Food Challenge Round 40: Cindy vs. Lox

When I was a child, one of the things I wanted most in the world was to grow up and eat chocolate covered lox. Now, before you gag, understand: my friends/peers would only make me feel bad about being allergic to two foods — chocolate, because what kids don’t like chocolate; and lox, because it’s a staple of the American Jewish diet. I hadn’t ever tasted either, so I assumed if everyone loved both, eating them together would be stupendous. I’d tell my family and my doctor that when I grew up, I’d eat chocolate covered lox.

Today, I learned that dreams do come true — just not how you’d expect.

I challenged lox today in my second post-Xolair challenge. It started off like spinach — touched it, rubbed it on my fingers, freaked out about my lack of hives. Did ya’ll know fish is super slimy? Gross.

Then it stopped being like spinach.

I took a bit of the lox — like a sliver the size of my thumb — and put it in my mouth. Spit it out on the doctor’s desk almost immediately and shouted “WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?” Fish, it seems, is an acquired taste.

I didn’t want to eat more. It was vile. And slimy. And gross. But I want to be able to eat fish. So, after whining overdramatically and having the nurse come in to soothe me, I took a bite. I swallowed. I SWALLOWED FISH. LIKE A SEA LION. I haven’t swallowed fish in years — maybe since I was a toddler. Never swallowed lox. It never got that far.

I then asked the nurse if I could take a bite of chocolate to fulfill my dream. She said sure. With the taste of lox fresh on my tongue, I ate a piece of chocolate. And you know what I have to say to all you naysayers out there who gagged in the beginning of this post? The tastes sort of blended. Like chocolate covered pretzels. Bittersweet chocolate with a salty smoky edge. If Gwyneth Paltrow “Goop’ed” it the whole world would be on that like it was a kale chip.

My dream of opening a lox and chocolate factory was soon dismantled. I got extremely nauseous. The doctor tossed me his trash bin. I didn’t use it. But I started feeling off. Ear burning, throat scratchy (though that was solved with water). My vision was intact and there was no sign of hives — both the typical symptoms I’ve gotten from touching fish — but I was lethargic, cranky, and groggy. Also typical symptoms of close encounters with the sea kind.

I stayed for monitoring and just kept getting more nauseous. The doctor gave me Claritin, which helped. We assessed that I can’t eat lox, though if I want to, I can challenge other fish and other cooked salmons (I may not want to). We also assessed that my threshold had significantly changed — I could now swallow fish without a severe reaction. A reaction not even worthy of Benedryl! This means I can touch it, I can be near it, and most importantly — I can now go to restaurants, not just in LA, but anywhere careful.

Am I disappointed that I can’t eat fish? Sort of. Am I cranky because I still don’t feel great? Sure am. But, I’m also really happy, and here’s why:

1. I grew up to eat chocolate and lox, and even though I’d given up on that dream long ago, it still feels great to have achieved it, even for a moment. The world is never how we expect it to be, but it sometimes surprises you and lets you have a taste of something you really really really wanted. I’m feeling very empowered.

2. I can now get closer to fish than ever before. I can feed a sea lion. I can go to the New York Aquarium and touch the starfish. As a kid, when we’d go there on class trips, I’d sit in the hallway by this fountain thing and wait until my whole class had touched the fish and soaped their hands. No chaperone ever stayed with me (seriously, the 90s were cool) and while my friends joined me once they were done, I was alone for most of the time and bored to tears — and also sad. Like, really left out sad. But now, I can touch the fish like the rest of them. Also, zoos and aquariums aside, I can be around fish eaters. Cooking just got so much easier for large family gatherings. I can clear off a plate that had lox on it and help my dad out after he’s done eating. That’s big.

3. It’s confirmed that the food challenges I’m set to do to keep assessing the Xolair aren’t for naught — each allergen will have a different threshold, and it’s important to find out what they are. But they’ll all be better. BETTER. That’s pretty damn good.

A keeper at my old stomping ground, the Prospect Park Zoo. I could be her!

A keeper at my old stomping ground, the Prospect Park Zoo. I could be her!

FOOD CHALLENGE TALLY

Cindy: 28

Allergens: 5

Next Up: Vote?

Food Challenge 39: Cindy vs. Spinach (aka THE PLAYOFF GAME)

This was the big one. Spinach. A food I hadn’t eaten in years, and never successfully. 27 years of spinach being poison, and today, I willingly consumed it.

In case you’re just finding this blog or don’t remember or just like recaps (have you read Vulture’s recaps of Pretty Little Liars? You have to.), I’ve been taking this medicine called Xolair that has been known to mitigate allergies. I say mitigate, not cure, because 1. it’s an ongoing treatment and if you stop doing it, the allergies come back and 2. it’s doesn’t make the allergies completely go away, it just makes them lessened and builds up a tolerance.

So anyway, after four months of injections, I was ready to see if it was all worth it — if the Xolair made any changes to my IGE levels and body chemistry.

AND IT DID!

