What I Love Lately: Hope and Healing Edition

Dear Joey,

Our apple tree exploded in blooms a couple weeks ago. Usually this time of year isn’t so rough on me. I didn’t suffer from seasonal allergies as a child the way I do now. So far it seems as though our kids suffer from them too. Drat that spring wind that stirred up the pollen and bewitched the air into a magic potion that transformed our eyes into spiky balls of wool and our noses into leaky faucets. We walk around woozy, dazed, and itchy. It’s miserable.

The timing is convenient: it’s a perfectly acceptable time of year for people to wipe away tears from allergy afflicted eyes every five seconds. The folks staring at me across the aisle at Target seem to say, “me too,” as they wipe their own constantly running noses. I admit I blame my watery eyes on allergies several times in the past few weeks because if people knew the truth–that I was really wiping away tears of fear or sadness or stress–I might not get the same sort of empathy.


To be clear, I am suffering from allergies, and I finally broke down and bought myself a bottle of allergy medicine because the skin under my eyes was worn raw from all the wiping. But the deeper truth is allergies aren’t the only reason my eyes have been so teary lately. It’s not even the sadness I feel about moving away from our house. There’s more.

It all started in early January, after eating those delicious, fancy tapas that were supposed to be gluten free, and feeling as if I’d eaten poison.  I suffered for weeks with the pain that only ever comes from consuming that dastardly gluten. Usually when I “get glutened,” I’m wracked with pain and worry for about a week.  After that, the symptoms eventually subside as my body recovers, and I’ve gotten used to this super fun phenomenon.


Except this time, my body didn’t recover and the symptoms intensified to the point that it was hard to go about life as usual. I was extra touchy; things I usually took in stride set off fits of frustration and anger, and I had a hard time thinking about anything but my own pain. The paranoia came back. Certainty that the doctors missed something–and that I was, in fact, dying–disrupted my sleep and hijacked my internal monologue for months. I grew increasingly feeble and needy and angry.  I was doing everything right: avoided gluten like my life depended on it, to the point that I’m sure I frustrated several food service workers in the process. I took my probiotics like clockwork, eventually cut out all grains and cooked everything at home. I hopped on the kombucha band wagon and went against my own no-dairy-drinks-in-the-house rule and sneaked sips of blueberry kefir when no one was looking. I defrosted bone broth I’d tucked away in the freezer and made meals and meals and more meals out of the stuff. I even dug out the grass-fed gelatin (that I stashed in the back of the pantry because the smell–oh the smell!–was too much for me to handle) and made homemade gummies and blended it into my morning smoothies. My symptoms eased up a little, but not by much. The pain was my constant companion and torment, and my fears grew. I went on as if life was normal, trying my best to smile in spite of myself, but on the inside, I withered.


Stress made it all worse, of course, because that’s what stress does. It further twists the already tangled mess inside, holds a microphone up to the lips of fear and bids it speak, taunts an already broken spirit and tempts it to let go of hope, and in the process, makes every dark thought look an awful lot like the truth. With the pressure of birthdays and sickness and selling our house and kids who were increasingly stressed out too, things started to spiral. To make it all worse, the prescription I usually leaned on for flare ups like this one never got filled–not even despite our incessant requests.


A good friend reached out to me in the middle of a desperate moment in March, randomly asking how she could pray for me that week. I don’t usually talk candidly about what really happens when gluten finds its way back into my body, but this time I told her everything–like, everything–about the inflammation and bleeding and how this time around the symptoms weren’t going away, and about how the paranoia returned and snatched my good sense away from me and made me feel crazy. And how on top of all that, life kept happening, demanding I get up out of bed and keep going. She understands the spin that happens when stress and fear stake their claim upon our hearts, and she promised to pray against it.

About a month later, in the morning after a particularly painful night, I choked out a tearful prayer for what felt like the hundred thousandth time since the symptoms returned in January and trudged into my morning routine, putting one foot in front of the other and trying to go about my day as if I felt fine, but I didn’t. Later that morning, after you left for work and the girls were both settled in at school and Emery was happily chattering away to his Mr. Potato head, I walked into the kitchen and noticed my jar of vitamins was out of place. It was sitting on the counter in front of the Keurig in a place where I couldn’t miss it. This wasn’t that unusual. You set them there for me sometimes when you get your own bottle of vitamins out in the morning.  But on that particular morning you hadn’t set them out. I’m sure of it because I walked past that coffee maker a dozen times before that moment, and they just weren’t there before. I’m telling you.

