Sitting Down at the Thanksgiving Table When You Aren't Able to Eat

The holidays have to be my favorite time of the year. Few things make me as happy as decorating the tree, baking Christmas cookies, and curling up on the couch for a cheesy cable Christmas movie. But, since being diagnosed with gastroparesis, the holidays now come with the added anxiety of food.

Food is a source of comfort, community, security, and happiness for many people, especially during the holiday season. But, for the person with gastroparesis, food is mostly a source of anxiety and fear. I was first diagnosed with gastroparesis smack dab in the middle of the holiday season in 2014. I very clearly remember being sick for hours on Thanksgiving night and having to navigate food with uncertainty at Christmas. By New Year’s Day, I was admitted to the hospital for the first time due to severe dehydration. At the time, I had no idea how drastically my relationship with food would be altered.

By the time the holidays had rolled around in 2015, I was recovering from the implantation of a gastric neurostimulator. I was still reliant on a PICC line for all my nutritional needs. I was just returning back to work after a three-and-a-half month absence and offered to work on Thanksgiving day. Even though I was working, there is no escaping the dominant topic of food on Thanksgiving. From the moment I woke up that morning, I could smell dinner being cooked downstairs. When I walked into the kitchen, I broke down and cried. I have faced some pretty tough days with this condition, but that Thanksgiving was by far the hardest. Just looking at the overwhelming amount of food that was presented in front of me but that I could not eat was heartbreaking. For a person with gastroparesis, there is no escaping your inability to eat on Thanksgiving. For many of us that face this condition, it can often be hard to overlook the glaring difference when we sit down to the dinner table.

I haven’t had a completely enjoyable experience with food in over two years. Whenever I sit down for a meal, I always have that voice in the back of my head saying “What if?”… what if this makes me nauseous, what if I’m not able to keep this down, what if this is the food that sends me back to the hospital, what if this takes too long to digest… It is incredibly difficult to silence those thoughts when for two years those symptoms were the norm after eating. I now associate food with some of the worst experience of my life. Pain, nausea, hours spent on the bathroom floor…

I’m now two years post-diagnosis and I still struggle with food every single day. Once again, as Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself more withdrawn than usual. I’m far better off than I was a year ago, but, Thanksgiving will always be a difficult day for me and I imagine many with gastroparesis feel the same. No other day of the year reminds me more of the limitations this disease has put on my life. No other day of the year saddens me as much as Thanksgiving. There are so many things I miss about food but, the most prominent of them is the sense of community it offers.

Food brings people together. Whether it be at home, with friends, at work… a meal is something universal people can share and experience together. Not having that connection can make those of us who have gastroparesis feel very isolated. So, this Thanksgiving, I wish you a day that you can enjoy. I hope you are able to find your place in the community gathered around your dinner table, even without food.

While Thanksgiving is a difficult day for me, I also appreciate the reminder to reflect on the things in my life I am thankful for. So often this last year, it has been very easy to focus on all of the negative things happening in my life. Between a new arthritis diagnosis that leaves me in pain every single day, a second major surgery, and a life-threatening blood infection… there’s a lot I would happily overlook. But, even the bad things have brought me some good… incredible support from my family and friends, a diet I can now maintain without a PICC line, a team of doctors that are truly invested in my long term care, and almost two months without a visit to a hospital! So, instead of focusing on what gastroparesis has taken away from me this Thanksgiving, I’ll be trying to focus on the good things that have come out of these hard times.

To those living with chronic illness, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving! Some days, finding the good can be an overwhelming task but, I hope this week, you are able to reflect on the positives in your life. Remember, you are not your illness… you are so much more. That is something to always be thankful for.

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