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Why I Thought Constant Abdominal Pain Was Normal as a Kid

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I remember when the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was enacted at my elementary school. The cookies and pudding cups previously offered with lunch vanished, the milk became exclusively low-fat, and fruits and vegetables I had never even heard of before were forced onto our trays. What affected me the most, though, was the requirements for whole grains. Whether it was a tortilla, a hot dog bun, a sandwich, a breadstick, or a roll, everything was now served rock-hard and brown. This is when my pain began. I don’t mean the emotional pain at my bleak, new lunch choices (I acknowledge that these were healthy and well-intentioned even if not very enjoyable), I’m talking about my intense stomach pain, every day after lunch.

For several weeks I went down to the front office almost every afternoon, and told the secretary that my stomach was hurting. The first few times she let me lie down in the back room until I felt better (we didn’t actually have a school nurse), but after a few days she began telling me I needed to stop “skipping class,” getting more impatient each time I came in. The lunch staff were just as unsympathetic, making me eat all of the food on my tray even though I was beginning to draw a connection between it and my stomach pain. No one even attempted to contact my parents about the situation. I eventually stopped going to the office, and instead during recess I would spread my jacket on the grass and lie down on it and wait for the pain to go away. I eventually interpreted the staff’s dismissal of my pain to mean that everyone must be in pain like me, and that was why no one took me seriously. I thought the pain was just a part of life, so I learned to live with it and stopped talking about it. My parents had no idea that any of this was happening.

My school’s immediate dismissal of my complaints is why it took until I was a freshman in college to discover – completely by accident via a blood test – that I have a multitude of food allergies. I am allergic to eggs, dairy, wheat, soy, oats, and almonds. I don’t know how my experience with school lunch would have been different if we had known about my allergies when I was a child. But I know that the experience I did have was not a positive one.

I remember during my first week of college lying in my dorm room, arms wrapped around my stomach, and thinking, “It’s such a shame everything is so processed and full of preservatives now and all we can eat is food that makes us hurt.” Yeah, I really thought those exact words. That was the conclusion I had come to, after many years of pain. My experience in elementary school had taught me not to talk about my pain, but my conclusions about its source came from the media. I’m not talking about particularly false message or anything, just the incorrect impression I got. I noticed a lot of TV show characters complain of stomach pain or an upset stomach when stressed, and I had the “realization” that everyone had pain after eating. It was silly of me to go to the office every day in elementary school. They didn’t take me seriously because it was normal! Those were the conclusions I came to, and I stuck with them until college.

I was getting an EpiPen to keep on hand for my almond allergy (the one allergy we did know about after I almost went into anaphylactic shock as a teenager) and they offered to do a blood test to check for any other allergies, and to confirm the almond allergy. I agreed, and then the next week I went off to college and forgot all about it, as they never got back to me about the results. Luckily my mom remembered the blood test and decided to call to see what they had found. She recalls the phone conversation going something like this:

Mom: “… And I was wondering if you could just check the results on that blood test for me?”
Doctor: “Yeah I suppose I could. I think if they found anything major they would have called you, but I’ll go ahead and pull it up right—- Oh. ….OH. Oh, my. Wow…”

That day as I was eating a slice of pizza I got a text from my mom. “I called the doctor about that blood test. We need to talk.” That’s never a good sign! I called her and she read off the list of allergies to me. “Almonds, which we knew. And then … eggs. Milk. Wheat. Soy. And oddly enough, oats.” I looked at my slice of cheesy, glutton-filled pizza and thought, “Oh crap.” Then we got to talking about what this meant. Mom asked if I ever had pain after eating milk and I deadpan said, “I have pain after eating everything. This actually explains a lot.” Mom was surprised, and asked why I never told her. I told her the truth: “I thought that was normal.” Then I told her a little bit about my elementary school experience, although I waited to tell her the full story until the next time I saw her in person. After that phone call, I went straight to the pantry and pulled out a good portion of my food, giving it to my roommates and explaining that I’m apparently “allergic to everything.”

Coming to terms with the reality and navigating my new life as a person with food allergies is a story for another day. What’s left is the question of how this happened to me. The way my elementary school handled the situation still astounds me. They should have done something, regardless of if they thought I was lying. What if I had been a child who actually was lying to get out of class? They should have investigated, figured out why I was avoiding class. Clearly something would have been going on that made me not want to go to class. And the reality – that I actually was in a lot of pain, like I said I was – should have been taken seriously or at the very least mentioned to my parents. Something went majorly wrong to lead to me spending my recesses curled up in a ball of pain. There’s nothing I can do to get that time back or get answers to my questions, but what I can do is try and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. I can spread awareness.

Photo credit: miflippo/Getty Images

Originally published: January 3, 2021
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