I’ve transitioned from college to the career world, back to college, and back to work again.
In 2009, I was a year out of college and working my first full-time job with Ohio’s governor. I became very sick in May and eventually too weak to work. It turned my world upside down.
Before I was diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity ('gluten sensitivity') in October, I had two surgeries and used up my medical leave. I resigned from my job. I moved from my apartment in the city back to my parents’ house in Southern Ohio. My parents were helpful, but I found myself dizzied by the world of gluten-free foods. I was so preoccupied with the diet and cooking – and scared to go out – that I didn’t see my friends very often. Even more than me, my parents didn’t want the diagnosis to be true.
By January, I was much stronger. I got a part-time job as a cashier in a casual upscale bistro. Initially I was too nervous to tell my co-workers about my dietary needs. I thought I would be either ostracized or overly-protected. Little did I know, once I opened up, they would be supportive and even cook gluten-free pasta for me.
Here are some things I learned from the experience:
1. Identify allies.
Allergic Girl Sloane Miller, a blogger/advocate/consultant, calls it Team You. These folks can be family, friends, your medical team - anyone who is accepting and supportive of your dietary needs. I would have been completely lost without my uncle and my friend’s father, who both have celiac disease. They were able to give me an idea of the better-tasting brands and the weirdo foods with gluten (like soy sauce!). I now have an incredible support network – my family, my boyfriend Scott, his family, dear friends, and the Cincinnati Celiac Support Group. See if your area has something similar. If not, there’s probably a need for it. Go get ‘em!
That same month, I returned to school to keep my career moving forward. I was commuting an hour north for work 4 days a week and two hours south for school 3 days a week. I kept this up for two quarters. I don’t remember much. During the first few months, my amazing mom was my transportation. We would pack a lunch or stop somewhere “Jessi-friendly” with a gluten-free menu.
2. Find go-to snack items, and keep some with you wherever you go.
I feel like I’m packing a picnic when I shove fruit snacks, trail mix and gluten-free pretzel sticks in my big purse, but it’s so much better than getting glutened! Ugh! Plus, I’ve made new friends just by being that girl with snacks.
In March, I was fortunate to travel to the United Nations for the 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women as a delegate with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. It was an incredible experience, but my diet was a huge distraction. I had difficulty getting enough to eat. I was losing weight, something I really couldn’t afford.
3. Ask questions!
That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from Scott. Do you wish your grocery store carried a certain product? Tell them! You’d be surprised what they will do when they know people will buy an item. Some restaurants lacking dedicated gluten-free menus have chefs with a personal connection to celiac, and they’re more than willing to help.
In October, I started my current position. I am stricter with my diet, keep snacks in my desk, and I have a smartphone with gluten-free apps. I’ve been there 1½ years now, and it’s 2½ years after my diagnosis.
I eat out more than I’d like, but it’s partly because I’ve found restaurants I trust with my dietary needs. I’m working on cooking at home more, developing a wider variety of go-to recipes, and hoping to become better at menu planning. I’m working full-time, going to school part-time to prep for graduate school, seeing my friends, getting involved in the community, and loving life. I’m still learning intricacies of the gluten-free lifestyle, but I’m the healthiest I’ve been in a very long time. My parents still hope for an antidote, but until then I’m exploring and enjoying the journey. I’ve found it incredibly rewarding to get to know others who are new to the diet and am following that passion into the world of medicine.