I have a hard time asking for what I need.
I just don’t like needing. I would rather ignore that I am thirsty than stop what I am doing to drink water. I would rather have an extra cup of caffeine than admit I need more rest. I would rather work through my lunch break than pause to acknowledge my need to take a break and stretch my legs. I’d rather be as self-sufficient as a tree, waiting on sunlight and water to come to me, or a stone, which needs none at all.
I have traced my hesitancy back to a single doubt that has plagued me since I was a child: I often doubt that I have the right to be here. To take up space. To ask. To demand.
Unknotting my hesitancy to acknowledge and ask for what I need has been the work of much of my adulthood. I don’t really want to be a tree or a stone, of course. I want to move and run and explore. I don’t want what I need to just come to me. I want to go and chase what I want.
I never thought that uncovering a food intolerance would usher me toward that destination more quickly.
A little over a year ago, out of pure desperation, I decided to try cutting wheat out of my diet. It felt like a last resort after years of experiencing eczema breakouts that would only occasionally respond to the creams doctors had prescribed to me. Bloodwork couldn’t identify anything amiss, and nothing seemed to rid me of my symptoms completely.
But, as it turned out, not just wheat, but also corn, was the culprit behind my skin flareups and much more: the cystic acne I experienced regularly; the achy joints and fatigue that seemed to plague me almost every day; the night sweats and 99-degree temperatures I experienced at least once or twice a week; the painful menstrual cramps that visited once a month. I had lived with these symptoms for so long, I assumed they were more or less normal, or at least a reality I’d have to live with.
I was surprised that something as simple as not eating wheat and corn addressed so much of what ailed me, and that switching to filtered water cleared up any lingering symptoms.
Oddly, I didn’t love it.
I mean, I did love that I felt so much better. I loved that my symptoms could be managed by something as simple as avoiding two ingredients.
What I didn’t love was feeling so sensitive and so needy: looking at a menu and realizing I couldn’t eat most of the things on it or stipulating my dietary needs when I RSVP’d for an event. Writing that I was a gluten-free pescatarian seemed like the most yuppie, Millennial thing ever. I may as well have added that I wanted a participation trophy, too.
So, for months, I tried to play it cool. I told myself that because my food intolerance wasn’t life-threatening, asking for gluten-free everything wasn’t really something I needed. A little corn starch here, a little soy sauce there, wouldn’t be that big of a deal. So what if even small amounts led to eczema breakouts or achy joints?
I kept telling myself this as the fall and winter holidays approached. We would be going to my husband’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving, where there would be a delicious spread of dressing and homemade rolls. My mother was planning on bringing one of my favorites, baked macaroni and cheese. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would eat the food and then spend the evening feeling like I was coming down with the flu, then sweat out the rest of the night, and finally wake up in the morning feeling like I had gotten hit by a bus.
It hadn’t occurred to me until a few days before the big gathering that I might choose to avoid this outcome.
“Do you think…I could bring a gluten-free dressing?” I remember thinking aloud to my husband.
“Of course, you can,” he said. “You can’t eat wheat,” he said. He raised his eyebrows as if to ask, “Remember?”
Well, I could eat it, I reasoned inwardly. Wheat wouldn’t cause my throat to close or cover me in hives. Who was I to bring a gluten-free side dish to the carbiest of holidays just so I could avoid feeling terrible?
I caught myself mid-thought. I was doing it again – questioning my right to exist and take up space. My definition of “need”, I realized, required some expansion beyond just the things I needed to not die; after all, “not dying” isn’t the same as living. I wanted to live and eat delicious food with my family without dreading how it would make me feel later.
Sheepishly, I asked my mother if she wouldn’t mind making the mac’ and cheese with gluten-free macaroni. She said yes without even blinking. When I told my mother-in-law I’d be bringing a single serving of gluten-free dressing, she didn’t blink either.
The experience taught me to have a little less dread when asking for what I need. Still, my asking-for-what-I-need muscle has taken a long time to develop. First, it was because I didn’t want to admit that I had needs. Then, it was because I felt weak and guilty for having them.
But the daily small act of acknowledging and then declaring my nutritional needs has helped me better articulate my needs outside of food – and learn to take up space by acknowledging what I need beyond just physical survival.
It has given me the courage to ask for more help from team members at work, to tell friends when I’m not up for an activity, to take a break from work and walk around the block, to be more honest with myself about what it is that I want.
That voice that questions my right to need more than the bare minimum is getting smaller and quieter. In its place is one that encourages me to ask for my gluten-free cake – and eat it, too.