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What Christmas Dinner Is Like When You Can't Eat

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Christmas dinner is a big deal in my family. We spend Christmas Eve decorating sugar cookies and building gingerbread houses, picking away at the cheese plate and drinking hot chocolate while watching holiday movies. My brother and I used to play ping-pong in the basement with our cousins while the adults stayed upstairs to talk and drink red wine. Christmas Eve dinner has always, for as long as I can remember, included prime rib roast beef with mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower, onions, peas and gravy. Dessert was usually a black forest cake. My uncle used to bring a Ferrero-Rocher assortment out after dinner, and hide Kinder Surprise Eggs all over the house for us kids to find. Everyone would go to bed full.

Christmas Day was always just as special from a food perspective. My brother and I would wake up early and start eating candy canes and Lindt truffles that fell out of our stockings; breakfast was always bacon, hash browns, toast and scrambled eggs. My mother would start cooking the dinner (turkey, stuffing, mashed and sweet potatoes, baked vegetables, cranberry sauce) pretty much as soon as breakfast was over. For hours before dinner, there would be treats: cheese and crackers, appetizers, chocolate truffles snuck from the dining room table. Then dinner would arrive, and we would all eat seconds or thirds. My aunt used to bake a chocolate Yule log cake for dessert, and we would usually have it with peppermint ice cream and Lindt chocolate truffles and a gigantic tin of Belgian chocolate biscuits that my dad’s uncle would bring. Boxing Day breakfast was always maple sausages and blueberry pancakes; lunch was reserved for grazing on leftovers; for dinner, our close family friends would come over and we would order an obscene amount of Chinese takeout.

Since so many of my family’s holiday traditions and fun memories revolve around food, my first holiday season after I developed symptoms of gastroparesis was very difficult. I couldn’t eat anything except for soup; the advent calendar, chocolate from my stocking and my share of every Christmas meal went to my older brother instead. The gingerbread tree my grandpa used to buy for us went mostly uneaten; I couldn’t make hot chocolate with marshmallows and chocolate shavings or eat any of the cookies my friends baked. I drank clear vegetable broth and ate soda crackers.

Gastroparesis is a chronic digestive disease that impacts stomach motility. Basically, food doesn’t move once it gets to my stomach; I’m nauseous and experiencing intense abdominal pain on a daily basis, and one sip of water will make me feel uncomfortably full for hours. I cannot eat meat, dairy products, most fruits and vegetables or anything that’s too seasoned or greasy. It’s a struggle to eat a piece of dry toast, let alone a full Christmas dinner.

I used to sit at the table with my family while they ate, struggling through nausea-inducing smells and chewing sounds just to keep up the appearance of a Christmas meal. However, last year I made the decision to put myself out of the misery of watching people eat when I can’t (saving myself equal parts nausea and jealousy) and fully accept the reality of my disease. My mother still sets a place for me at the dinner table, but it is largely symbolic: I’ll hang out at the beginning of dinner and abscond when the eating begins, then return to sit at the table after dinner when my family lingers and talks.

Having a chronic disease that impacts your daily life is difficult, and so is realizing that holiday memories will be altered by it as well. Accepting the ways my gastroparesis has changed my routine and altering my holiday traditions to suit that has been a very important part of accepting my chronic illness, and I’m excited to make new memories (that don’t involve roast beef or chocolate) this holiday season.

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Originally published: December 7, 2016
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