I remember sitting up in bed on a Saturday night, my back pressed firmly up against the wall, covered in my own puke. It was my senior year of college, and I already felt a lingering sense of FOMO from choosing to stay in, rather than go out. I was marathoning The X-Files and sipping on ginger tea, when all of a sudden, I felt an itch creeping up my throat. I sat up, sensing that I might have to burp or cough. Seconds later, I had projectile vomited all over my graphic sweatshirt and hair. But I wasn’t phased: When you have a digestive illness like mine, dealing with all the yucky stuff is just par for the course.
Let’s back up a bit: after bouts of diarrhea, acid reflux, heartburn, and the occasional "spitting up," I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, which is like an allergy to gluten, a protein found in wheat, my senior year of college. I began taking a probiotic supplement and eating very specific foods in order to manage the autoimmune disorder, and things appeared to get better for a short while. But then, the pain reared its head with a vengeance. It felt as if every time I ate a meal, it permanently wedged halfway through my digestive tract. More times than not, it would end up coming back up. Hence, the flashback to that Saturday night my senior year in college.
Of course, I was alone during this incident — literally by myself, but also single AF. I looked at the pillow next to me, holding a vacant space in my unoccupied bed. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have someone taking up that space, watching me get sick — the look of sheer horror taking over their face. I couldn’t imagine sharing a bed with someone when my health got this bad. I could hardly let a doctor see my like this, let alone someone I was attracted to. Dating someone new would mean having to explain this side of me. Faced with that possibility, I couldn’t imagine dating at all.
Three years after my initial diagnoses, I was also diagnosed with gastroparesis, a chronic conditioning meaning I digest food at half-speed, because of damaged nerves in my digestive tract. There is no cure for gastroparesis, so I began taking medication to help me deal with the pain and symptoms. For the most part, things finally began to better. Celiac disease and gastroparesis are conditions that I’ll have to manage every day for the rest of my life, and while living with them gets easier with time, explaining them to new people does not — especially someone you’re into. First and foremost, my conditions are literally gross. They involve farting and burping and poop and all of those things that pubescent boys love to make jokes about. Bringing them up to anyone is awkward AF, and usually not a turn-on (one would hope).
But on another note, not eating gluten — no matter the reason — gets a bad rap, thanks to people who think it isn’t a medically necessary dietary practice. (Even if it weren’t medically necessary, there’s never any reason to judge someone else’s eating habits.) Back when I was first diagnosed, when being gluten-free wasn’t as much of a thing, I was worried a date might judge me if I ordered the gluten-free pasta, not realizing eating the "normal" version would make me sick.
I’d love to say I got over this insecurity by practicing direct communication with potential partners, but that would be way too mature! Instead, I made excuses for my behavior, and hid my symptoms from potential partners at all costs.
A few months after that Saturday night debacle, I found myself accompanying a guy I liked to his fraternity’s date party — an event where all of the brothers and their aforementioned dates would be kayaking. Unfortunately, the afternoon didn’t go as planned: Partly due to my weak upper arm strength, which doesn’t lend itself well to rowing, and partly to my date’s decision to non-ironically wear a Hawaiian. I could tell the date was going to be an upstream battle.
After we docked our boats and finally set foot on land again, he suggested I accompany him and a few friends for dinner. I was excited! But my enthusiasm quickly subsided when I realized he was taking me to a pizza place. The boys ordered pitchers of beers and pizzas for the table and wholeheartedly dug in, while I sat staring at the food, not touching it. I weighed the odds for partaking and getting sick later, or explaining why I wasn’t eating. Scratching both choices off the list, I decided to do nothing at all, except for taking particularly long bathroom breaks to kill time.
After about 40 minutes of sitting in silence while my date downed four slices, he finally turned to me and asked, "So, are you just not hungry or something?" He seemed irritated, embarrassed even. I gulped. "No, It’s just that I can’t eat gluten." He squinted at me. "What’s that?" He asked. (Most people really have no clue what gluten is.) "Well, it’s… it’s difficult to explain right now," I countered. "But I can’t eat bread. Or most beers." I avoided meeting his eyes. He asked, "Oh, OK. So you’re gluten-free then?"
I hated this question because it somehow implied that the life I was living was a choice, as if I had a say in the extent to which I got sick. "No, like, I’m allergic. I have Celiac disease." My date’s eyes widened. Suddenly, he sprung into action, ordering a Caprese salad, a bottle of wine, and a few other things for us to share. I let out a sigh of relief — the hurdle was over. But still, the secrecy had made for a weird night. I was convinced that I’d never see him again.
I have now been dating that same guy for over two years. He was the last date I ever had to explain my digestive illnesses to, and while it took him a long to time to understand them (wait, can you eat rice?!), he now goes out of his way to make sure I never feel uncomfortable at the table ever again.
I’ve come to realize that for me, opening up about having a chronic digestive illness is oftentimes the hardest part. Admitting to having a weakness over which you have little control is super scary. Offering yourself up and saying, "Here I am, a completely imperfect and gassy being" can be horrifying, but being loved for who you are, can be so worth it.
Dating with digestive illnesses still isn’t super easy. My partner and I have spent nights in the ER, waiting for CT scan results of my abdomen. I’ve had to leave parties to go throw up in a nearby trash can, but he’s always been there to hold my hair. My burps and farts are met with high fives instead of a turned-up nose. He goes out of his way to buy me gluten-free pasta and crackers. These tiny gestures may not require much effort, but mean more to me than he knows. By standing by when I’m at my worst (weaning off my medication and running to the bathroom every five minutes) and at my best (insisting we order a flourless chocolate cake to split), does wonders to normalize my chronic illness.
One of the most challenging and crucial parts of being diagnosed with two different digestive illnesses has been not only learning to love myself, but to believe that I took, could be deserving of being loved by another. By learning to date with my digestive illness, I opened myself up to that possibility, and redefined what it means to be "so in love, I might puke."
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