I shrugged it off as I popped a couple into my mouth, and as soon as I started chewing, my eyes glazed over the back of the bottle and I wondered, What if?


I picked it up and right there on the label, it said Contains wheat.


Stunned and appalled, I shook like a leaf as I spit those half-chewed vitamins out, tears dripping down my chin as I leaned over the sink. My hands trembled and and I shouted for joy and actually laughed, because in that instant I knew I wasn’t crazy. It was in January that I bought that big bottle of vitamins, right around the same time I got glutened by those tapas. And it was also in January when my insides ignited with pain again, barbed and raw and hot, like road rash on the inside. Healing didn’t happen in that instant; my body still hurt like hell, but suddenly–divinely perhaps–hope returned.

After I stopped taking those vitamins, my health improved dramatically. In the two weeks since then, things are improving, and those gut-healing foods I’ve been cramming into my body like a crazy person are finally getting the chance to make a difference in my damaged body. The constant screaming pain is down to a low, occasional whisper, because the healing isn’t finished yet, and I know from experience it takes awhile to get things back to normal. But my outlook, my perspective–my hope–it’s radically changed. I spent months feeling trapped inside of my own pain, afraid to talk about what was really happening inside because in my skewed sense of reality, either I was dying or I was crazy, and neither felt safe to admit. I felt alone.


It was like when Addie got that high fever out of nowhere and it just wouldn’t go away. She was frustrated and fatigued and was just so over being sick, but the fever persisted to the extent that she had to have her blood drawn to check for something worse. She was stricken by the news. I would have given anything to take her place, but I couldn’t, of course. But I made sure she didn’t walk through the ordeal alone. I pulled her up onto my lap and cradled her there as we waited, spoke tenderly to her as the fear taunted her, and held on tight until after the pain pricked her tender little body. She shook and cried and held on to me, trusting that what I said was true: that I was there with her even during the worst of it, and that pain isn’t the end of the story.

Pain isn’t the end of the story for me either. In the middle of it, it feels like it is. The hard part for me is knowing this sort of thing will happen again. Gluten is sneaky and likes to hide, and when it finds its way into my system, it throws my good sense out the window and plays tricks on me. Pain and fear is all I see, so I have to keep my ears and heart open enough to keep hearing God whisper, the pain is not the end of the story.

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I don’t know why that prescription never got filled, but I’m pretty sure it’s because the medication wouldn’t have done any good anyway, and in His glorious, all-knowing way, God knew that and kept the stuff out of my hands. The vitamins caused the problems; no pills could offset the damage they did as long as I kept consuming them. I could sit here and ask time and time again why God didn’t help point me in that direction sooner–I could ask why He let me suffer–but I think I already know the answer. Because in this life, we will suffer. How could we not? Pain is part of our humanness, a result of the fallen world in which we live. But God’s mercy extended to me–to all of us–even in the darkest moments, like an anchor thrust deep into the dark and murky waters of tormented souls.


The tumultuous start to this year taught me self-care is imperative, not to ward of physical pain, necessarily, or as a quick fix for deeper, chronic health issues, but for this simple reason: I am not able to care for anyone else when I am unwell. I have heard this for years, of course, but now, clearly, I understand. And so, whereas I used to scoff at the idea of spending any sort of extra money on things that I needed (because I’m a mom, and let’s be honest: moms often put themselves last on the list of priorities), I now shell out a few extra dollars for things that help me feel more … centered, important. Like choosing to stock up on Peet’s coffee at home because let’s be honest: I run on coffee, and I find I’m in a better mood when I sip a really good cup of it with my Bible perched on my lap and reading the stories of God’s love, rescue and redemption in the earliest hours of the day. And diffusing my favorite blend of Young Living essential oils (lavender, frankincense and Stress Away) without reservation, any time of the day just because I feel like it, and breathing them in slowly, deeply. Splurging on kombucha and taking a hot shower and going to bed early with a good book. Listening to songs by people like Ellie Holcomb, songs that make me weep and pray and dance and sing in one sweeping movement.