I was super nervous in the days running up to the challenge, mildly calmer this morning thanks to certain dream cousins, and nervous/excited/adrenaline-y when I got to the doctor’s office.

I started out by touching the leaves. Previously, being in the same room as too much spinach made me dizzy. Touching it was worse, and involved hives. I ran my fingers, then my palms, over each leaf. It felt like basil. I looked at my hands. They were fine. My arms — fine. My chest — fine. My eyesight was good.

“Do I just like, eat it now? Like straight up put it in my mouth and eat it like it’s food?” I asked my doctor.

“That’s the plan.”

I hesitated, but took a deep breath and ate a leaf.

It didn’t taste like anger, darkness, or sadness, like the previous spinach I’d eaten in my life had. It tasted like a slightly more bitter basil and leafy. I finally get what people mean when they say “leafy greens taste leafy.” They’ve always tasted like the world stopping. The fact that I could now taste “leafiness” and not “sadness” meant I was maybe going to be okay.

Another half a leaf.

I paused.

“Are you going to eat a leaf every hour?” my doctor asked. “Just eat five leaves, and we’ll see what happens. You will be fine.”

“This is a moment! I’m scared!”

The nurse came in, and I started to cry from excitement. From the fact that my allergic reactions are always immediate — a minute, maybe two after consumption — and I had a leaf and a half of spinach swirling somewhere in my body and it had been five minutes or so, and I was FINE.

I downed the other three leaves while I was still brave enough to.

And then I waited…and waited…and waited…

And nothing!

Nothing!

It was like I had just eaten food. And that was all. Not like I lost my coherence, eyesight, breath, what have you. Spinach was like any other food.

My poison had become food.

The Xolair worked.

IT WORKED.

It worked?!

I’m euphoric, as my mom says. I feel surreal. I don’t know what to do with this new paradigm. I took a class in college called “Paradigms of Biological Investigation” about how scientific paradigms shift throughout time (the world once thought science said the world was flat, etc.) I feel like I just did a biological investigation that shifted my paradigm. Spinach was once thought to be poison, but instead it’s food.

***

So next time on Cindy’s allergies…

1. Now that it’s proven the Xolair works, I can eat things I was previously not allergic to before I became allergic to them in 2012 and then unallergic to again after testing. Specifically, wheat. More specifically, beer that isn’t Heineken. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fave, but grabbing a craft German beer at lunch today in celebration was JOYFUL. Also, COOKIES. Without traces of nuts of course, but COOKIES.

2. I am now going to challenge the other forbidden foods on my list. Weekly, if it all keeps going well. Paradigm will keep shifting.

3. I keep getting the Xolair once a month.

4. At some point, I’ll have proved Xolair is working enough to cross contaminate sort of at restaurants. Maybe eat pizza? Maybe just EAT AT A RESTAURANT.

It was a shock to me to go into full hyperallergic mode. Now I’m coming out of it more than I ever thought I would. Eating out again was on the table, but eating SPINACH? Who am I, Popeye?

May as well be. I’m definitely not Super Allergic Cindy.

 

The spinach -- thanks F & K for dropping it off!

The spinach — thanks F & K for dropping it off!

The first leaf. Scared and excited. #spinachselfie

The first leaf. Scared and excited. #spinachselfie

My fifth leaf! I'm alive! #spinachselfie

My fifth leaf! I’m alive! #spinachselfie

FOOD CHALLENGE TALLY (note: I barely blogged about challenge 38, the 4th tsp of peanut butter because it was boring and I passed)

Cindy: 28

Allergens: 4

Next up: LOX (maybe covered in chocolate…story to come another time).

A Sketch That’s Funny For The Wrong [IMO] Reasons, A Podcast, and Other Thoughts

It’s a stream of consciousness type of day, so don’t expect any order to this post. Order’s overrated anyway. Not overrated? David Wain and Michael Showalter’s new romantic comedy spoof “They Came Together” starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, available in limited theaters and on demand. God, they are comedy geniuses. No, that has nothing to do with allergies. Except maybe it does. There’s a scene

[SPOILER ALERT]

in which Amy’s character gives her order to Paul’s character at a coffee shop and it’s completely wacky and overdone and impossible to remember except he totally remembers it and it’s definitely love, and I feel that way sometimes when I order food. She was being spoofy, but I completely related because I’m a completely awkward food orderer, and any man who can remember the random nuances of my diet is AOK in my book. Or a keeper, as they say. (Speaking of, did you guys hear about the travesty that is muggle quidditch players getting too cool for Harry Potter?)

[END SPOILER ALERT]

Sort of related to Harry Potter — well, very related to Harry Potter — I do this podcast called Common Room, where all things pop culture (especially “geek” pop culture, like HP) and food, fitness, and fashion converge. First of all, totally listen to it! Second of all, one of our segments is called “Customizable Cooking” where the group of us — a bunch of girls all around the world, from New York to Australia and inbetween — make the same recipe but tweak it in our own unique ways. In a recent episode, we recreated my gluten-free vegan pumpkin oat muffin recipe, which as you may know, has absolutely saved my life. Listen to the episode here (and discover the importance of giving the correct measurements when telling people a recipe).

