Dealing with my intolerance to certain foods helped me to reject the judgment that had followed me all my life
by Unmana Datta
A word that’s followed me throughout my life. It was said to me by my parents, by friends, until it became an incessant echo in my internal monologue. Until it became self-identification, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It explained why I rarely seemed to bounce with energy, even as a child. Why small physical tasks would leave me tired. Why I could read in bed for hours but hated playing sports. Why long walks left me winded. I was ‘just lazy.’
I was also delicate, or at least susceptible to stress and change. I would often get fever or flu-like symptoms at difficult times, such as during exams. When I needed to be at my best, my body seemed to betray me.
The first time I called my partner lazy, he was offended, and I laughed. ‘It’s just a description,’ I shrugged. ‘I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.’
I was wrong. ‘Lazy’ is a value judgment, especially in a capitalist, materialistic world that values productivity so highly. I had internalised it so much I believed it was an essential part of me: I was just lazy and there was nothing I could do about it.
In my late twenties, I quit a toxic job. I hadn’t been well for a while: fever and stomach upsets were occurring more frequently, and when doctors couldn’t diagnose what was wrong I wondered if it was due to stress. I hoped that rest and peace would help me heal.
There were days when I wasn’t feeling sick, ‘just’ lethargic. There were also many days when I was more obviously sick: a sore throat or cough, an upset stomach, low fever, dizziness. Each time, it might last for a week or more.
But even after quitting, I didn’t feel much better, and I had no energy or motivation. I spent week after week at home doing little but watching TV and playing games online. Most days, my husband would wake me up gently in the morning, go to work, and come home late at night and cook dinner because I hadn’t felt up to it. To his credit, he was rarely resentful.
I went back to work after nine months, and could hold on to that job because my kind boss allowed me to work from home and was never demanding or difficult. But I wasn’t better.
Over some seven years, we went to nine or ten doctors. Most said it was the flu and gave me antibiotics. We explained that I get ill often (at one point it was every couple of weeks). They would sometimes assign tests, not find anything, then go on to prescribe antibiotics or other medicines.
I came across the term ‘temporary disability’. A disability you don’t always have, which doesn’t make it less real when it appears. Another term helped: ‘invisible disability’. A disability that others can’t see, and may therefore seem less real, even to yourself. In private, these terms helped me come to terms with my body, to stop blaming myself for not being able to do everything healthy people around me could. But I resisted referring to my situation as a disability, because of my privilege as a mostly able-bodied person.
The idea of ‘temporary disability’ led me to the idea that bodies cannot be conveniently categorised into able and disabled. That abilities can ebb and flow, morph and disappear and reappear. You might get in an accident and lose mobility: you might heal from that completely or you might not. You might fall sick and be too weak to function as you otherwise do for a few weeks. None of us is impervious. Activists use the term ‘temporarily able-bodied’ to signify that even the so-called healthiest body may not always remain so.
I did slowly become better. Friends suggested that allergies or intolerances might be at the bottom of my health issues, which prompted me to watch what I ate more closely. That helped me figure it out: I was intolerant to lactose and wheat.
I started avoiding those foods, and slowly cut them out completely. A few years later, I finally got tests done and found out I was intolerant to a whole bunch of foods, including, of course, dairy and wheat.
I became a different person. I had energy. I was happy and enthusiastic and motivated. When I was feeling well, I’d get more done in a day than I had in weeks earlier. I could hold down a demanding full-time job and work as long and hard as anyone.
Apart from the more obvious symptoms, there were others that I realised only later — once they disappeared or diminished — were caused by food reactions. Depression. Anxiety. Headaches. Restless leg syndrome. Backache. Trembling in my hands and lips. Slurring words. Inability to concentrate. So many things that I had thought were my flaws — clumsiness, laziness, irritability, weakness, low motivation — were actually symptoms.
But while figuring out the problem was a breakthrough, there is no easy fix. The only way to manage this, to continue feeling better, is for me to relentlessly watch what I eat, because even a morsel of ‘forbidden’ food can leave me feeling ill for days.
I’ve always been a self-conscious person, wanting to hide, to become invisible unless I’m with good friends. My intolerances make social interactions even harder. So much of socialisation centres on food. Having lunch with colleagues in the office canteen. Meeting a new Twitter friend for drinks after work. Going to a party at a friend’s house.
Each time, I painstakingly explain that I can’t have what everyone else is having. Thanks, but I can’t taste the paratha you made — it looks delicious, though. Can I have tea without milk, please? I’ll come for drinks but I can’t eat anything.
For a while, these social interactions were fraught with anxiety. Sometimes I would even take a bite of something I shouldn’t have, and regret it later when my body rebelled. So I learned to say no and to persist in saying no, telling myself: It’s not worth it. I can’t miss any more work. I can’t continue to feel sick.
But it took a long time for me feel more comfortable about explaining my situation, especially to new acquaintances. It took those years for me to accept that I wasn’t to blame, for my lingering guilt and embarrassment to end.
To their credit, most people around me have taken it well. Friends have asked me about safe foods and cooked for me. Colleagues have checked with me if I could eat at a specific restaurant before they make plans. One colleague went to great lengths to find me a birthday cake that would meet my dietary requirements. That day, I was almost in tears, because at every birthday we celebrated in the office, I would skip the cake.
The love of all these people has nourished me. But I saved myself. The only way I have reached this far is because I listened to my body and figured out what it couldn’t handle. I had believed in doctors, in science — but what saved me was learning to trust my body.
My body had never seemed really part of me. In the last few years, I have learned to know it, to care for it, to even love it instead of resenting its limitations. I am amazed now at how strong it is: for all these years I have rarely been sick outside of what’s caused by my food intolerances. I sometimes still inadvertently eat something I shouldn’t, and inevitably have a few bad days. Now that I’m used to this cycle, I wait for my body to recover, and try to be more careful next time. In spite of all the poison I have fed it, my body continues to function and heal itself.
Unmana Datta lives in and loves Bombay. She writes (mostly) non-fiction, and plays with colours and music and words.
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