Today the rain returned and I’m hoping it will renew and replenish the air, give it a good scrub, and help us all to breathe a little easier in the next few days. Breathing easy sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? April Showers bring May flowers, after all, and I for one am looking forward to the life ahead.



Going Gluten Free, Part 4: Courage, Chronic Conditions, and a Conclusion I Could Live With

This is Part 4. Read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; and Part 3 here.

Dear Joey,

After I left the new gastroenterologist’s office that day, I was a bit disappointed. I wished the doctor would have urged me to go through the rigamarole of testing for Celiac Disease again because deep down, I sort of wanted a Celiac diagnosis. I know that is probably an awful thing to say and I am sure I’ll get reamed because of it (because who would actually want to be diagnosed with such a terrible thing?), but the truth is this: in my mind, a positive diagnosis for Celiac Disease would connect all the dots in my disjointed journey toward that point and prove once and for all I was not crazy. It would dispel doubt in my own mind and disbelief in the minds of others. Without the diagnosis, I felt that I was no closer to getting to the bottom of what was actually happening inside my body.

And so, I set my sights on that dreaded colonoscopy and braced myself for what it might reveal. I was desperate enough for answers that even the worst case scenario seemed preferable than to continue living in constant pain and anxiety. Plus, we wanted another baby, but putting myself through what would be another difficult pregnancy without knowing for sure nothing more serious was wrong with me was completely out of the question. When we checked in at the hospital that day, I was ready. Scared, but ready. The nurses kept asking what I was doing there–I was too young for such a procedure. Their sweet smiles encouraged me, and their kindness held the promise that whatever news met me on the other side of the procedure, I could face it because these people were on my side. You kissed me goodbye and sent me on my way, flashing me your most handsome, confident smile, making me feel safe in spite of things. In the procedure room, I laid on the table and let the anesthesia do its work, and I rested better than I had in over two years.

Summer 2014, not long after I got serious about going gluten free

After it was all over, the doctor sent us home with a smile that assured us he didn’t find any other cause for concern. My chronic condition was still very much active, but we left the hospital that day with confidence my body would heal over time if I followed his advice: to completely remove gluten from my diet. I had already done so, but I was even more hopeful that going gluten free would eventually turn things around for me.

You supported me like a champ. I purged the pantry and scoured labels and educated myself about what it means to really live gluten free. I learned slowly, and I spent many frustrated months blowing our grocery budget on much trial and error in the kitchen, and you politely ate helping after mediocre helping of my experiments, praising my efforts along the way. Little by little, I built up a new arsenal of gluten free ingredients and know-how, starting from scratch to teach myself how to cook all over again. Slowly, my confidence in the kitchen came back, and my body started to heal.

Not eating gluten is one thing and learning how to live gluten free is another. To give up gluten means to choose to not eat foods that contain the stuff (wheat and all wheat varieties and derivatives, barley, rye, and oats that have been contaminated by wheat–just to name just a few). In our American way of life, this isn’t so hard anymore because the market is flooded with products touted as being gluten free, and so all a person really has to do is stock their kitchen with gluten free foods and products and just eat those, right? Well, sort of.

Summer 2016, two years after removing all gluten from my diet

For me, giving up gluten meant more than just swapping out whole wheat bread for its gluten free counterpart. For me, saying no to gluten also meant accepting the hard reality that gluten was responsible for my misery even though I couldn’t prove it and the doctors couldn’t confirm it, exactly. I had to say yes to believing there could be healing at the end of this long, twisted journey, and that healing would come by simply removing gluten from my diet. And I had to start believing the truth about my body enough to stand up for myself in the face of criticism or disbelief. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (which is what I appear to have) is a condition that is not well understood and often met with a bit of eye rolling and doubt.

I understand that attitude. I had a hard time accepting that gluten could be the reason for why I had been sick for so long, too. But on this side of things, well over two years after getting the stuff out of my life, I get it. Gluten had been making me sick for far longer than the two years it had been since abdominal pains interrupted my life and sent me on a journey to figure out why. On this side of Gluten Freedom, I’m not lactose intolerant anymore. My migraines are gone. My joints don’t ache either, for that matter. The searing pain in my abdomen right around the place where my appendix sits doesn’t nag me during the day or flare up at midnight. I don’t lose sleep worrying about whether or not the doctors have missed something important. I’m not plagued with anxiety like I used to be, thank God. I finally feel healthy.