I recently also made the original cookie recipe the muffins are based on, but as a sheet cake. They came out delicious, if not ugly.

Pumpkin Cookie Cake

One giant cookie!

It’s hard to believe that I invented that pumpkin recipe more than two years ago. Also two years ago? I learned that generic Benedryl doesn’t work as well as the real thing. Today, I dug into the pocket of the blazer I was wearing and discovered some generic Benedryl. I don’t think I wear that blazer very often.

Another thing I don’t do often is eat at communal dinner parties. Much like the characters in this Fourth of July sketch (watch below). In the interest of not spoiling the punchline, if you are a loyal follower of my allergies — or just know the basics, leafy greens, fish, horseradish — you should get why I think the ending is ironic for exactly the wrong reasons. PSA: people are allergic to more than just the popular things, people.

I’m pretty sure I’m still scared of eating spinach. One week from right now, I’ll know if I can eat spinach, and more importantly, how this Xolair thing is working. Last night I had a dream where the vegetables from Veggie Tales attacked me. Like verbally and emotionally. Mostly the tomato. Which is weird, because I can eat tomatoes. I’m not 100% sure if it’s anxiety about spinach or if I’m just reliving my senior thesis about Evangelicals in pop culture because The Leftovers premiered this week.

Which is another thing you should watch.

Xolair Round One: Complete (And the Story of How I Was Once Spider-Man)

Four months ago, I started this treatment called Xolair, that in theory will help mitigate my allergies. You can catch up on the first time here. But the short version is, I get an injection once a month and after four months, I challenge something I know I’m allergic to and see if I survive. Since one of the risks of Xolair is anaphylaxis, my doctor also has me taking steroids for a week out of the month to prevent anaphylaxis on the day of.

If you’ve noticed that this blog hasn’t been updated much in the last few months, it’s because I haven’t really known what to say. This treatment has put my normal food challenges on semi-hold (finding time between steroids and travel to challenge a food properly has been interesting, and yielded only one challenge: a fourth tsp of peanut butter which went perfectly well). It’s also put my feelings about food allergies into this weird state of confusion. Like, this might be the end of them. THIS MIGHT BE THE END OF THEM. What does that even mean? What does that even look like?  I can’t fathom it, and every time I think too much about it, I get scared that THIS MIGHT NOT BE THE END OF THEM. And I know what that looks like, and I can handle what that looks like, but damn, what a let down that’d be.

However, on this, the day of my last shot before the big challenge, I feel compelled to write. If only to organize my thoughts. Though, with the steroids fucking with me the way they are, I’m not promising much organization.

1. I LOVE how many movies I’ve seen in the doctor’s office. Good Will Hunting, Stand By Me, Mystic River, Dazed and Confused, and Pulp Fiction. I saw Pulp Fiction today and I just never want to do anything else. Movies are good! I want the Xolair to work so that I’m forced to see the rest of the amazing movies I’ve somehow missed (somehow = being too much of a “too cool for school” indie kid who preferred TV and things no one ever heard of, with a soft spot for romcoms).

2. Steroids are fucking weird. My reactions to them are wholly inconsistent. Sometimes I’m awake for days. Sometimes I fall asleep crazy early and wake up every hour exhausted. Sometimes I sleep just fine but have so many thoughts I don’t know which are real and which aren’t. Sometimes my legs hurt so badly I can’t sit normally. Sometimes (today) I giggle so hard I cry at literally nothing. Sometimes I yell at everyone around me about things that are irrelevant. Sometimes, all of the above. Sometimes, none of the above. Every day is different, and especially every month is different. Imagine PMS but more unpredictable. So maybe pregnancy? But the end result isn’t a baby, it’s just sobriety. Anyway, I’m extremely grateful to my family and friends who put up with all of the yoyo-ing, and especially who tell me which of my reactions are me and which are Steroid Cindy. Steroid Cindy is fun in doses (ha, doses!) but she isn’t real Cindy, and thanks to everyone who gets that and helps me get that.

3. I’m eating spinach on July 9. SPINACH. Here’s my relationship with spinach thus far in my life:

As a child, I knew spinach was something Popeye ate but I didn’t.

I would often pick up spinach calzones for my sisters from the local pizza store. Sometimes, they’d give us broccoli ones instead and those were not good. I was never particularly good at picking up the calzones because I couldn’t tell the difference between spinach and broccoli. Both were green things I didn’t eat that smelled funny.

I tried spinach at some point in my preteen years. I ate it cooked, but never raw. I HATED it. I hated it because it would make everything dark and angry, and I’d always feel the need to fall asleep, sometimes clutching my stomach. I assumed that this was a perfectly normal reaction to spinach so I never said anything. I’d read in books that spinach was a food kids didn’t like, so I assumed the reason was because it was dark, angry, narcolepsy-inducing, and hurtful to stomachs. Why should I have been different from all other kids? So I ate my spinach like I was told, and secretly took naps, and that was that. Until one day I threw a temper tantrum about not wanting to fall asleep, and my mother, who knew that spinach isn’t supposed to just knock you out, told me I was describing allergic reactions and that I should not eat it again.

