Back in April of 2009, I experienced a horribly turbulent flight just before Easter weekend and, that evening, my first full-blown panic attack. I had never felt anything like it - a complete loss of control, shaking limbs, and the palpable fear that I was near death. I begged Shawn to take me to a hospital, thinking something was seriously wrong. He tried to calm me down and ran a hot bath for me, which helped a little. We prayed and asked my parents and some friends to pray, which helped more. But it was still a mystery why this had happened in the first place. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I didn't feel that I was in a particularly stressful season in life. The flight was scary, but not necessarily bad enough to cause such severe symptoms.
As several days and weeks passed, I didn't experience another full-blown attack, but would feel panicked about every other week and my legs would tremor (like severe chills). Other symptoms started showing up as well. I developed a dull, constant headache that would ebb and flow in severity. And after eating, I'd nearly always feel nauseated and dizzy and have to lie down until it passed. I became an expert at faking that I felt good, but even if I seemed completely normal to friends, I usually didn't feel well at all.
There were also gastrointestinal symptoms, such as waking up in the middle of the night famished. I was so intensely hungry at 2 or 3am every morning that I'd run blindly to the fridge, eat a little peanut butter or bread, then fall back asleep for a few hours. I'd be woken again no later than 5am by the same feeling. And somehow, I was noticeably losing weight.
As you can see, this was no way to live.
This went on for 5 or 6 months, and during this time, I visited five different doctors. The first two doctors thought I was "just pregnant" and dismissed my symptoms as very early pregnancy. I was not pregnant, for the record, and left frustrated because they hadn't really listened to me. For the leg tremors, one doctor said, "Don't worry, you don't have MS" and prescribed a potent muscle relaxer with horrible side effects, which I opted not to take.
Another doctor surmised that I had blood sugar issues, and sent me home with a blood glucose monitor. I knew I wasn't the typical candidate for diabetes, but I went along with his idea. I tested my blood sugar every few hours or when symptoms would occur, but the numbers didn't coincide with my symptoms like I had hoped. I did have very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) at times, but never too high which would indicate diabetes. And it still didn't account for all the symptoms I was experiencing.
This miserable "not knowing" lasted 7 months before we had an answer. I took 16 different blood tests, and the only one that turned up abnormal indicated that I had a gluten intolerance or Celiac disease. I thought gluten was like glucose (back to the blood sugar issues) but when I did further research, I learned that it is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. With further testing, Celiac was confirmed.
At this point, I was willing to try anything, though I was pretty skeptical that something I ate could cause neurological symptoms. But I cut gluten completely out of my diet anyway. You'd be amazed at how difficult this is in the beginning! No bread, no pasta, no crackers, no cereal. And it doesn't stop there - gluten is found in many soups, sauces, soy sauce, and even certain coffee flavorings, soy milk, and tea bags that are sealed with wheat paste! It is a culinary minefield! I became an incessant label reader, trying to detect if there were hidden gluten sources in anything I ate (gluten can even be disguised as "modified food starch," for example).
But it worked.
Within weeks of establishing my new diet, I felt like myself again! I never had another panic attack, no leg tremors, no headaches, no nausea, no dizziness. And now, four years later, my health has been completely restored! Praise the Lord!
The problem is, once you stay away from gluten, your body becomes even more intolerant of it. So if I get a trace of gluten (such as if my chicken was grilled on the same grill with chicken covered in glutenous sauce) I could be very sick and throwing up for hours. So I am very, very careful.
One question I've gotten a lot and have asked myself as well: If you've always been allergic to gluten, how did you just find out? Well, from what I've read, Celiac is a tricky genetic disorder and manifests itself in many different ways throughout life. Looking back at my own history, the puzzle pieces fit together and it makes sense that I have been intolerant to gluten and not known it for many years. For example, I had asthma and allergies and chronic bronchitis in middle school, and chronic acid reflux in high school. These symptoms and others point to Celiac, though many aren't diagnosed until their early twenties or later when your body finally says, "Enough is enough" and there is a more acute reaction. Most experience GI symptoms; some never do.
I am very thankful that the general public is gaining understanding of gluten intolerance now more than ever! Many restaurants now have a gluten-free menu, such as Carrabba's, Maggiano's (who even have gluten-free pastas!), P.F. Chang's and many, many more. Also, there are more and more gluten-free products coming out on the market that taste like the real thing (or at least close). There are brown rice pastas that taste great, and certain baking mixes and granolas that are almost like the real thing. Even Betty Crocker has a gluten-free line now!
At times, I've wondered why the Lord didn't just heal me or reveal the problem the first time I prayed instead of allowing this to go on for 7 months. But He's shown me a few reasons.
First, I believe it was to allow my precious husband, in the critical and formative first year of our marriage, to really serve me. My stubborn independence wouldn't have allowed him to do that otherwise. He willingly, joyfully cooked dinners, prepared epsom salt baths to help me relax, drove me to doctor's appointments, cried with me, and spent countless hours praying over me and reading Scripture to me. I must also mention that my husband has become my guard dog when it comes to food. He reads every label and if it isn't clearly "gluten free," I'm not allowed to touch it. He watched me suffer first-hand for 7 long months, and he's not willing to risk it again. Sometimes when we're over at friends' homes for dinner, it's tempting for me to just endure the consequences if I have a little gluten (always a pounding headache a few hours later and usually stomach sickness). But Shawn takes the lead and risks offending to make sure I stay healthy.
Secondly, I also think the Lord prepared me through this struggle to comfort others with the comfort I have received from Him. As I'm now a nurse, I am constantly encountering patients who deal with chronic pain. Before this experience, I wouldn't have even begun to understand their situation. But after a 7-month constant struggle, I can honestly say I have a glimpse of what they must be enduring.
Lastly, and most importantly, the Lord has drawn me even closer to Himself. I'd never faced a health issue like this one, so drawn out and debilitating at times. I became a woman of constant prayer, mostly out of sheer necessity. Praying and feeling the Lord's presence was the only comfort I felt.
One story in the Bible that gave me so much hope was that of the woman who bled for 12 years before Jesus healed her. I would read this story and weep, asking the Lord to heal me as he had healed her. I knew He was capable of healing me in an instant. I argued with Him all the things I could do for Him if He would just help me to feel better. He doesn't bargain like that. I should've known.
The account in Matthew 9:20-22 is just three short verses, but so powerful:
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, 'If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.' Jesus turned and saw her. 'Take heart, daughter,' he said, 'your faith has healed you.' And the woman was healed from that moment.
In Luke's account of the same story, he writes, "Immediately her bleeding stopped." Immediately! He also records that Jesus called the woman, "Daughter," and in the Gospel accounts, this woman is the only individual Jesus addressed with this affectionate, tender term. It tells me He must have been filled to the brim with compassion for this woman who had bled without stopping, without answers, for 12 long years. She must have been gaunt, her eyes sallow, and her whole countenance weak and defeated. Just thinking of how Jesus allowed her to touch his cloak without getting angry - for it would make a person ceremonially unclean to have contact with her - gave me such hope and more love for Him.
Feel free to email me if you're struggling with similar issues or other health problems. I'd love to answer any questions (though I'm clearly no expert!), but mostly, it would be a privilege to pray for you.
For more gluten-free resources:
Gluten-Free Goddess - tons of wonderful GF recipes!