The Gritty Truth of the Gluten Free Diet
A disenchanted mother finds hope
This might be a typical story but it doesn’t feel typical because it’s mine.
We are in a psychologist’s office. A sculpture of Freud sits on the end table between the two chairs, but it’s only his head so it feels as though a third person is with us, listening, perhaps even judging. What a shitty mother, the head says, but of course, it’s a voice in my head.
The psychologist has long, hippy-style hair that goes past her elbows, and doilies on furniture that have not seen the light of the day since the 1970’s. But it doesn’t matter. She’s a pediatric specialist, and in Seattle, where we live, it takes months to get into these people, the people that can heal the kids. After calling six names on the list Dr. C returned my calls, and it was a bonus that her office is down the street from my daughter’s school.
We are in counseling for my daughter’s behavior problems, which encompass more issues than I care to think about. What ails E. runs a broad spectrum which probably includes that fact that I, someone who probably wasn’t that fit to parent in the first place, is her mom.
Besides that, there are her sensitivities….one of the first counselors I saw when E. was three years of age suggested sensory integration disorder. All this really means is that she’s sensitive to a variety of things, which include noise, touch, smell, and taste. There is a very small list of foods that she will eat because she judges textures and tastes like a sommelier that finds most wines displeasing. She claps her hands around her ears when the toilet flushes. We don’t go to seafood restaurants if we can help it, as she can’t stand the smell of clams, or other roasting sea bodies. She won’t wear many clothes because the tags, the hems or the seams touch her skin in the wrong way.
All of this makes me sound like “one of those parents.” Aren’t we all secretly worried about being “one of them?” A world of unspoken shame packed into that pronoun. If I had foregone children, and seen myself from afar, a woman consoling her kid because the wind chilled her daughter’s sensitive skin, or she’s horrible because the day has been too long, I would have rolled my eyes. Once, before a woman who had rolled her eyes at us when E. was having a fit, I said,
“I know you could probably do better here, but I am just trying to get her out of here.” The comment snapped the moment in half, the roles of judged and the judge reversing, and we both slunk away from each other’s company.
At this point I should mention that for the first two years of my daughter’s life she did not sleep for more than 90 minutes at a time, which meant that for the first two years of her life I was a walking zombie bitchy mess who smelled. Twice, trying to call my husband I rang the fire department. I wrecked the car, during that period. My hair fell out. I developed hypothyroidism and the voices I always hear in my head grew a little too loud for comfort, if you know what I mean…… In general creative people hear voices but there is a point, well, you know.. Anyway, I digress.
We are in fact, still in the psychologist’s office discussing–not the sensitivities that my daughter suffers with–but issues with the larger world.
She’s angry and it’s big anger. I know all kids go through their phases but what we deal with on a daily basis is interesting. Years ago, we were invited to leave a pre-school. She scratched kids. Teachers at my daughter’s school now stop me in the hall to talk about E. because somehow they know she’s holding her intense response to the world inward (which is a good thing), but they want to acknowledge something they sense, which is that she’s a volcano at home. (This by the way, is an angry girl I found on the website, doesn’t she look scary?)
Girl rage is important. I think girls need rage to get through this world, and in general rage is a positive thing. However, the flip side means the doll house goes flying, and the mom is called, “A stupid shit.” When she was little I was so scarred with scratches that passer’s by would see the long scabs on my arms and say,
“That must be some cat you have.”
“Yeah,” I would say, wincing. At home, E. shrieks with frustration. I will save you the gruesome details, but we have arrived to the point of needing some other options, sound, research-based medical options and opinions that might help us deal.
My husband and I are against medication but we are also, desperate. My younger daughter is urinating in her clothes, an anxiety response to the atmosphere at home. This is when Dr. C. begins to suggest E. might be suffering from a “leaky gut.”
Leaky gut? At this point my heart begins to sink.