Thank you for being patient with me as I walked this hard road, and thank you for being supportive of me and showing you believe my very strange and not-well-understood condition by bringing me gluten free chocolate cupcakes once in awhile. You have no idea how deeply that makes my heart feel secure with you. I know it’s just a cupcake, but it’s really so much more than that to me. After all this pain and confusion, that seemingly small gesture tells me you hear me, you believe me, and you’re with me in sickness and in health.

Going Gluten Free, Part 3: Chronic Pain, Celiac Disease, and Compassion

This is Part Three. You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

Dear Joey,

Food was a fickle friend in those days. 

Chronic pain played with my mind and told me something wasn’t wrong, but was miserably, dangerously wrong. Food was certainly connected to the symptoms somehow, and eating gluten-heavy foods certainly seemed to trigger the problems. We learned the hard way during an anniversary trip that summer. 

We left the girls at home with my parents and practically sprinted out the door toward San Francisco and a whole weekend wandering around the city without schedule or responsibility. We lived it up, starting with dinner at the Tonga Room, a convenient choice since we were staying at the Fairmont Hotel. We shared a Smuggler’s Golden Cocktail for two and feasted on crispy Mongolian Beef, surrounded by island kitsch and happy to feel like us again.


We lingered over buttery croissants with jam and mugs of steaming hot coffee the next morning before heading out the door to walk the city. We hadn’t been gone for more than 15 minutes before my belly screamed at me, its anger sharp and hot. I mentioned it to you, but I was in a sort of denial when you asked if I felt like I needed to go back to the hotel. To ruin our first completely kid-free day in forever (or more rightly, ever?) was more than I could handle. I was determined to enjoy myself, but as we got farther away from the hotel, I panicked. I trudged on, sweating, choking back tears, and desperate for a bathroom. I finally ducked into one down near the Ferry building and tried very hard to pull myself together.


A rare smile during our difficult trek through the City during our anniversary trip in 2013

We kept moving forward, climbing hills and winding our way down Lombard Street. You took in the views while I focused on pushing myself to make it up the next hill, slowly putting one foot in front of the other while waves of pain and sweat ebbed and flowed. We finally made it back to the hotel and I slept. Somehow I managed to slip on a dress and head out the door in time to make our reservation at our beloved restaurant Michael Mina. I nibbled on an innocuous fish and rice dish while you enjoyed something much more exotic, like the squid ink pasta you so loved the first time we went there. We headed home the next morning, me feeling guilty and very sick all at the same time.

The sharp pain and strange, gnawing ache wouldn’t go away after that. I functioned as best I could, operating out of necessity even as anxiety about the whole ordeal worsened.

That’s when I stopped eating gluten and went to see the Gastroenternologist.

The visit wasn’t nearly as helpful as I hoped. The doctor’s cavalier attitude toward my symptoms left me feeling slighted. I had been desperate for someone to help me figure out why my body was turning on me.  It took months for me to muster up the courage to make an appointment to see her in the first place, and revealing such private details about my ailing body to someone who treated me so poorly left me feeling exposed and foolish. I walked out of her office a confused mess of frustration, a not-so-healthy dose of self-abasement teeming through my veins. IBS felt too weak of a diagnosis. Removing things like apples and onions out of my diet to see if they were the potential trigger for all this madness stirred up anger inside of me.

The blood test for Celiac Disease came back negative; I was too scared to have the subsequent sigmoidoscopy; and I was more confused and panicked than before. My symptoms continued to worsen. My head spun with fear and panic. I felt death was coming for me and no one was the wiser. I pleaded my case to God, tears running down my face as I rocked Mia to sleep in those difficult days: Please don’t take me away from her. From them. They’re just babies.


Mia and Addie in August 2013

With no other options to speak of, I started the FODMAPS elimination diet. In a moment of clarity (or sheer desperation), I admitted to myself my body could not deal with this on its own without my intervention. I got right to work on a six week long program of clearing  Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyolsstarted foods from my diet (which basically meant I had to eliminate wheat as well as onions, garlic, tomatoes, apples, dairy products, beans–and many, many more). I planned these six weeks poorly, though, because we climbed on an airplane to Kansas during week five, and somehow thought I could keep up the strict diet while visiting friends and family in America’s bread basket. Everyone was understanding and accommodating as best as they could be, but I panicked and ended up spoiling the whole thing.


