by June Ramey and Kristine Dzagan
Each of us with food allergies has our own unique story to tell, our journey through the deserts, mountains of hardship, and the unexpected moments of hope and inspiration. We share a common bond—the insatiable drive for survival, and the compelling hope that we can improve our situation. The sum of our lives is not encapsulated in any moment when we might feel the most helpless, and where our restrictions seem insurmountable. So, how do we transition from victim to victor?
Embrace the challenge! Think about it. If life was always the same, never changing, it would be boring. (How many days in a row can you eat your favorite food?) This is a new adventure and opportunity for you to learn something exciting, to explore the unknown. It doesn’t have to be scary or dreadful. Find a way to make it fun.
When we first started down this road and I realized I couldn’t eat anything with gluten in it, I hated cooking. In fact, I would have rather done yard work and fixed the roof than spend an hour in the kitchen chopping vegetables and making dinner. I had lost my enthusiasm for eating, except for foods that were high in carbohydrates and sugars. I lived for that “instant gratification” and “sugar rush.”
Once I realized I either had to start cooking differently or starve, I accepted the challenge. In fact, I was determined that this setback wasn’t going to beat me! We started cooking from scratch, reading every ingredient on every label, and coming up with creative new ways to fix an old meal.
Make it fun! It became a family game for every member to rate the meal on a scale of one to ten, with one meaning you were going to throw up and ten meaning you would pay a lot of money for that meal in a fancy restaurant. Anything that rated six and under was either thrown in the “do not make again” pile or redesigned. Unless it was a unanimous vote that the meal was awesome, we always asked the question, “What would make this better?” When a meal rated nine or better among all of us, we knew it was a winner!
Another game was to try to guess the ingredients. We still play this game when we go out to a restaurant and like a particular dish. We will then try to reproduce the same taste in our kitchen. If we bring home leftovers, we will compare it with the dish we’ve created, just to see what we need to tweak in our recipe. We will brainstorm possible ingredients we can use as substitutes, do some research on that ingredient, and then try to incorporate it into a recipe to see how it responds in the cooking process. If we find something that works, we create variations that are different enough to tantalize the taste buds, but not cause us to reinvent the recipe. Each of us, including children and guests, provide feedback and suggestions based on our own individual preferences.
Accept who you are! You are wonderfully unique, even if you have siblings who were born on the same day as you. There has never been another person exactly like you nor will there ever be! Find ways to love who you have become and who you will be, even with all of your imperfections. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that make us beautiful! This includes loving yourself, even in the midst of your struggles. Food restrictions are not the sum of who you are.
Think about how healthy (or unhealthy) you feel at this very moment. You are beginning a wonderful journey toward feeling better and helping your body heal. Take a minute to imagine how much stronger and healthier you will be when you’ve made positive changes in your life. Keep this model in your mind every time you get frustrated or bored with your options. You are exceptional and you will overcome!
Get back to basics. What is it that you love to do? What motivates and energizes you? If you don’t know, figure out what you absolutely dislike and what drains your energy. Once you’ve identified those things, look to the opposite to see if that’s where your passions are hiding. Find time to do those things you love.
Stay positive! Always try to find the positive side of everything. Dare to see things in a new light. Okay, so you can’t eat some of your favorite foods. Give yourself a little time to mourn the loss, but then look at the positive side of the issue and find a way to celebrate the new you. What are the other wonderful options available to you? How good will you feel after staying away from foods that make you sick? Who ever knew that food could taste so good? Is this a good excuse to get one of those kitchen gadgets you’ve been thinking about buying for the last six months? What will you reward yourself with when you meet your goal?
No matter what is going on inside you or around you, practice the art of positive thinking and watch how your health will improve (And so will your cooking!). Situations that once seemed hopeless will become opportunities for success. Don’t fret if you try something new and it turns out to be a “failure.” Some of our best recipes were “failures” intended to be something else! Besides, you may be just one step away from success.
Seek out support! Eating differently is a lifestyle change. You are not alone in this effort—many people have had to make this change, just like you. Look at your immediate family and the style in which your family deals with problems. Is your family unit like the Three Musketeers: one for all and all for one? Or is your family more like independent superheroes: every man for himself? Adapt and adjust to find the support you need.
Do any of your friends or co-workers struggle with the same issues? Food is a wonderful way to connect with others. Bring in your favorite healthy recipe to that potluck lunch or going away party and see what happens. I once brought in home made to a going away party at work. Several months later, people were still talking about how good it was, and a couple people even asked for the recipe! You can use multiple food allergies as an icebreaker in a conversation with people you've just met. Doors of support and encouragement open up when two people share a hardship.
Look for formal or informal support groups. These can be found in local papers or newsletters, clinics or even on-line. If you can’t find one in your area, start one!
Give back to the community and encourage others! Research your illness or allergy and learn as much as you can about it. Share what you’ve learned. It’s empowering! When you talk and share with others, listen to what they are saying and encourage them to share what they know. Everyone has something to contribute. Even those people who are great in their fields of expertise, have stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. Build each other up so you are stronger together.
And this is just the beginning!
Perseverance through hardship builds character, and so does the joy and celebration of a new life! There is more awareness now about food sensitivities and intolerances than there were ten years ago—even five. Because of this, more alternative foods are available each year. Take advantage of all your resources and go for it! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
From Board Member June Ramey and co-author Kris Dzagan - Celiac Creations For Multiple Food Allergies: How To Survive When Your Food Is Killing You.
The S.A.F.E. Food Pantry is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) organization based in Howard County, Maryland.