I started experiencing airborne symptoms to all leafy greens around the time I was 15. I believe (and there’s some research on this) that the stench of 9/11 and the pollution that followed increased my allergic symptoms. I am grateful that of all the losses I could have experienced that day, I only lost the ability to be in the same room as salad.

During my sophomore year of college (so 2006 I think?) I had a doctor’s appointment to check out a sprained ankle. I took the train into Boston, got an aircast at the doctor, ate lunch at this great little restaurant downtown while reading a book — god I miss dining out alone sometimes — and noticed that my eggplant sandwich had a spinach leaf in it. Having not had spinach for years, I figured, no time like the present for an impromptu food challenge! (Though I didn’t know the term then). Anyway, after a few minutes, I realized I was getting sick. I was naive and didn’t carry Benedryl on me, so I did what anyone would do — I left the restaurant and got on the train heading to my next destination. The Park Street station never seemed so big. I remember stumbling through the station, gasping for air, and finally making it on the train, completely exhausted from walking and breathing simultaneously. I hopped out of the train at Copley, and called my best friend T from a CVS. I figured she should know I was sick, because you know, calling the person who’s in Ithaca and not Boston is totally logical in an emergency. But really, T is super smart, and encouraged me to buy the Benedryl even though I had to take an escalator up to the second floor of the CVS to buy it, and to buy a bottle of water, too. She told me to take the pill in line before I paid, and not think about stealing. The line was SO LONG. She said that no one wanted me to die in line and that it’s not like I wasn’t eventually going to pay when it was my turn. So, anyway, I took the pills and went to the commuter rail station, where I found the train pulling away as I approached the platform. With a sprained ankle and high on the Benedryl — not to mention woozy from the reaction — I grabbed hold of the conductor’s outstretched arm and jumped onto a moving train. I WAS SPIDER-MAN! Then, I slept on the train. That was the last time I ate spinach. So you can see why I’m scared to eat some now…

The good news is (okay, I’m starting to think I needed to have blogged in these interim months!) is that I’ve noticed a change. I was thisclose to horseradish while grocery shopping after round two and NOTHING happened. In fact, the reason I was so close was because I was able to get close to horseradish without noticing, whereas I usually get dizzy as soon as it’s nearby and then locate it to confirm the dizziness. I wasn’t dizzy, looked for the horseradish and it wasn’t in my eyeline, and wound up leaning over the bin like a regular person while picking out a suitable eggplant. I also was around salad and fish numerous times — sometimes even while eating — and was fine. So this drug might be worth it’s salt. (Literally. The steroids make me crave salt like the opposite of an open wound [A closed wound? This metaphor makes no sense..]).

As a closing thought: the song of the day, per my coworker who heard I’d finished my first round of shots:

 

Gluten Sensitivity — Not A Real Thing?

So, I already talked about how I hate getting asked if I’m gluten free…but something I didn’t touch on was how irritated I get when people with no medical issues treat their fad diets like medical issues.

I am NOT talking about people with celiac disease. That’s a real medical issue, and having watched my friends with celiac eat gluten, I can tell you, it’s serious.

It’s precisely because of how serious things like celiac and food allergies are that this latest “I feel so much better without gluten” craze pisses me off. Since “going gluten-free” is now a fad diet, people who actually will get seriously ill when exposed to gluten are in EVEN MORE danger. Or, people who are not in any danger from gluten, but are in danger from other things, are thrust into this confusing world that puts our lives at risk.

A few examples of what I’m talking about:

1. When I was in college, I had to see the nutritionist to figure out how to eat in the cafeteria because I was constantly getting sick. The following dialogue ensued:

Cindy: I don’t think I am getting enough vegetables in my diet, because I’m getting sick from vegetables I’m not allergic to from cross contamination.

Nutritionist: Oh, of course you are. The kitchen uses leftovers from one dish and repurposes it the next day. I have a solution. I get a lot of people gluten free pasta.

Cindy: Oh, but I don’t need gluten-free pasta. I can eat regular pasta.

Nutritionist: What about salads? That’s a really good option for gluten-free students.

Cindy: I’m allergic to leafy greens. What are other ways I can eat more vegetables? I can eat tomatoes, peppers, zuchinni — is there a way the kitchen can prepare those without cross contamination?

Nutritonist: You know, I have found that a lot of the students I work with really enjoy this chicken parmigiana dish. It’s great, and we can make it gluten free,  And with a side salad. And that’s a nutritional meal.

Cindy: I keep kosher, and can’t have salad, so I just want to talk about eating more vegetables.

Nutritionist: If you’re not going to need the gluten free pasta, I don’t really know how I can help you. The salad bar has a lot of choices.

