The problem with the “don’t make events about food” advice

February 22, 2022

Maybe you have celiac disease or another food restriction like me, or maybe you have another limitation that causes issues for you at social gatherings. If so, you’ll relate to this. And if that’s not you, this may put things in a slightly different perspective for you.

I grew up in a family that made a big deal out of food. Holidays, were always about food. I get it, that’s how Jewish holidays are. Challah, hamentaschen, wine, matzo ball soup, latkes, and kugels were all staples. Thanksgiving had turkey, pies, potatoes, and kugels. When we visited family out of state or they visited us, it was all about the food. We thought about it, talked about it, spent lots of time preparing it, and of course, enjoyed eating it. As I grew up, I often felt sick after (or during) these events, but I often felt sick after (or during) a normal meal anyway, so it’s not like these were any better or worse. It wasn’t until my 30s that I stopped eating gluten.

Image credit Heartland Mom on Pixabay

I have often wondered how my grandmother would have handled things if she’d still been alive when I went gluten-free. She was the stereotypical Jewish grandmother, always cooking and baking, expressing her love through food. We would arrive at her house after a several hours long drive, having stopped for lunch on the way. She would ask if we wanted food when we arrived and we’d say no, we’d already eaten, so she would put out a “snack”. It was a large snack! Then a few hours later dinner would consist of chicken, brisket, at least 2 kugels, challah, salad, and more, along with multiple desserts – for only 6 people! I’d like to think she’d have found a way to adapt her meals for me, but I know she wouldn’t have stopped focusing on them.

The surprising (at first) thing with eliminating gluten is that it doesn’t only effect what we eat, it effects our social lives. Dates are tricky when I can only eat at certain restaurants. Going out with friends is tough when we can’t spontaneously grab food while we’re out. Attending weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events is frustrating when I can’t eat the food provided. Multiple surveys have shown that the social aspects are the hardest part of living with celiac disease. So the advice that we hear over and over is logical: don’t make events about food, make them about people. And after all, shouldn’t we all be doing that anyway?

I get it. If the focus at Thanksgiving is the people instead of the table of food, then the people who can’t eat all of the food, and who might be nervous about the food, can still have a great time. If the Passover sedar is about the people and the prayers and we let the matzo ball soup and brisket be secondary (or even tertiary) incidentals, anyone with food restrictions will have a better time. It makes sense.

People > Food.

It took me many years to figure out why that advice felt off to me.

I remember a family vacation. We were in a big rented house, and I had been careful to cook food in advance. It was annoying to have to do this, and definitely took away from some of the fun, but it was fine. There was one night when everyone wanted to eat at a fancy restaurant. The family had been to this city many times over many years and loved this place. I’d only been once and, frankly, I hadn’t thought it was so wonderful, but whatever, I’d have been willing to go back. The thing is, they didn’t have anything gluten-free. My choices were to go there and not eat, or not go. I chose to not go. I found another restaurant in town that had gluten-free food and my mom chose to join me. My mom and I had a fantastic time, actually. We walked around town and had one of the best meals we’d ever had together. The food was amazing, the ambience gorgeous, the company perfect. My dad, aunt, uncle, cousins, and cousin’s wife all went to the other restaurant, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t hurt. I understand they liked this place and wanted to go, but it hurt me that they didn’t place my feelings and their desire to be with me above their desire to eat at a specific restaurant. They talked about it a lot in advance and a lot afterwards, too.

Holidays and family gatherings have been different since I went gluten-free. When my mother hosts, she makes sure the meal is either completely or mostly gluten-free, with any gluten foods kept separate and reminders to all to keep their serving spoons away from other foods. Accommodations vary when others host. But either way, it’s still about the food, and food is still stressful. Even when the meal is 100% gluten free, I no longer get any joy from focusing on food. It’s simply associated too much with negative things for me. Plus, the talk about the food isn’t limited to the food on the table, and that’s even more stressful. I am immensely grateful that my mother goes out of her way to make me feel comfortable eating the food at her events, but I still wish we could focus less on the food altogether.

As for me hosting a family event, that’s not likely to happen. For one thing, my apartment is small and I don’t have a lot of space. But for another, I have no desire to host. Some people love to cook, decorate, and have lots of people over for a party. That’s not me, and it never has been. Plus, even if I wanted to do that, I don’t have the energy for it. I can cook a meal OR attend a gathering, but I certainly can’t do both, never mind hosting duties. When I go to someone else’s home and bring food with me, it’s always something that can be prepared a day or two in advance because doing it the same day is too exhausting for me.