The Louisburg Cider Mill in November 2013

It was the middle of Fall and so of course we went to the Louisburg Cider Mill for Apple Cider donuts. And I made chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast on Addie’s third birthday while we were at your dad’s house because that’s what we do on birthdays around here and you know I’m all about tradition. Up in Kansas City we took the easy way out and ordered pizza for dinner, and while I got gluten free crust, I was ill-informed about cross contamination in those days. Plus, it had cheese on it. And sausage. And onions and mushrooms and peppers and so many things that I was supposed to slowly reintroduce after the six weeks were over. The effort I put into keeping all these potential IBS triggers out of my body came were for naught when so many potential triggers flooded my digestive system all at the same time.


Addie’s 3rd birthday – November 2013

I came home feeling miserable and not any closer to really knowing why. But I balked at doing the six week elimination over again because it was hard, particularly because it meant I was cooking two meals three times a day or so, and I was too tired and uninspired to keep up with that nonsense. Gluten was an on-again, off-again sort of companion, and I was too tired and overwhelmed to care. I didn’t attempt the FODMAPS elimination diet again.


Thanksgiving 2013. I passed on pie that year, but ate a lot of Turkey.

Not surprisingly, my body protested and started screaming at me again. The gnawing, ever-present pain intensified (just like it always did) and since I already sort of knew wheat was somehow responsible, I kicked it to the curb and eliminated grains and legumes and dairy again, too (because we gave the Paleo diet a try for awhile, hoping it would heal my gut and make things better). My symptoms improved, meaning the pain was tempered and didn’t yell at me the way it had when I ate wheat with abandon. But the pain didn’t go away completely. And some new symptoms emerged, symptoms that reinforced my idea that death was coming. I started bleeding. I told you through tears, and you gently urged me to call another specialist who happened to be a new colleague of  yours–another gastroenterologist, someone you didn’t know when I first started having all these problems but who you believed would nonetheless listen well and help me. You were right.

When I talked to this other specialist, he listened well. When he asked clarifying questions, he looked me in the eye with the sort of compassion for me and belief in me that I needed.  After much back and forth, he said my symptoms were consistent with Celiac Disease, but my negative blood test indicated it was more likely Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. However, he emphasized my test could have been a false negative (apparently, they happen), or not a true picture of what was really going on in my body (the test was done after I removed gluten from my diet). Either way, he didn’t want to retest me for Celiac Disease because that would mean deliberately putting gluten in my body, something he was not wiling to do (“It’s just too risky,” he said.) He scheduled me for a colonoscopy to make sure there wasn’t something else entirely happening inside, and as I got ready to leave, he told me this: Never eat gluten again. Live as if you have Celiac Disease.

The authority and compassion in his voice changed something in me. I felt heard, affirmed, and decidedly not crazy. I heeded his words, and everything changed. Read about how here

Going Gluten Free, Part 2: Appendicitis, IBS, and the Struggle to Find an Answer

You can read Part One of A Tale of Gluten Freedom here.

Dear Joey,

Fast forward about 14 years. We had been married for over two years by then, and we were finding our footing in yet another living situation–the third move in our still young marriage. With two very little girls in tow, we crowded in with my parents and older brother in the house I grew up in with hopes of saving money for a home of our own in the coming year. While the situation was a good one–ideal in many ways–and we were settling into a new sort of normal, the stress of it all took a toll on us.

Just days before Christmas that year, you woke me before the sun came up on the morning we were supposed to get on a plane to go spend the holiday with your mom. In a hushed voice, so as not to wake Addie who shared a bedroom with us at the time, you said you were heading to the emergency room because you were convinced the stomach pain you had been having lately was appendicitis. You kissed me goodbye and urged me to go back to sleep in vain. I lay there worried and powerless, feeling like an abandoned child and a lazy wife more interested in sleep than holding your hand in a waiting room. I was neither, of course.

Out for a stroll on Christmas Eve, not long after you had your appendix removed.