And so on…

2. A former colleague decided to try to go gluten-free. I asked him why, and was particularly interested because he was completely insensitive to my food allergies. By that, I mean, he would leave food on my desk, touch my tupperwares while I was eating with his salad hands, have meetings with me while he was eating salad he knew I was airborne allergic to…he was less malicious (I hope) than he was misinformed. And partly because I don’t think he understood the difference between real food issues and diets like his. For instance:

Cindy: Why are you going gluten-free? Have you noticed yourself getting sick?

Colleague: My sister doesn’t eat gluten, her doctor told her not to.

Cindy: But she gets sick, presumably. Do you?

Colleague: I might, how would I know?

Cindy: Do you feel weak? Do you poop more often than normal?

Colleague: No. But gluten is bad for you. Let’s google it. [He does]. See, it says here that whole wheat is better for you than white flour.

Cindy: That’s true, but both have gluten.

Colleague: No, whole wheat is better for you than white flour.

Cindy: Everyone knows that. But whole wheat has gluten.

Colleague: See, it says whole grains in general are much healthier. So I should go gluten-free. You think you know everything about food.

Cindy: I know a lot about food, because I have to think about it constantly. I bake and cook and know all about ingredients because food can kill me. Whole wheat and white flour have gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and cross contaminated into most oats. It’s in whole grains as much as in non-whole grains.

Colleague: Are you sure? I don’t think so.

Anyway, he decided to go gluten-free for a week. At the end of the week, another colleague asked how it was going.

Colleague who eats gluten: How’s the gluten thing going?

Colleague from above: You know, I haven’t lost weight. I’m eating salads without croutons, but by the end of the day, I’m so hungry, I’ve been eating a bag of pita chips after dinner.

Cindy: So you’re eating gluten.

Colleague from above: I guess so? I mean, it’s hard to just eat salad.

Cindy: There are things you can eat that are gluten-free that aren’t salad.

Colleague: I don’t know, I don’t think so. I haven’t lost any weight at all this week.

His misunderstanding of how food worked may not have impacted me in that moment, but in general, he was flippant about my allergies because he couldn’t see the difference between his gluten-free week and my medical issues. Not eating gluten didn’t fix him (though, of course, he ate gluten) so how could my issues be real?

Not to mention, had he had a real gluten issue, like an allergy or celiac, he wouldn’t have even eaten his salad, as the dressing more than likely had gluten. And the cross contamination of the croutons in other salads would have been an issue.

The more people who go on fake gluten-free diets, the harder it is for people who actually do get sick from gluten to explain their needs coherently. Or for people with other food needs to be heard. I’m not talking about people who are intellectually honest about it — people who say, “I can eat gluten in small amounts, but my doctors have said it affects X condition. I don’t suffer from celiac disease or food allergies, but gluten is a trigger for my X condition.” I’m talking about people who talk about how they gave up gluten and their stomachs are “better” and yet, they sneak gluten in every now and then and “regret it.” People who have self diagnosed a sensitivity to gluten and therefore don’t eat it…except when they do.

You don’t “regret it” when you go to the hospital for an anaphylactic allergy. You thank god that you’re alive. You don’t “regret it” when you’re hunched over your toilet for days except when you’re fast asleep and talking incoherently because you have a celiac flare. You thank god that you’re alive and probably notice some dirt in the grout on your bathroom tiles.

The good news is, a follow-up study to the non-celiac gluten sensitivity study was just conducted, and it turns out, there likely isn’t such a thing. Read the info here. So maybe all this nonsense will stop. And we can move on to other fad diets, like paleo or Atkins or you know,  just eating in moderation.

Let’s leave off with a good laugh with Jimmy Kimmel, who’s totally on my team. He asked people on a gluten free diet what gluten is — and like my former colleague, they had not a clue. It’s kind of hilarious.

 

Cindy Takes Xolair!

Today was the big day…Xolair day!

I’m a little too tired (understatement) to reiterate all the feelings I’ve had about the ‘lair (is that a thing?) up to this point, so feel free to play catch up in my last post, here.

But the TLDR version: I survived! There was a slim chance of anaphylaxis and guess who didn’t have that reaction! Me!

Seriously, for something that’s kept me awake for months, it was largely uneventful. I’m exhausted from the protective steroids I’ve been on and the lack of sleep that comes with that whole to-do, but really, today was fine. I got a shot, I hung around the doctor’s office for four hours, watched Good Will Hunting for the first time, and went to work in the afternoon like nothing had changed.

And now we wait. In June, I get to challenge foods I know I’m allergic to, in order to see if the Xolair is doing its job of masking the IgE stuff on my cells (I’m not a science person). I keep trying to picture myself eating fish or lettuce or spinach or cabbage, and can’t. But hey, that’s June Cindy’s bridge to cross, and it’s a damn good one.

In the meantime, I’ll keep getting Xolair injections once a month, with steroids, zantac, and zyrtec in my system. I’ll sleep 20 out of 30 nights a month, but it will be worth it to go to a grocery store and not have to wear a scarf and run through the produce aisle. The possibilities! I feel so blessed right now, it’s hard to even describe.

Also, side note…how had I never seen Good Will Hunting until now???