She cannot be another one of those people, can she? Someone with a Ph.D. in psychology invested in leaky gut? To my escalating horror she begins to talk about the evils of gluten, how sensitive kids have reactions to gluten without exhibiting other symptoms associated with celiac disease. No bloody stools, just a bloody bad temper.
To give you a little context, Seattle is haven of the gluten free. You cannot attend a dinner party without running into someone on a gluten free diet. To give you some more background my husband is a medical doctor and I am a formally trained French chef. While I understand many people have genuine medical issues associated with wheat (we have a friend who is so allergic to gluten he would die from a bread crumb), I feel as though what’s happening is Seattle has grown out of proportion. I personally suspect some of my gluten free friends need therapy more than they need rice flour, but that’s just my opinion.
So, to hear a psychologist suggest my daughter’s vast behavioral issues might be associated to gluten sensitivity is not something I want to hear. Matter of fact, it put the one person I thought would help us into the realm of quack, and I am heartsick as I am weary. She is emphatic, however, and so insistent in the following weeks that I don’t know what to do. While I know it’s beyond the realm of a psychologist to diagnose a “leaky” gut, my daughter and myself are far enough into therapy with this woman to try. I hate her for awhile, and in fact, for the next month whenever Dr. C. comes into my head I think, “Hippy bitch.” I am not proud of my belligerence, but it’s so real, and important to note because changing your entire diet is hard to do, and my struggle with this should be noted. The struggle puts me in the realm of real.
What ensues are three weeks of mayhem. Who knew that all of my daughter’s favorite foods are wheat-based? Who knew that all she really eats is toast, pasta, and pizza? Who knew? I feed her sugary rice cereal. Gluten free muffins filled with sugar. Gluten free cookies. Cheese and nuts… What goes into her mouth during this period keeps me awake at night. We have gone from gluten to sugar cane. E’s response to the diet is rigorous enough (think waterfalls of tears daily) that after two weeks my husband calls me from a restaurant and wants to know if we can stop the nonsense give her a hamburger.
“With the bun?”
“Okay,” I say, shrugging my ignorant shoulders.
The following morning I can barely drag her from the bed. I don’t think much of this, as this isn’t that out of the ordinary, but at breakfast I see the darkened circles under her eyes, and the puffiness in her face. I look at my babysitter and ask,
“Does E. look funny to you?”
“Do you mean the swollen face?”
Despite this, a week later I let E. eat a pizza. She spends that night fighting nausea, holding a bowl.
Here is the clincher. An entire month had to pass before we, as in my family, see a change in her behavior.
It’s that she is that different, after all she is still herself. Kind of cheeky, a little negative and neurotic, but she seems to recover her wits faster. Her negative spells and expressions don’t last as long.
Instead of an hour-long tantrum, her fits last 10 minutes. She’s still a challenging child to parent, a child who doesn’t much enjoy being a child (which makes me sad at times) but I can’t tell you enough how different things feel.
She’s just different. Lighter, somehow, more hopeful, too, and again, her disappointments are now something she can verbalized as opposed to a month or so ago when she was overwhelmed. Her face isn’t swollen and she can reason with me. She still has a preference for tight clothes, believing she knows everything and I know nothing, but there you go.
I can’t give you an science about this dietary stuff, as I am no expert here, but as the mother of one difficult child, as a person who happens to have a culinary degree, and love pasta, and avoid any extremes, we have now fallen into a certain extremity and I am grateful for this. We are now combing the shelves of expensive grocery stores for gluten free products.
That is it. This is how story. No sermonizing. No proselytizing, just a family struggling along and trying.
I am still working all of this out. The key to any style of eating is to make it natural to your life. If you are constantly substituting one ingredient for another I think the diet gets weird, and it builds this craving for the thing you are avoiding. If you eat well and better, really well, you aren’t reaching for weird substitutes that never really satisfy in the first place.
This is a gluten free pizza. If you add a lot of cheese it tastes better.