But let’s be realistic. Even if I could find a way to host, there would still be the issue that the gathering would be all about the food because I might be able to change the circumstances, but I can’t change the people. As soon as they walked in they would ask what we were eating, and the conversation would often turn back to food throughout the gathering. If I made all of the food then I wouldn’t be worried about that food in particular, but I still don’t like these conversations. Inevitably people talk about other foods and about restaurants, and at best none of this is enjoyable to me, at worst it upsets me, triggering all sorts of past trauma.

I don’t have a solution. This is something I’m continuing to work on for the sake of my own mental health. I can talk to my family about it and maybe they will occasionally make an effort, at least some of them would, but I know that most would not even try, or they would soon forget. This is ingrained and it’s something they enjoy. I just wish the thing they enjoy so much wasn’t the thing that brings me the most grief.


A little fur goes a long way

January 13, 2022

One day I was in so much pain, I was barely holding myself together. I went to my chronic pain support group. As I spoke, I teared up. My friend sitting next to me gently placed her hand on my arm, on a spot that’s usually fine, but I winced and pulled away in pain. It was a bad day. Everything hurt.

After the meeting, one group member let her service dog off duty, and he happily went around the room soliciting pets. When I pet him, the pain melted away and I felt so much better. It wasn’t until an hour after I got home that the pain came back to the level it had been before. That’s when I knew that it was time to get a dog.

Or so I thought. I did try to adopt a dog before realizing that it wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t ready. I was devastated.

Fast forward 5 years, and I was in a different place, both literally and figuratively. Now I lived in a first floor apartment, so taking a dog outside wouldn’t involve any stairs like it had before, or the walk down a long hallway and then navigating an old-fashioned elevator with manual doors. I was also in much better health, all things considered. I had been dog sitting for several years and loved it, and knew that I could manage to care for a dog for a few days or a week at a time. Then the pandemic hit and my dog sitting petered out. People weren’t travelling, so they didn’t need me to watch their dogs. I missed caring for dogs so much, and needed to do something about it.

I had thought about fostering for a while, and I finally decided to try. With so many people volunteering, though, they didn’t need more help. I waited. Several months later I tried again, and was accepted to a program!

I have my third foster dog sitting by my desk now. I still want my own pup, but this has been an amazing experience, and it has shown me that, yes, I am ready to get a dog of my own! My hope is that 2022 will be the year. It’s going to take a while to find the right dog for me. I’m feeling very insecure about the entire thing. What if I choose the wrong dog? What if I can’t handle it? But every time I pet a dog, I feel so much better. I feel happier. I feel more relaxed. Even though I want the dog to leave, I love having them here.

That’s right, I want the dog to leave. Sort of. When I have a dog with me, I look forward to the day they go back to their owners (if I’m dog sitting) or get adopted (if I’m fostering). I’m tired, and I want to sleep a little later, not have to take walks at night, and have more time to myself. But every time they leave, I miss having the push to exercise regularly, I’m more tired despite getting more rest, my pain is worse, and I feel more alone. Life is simpler, but I don’t feel better.

Then the next dog arrives, and the first days of fostering are tiring and stressful as I learn about the dog and they learn proper behaviors. Then we settle into a routine and I love them and I don’t want to let them go. Still, there’s the part of me that longs for them to leave so I can rest. But they leave, and once again, I’m more tired and in more pain, and I miss having a furry friend around. Plus, the apartment feels so empty. On balance, I’d rather have a dog here.

As I type this, I’m looking into the big brown eyes of the sweetest boy in the world. He’s staring back, and just started to wag his tail. A dog won’t solve all my problems, and life won’t be perfect, but I sure would love to have a furry friend of my own around all the time. Well, most of the time. And the rest of the time, I’ll just have to deal.

Do you have a furry friend at home? Please share nice stories about how they help you to feel better mentally, physically, and emotionally!

So 2022 is the year for me to get a dog. I haven’t found the right pup yet, but I’ll be looking. And in the meantime, I’m lucky to have sweet furballs around to make me feel better.


How can I be around people?

April 26, 2021

It has been 410 days since I first entered isolation. More than 13 months. At the time, people kept talking about how long this pandemic might last, guessing it could be several weeks, doubting that it would be more than a few months. At the time, I felt that it would be at least a year, maybe closer to two. After all, that’s what the science seemed to say. A few friends agreed. But at the time, that was hard to imagine how much of that would be spent in isolation. Now, more than a year later, I’ve been doing it, and what’s hard to imagine is how it will end for me.