New plan: every month that I do Xolair, I will watch a movie that I really should have seen already. Kill two birds with one stone. Two birds…and no Cindys.

Good Will Hunting

And Two Years Later…Ruminations on Purim, Food, and Other Stuffs

I started this blog two years ago yesterday. Time flies, huh?

I remember going to the allergist for the first time two years ago, getting my test results, and freaking out that Purim, the Jewish holiday that involves not only a meal but an exchange of food gifts (imagine Halloween + Thanksgiving) was days away, and I didn’t know how to eat. A friend of mine and I went to a high-end kosher restaurant. I ordered off the menu and got mildly sick, which made sense given the state of shock my body was in then. Eating was a chore, figuring out what to eat was hard. I clung to my list of allergies at all times, fearful I’d forget something. Things got worse before they got better, and I resorted to a diet of eating the same foods only three times a week and eating nothing — NOTHING — that was prepared by someone other than me or a friend I could truly trust. No packaged or processed foods. 700-900 calories on a good day.

I don’t know how I did it.

Today, for instance, I ate chips, cheese, chocolate chips, soda, matzah, pasta, and canned beans. All foods that were off limits back then (I also ate other food today, don’t fret). I hate to say and am thrilled to say I took that all for granted. It’s become natural to me, again, to eat certain packaged foods. I’ve learned to count in my head (as the three times a week rule still applies). I don’t have a calendar, I just go with my gut, which usually knows when to stop.

I think about how far I’ve come, and what’s next. On Tuesday, I begin a treatment called Xolair. It’s complicated, and in the interest of not spreading misinformation because I’m a blogger not a doctor, I implore you to visit their website and consult your own physician before trusting me. But basically, there’s a chance Xolair can help mitigate my food allergies. There are risks involved (anaphylaxis among them) and it may not do anything at all, but if it works, I may be able to eat some foods I’m allergic to, or at least cross-contaminate with them.

Two years later…and I’m doing something I didn’t think I could: I’m getting better. Or at least trying to.

But I’m also terrified, I won’t lie. I’m terrified of the following:

1. Anaphylaxis. It’s a risk, and I just don’t want to experience it. I’m already on steroids to cope with pollen allergies, and I just want to get back to normal and sleep better and not have a near-death experience that incapacitates me. I’m trying to remember that this risk of anaphylaxis is okay because I’ll be at the doctor’s office, and that every time I eat food I’m somewhat at risk, especially outside of my own home, especially processed food. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m at risk. So, why am I more afraid knowing on Tuesday there’s a new kind of risk? If anything, its safer. But I think it’s the same reason I don’t get the flu shot. I usually get fever and flu-like symptoms from vaccines, so the idea of scheduling the flu always seems sillier than taking my chances with the actual thing. This is like that, only flu = anaphylaxis. But, I’ll have medical care. Don’t be scared, Cindy.

2. The treatment not working. What a let down that will be. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and what if it’s not there? Science will improve, surely, and this isn’t my last chance, but right now my eggs are in this one basket and I am very scared that it’ll be for nothing. Can I live this way forever? Yes. But knowing there’s a teeny tiny chance I don’t have to? I don’t want that chance to be taken away.

3. The treatment working. What is the world like without food allergies? What if I could eat fish? What if I counted at catered events? What if I didn’t have to lug 4 epipens with me everywhere I went? What if I didn’t see kids with sticky fingers and get terrified of them touching me? What if people think that since this treatment worked, allergies aren’t real? What if they go away and come back? My whole paradigm might shift and it sounds extraordinary but it’s also like waking up one day and realizing you don’t speak the same language anymore. That the world you live in is at once the same and totally different. It might be AMAZING. I hope it is. But it’s scary, too. Will I become a binge eater? Will I like kale? More importantly, will I lose my sensitivity to others? I never want to eat nuts on an airplane. But if I can eat like a normal person, will I forget the tricks of the trade that keep my former peers safe? I have a sixth sense now. I’m like a food mentalist, tracking motions of foods and eating behaviours. Will that go away when I don’t have to care? And if so, will that jeopardize the people around me and the advocacy I’ve begun to treat as second nature?

All of these fears have occupied my headspace for months. I have found ways to talk myself out of each one. They even largely contradict each other. But they are swimming in the back of my mind.

Two years ago, I was terrified I’d never adjust to a new diet and a new set of rules and weekly food challenges. Now, I’m given the chance to not only go back to before that — the days of carefully eating out, of having 20 allergies instead of 50 — but to a place I’ve never been. I can do this.

Maybe next Purim, I will be able to partake in any feast. I will be able to give and receive Mishloach Manot baskets of food without fear. I’m lucky — this year and last, my friends and family went above and beyond to include me in the holiday — my parents had a friend bake me food I can eat, my friend hosted a feast I could partake in, and friends gave me unconventional food baskets tailored to my diet in the nicest ways. I feel bad wanting more, hoping that next year it will be easier on me and on them, because I’ve already been given so much and treated with such generosity. And yet…I’m excited.  I’m excited to not have to be an exception or a hindrance or even noticeably different.

