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How to Have a Gluten-Free Hookup When You Have Celiac Disease

My “sort of” celiac disease diagnosis story has been, like most, unclear; the medical term my gastroenterologist used was “murky” results. I stopped eating gluten too soon before my endoscopy so I could comfortably start college. After blood work and stool tests also came back “murky,” but a genetic test confirmed it as a likely outcome, the doctors decided to let me rest and treat me as if I had the real deal. Why? Because my sensitivity to gluten was so high I could not be given the “gluten challenge” — about the equivalent of a slice of bread’s worth of gluten every day for six to eight weeks — without serious consequences in the form of anything from migraines to seizures. A later stool test after some serious long-term cross-contamination confirmed the suspected diagnosis.

This lifestyle change from eating a full diet to going gluten-free was shocking enough without being a new college student at a small liberal arts school in rural Ohio, where not many people knew how to handle being gluten-free beyond the “fad” of it. The dining halls had no way to accommodate me. So, I moved to an apartment where I could cook all my meals, which was a great improvement for both contamination risk and taste. But, a year in with complete isolation from gluten, I was still getting as sick as I had been at the beginning. I started to do some sleuthing into what could be the cause. I changed my make-up and skincare products and made sure my spices, cleaning products and medications were all gluten-free. Still, no improvement.

Finally, after months of tracking when symptoms started and making small adjustments throughout, I figured out what the problem was: beer. More specifically, beer that had been transferred into my blood stream mama-bird style. It seemed so obvious to me in hindsight: I was getting sick mostly on weekends where I had gone out and partaken in extracurricular activities I wasn’t going to put on my resume. I tried to think of ways to avoid this secondhand glutening while not limiting my dating pool to… well, me. Being the only gluten-free (and single) person I knew at the time, I came up with the best way I knew how to save myself and my dating life.

As always, the best pick-up line I could receive was, “You’re gluten free? No way, me too!” But in the absence of that, I started trying to find any way I could think of that would ensure a gluten-free hookup. I would make sure we drank and sloshed so much water before anything happened that we’d defeated the purpose of their beer to begin with. I would even time when I would approach people based on the last time I saw something glutenous touch their lips. It was exhausting. I was so tired of how hard I was working just to feel like I could act as carefree as my peers. I talked to my doctor about it, thinking she would suggest the more traditional approach of explaining everything upfront and relying that the other person would understand my predicament enough to take precautions before we would meet in the dark basement of a student house. But, instead, she said, “just have them brush their teeth.” Right, like they were going to carry a toothbrush on them. “No, probably not,” she laughed. “But, you could.”

This revolutionized the game. I ordered a few individually packaged, pre-pasted toothbrushes as a test, just to see if I could even ask that of someone. I turned out to vastly underestimate the power of a 20-something’s hormonal urges, and it worked. It worked every time. And, on top of that, I wasn’t getting sick anymore. So, I ordered more. I brought them with me every time I thought there might be a romantic encounter, and I felt my paranoia about being glutened from a spontaneous “hello” kiss or an unplanned rendezvous fade away. Bringing them with me when I went out allowed me to feel a sense of security in a space that had felt like a booby-trapped lair. A weight had been lifted, and more importantly, allowed me take another step towards managing my disease with confidence and a sense of humor.

Bringing a toothbrush became sort of a trend with me and some of my friends, even though they were more worried about their partner’s bad breath than they were possible contamination. I started bringing multiple, some to share, or even letting my partner pick the color they wanted — like at a dentist’s office. As I started to do it more often, I became known for it, a sort of calling card. This helped too; for one, it was normalized for those around me. Instead of the infamous “u up?” text, I started to get the “Just brushed my teeth ;)” text. And, people who had been curious enough to ask their friends about why I brought them spared me having to recount my diagnosis story as the topic of every first conversation.

For me, dating at school had always been tricky. I always felt like I was at the mercy of whoever was willing to make the smallest of changes in order to accommodate me, and that it was always a chore for them. Just doing this little thing for myself helped me combat the idea I had repeated to myself countless times. I feel more in control than ever, and I’ve found it helps any potential partner feel more at ease with the idea of dating someone with a chronic condition.

Photo by Davids Kokainis on Unsplash