Well, What Did You Eat?
This is a post about some recent medical issues I have faced and all of the emotions that go along with it. Click through the jump to read (it’s long), or if you prefer to just see fashion shots, here is a gratuitous outfit shot that I never ended up posting:
It didn’t take me long in life to get the message that, if I was sick, it was because of something I ate. When I was in the 5th grade, I missed the last 2 months or so of school because I had stomach issues. The doctor never figured out what it was exactly, but after 3+ months of living off grilled chicken and half baloney sandwiches, I got better. At the time, we (my family and doctors) attributed those months of sickness to a fateful hamburger I ate at a local baseball game, and we still to this day pinpoint that meal as the trigger. From that point on, I’ve always had a stomach that seemed to have more issues than most people. During high school, I would not eat on Fridays when we had football games or Saturdays when I went to marching band competitions in fear that I would get sick. I, too, began attributing these “situations” to food I was eating. After all, it wasn’t like I was solely eating grilled chicken and greens, and there were definitely legitimate times when what I ate made me sick. But after awhile, when you’ve tried eating more starchy meals or have gotten sick off salads and grilled chicken, you come to a point where you question whether you are really eating yourself to sickness or whether this narrative you’ve bought into is only preventing you from finding out the real cause.
That point arrived about 7 months ago. I had started noticing some unpleasant symptoms that were just too much to ignore, but damn it I tried. I would randomly tell my sister about them, and then I would figure that it was because I ate late at night or it was because I ate chocolate (which I have figured out really does make me sick – there are cruel things in the world!). I told myself that I had developed an allergy and just needed to avoid certain foods. But eventually, when you are sick on your stomach for months straight no matter what you eat, you have to wave the flag of defeat and see a doctor.
I was really nervous to see the doctor. What if I had eaten to the point of making myself very sick? As a fat person who has been fat since forever, I’ve always been very aware of the thought that I and my size were killing me slowly. Good blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and lack of diabetes have always been followed with “you’re lucky you’re young”. I remember sitting across from a colleague during my master’s and her asking me (mid-bite of my sandwich) if I was scared of getting diabetes. Were these worries founded? (By the way, if you are a person who is currently thinking, “Well, duh, they are founded. You are fat!” then you should check out this post.) Ultimately, though, I had to make the decision to go to the doctor, even if that meant my body would be under examination, which is a terrifying thing (at least for me).
The process of going for your initial appointment and finding out the results is a long one (and I’m still waiting on final, final results) and during that process you learn that you’re not the only one who suspects that you are causing your own illness. People often ask, “Well, what did you eat?” And while it’s certainly a legitimate question for stomach issues, I can’t help but feel that they don’t quite believe me when I say it happens no matter what I eat. Over and over, you hear a question that has at its basic assumption that your actions were the cause of the problem. But it’s hard to necessarily blame these individuals when I had even believed it myself, even when my experience had shown me it wasn’t true. [Side note, my mother says this is a perfectly normal question, and that perhaps I’m being defensive. She’s right, and I can’t help that reaction.]
After a couple doctor appointments and a not-so-fun procedure, I found out that I have inflammatory bowel disease, which is not to be confused with irritable bowel syndrome. My specialist likens it to arthritis, where your body’s immune system starts attacking its own tissues, and in this case it’s attacking my digestive system. From what I understand, it’s a disease that usually can be managed quite well with medication, so it is not something that, at this moment, is going to stop me from living a normal, productive life. I’m still in the process of finding out whether it is Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, but regardless of which one it is, the disease is not a product of someone’s actions.
You’d think after reading this entire rant about “what I’m eating is not the cause of this” that I’d be happy that I can finally tell people it wasn’t me, but I’m not. I’m still facing others’ and my own assumptions about illness and fatness. People are still surprised that I’m not having to adhere to a specific diet (which I may need to in the future), and I’m still offended that they can’t quite believe that it’s not my food that is the problem (at least for this). My mother says that because the medical field is so focused on cause-and-effect, people may be trying to understand actions they can avoid so that it doesn’t happen to them, and maybe she’s right. But every time I interact with people about it, there’s this chip on my shoulder of the narrative that fat people are/should be sick (am I the only one who feels this?). I’m having to wade through my desire to prove to people that it’s not my fault, while acknowledging that in doing so I am still constructing this good fatty vs bad fatty thing that hurts a lot of people. What if I had caused myself my illness? Does that mean I would think any less of myself? Or that I’d feel like I deserved the criticism and scorn? Does trying to educate others in the fact that my illness is not linked to weight or specific foods put down other fat people whose weight and food has “caused” illness?
I am just beginning to figure out how having a digestive disease is going to affect me as a fat person. Between getting a 15 minute lecture about bariatric surgery and being told to imagine the “125lb goddess inside” of me from a surgeon, I am sure it is going to hold lots of uncomfortable moments where I have to decide when and how I will listen to a doctor. (I later read that bariatric surgery can have severe consequences for those with Crohn’s and patients can still be diagnosed with Crohn’s after the surgery [meaning it can’t cure it and may even exacerbate the inflammation], so poo-poo on that guy.) Luckily, I’ve read a lot of stuff from Kath, and Lesley, and Marianne that make me feel like I’m prepared, at least slightly, to deal with whatever comes my way in a doctor’s office, but I also have to learn how to handle it socially too. I have to learn to not feel guilty when I can’t go out because I’m sick, and I also have to learn of ways to address the assumptions of others and myself, and all the questions of “well, what did you eat?”
How does the narrative of “you did it to yourself” affect your life as a fat person? How do you address others who take up this narrative? How do you disrupt it without vilifying others?