloated anymore, and I can keep food down. These are the basics, you know? But I also feel different in ways that have totally surprised me; I can focus better and longer, I no longer have severe headaches all the time (the amount of money I save on ibuprofin almost makes up for the increased cost of my groceries), I sleep so much better and I wake up without joint pain. My hair is thicker and shinier. My skin is healthier. I don’t even have seasonal allergies this year. It’s amazing what treating your body as it wants to be treated will do for you!
But as I said above, I also feel like I am inhabiting a new space. My relationship to my body has been profoundly altered by addressing my allergies, affording me a measure of peace within myself that I have never felt before. It’s like this:
As with many people, I’ve long harbored a resentment and distrust of my body. Why doesn’t it do what I want it to do? What doesn’t it look like the bodies I see in the media around me? Why does it hunger and ache and desire in ways that I do not want it to? Think about the implications of these all-too-common sentiments. What underlies them is a distinct sense that the self and the body are separate, that the body is a physical vessel for an autonomous brain. How curious a thing to think. And yet how absolutely common! Men and women alike walk around with this body-brain division playing out in our internal speech, telling ourselves (schismed as we are) that we shouldn’t want or need or hunger as we do, that we are somehow separate from the thing that is wanting and needing and hungering. How imprisoned we are by this conversation. Whatever individual form it takes, however it manifests for each individual, this is, I believe, nearly universal (though I believe women experience this with an acuteness that the majority of men don’t, unless of course those men are not able-bodied or cisgendered or are otherwise under the lens of culture in the way that all female bodies are). How sad for us as a species. My older sister and mother (both valiant survivors of eating disorders), my friends, my students… so many of us seem to tell this particular tale about the body we live in and the brain that does the living.
…that’s what treating my food allergies has taught me: that food, hunger, the need for sustenance, is not an obstacle to be overcome but a source of joy and love and nourishment.
I‘ve lived my whole life with this story about myself, that I was fat and weak and a problem. While I’ve never had an eating disorder, I would characterize my eating behavior as disordered in that eating was always a problem to be overcome, not a profoundly important act of self care and self love. And that’s what treating my food allergies has taught me: that food, hunger, the need for sustenance, is not an obstacle to be overcome but a source of joy and love and nourishment. And how surprised I’ve been to learn this lesson! Because truly, eating is more physically time-consuming now than it ever has been. I’m now (mostly) a vegan, so I find that I eat constantly to keep myself feeling full (so much green leafy vegetables! so many legumes!). Because my food allergies are complex and pervasive, I also have to think more about food than ever before; if I’m hungry when I’m out and about, I can’t just wander into a cafe and order from the menu. In fact, I’ve not been able to simply order from a menu since I was diagnosed. I have to plan ahead and eat strategically and be vigilant about checking ingredients and carry safe foods with me and all manner of other things that I never had to do before. This means that feeding myself is a lot more involved than it ever was before. This certainly sounds, I know, like eating is exactly the obstacle I one paragraph ago claimed it was not.
And yet. And yet my brain is surprisingly free of the negative speech with which it used to be inundated. And yet I find myself feeling joy when I sit down to a plate full of food. And yet I feel satisfaction when I rise, sated, from my now-empty plate. And yet the voice in the back of my brain — the slick and insidious Martina who would slink to whisper in my ear after a meal that I was worthless and fat and that my longing for food betokened a deeply flawed character — has lost what once seemed its indescribable power to make me feel horrible, wretched, despairing. And yet I do not desire the foods upon which I used to binge. And yet food now seems not like a drug with which I can momentarily dull psychic pain, not like a way to fill some psychic hole within me, but like a tool to bring pleasure to my mouth and energy to my body. And yet I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full and do not feel ashamed to experience those physical states. And yet I no longer wear my body like a costume awkwardly hemmed for a different woman, but like a custom made gown that fits my me like a well-loved glove.
When I committed to feeding myself respectfully and with kindness, when I committed to accepting my body for what it is (a body without the enzymes necessary to digest milk and eggs, among other things), I had to also accept the other things that my body is (knobby-kneed, prone to bruising, freckled and spotted all over, graying, among other things).
How strange, and what a gift. How profoundly surprised I have been to discover this new relationship to my body. I am not saying that I never feel bad about my body. I pessimistically believe that there is no way to live in this world without feeling conflicted about one’s body — there are too many systems that exist solely to encourage that experience for anyone to be wholly untouched by those messages. But I am saying that in taking on the grand project of Getting Better and Learning How to Take Care of Myself, I reoriented my notion of my body, of my self, and of the role that food — nourishment, sustenance — played in that relationship. When I committed to feeding myself respectfully and with kindness, when I committed to accepting my body for what it is (a body without the enzymes necessary to digest milk and eggs, among other things), I had to also accept the other things that my body is (knobby-kneed, prone to bruising, freckled and spotted all over, graying, among other things). And when my body accepted my kindness and returned to me kindness of manifold greater amounts (no more stomach pain, no more blinding headaches, among other things), the positive feedback loop was established and, without trying, a kind of love between myself and my body blossomed until, as true love can often do, the difference between my body and my brain or myself no longer seemed clear. How lucky I feel, now, to have gotten sick.
What often surprises me most when I talk to people about my allergies or my diet or my relationship to food is their shock that I would be able to give up such delicious things as cheese and omelets and hamburgers. More people than I would have believed have said to me some variation of, “if I were you, I think I would just eat those things anyhow. I mean, how can you give up ice cream?” And certainly I understand this sentiment at least in part; yes, I have looked at gorgeous displays of sumptuous cheeses and glistening avocados and thought, “my how I miss those tastes.” But I have not eaten them, because as delicious as I remember those fleeting tastes to be, the physical pain is what I remember most. And out of respect for my body — out of respect, that is, for my self — I do not desire those things that cause me pain. Those people, then, who have said that they would rather the pain of eating than the momentary discomfort of abstaining seem to me caught in the greatest lie of all, the lie I lived in for my whole life: that food is about pain, about a constant seesaw from pleasure to pain and back again, and that if food is delicious, we ought to be punished for enjoying it. They seem almost to accept the pain as deserved, as their comeuppance for the crime of pleasure or desire. But my body forced me out of this lie and so no, I don’t crave cheese or pineapple or rice the way I thought I would because the experience of comfort within my body — physically and psychically — is greater than any desire. Because food now is about joy and nourishment and energy and fuel and satisfaction, not about whether my physical self conforms to some narrow delineation of a Good Body. I might not be free from societal narratives about my worth, but I feel that I can now see my fetters and, in seeing them, am now aware that it was never my body holding me down, it was the shackles of those cruel myths about my body that trapped me, helpless, in a cycle of self-loathing and self-recrimination.
Learning that I was sick … forced me to accept that I did not deserve pain.
So getting sick taught me to love myself, as cliched and simple as that sounds. Learning that I was sick — not just in my body but in my relationship to my body — forced me to learn what health looks like, feels like, lives like. It forced me to listen to my pain and take it seriously. It forced me to take seriously that I needed to care for myself. It forced me to accept that I did not deserve pain. It encouraged me to enjoy the feeling of health and satisfaction. It brought me to a new kind of respect for the way these human forms work. Ultimately, it made me love the body I live within and no longer think about my self as separate from that body. So this is a story about the body and the brain and the love that unites them. This is a story about pain and pleasure. This is a story about food.