A lot of questions accompany a celiac disease diagnosis. What can I eat? How do you pronounce "gluten?" And, commonly, why me?
I'll admit I'm guilty of all three - plus tons of other unmentioned questions, of course. Last week, however, I was in charge of picking up my sister from her high school. And, as I waited in the parking lot for the school bell to ring, something changed.
It began with a school bus. At first glance, it checks all of the normal boxes. Yellow. Four wheels. The name of our school district printed on the side. But, it's also about 1/4 smaller than your typical student limousine. It's the special education bus.
One of the most rewarding parts of my senior year of high school was acting as a teacher's assistant for the special Ed class. Since I helped during their period of free time, my job basically entailed lots of Uno playing, reading, talking and escorting to the bus at the end of school. These kids honestly became some of my favorite people - they never forgot to ask how I was doing, and one in particular told me I was beautiful every day.
Sometimes I still run into them when I'm home from college. In the local grocery store. The library. By now, some have graduated into the work force while others are still navigating high school. I can't say that leaving for college made me forget them, but those happy memories were bumped to the back of my mind by new ones. Until last week.
Now, I'm not trying to walk into the comparison trap. The arguments over who has it worst. The you-can't-eat-wheat but I-go-into-anaphylactic-shock-from-any-of-the-top-eight-allergens. But, when I saw the newest group of special ed students, I did count my blessings.
I can't eat anything that even touches gluten, but I can walk of my own free will. I can decide to sit down and devour over 300 pages of a murder mystery and be able to do it in one day. I can't eat the chocolate chip cookies bright to class, but I can go to class and be challenged, stretched and strengthened. I'm not saying I have it "better" than any of those kids, but we have different challenges brought on by a simple error in genetics. And I'm thankful for the ones I don't have to fight against.
Like with most autoimmune diseases, celiac disease can make it easy to play the complaining victim. I certainly fall into this role at times, such as the start of last week when I started feeling fatigued, having an upset stomach, and struggling to sleep soundly. All symptoms of gluten. So the endless questions began. Could that Japanese restaurant I've eaten safely at before glutened me? Or am I just run down? The typical gluten-or-fatigue riddle.
The fact is, not feeling 100% - because of gluten or other factors - is never fun. The fact is, celiac is not fun at times. But, this Celiac Awareness Month, I'm trying to ask myself a new question: What can I be thankful for? Because - fate, God, genetics, the gluten demons, whatever you want to blame - chose me to join the celiac family. Now it's my turn to choose how I am going to act in response.
And, honestly, I want the same attitude of my friends in special ed: happy from even the smallest of accomplishments. Determined to succeed no matter the odds. Not oblivious to their challenges, but accepting that they are a part of their life. Most importantly? Always willing to smile at a stranger and turn them into a friend.
When a celiac disease diagnosis kicks gluten out, it invites dozens of questions in. Some silly, like, "How will I cope without Papa John in my life?" Others, such as the existential anger at whoever turned on that gene, more serious. But, my biggest question to ask going forward is what I'm grateful for. And, celiac disease and all, I have to say that my life is pretty "full" of "greatness."
What questions accompany(ied) your celiac disease? What are you grateful for? Comment below!