When the girls woke up the rest of the household that day, my parents willingly watched the girls while I went hospital. When I reached you there, you laughed the whole thing off, amused at your ability to self-diagnose (ever the astute PA you are). But for me, the stress of it pushed my own body to a breaking point.

There were twinges in my abdomen as we drove back over the hills toward home later that night. You had just had your appendix removed and suddenly my own tummy was smarting and radiating with pain. I brushed it off as what I could only assume were  sympathy pains, and I ignored them as best I could. They didn’t go away though, and they even got worse. I finally said something about them to you, a bit embarrassed because I figured you would dismiss them as nothing, too. It was a little coincidental that my lower right abdomen would start screaming at me in the hours after your appendicitis, but I couldn’t shake the very real pain I was experiencing. And once more, I didn’t understand why my body was turning on me again with painful problems that played with my mind. I tried to rationalize my way out of it–again–but of course that didn’t help.

Mia and me just days after my own pains first started.

You listened to my complaints and advised me to keep an eye on it, telling me I would know with great certainty if it was appendicitis or not because the pain would be unbearable. I lost a lot of sleep as it flared and dissipated over the next week or so. It gnawed at me by day and worsened at night when the darkness turns everything grim anyway. I laid awake most nights, obsessing about the pain, wondering why it was there, convinced something was fatally wrong with me, and worried no one believed me.

While I waited for the CT, we eventually made our way to Washington and enjoyed a belated Christmas with them. I brought my new affliction with me, though, and since the day those pains started I carried them with me in mind and body everywhere. I worried every day. I worried every night. I feared the CT would reveal a fatal problem and I feared it wouldn’t reveal anything at all–because that would mean the pain was all in my head, and that would mean I was crazy, wouldn’t it?

Mia and Addie on our belated Christmas trip to Washington that year

The CT didn’t reveal a thing, so my doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist, a visit that took months to coordinate. While I waited for my appointment day to arrive, I sat with the unsettling idea that my doctor had missed something. As I worried, my grandma came across a magazine article about tummy troubles associated with gluten. She photocopied the page and sent it to me. I read the article, scoffed a bit, and then wondered. I paid attention to my body in a new way after that–what I put into it and how I felt after. I noticed the pain worsened when I ate wheat-heavy foods, but not to the degree that I believed wheat or gluten was the source of the problem. I thought perhaps it simply exacerbated a different problem.

Finally, months later, I sat down with the gastroenterologist and did my best to tell her my story, give her my symptoms, and talk about my concerns. She hardly looked at me, murmured a few brief mmhmms, and asked pointed questions that made me feel like I was on trial. When she asked if I had noticed any particular foods that seemed to make things better or worse, I mentioned what I had noticed about wheat and told her I hadn’t been eating it lately. She slowly turned from her computer, looked at me over the thick rimmed glasses that were perched on the tip of her nose, eyebrows cocked and flatly said, “What are you trying to say?”

Me, doing what I did best in those days: biding my time until I found answers.

She seemed bothered by my words and I was thrown off a bit because I didn’t really know why a doctor would say something like that. (I was only answering her question as best I could, wasn’t I?). I assured her I was not trying to self-diagnose and I was not saying wheat was the source of the problem. But the pain intensified when I ate sandwiches and muffins, but were milder again on days I ate things like soup or salad. They were still very much present on all other days too, though, so I couldn’t make sense of the connection.

After all that, she clicked away on her computer and slowly turned to face me and said simply: “You have IBS.”

She handed me paper after paper of information about FODMAPS, elimination diets, and fiber supplementation. I was somewhere else completely as she spoke–back in High School and those nauseating days where pain and suffering of a different sort plagued me, and I was again humiliated because didn’t I already know this about myselfthat I had IBS? But if that was the problem, then why didn’t dairy trigger the problem like it used to?  These new pains were very different than bloating, cramping and nausea that accompanied the lactose intolerance of my younger years.

I snapped back to the present when the doctor told me she was reluctant to order a test for Celiac Disease. She told me she was certain that I did not have it, but would order it anyway.  She stood up, opened the door, and as she went, she urged me to take more fiber and follow the FODMAPS diet for six weeks.

She closed the door, and I cried. Read what happened next here.