Content Warning: This entry contains talk of vomiting and disordered thinking around food.
“As long as you're eating, I'm happy.”
This is what he said to me today, day six.
I have an embarrassing secret.
It started in March 2021. One minute, I was nauseous; next, I was in bed with a 38.8C (102F) fever vomiting into a bucket. I'd had food poisoning before—it was usually over in 24 hours. Seven days later, I'd lost over 3kg (6lbs) and was still recovering.
Optimistically, I told myself this was a bad case and I'd be more careful next time.
Then it happened again in April. And again in June. Each time, a week.
In 2023, I am now at my ninth case of “severe food poisoning.” Some times, they would take a week to recover. Others, two. For every twelve months for the past three years, I've averaged about a month of time in which I could not eat or drink. I've tried diet modification, probiotics, even going so far as to an elective colonoscopy before the age of 50, just to find a root cause.
The doctors who have seen me have been less concerned than I have.
“Some people just have sensitive stomachs,” my doctor explained to me paternalistically. “Some people get food poisoning a lot.”
“So what?” I asked. “You think this is my new normal?”
I recall the time I threw up out the side of my friend's car when we were traveling to visit friends and family in the States. I live outside the US now, so I don't have American insurance. Shivering from fever, I prayed I could endure a few days longer so that I could avoid outstanding medical bills.
So that's my new normal.
My relationship with food has been increasingly getting worse. At first, I thought I could control what I ate, and thus, the food poisoning, but it doesn't seem to discriminate. It's easy to hide my anxiety in front of other people, but inside I keep asking myself, “what is this food going to look like if I throw it up?” It makes eating at all, outside of sweets, unappetizing.
Not only that, food poisoning is said to be infectious, and yet throughout all nine times, not once has my live-in partner been sick. I'm frustrated by the amount of times I've been sent home with medication that nominally helps and no answers.
So this time, the ninth time. The sixth day. 3kg lighter. No answers, but the clinic I've been going to for two years is “starting to worry.”
I find myself deflating, vulnerable, in front of my partner. Because he knows, and I know, this has been my first normal meal in six days. And also he's also not asking me, “why haven't you...” and “have you tried...?”
Because I have. I tried. The doctors want to see me at my sickest, and at my sickest, I cannot walk for ten minutes without collapsing and vomiting in public.
I'm so tired.
“Thanks,” I mumble. “I'm happy, too.”
And I am. Not about the overall situation, but that I can eat a full meal, and that there is someone sitting in front of me who has acknowledged me. I feel very small, but also very seen.
One thing I've learned in this sabbatical is that showing physical weakness to others, for me, is a bit like vomiting in public. I'll try my best to hold it back, but if I can't, I feel awful; I feel embarrassed and ashamed. My insides are now outside. Maybe there are some people out there who look at me with pity or disgust. After all, I'm inconveniencing them. But there's a few brilliant people who have seen me and said, “You look sick. I want to help you.”
I am so deeply grateful to those people.
I haven't given up on finding the answer, but I'm starting to enjoy the small moments more. This might take some time, and more pain, before I find an answer.
In the meantime, I am starting to soften.
Edit to Add: Since this blog post, I was able to seek help from a gastrointestinal specialist (the doctor who said, "You look sick. I want to help you.") and run more serious tests. It's ruled out some of the more serious diagnoses, given me more insight into my body and more information than before to work with.
I'm in the process of doing some diet modifications that may turn more permanent in the future. It's frustrating to know that after all this trial and error, there is still more trial and error yet to come, but at least it feels like I'm getting closer to an answer.
The update to this post is unexpectedly hopeful.