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Making Peace With Food When You Have Chronic Pancreatitis

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We were sitting around the table of a newly opened Thai restaurant. Eight friends getting together to catch up on our lives in the weeks since we’d last seen each other. Three bites into my dinner I had to excuse myself. Trying not to run, trying not to bend over as I made my way to the restroom, I did everything I could to look “normal.” I was praying I’d find a women’s bathroom with a lock on it so I didn’t have to embarrass myself by having someone see me lying on the bathroom floor in front of the toilet while the overwhelming pain, nausea, vomiting and need to empty my bowels consumed me for the next hour or more. Dignity is often a casualty of serious illness.

It was the tail end of 2005, and I’d been dealing with strange symptoms for months — sometimes vague and transient, sometimes a full on assault that left me physically and emotionally spent. I never knew when they would happen, but happen they would. And with greater frequency it was turning out. I couldn’t eat without setting off a chain reaction of symptoms, including the most intense, intractable pain I’d ever experienced. I’d lost 20% of my body weight over the course of a few months, and none of my doctors could tell me why.

When I finally convinced myself to see a doctor in early 2006, it was because I could no longer pretend that I was just reacting to stress or to the problems in my marriage. Like many women, I put off self-care and minimized what was happening to me because there were so many other things that needed tending.

It took until the middle of 2007 before I was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, which was the beginning of more questions than answers. Learning I had a progressive, debilitating disease that didn’t have a gold standard of treatment, let alone a cure, was both frightening and confusing.

In the 15 years since then, eating is a delicate balancing act: something that requires a great deal of thought and planning, especially if it involves being in public. Putting any kind of food in my mouth is like a game of roulette, never knowing if the next bite is the one that will cause the pain to spiral out of control.

Let’s face it, so much of life revolves around food. Going on a date? Food. Going to a movie? Food. Workplace birthdays or meetings? Food. Weddings and anniversary parties? Food. Watching TV or binging on Netflix? Food. Getting together with friends? Food. Holidays? Food and more food.

It not only sustains us physically; it’s the very fabric of our work and social lives, but it isn’t something we really give much thought to until we’re trying to lose weight or improve our diet, or like me, have health issues that are exacerbated by eating. I can’t begin to count how many invitations I’ve had to turn down or cancel because I was afraid what eating out would mean for me. Hours, days of pain. Unrelenting nausea and vomiting. A trip to the ER. A hospital admission.

I’m slowly making peace with food, making peace with my body, knowing it’s doing its best to take care of me. And in turn I’m learning to take care of it. So I take the time and effort to create food that’s nourishing and healthy. I might only be able to take a few bites, but I savor the experience — both in the eating and the sharing of connection that occurs when I break bread with another.

Despite the complexity that is my relationship with food, I want to bite into life and to be torn by it.

Getty image by Westend61

Originally published: April 5, 2022
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