A quick note for context: I live in Massachusetts. Unlike many other countries, the United States never full isolated at the start of the pandemic (or at any other point). Different regions have lifted restrictions in different ways: some have stopped requiring masks, some have reopened schools, some have removed capacity limits on businesses, etc. However, infection levels have never gone low enough to safely open without further spread. I know that many of you are in regions where there were few, or zero, infections at times, and so things reopened. That has never happened here. Yesterday, Massachusetts had 1214 new cases, and today thousands of kids returned to in-person school for the first time, and we continue to reopen more businesses.

Of course, many people have not been isolated this entire time. Some go to work. Some go to restaurants. Many go to grocery stores. But I haven’t done any of that. In some ways, though, I haven’t been isolated, either. I have seen a few doctors. I have seen a few friends and family members at a distance while wearing masks. But up close, there’s been nothing. No visits with loved ones indoors. No hugs. No kisses. No sex. No physical connection. The only people to have touched me the last 13+ months were a few medical practitioners and, well, that’s just not the same.

Now, though, there’s a light on the horizon. I am supposedly fully vaccinated. I will get an antibody test this week and if it is positive, I will feel much better. If it’s negative, though, that’s harder. There are a lot of false negatives, unfortunately. Even if it’s positive, I won’t be going back to “normal.” I will still be mostly alone, but the difference is, I won’t be entirely alone. The plan is to first see my parents. With any luck, I will get to spend Mother’s Day with my mom! We will even get to hug! They will isolate for 10 days and so will I. Then I will spend a night at their home. I’ll get to leave my apartment. I’ll get to be in a house. (It’s strange to think that I haven’t been in a house in more than a year!)

After that, I will visit with a close friend. She and her family have been isolating nearly as much as I have, and when I ask about her exposure risks, she’ll be forthright and honest (and she and I agree on how risky various things are.) At some point soon, I’ll have her kids spend a night or two at my place. It’s something that we did before the pandemic, and in fact, they were supposed to have a sleepover at my place just as the pandemic picked up and we all went into isolation. I have been doing Zoom chats with the kids regularly, but it’s not the same. The visit will be wonderful.

I am excited for all of this. There will be a lot of hugs and snuggles. We’ll hang out indoors without masks, and it will feel somewhat normal. I can hardly wait!

But I am also dreading it.

The idea of being around people, indoors, hugging, without masks, fills me with anxiety. I know, logically, that it will be fine. They will isolate. I will isolate. All of the adults are vaccinated and the kids are doing school remotely from home. I am at higher risk than my friend or her family, or even my parents, and my doctor says this is ok. But still, I am nervous.

I have always been a nervous, cautious person. I have travelled and gone on adventures, but I also used birth control pills and condoms while in a monogamous relationship, just in case. I like having a backup plan for big things. And this virus, well, it’s a big thing. But I can’t stay in isolation forever. Well, I can, but I know that I won’t. Sooner or later, I will be around people again. I could wait, I know that, but now feels the right time to take these baby steps. It’s not like I’m going to eat in a restaurant or attend a concert. Visiting my parents would be me going to their house, and us staying in their house, except for maybe a masked walk in the neighborhood. Ditto for my visit with my friends (or them visiting me – we haven’t worked that part out yet.) But still, I’m nervous.

My hope is that once I am there, in person, that I will feel better. My hope is that it will feel normal and natural and safe. My hope is that I will relax and enjoy myself. I just can’t quite seem to picture any of that. Yet.


Staying busy while stuck in isolation

September 14, 2020

One thing about life with disabling chronic illnesses is that I was better prepared than most for life at home. After all, so often I am stuck at home due to my health, or I need to do stay home in order to rest up so that I can go out later on. A lot of my hobbies and interests are sedentary ones, thanks to my health, so the transition was easy in that regard. The social part is difficult, of course, but staying busy is easy. In fact, I don’t even have time to get everything done!

Meanwhile, most people I know who weren’t working full time from home and didn’t have young children at home were at a loss as to how to stay busy. As things opened up, many of them found adventures outdoors. I am still staying home, though. I would not go anyplace indoors or around other people. I do not feel that is safe in my area. As for outdoor adventures, I have no one to go on an adventure with. I live alone, and there is no one I am comfortable being in contact with right now, unfortunately. A picnic alone might be safe, but it’s lonely. A walk in the woods where people are around isn’t safe, and walking with no one around at all doesn’t feel smart. I would love to see the ocean, but I can’t drive that far right now, and I can not get into a car with someone else. So I am spending a lot of time at home.

