Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making the emotional gluten free transition

I pushed the button on the wall displaying an arrow pointing upward and waited impatiently for the elevator. Noticing a sign on one of the two elevators in my apartment lobby stating it was out of order, I knew it could be quite a wait for the one working elevator to reach the first floor. After waiting about 5 minutes, I thought, "I should just take the stairs," but dismissed the idea after reasoning that nine flights of stairs was difficult on any given day and especially so with a heavy chest cold.

I had just gotten home from work, after walking around on my feet for eight hours and walking the mile home. I was tired. I was in no mood to walk up nine flights of stairs. So, I waited.

A small group had gathered at the elevator by the time it reached the first floor and we entered it's open doors together. Critically, I thought, "No one here better hit the button for 2nd or 3rd lazy. If I lived on the third floor, like in my last apartment, I wouldn't use the elevator at all, much less when the wait is this long."

As if she read my mind, a young-looking woman pressed the little round button for the third floor and I began examining her with my eyes. She had long, blond hair, was probably college age, she had her headphones on and was playing with the buttons on her mp3 player. As she left the elevator, something caught my eye - she was holding a plastic take-out bag with what appeared to be a burrito inside.

Tired, with my feet and lungs and head aching, I yearned to be her. I wanted to curl up on my couch with a delicious, flour-tortilla-wrapped burrito filled with oodles of melted cheese, spicy beans, and fluffy seasoned rice.

Before I went gluten free, I used to make up batches of flour tortilla burritos and freeze them. They waited for me in the freezer and were there for me on those days when I was tired or upset or simply wanted comfort food. The warmth of it in my hands and the smell of it under my nose as I took each bite was what made my delicious burrito an experience.

On this particular day, however, not only did I not have any flour tortilla-wrapped burritos waiting for me in the freezer, I couldn't go pick one up down the street either (as this woman apparently did).

In this moment I mourned my diagnosis. I was exhausted and I had dinner to make. I couldn't just pick something up from the restaurant on the corner. I was reminded that in all the successful gluten free baking I had done, I still hadn't nailed down a successful gluten free flour tortilla. I had yet to conquer that staple of my former life.

Walking down the long hall to my apartment, I thought about what I would make for dinner that would make me equally happy as those burritos had - and I made a mental note to put more energy into developing my own gluten free version of warm, delicious, flour-like wraps.

It's times like this when I begin to feel sorry for myself and begin to ask, "why me?" Why do I have celiac disease? Why am I inconvenienced with this health problem?

At the same time, I was reminded again how strongly food is connected to emotions and coping. Dishes like macaroni and cheese, buttery mashed potatoes, chocolate chip cookies, and even burritos are labeled by many to be "comfort food." This sort of label suggests our culture as a whole has made an emotional connection to food; some foods are "comforting" and, upon eating, they will make us feel "better." Is my tendency to cope with food creating these mourning moments? If I didn't have such a strong emotional connection to the food I ate, would these moments when I'm tired and comfort-food-bare be no big deal? I am suspicious the answer is yes.

Oddly enough, these foods don't really make anyone feel better, yet we continue to associate them with feeling better. I'm just as guilty as the next person who makes up a batch of macaroni and cheese on a Friday night, after a long work week, thinking it will help heal the frustration I've experienced, only to find I still have frustration with work. I feel a bit better, mind you, but only because I've been distracted with the task of cooking and eating. If I had set out to cook a healthy soup, I would feel just as good. Or, even if I hadn't been hungry and I instead sat down to read a good book or crochet something, I would also feel just as good. But how do we shift these connections? How do we unlearn our cultural, emotional, connection to "comfort" food?

I feel recognizing this is especially important for those of us making the transition to a gluten free lifestyle. The gluten free bread will never be the same as gluteny bread. It takes a more effort and knowledge to cook gluten free baked goods. Even if you are lucky enough to have a gluten free baker in your city (as I am), it still, perhaps, takes more planning and travel time to access their products. "Comfort" food in general requires more planning and patience on your part. Therefore, when we don't have access to our favorite comfort foods, gluten free style, I think having a strong connection with comfort foods can make the gluten free diet emotionally difficult.

This connection isn't broken overnight, however - we have to work at it and be patient and accept that it will always be there to some degree. Even in my recognition of our emotional connection to food and my work to reduce that connection, I still have times of mourning - like the experience in the elevator on this particular day. One way I have found to keep myself from feeling "left out" of having easy access to baked goods is to bake up double batches of treats and keep them in the freezer.

That night, I began chopping carrots, celery, and onions to make a soup I knew would be delicious - because I had made it once before. I noticed how good it felt to be in the kitchen, chopping up vegetables and throwing them into a large pot. Suddenly, I didn't feel so tired or sorry for myself.

I made this soup, sans split peas and red pepper flakes. Instead, I added some Herbs de Provence. It was delicious - and just what I needed!


Steph said...

I have experienced many of those moments of longing, loss, and craving something you can't really have anymore - a "normal" life. It's hard to appreciate the successes you've had with recreating something gluten-free when you're wishing for that quick fix, that immediate comfort. I agree though, that keeping GF goodies in the freezer is one of the best things to help remedy this mood. That soup sounds fantastic! Simple, yet hit-the-spot good.
I will cross my fingers for your attempts at a GF tortilla...For your sake and my own :)

Suzanne said...

I have been gluten free for about nine years now, and I know exactly what you mean. I still long for a "real" burrito, wish I could just order a pizza on a friday night, and am insanely jealous of my husband who can rip open a bag of top ramen and have dinner in two minutes. If you happen to have Trader Joes in your area, they have the best gf brown rice tortillas I have tried. Put them in a skillet with just a little bit of oil to warm them up and they are delicous!

Lauren Denneson said...

Steph - I agree; part of this feeling comes from not feeling "normal," especially when you are among company that don't think twice about what they are putting in their mouths - it makes you feel like a constant worrier by comparison!

Suzanne - Oi! so 9 years won't kill the cravings? I will certainly check out TJ for the brown rice tortillas! I didn't know they had any. Thanks for the tip!