The New Normal: Life Before and After Gluten

I always thought I was normal.  Nothing extraordinary ever happened to me, nothing terribly bad ever happened, and I lived an overwhelmingly normal life.  Boring, sometimes, but normal.

When I was a kid, I thought it was normal. Getting irritable when I was hungry. After all, my whole family was that way. Doesn’t everyone get irritable when they’re hungry?

When I was in middle school, I thought it was normal. The compulsive eating. Still feeling hungry even after I ate. I was growing, right? I was active, and could eat as much as I wanted and still be skinny. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?

When I was a teenager, I thought it was normal.  The fatigue and mental fog.  After all, between church, school, dance, and all my other extracurricular activities, I got about four hours of sleep each night, and an hour nap in the afternoon. Any teenager would be tired. Anybody who’s tired would have a hard time focusing. Anyone who’s tired would need a ton of caffeine to keep going.

When I was in high school, I thought it was normal. The frequent headaches. The almost constant back pain. I was stressed. Aren't headaches and joint pain products of stress?

When I was in college, I thought it was normal. The abdominal cramps.  The irregular menstrual cycle. After all, my pap smears were normal, and the doctors told me I was ok. Maybe my “cycle” was just a little different.  Maybe the cramps were just indigestion. And while it wasn’t exactly comfortable, it wasn’t excruciating. Why complain about something that can’t be explained?

I thought it was normal. The loud stomach rumbling after I ate. The rumbling that was so loud people would ask me if I was hungry.  It was a joke between me and my friends. Pamela’s always hungry, right? That’s just normal.

When I started law school, I thought it was normal. Gaining almost 20 pounds in my first semester.  The heartburn, the indigestion, feeling like I was going to throw up after I ate.  Feeling bloated. After all, there was almost nowhere to exercise in the town where I went to school, and social events centered around food and alcohol. Aren’t overweight people more likely to have heartburn? Doesn’t stress contribute to behaviors that make heartburn worse? Shouldn’t I have just exercised more, and eaten a more healthy diet? And maybe I just felt bloated because, let’s face it, I was.

I’ve always thought it was normal. The clumsiness. Tripping over things, dropping things. Wasn’t I just careless?

I thought it was normal. The slow but steady weight gain. Even when I finally started exercising again. Even when I started paying attention to what I ate. Even when I started eating mostly whole, plant based foods instead of processed foods, fried foods. Even when I cut back on my alcohol intake. Isn’t weight gain just another part of becoming an adult? My mother told me she had to start paying attention to what she ate in her mid twenties. Wasn’t my metabolism slowing down too? Doesn’t this happen to everybody?

No. It wasn’t normal. I thought it was normal because each thing came on gradually. I learned not to complain when I was very small. People didn’t like it when I complained, and they weren’t very likely to listen to me for very long if I was complaining.  And my complaints were so small, so inconsequential, so part of everyday life, that there was usually no reason for me to ask the doctor about it. So I didn’t complain. Well not much, anyways. Because I thought it was normal.

What is normal is that I went years-maybe even my whole life, not knowing what the problem was. The problem wasn’t the challenges of normal, everyday life. The problem wasn’t the little, constantly accumulating problems and discomforts I faced. The problem was one little thing.


It turns out that what I thought was normal was a serious gluten intolerance. I call it intolerance and not celiac disease because I haven’t been tested for celiac yet.*  But to me, I already feel better on a gluten free diet. All the symptoms I described above are gone. Gone.

No more irritability when I’m hungry. In fact, I can go for very long periods of time without eating if I have to. Recently, I traveled across the country and didn’t have a chance to eat breakfast or lunch before I got on the plane. And the turbulence was so bad that the flight attendant went back to her seat before I could beg her for some peanuts. While I was undeniably very hungry, I wasn’t irritable at all.

No more compulsive eating. No more extreme sugar cravings, which is a big deal coming from someone who’s been addicted to sugar her whole life.  It’s actually easy to stick to a diet these days.

No more fatigue. No more mental fog. I have more energy and feel more alert than I’ve felt in years.  While I feel like it’s harder to go to sleep when I’m on a gluten free diet, when I wake up I’m actually awake.

I still get headaches, and my back still hurts sometimes, but it’s nowhere near what it used to be. Now it might actually be – dare I say it – at a normal level.

No more abdominal cramps or menstrual irregularity (unless I accidentally eat gluten at a restaurant, which has unfortunately happened a couple of times).

No more loud stomach rumbling and gurgling. No more unexplained clumsiness.

No more weight gain. Instead, it’s weight loss.  Even when I overeat, I maintain a steady weight instead of constantly gaining weight.

No more heartburn, indigestion, or nausea.

Now I've got the energy to hike sweat!
Will I ever go back to gluten? Absolutely not! I feel way too good to sabotage myself. Just the thought of gluten makes me sick to my stomach (metaphorically speaking). 

Have I had some hiccups along the way where I’ve accidentally ingested wheat or some other glutinous substance? Unfortunately, yes.

But the point of this whole story is that it took me 25 years to figure out what was making me uncomfortable.  It shouldn’t have to take anyone as long as it took me, but I realize that I’m lucky because I did figure it out.  And now I’m ready to go on, leaving all that pain and discomfort behind me. 

Maybe “normal” is not an option for me. But feeling healthy and alive, that’s something I’ll take any day over “normal.”

*Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. And it’s recommended that people who think they have any kind of food allergy or intolerance see a doctor before embarking on an elimination diet. Furthermore, if you do go on an elimination diet before seeing a doctor, it may make the tests for celiac disease less conclusive because the tests check your body’s reaction to gluten in your body at the time of the test. Plus, to get a celiac diagnosis, it must be confirmed by an endoscopy performed while you are eating gluten. This means eating gluten for at least five weeks prior to the test. For my own reasons, I have not seen a doctor about this…yet. But that’s not the generally recommended course of action. 

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