People keep asking me how I am managing to stay busy. Here are a few of the things I have been doing. Please share yours in the comments, to help anyone who’s bored to get some new ideas.

  • House stuff. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, and all of that less-than-exciting stuff still has to be done, even during a pandemic.
  • Physical therapy. I am doing more than ever because my body is not doing well with all of this sitting in my apartment. It’s not like I was super active before, but even walking around a grocery store is exercise that I’m no longer getting.
  • Medical appointments. My body doesn’t stop having problems just because there’s a virus ravaging the world. I am having almost all of my appointments virtually, which has saved me a lot of energy and time, but I am still having them.
  • New hobbies. At the start of the pandemic, I figured I better start something new to make up a bit for all I was losing. I had wanted to try the ukelele for years, so I bought one. I have already learned a bunch of songs through free YouTube tutorials. I practice most days and it’s a lot of fun.
  • Old hobbies. For many years I have loved to read, crochet, and knit. Those are perfect pandemic hobbies. I did them daily before, and I continue to do them daily. I watch tv in the evenings, too. Before I watched tv any evening that I didn’t go out. Now, I watch tv every evening that I don’t have a Zoom call. *sigh* Oh, and this blog counts, too. Hobbies aren’t only things that are done daily, and writing here every few weeks is a great activity.
  • Volunteering. I did some volunteering before and I still do it. Because of my disabilities, I only volunteered for work that could be done primarily from home. That made the transition easy. I have taken on extra tasks, too.
  • Errands. Yup, those things still need to happen. I find shopping for groceries online to take a lot longer than going in person used to take. Dropping off paperwork at an office can still be done, even if I don’t go inside. Shopping for things online that I would typically get in person is a chore that takes ages, but it still needs to happen.
  • Social media. Some days social media is a drain that wastes my time, but many days it adds value to my life. I manage several Facebook groups and pages in addition to having my own personal feed. It’s a great way to keep up with family and friends.
  • Email, texts, and video chats. I often joke that I have a better social life now than I did before, but it’s sort of true. Meeting online isn’t the same as meeting in person, but it’s a hell of a lot easier. Since it takes so much less energy, and I don’t have the physical pain that comes with driving, I am able to have multiple social video chats in one day! I certainly couldn’t meet up with that many people in person in a single day. Plus, many people I am talking to aren’t local, and we are now realizing that we should have been doing these video chats for years. Hopefully we’ll keep them up. Email and texts take ages to answer. I’m glad for the opportunity to keep up with folks, but I do miss the ease and speed of phone calls.
  • Cleaning out…. things. Between cleaning out all of my way-too-many-what-was-I-thinking? email accounts and cleaning out physical stuff, there’s plenty to do. I’m enjoying the rewards of empty inboxes (yay for inbox zero! Even if it only lasts an hour….) and more space in my apartment.
  • YouTube videos. I have been watching lots of YouTube videos. There are opportunities to see things that wouldn’t typically be available, in addition to all of the previous kinds of content. I have been enjoying interviews with Broadway actors who were/are in isolation, cute dog videos (oh, how I miss dogs!), crochet tutorials, and so much more. I particularly like this channel for things that are disability-related.

All of that, plus random other things that I’m sure I’ve forgotten, are keeping me plenty busy. A few other things you could try would be taking online courses at a local college or through sites like Udemy.com or Lynda.com (hint: many libraries offer free memberships). You could also learn crafts online with YouTube videos or by taking classes, which are offered in many places. Try reading new books, listening to audiobooks, or trying new podcasts. Watch movies you’d always wanted to watch. Learn a language. Research your family genealogy. Redecorate your home in small, manageable ways.

I have noticed that many people are worried about taking up a new hobby or project, thinking they won’t have time to keep it up when things return to “normal.” Why start something that they will just have to give up later? But I don’t think that’s the right attitude. Instead, why not start something you can enjoy while you’re in this difficult state? Then later one, when life returns to “normal” or some other state, you can decide what to keep. You may just find that you enjoy your new hobby more than something you did before, and you will let go of the former. Or you might rotate them. There are no set rules here; you get to make it up as you go along!

So that’s what’s been keeping me busy, along with a few extra ideas for you. Please share your ideas in the comment! After all, these ideas will be useful for anyone who is in isolation during the pandemic, as well as anyone who is stuck at home due to disability and/or illness in the future.


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