For most of my life I’ve lived on a special diet. It is not exciting. Quite the opposite — it’s incredibly boring: depressingly so. My intake is limited to the most bland of all foods, with almost no flourish. Basil and parsley are about as exotic as I can go.
But it wasn’t always like this.
During my high school years I survived on a diet that would make any 16 year old proud: fries, pizza, hoagies, cheese steaks, pasta with my family’s sauce — basically anything and everything I felt like. I was only limited by my acid reflux, and while reflux was painful, it was a worthy sacrifice for a plate of lasagna, or a slice of my favorite pizza.
During my senior year, though, something changed and my Crohn’s started to become an issue (I was not diagnosed yet, so I had no idea what it was). While eating had always potentially led to pain, the issue became such an issue that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After seeing two separate GI doctors (who were not helpful at all), I decided to try alternative medicine, visiting a naturopathic practitioner. She did her own tests, including an allergy test that found I was allergic to — get this — 28 out of 30 foods tested. She thought something was wrong with my immune system and gut (sort of correct!), and suggested that I should avoid all of those foods.
And so my diet — in the space of a month — went from all those good things to… turkey rolls and plain tuna. That was it.
The diet worked well enough, and eventually (a year or so later) I started to move “bad” foods into what I was eating, but every time I moved something new over, it was… well, it was a panic. I was always fearful I was going to trigger everything, and it often took months of building up the courage to eat one “new” food.
Still — I found that there were things I could no longer eat at all, and that my diet (while much larger than just two foods) was going to be a shadow of what it once was.
The end result of all this is that I have a very limited diet and that even the foods I can eat tend to cause me anxiety. Perhaps more accurately, the very act of eating causes me anxiety, because it is an act that is forever linked in my brain with (at the very least) discomfort.
The thing about all of this?
It’s okay. I’m cool with it. I’ve lived with a limited diet for such a long time that I don’t remember what my “favorite” foods taste like. I don’t really crave them anymore — I can’t remember them. I happen to enjoy the few foods I can have now. It really isn’t so bad.
The food part is okay. I can deal with it.
The other part, though? The part that isn’t just “eating”?
Well, that’s when problems happen.
You see, there’s a certain narrative around food in the United States — scratch that — there’s a certain narrative of food that is human. Food is supposed to be this huge socializing force. It’s at the center of our gatherings, our holidays, our social interactions. Food, for better or worse, is part of our social contract.
As someone with a special diet, I am isolated from all of that. I’m cut out from it.
The things that most people take for granted are things I’ll never get to enjoy. I can’t go to a barbecue in the summer. I can’t sit by a grill and enjoy a hot dog or hamburger — and certainly not a steak. This means that cookouts in general are not a place for me.
Restaurants are forever off-limits. Ordering, after all, is impossible (what on the menu can I eat?) — and “requests” for something different simply aren’t practical. How can I trust that a waiter who is serving fifteen other tables will care to get the details right? How can I be sure the kitchen will? What is just a tip for them is a potential month of agony for me.
Holidays are a mess. What holiday doesn’t have food? What celebration isn’t built around food?
Certainly, all of these things aren’t “cut off” from me entirely, but at the same time my presence at them is different from yours. I do not get to be part of them in the same way. I am turned into a pariah. I am the man sitting at the table without an order in front of them (getting snide comments from the waitstaff in the process). I am the man at the gathering sitting away from where the food is, constantly being asked if I’m going to eat anything. I’m the man at the Christmas party, eating nothing and staring forward, trying my best not to look awkward.
I am different.
That difference might seem minor, but after years of it — after being cut off from that aspect that everyone else just enjoys without much thought — it becomes tiring.
I don’t have any good way to end this. I don’t have any way to try and make it seem like it isn’t a big deal. It is, and it can’t change. There will always be that sense of disconnect, that sense that, for me, food doesn’t serve as a unifying thing but as a barrier: it’s the cleaver between me and everyone else.