We are best friends.
We met in 1999 when we lived in the same dorm our first year at UVA. As for all college freshman, it was a year of self discovery. We learned a lot about ourselves, trying on different friends, beliefs, social outlets, and hobbies. By the end of that first year, we had independently stumbled into the same circle of friends. And by our third year we were inseparable. We spent most of our time studying at Espresso Royale on the Corner (which is now sadly closed), but we spent it together. And by “studying”, we mean we studied 25% of the time, and chatted while drinking lattes and eating make-it-yourself pizzas 75% of the time. That coffee shop became our social spot, and classmates and roommates would come to visit us there, knowing that’s where we would be. Looking back, I’m not sure how we ever got anything done. But all that gossiping over lattes really solidified our friendship.
We lived together the summer between our third and fourth years of college in a house with 7 other girls. Maybe you can imagine what that was like. We had many fun times that summer – spontaneous dance parties in the living room, heart to hearts at 3am, and more partying than we care to admit. At other times living with 9 girls was amazingly frustrating. But during those times, the two of us stuck together, and by the end of that summer we were closer than ever.
After college we moved to different cities, but that didn’t put even a ripple in our friendship. We were the Maids of Honor in each others’ weddings, and when Jess had her beautiful daughter, she asked Kelly to be her Godmother.
Jess was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2006, followed by Kelly in 2010.
“Kelly, I think you might have Celiac Disease,” I said for at least the third or fourth time in a month. “I really don’t think so, I mean, what are the chances we both have it?” replied Kelly. As a graduate student studying biostatistics, Kelly later calculated the chances to be 1 in 17,544, but it happened. I can’t say I was surprised when she got her official diagnosis a few weeks later. I had been witnessing Kelly’s struggles for the past few years, and maybe I just had a “sixth sense” about it (after all she is my best friend), or maybe her story was just too eerily similar to my own…
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it all started for me. In college I had days I didn’t feel so hot, but we all did. I blamed my “symptoms” on the late nights (a few of which were actually spent studying), bottomless cups of coffee, and copious amounts of, shall we say, “adult beverages.” With my lifestyle, such as it was, it was hard to discern which vice was making me feel so rotten. I came to the conclusion, logically, that it certainly could not be the alcohol, partying, or ulcer inducing amounts of coffee. So it HAD to be the milk in all those lattes I was drinking (with Kelly at Espresso Royale)! I switched to soy milk thinking this would be the answer to my problems. Sadly it was not and things just got worse and worse.
From college I went straight to graduate school to study for my Doctorate of Physical Therapy. Throughout graduate school my symptoms became less and less manageable. After graduating and starting to work in my field, they became unbearable. I would go to work and leave mid day because of abdominal pain. I ate nothing but Ritz Crackers for days hoping to quell the pain (now I know I was only fueling it). My pain caused me to be anxious, and so started a vicious cycle. Always a very social person, I was surprised to find myself preferring to stay home. I refused to go to concerts, shows, anywhere there would be crowds of people. My husband and I began driving separate cars to go out to dinner, knowing I would have to leave before the check came to the table. Finally, I had had enough. I admitted to myself that something was not right and I wanted answers.
I went to my primary care physician and explained my symptoms, only to be given a plethora of anti-acid medications, which ironically, I later learned contained Gluten. Not to mention that I never once complained of actual “heartburn.” Finally, after a year of gritting my teeth, I politely suggested that I may have Celiac Disease (the internet is a wonderful thing!) and that maybe I should see a GI doctor. In the meantime, I started a GF diet and could not believe how quickly things began to change for me. Once I saw the GI specialist it didn’t take long to get the diagnosis.
Hearing the news, I know I should have felt sad, a sense of loss, or anxiety over having to make a huge “life change.” However, all I felt was relief, happiness, and an extreme sense of freedom. I knew what was wrong and I knew how to fix it. How easy was that?! A gluten free diet is not limiting to me, it’s freeing! I can go out to dinner with my husband without getting sick (and drive in the same car)! I can go out to see a show and without being preoccupied with knowing exactly where every bathroom is, or thinking of a quick exit plan. I have more energy to keep up with my two year old daughter.
Now, I am sure I didn’t come to this realization overnight. But 5 years will blur ones recollection of events, and so it feels like I did. Naturally, I assumed Kelly’s reaction would be the same. I tried to be supportive, and I hope I was. I knew she was feeling overwhelmed and anxious about changing her lifestyle, but a gluten free diet had become such an “old hat” to me, and the rewards so great, I had forgotten how daunting of an undertaking it could be. I had also forgotten that giving up gluten IS a sacrifice, albeit one that is entirely worth it to me. I am proud of how quickly Kelly has accepted her diagnosis and I am in awe of her diligence in converting to a gluten free lifestyle.
I have had stomach “issues” all my life. As a kid, I was always fluctuating between the two extremes (I won’t go into details, you get the picture). I can remember spending hours at a time in the bathroom in tears even as young as 6, and one day the pain was so bad my parents took me to the emergency room. But by middle school I started feeling better. Everyone (myself included) figured I had just grown out of it, whatever “it” was. Then in college, my problems started coming back. Like Jess, I blamed them on our aforementioned lifestyle involving too much coffee, alcohol, stress, and not enough sleep. And not every day was bad, just some days. So I chalked it up to a sensitive stomach and blamed it on my not-so-healthy habits.
Probably around the time Jess was diagnosed, my symptoms started getting worse. The change was so gradual that I didn’t even realize how bad it had gotten until Jess started wondering aloud if I had celiac disease too. Then my husband, Brian, started saying, “Maybe you have what Jess has.” So, after some initial denial and resistance, I took a step back and looked at my life. I realized I spent a few hours after every meal in pain, and I always had to know where the nearest bathroom was. If I didn’t know, or it wasn’t within 10 yards, I refused to eat. Like Jess, I dreaded dinners out with friends and often had to awkwardly excuse myself. Jess is not a complainer, and she’s a little shy when it comes to talking about her “bathroom habits”, so I never really realized just how bad it was for her. But after she and Brian both suggested celiac, I started asking her questions, and sure enough her story sounded like mine. After a few appointments and all of the usual tests, I received my diagnosis.
The beginning was hard. I felt deprived, angry, and sorry for myself. But I have finally gotten to the point that Jess arrived at years ago – I am grateful. I feel like I have been given a second chance. I am a whole new person. One who feels healthy and alive and appreciates all of the wonderful foods that I can eat and all of the small things in life that I am not too sick to enjoy. And all of this healing without a single medication! I am also thankful for my wonderful husband who has accepted an (almost) gluten free life without complaint. He has even been experimenting with baking GF bread lately. I am lucky. And to have Jess, who has been a huge source of support and an invaluable resource, makes me feel even luckier. I realize now how uninformed I was when she was diagnosed. I had never heard of celiac. I knew it meant she couldn’t eat gluten, but I didn’t realize just how many foods have gluten in them, or that a few specs of flour in her meal could cause her to be sick for days. I didn’t really “get” what a big deal it was. On occasion I would even forget and offer her a cookie (gasp!) or some other gluteny food. She would politely say “No, thanks”, and 10 minutes later I would bash my palm into my forehead in realization and apologize for being such a jerk.
Luckily, she has forgiven me for all of this and we are still best friends. We talk almost daily, sharing stories and laughs, recipes and baking tips. And now we are sharing them with you.