These last two years have been rough but I’ve settled in. I’ve learned a lot about strength, food, friendship, family — not in that order — and it feels at once like no time has passed and like I’ve lived this way forever. So whatever’s next…whichever fear is realized…I know I can face it.

So, Are You Gluten-Free?

I am not gluten-free.

First of all, I can eat loads of gluten (loads being a hyperbole. I can have rye, wheat, and barley three times a week each and can’t have spelt yet). I may be cottonseed oil-free, leafy green-free, fish-free, nut-free, pomegranate-free, horseradish-free, plum-free, peach-free, grapefruit-free, cauliflower-free, mushroom-free, gum-free, chickpea-free, etc., but bring on the gluten!

Oh yeah, and second of all, I’m not a food. Or the lack there of.

A cookie can be gluten-free. A burger. A menu option. Even a shampoo. Foods or products that one could suspect contain gluten can, in fact, turn out to be free of gluten.

People, on the other hand, do not contain gluten. Therefore, I’m as gluten-free as the best of them, but I’m also door-free, spoon-free, DVD-free, paper towel-free (is it obvious I’m just naming things I see in my apartment?).

I’m often asked, though, the titular question of this post: “So, are you gluten-free?” I always say, “No, I’m all about gluten, I just can’t have that bread because of x (where x=cottonseed oil; traces of nuts; untrustworthy factory; too-processed; not challenged yet, etc.).

I know it’s not meant to be a hurtful question. And most of the time, I don’t let it become one. I like to pretend I’m impervious to pain. But I’m not. And sometimes, a gnawing thought will come to my mind and I’ll recall the last time someone asked me if I was gluten-free and I just scream to myself, “No, I’m CINDY!”

Cindy.

I am a writer, a leader, an advocate, a doer, a thinker, a consultant, a reader, a TV-fanatic, a dog lover, a student, a teacher, a cook, a dancer, a rapper, a comedian, an ENFJ who teeters on the lines of ENTP. A friend, a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a person. A Jew, a New Yorker, a Brooklynite, a Brandeisian, a sort-of Angelino, a Trojan.

I’m reminded of an art exhibit I read about recently that I can’t stop thinking about. A group of people were photographed with writing on their body indicating an identifying factor, and the photos were accompanied by a caption indicating what they were not. (http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/161489/provocative-photo-project-goes-viral-among-orthodox-students#undefined). I often ponder the questions of identity (there’s a whole rabbit hole there, and this isn’t the blog for it. Please see my other blog at www.aliceinwonderland.com for those questions #notreallymyblog), and I think some of that is because my identity often gets taken away from me.

What I mean is, I often first meet people in the context of meals. Food is how we socialize these days — especially in the Jewish community — so the first thing most people learn about me outside of a professional environment is “Cindy is allergic to lots of things (but isn’t gluten-free).” That’s fine, and my life depends on it, but there’s so much more. See above. That’s a partial list. And while I’m “the girl with the many food allergies” I’m not just “the girl with the many food allergies.” And I don’t want to be.

So why keep this blog, you ask? You, meaning anyone who’s ever had the above conversation with me in real life. For a few reasons. One, to update my family and friends on my challenge status. I neglected to mention in my “identity paragraph” (ew) that I’m a social butterfly (BH, that one’s for you, and for everyone else, it’s tongue-in-cheek). I live far away from my family and many friends, and this blog allows me to keep them (you?) updated with my progress without having to make a bunch of phone calls. Two, to keep a log for myself. I could keep a private diary, but the motivation is stronger when I know I’m accountable to an audience. This log has proven helpful as I’ve decided what to challenge, as I’ve looked back on recipes, as I’ve struggled to remember how far I’ve come. Records are important, and this is mine. Three, when I was first experiencing increased symptoms, I turned to Google because I was too scared to talk to most of my friends (though, T, thank you again for being my constant G-chat support and Benedryl enforcer). I found blogs to be helpful resources, but also primarily geared toward mothers or people who had more common allergies. I wanted to be a voice in the space for someone with multiple allergies, in their 20s, who had the allergies forever but saw them get worse. And some of you have reached out to me letting me know I’ve helped you — which means everything. When I see someone’s search query “allergy to horseradish???” I know that I made them feel like they weren’t crazy, something that’s rarely been done for me. In turn, and this is number Four, by seeing people’s queries, by interacting with readers, I feel like I’m not crazy. Someone else is allergic to horseradish. Therefore, I’m not making it up in my own life.

All of the above wins in the cost/benefit analysis of my identity issue. But. That doesn’t mean I want to be Super Allergic Cindy. I just want to be Cindy, whose food allergies are impactful but not any more identifying than someone’s IBS, cancer, insomnia, ADHD, etc. Not that those are all equal, but you get the point. Everyone’s got something. I have this. But that doesn’t mean I am this. Tener and Ser are two different verbs (thank you, Duolingo!)

I don’t need anyone to validate my scope of identity. But I would like it to be invalidated less often. And I know I’m not alone in this. So, instead of asking “Are you gluten-free?” next time someone doesn’t reach for the bread, try one of these two options:

1. Don’t ask anything, and let them not eat bread. Who are you, Marie Antoinette?

2. Ask, “Would you like me to steer clear of you with the bread because of a dietary restriction?”

Or, I guess, 3. “Do you not eat gluten/do you only eat gluten free?

Same goes for all food-related things. If you must know, ask about the food, not the person. But maybe don’t ask, and wait for someone to say something. My friend wrote an excellent piece about this on his new blog about living with Type 1 Diabetes, how we don’t know why other people eat the way they do and shouldn’t make assumptions about their habits. He’s right. And I promise, if my life is in danger, I’ll let you know.

Because I’m Cindy. And among other things, I’m the furthest thing from shy.

This is Cindy.

This is Cindy.

This is food.
This is food.

 

Food Challenge Round 36 & 37: Cindy vs. Balsamic Vinegar & Tequila

I promise, I don’t drink that much. Even though 5 of my 37 challenges have involved alcoholic beverages, I promise I don’t drink that much.

I just…I know I’m not really allergic to alcohol, and I’m too scared to try food. The almonds were so painful, and then I followed that up two weeks later with a restaurant experience gone wrong (will try to share when I feel fully emotionally healed), and I needed to just try things that felt safe so my body could continue to heal while I also increase my diet.

So I tried balsamic vinegar first. I had intended to eat it on peppers, but on the insistence of the nurse, I ate it plain. Dipped my pinky finger in it and licked it plain. Like it was Passover and I was dipping my finger in the wine for the plagues. 1. It was gross. 2. It was seriously gross. 3. My doctor was cracking up and finally realized why people like instagram (no, he didn’t instagram me, but he thought it would make a good moment. Further no, I still don’t get instagram). 4. I passed!

I asked if that meant I could have sulfites. I mean, seriously. Beer, rum, two kinds of wine, and vinegar — who are we kidding, I can have sulfites. Just because once some grape juice kicked my ass doesn’t mean I’m reactive to sulfites. So the doctor said I could try one more alcohol and be cleared for all sulfite beverages…meaning all wines…yes!

Hence, the tequila.

I had never done a tequila shot before. My tequila was strictly reserved for margaritas and on screen via Meredith Grey. But, apparently, challenging a margarita could yield incorrect results as who knows if the margarita ingredients were the issue, so, a shot it was. And not a shot with salt and lime. Just plain ol’ tequila.

At 7:30am.

Which I thought would be horrifying.

Turns out it was perfectly pleasant.

Please note again, I don’t drink that much.

But damn. Tequila is way better than vodka. It hits you hard. It’s lighter than I expected. I could drink it again. And I will. Because I passed. So now…all wines!

I’ll still favor cabernet sauvignon. It’s been a good friend and it’s delicious. But not having to worry every Shabbat that I’ll miss out on kiddush, the blessing over wine, because I’m at a dinner where the wine served isn’t cab sav — that’s a weight lifted off my shoulders. It’s hard to explain how happy I am, how relieved, how normal I feel now.

Who knew a tequila shot could be so strong?

Food Challenge Tally

Cindy: 27

Allergens: 4

Food Challenges Round 31- 35: Cindy vs. Peanut Butter and Pretzels, Sauteed Onions, Special K, White Wine, and Almonds

Lots of food challenges to catch up on. Things have been hectic with a ton of weddings, switching jobs, and holidays. But here’s the deal:

Most of the challenges went swimmingly. I can now have 3 tsps of peanut butter, Utz Halloween pretzels (in case the factory processes the regular pretzels differently), ALL ONIONS (the third challenge of onions opened all those doors up — and shallots and leeks, too!), Special K cereal (and cereals with similarly low trace amounts of wheat, though I should still avoid them if I can), and sauvignon blanc.

I can’t have almonds, as I learned today. Today, I bit into the top of an almond, chewed it, paused, and put the rest on the allergist’s desk. “No more. I want medicine.”

My lip was tingling and my ears were starting to burn. I’ve gotten really good at sensing the beginning of a reaction. The other foods just felt like foods when I tried them, but this almond tip felt like poison and anger. But now I know: I avoid traces of nuts for a reason.

Thank God I didn’t need epi – just benedryl, steroids, and sleep (why is it that steroid injections don’t make me as weird as the pills?). My throat is aching, my face is mildly swollen (I can feel it and I can tell, but unless someone’s used to my face, they wouldn’t know that my right cheek is over-puffing and throbbing). But I’m ok. I caught myself before I got too far. Now I know — no nuts.

Maybe when I’m off the meds I’ll console myself with a nice bottle of wine, because I CAN.

Sidenote: tonight is the Jewish New Year for trees, and it’s traditional to try new fruits and to eat almonds. Good timing, right, Cind? Guess I’ll just find a bonsai tree or something to celebrate.

The tip of one of these had me sleeping all day.

The tip of one of these had me sleeping all day.