Contrary to popular belief, the gluten-free lifestyle isn’t just a trend. Trust me, I want that donut and those pancakes and that Chinese food. I wish my body absorbed nutrients correctly. Let me take you back to my “growing up” years.

I was in the third grade. Mom bribed me out of bed one winter morning with the promise of PopTarts, cinnamon brown sugar with frosting. Getting glutened is a particular kind of stomachache; it doesn’t feel like the flu or like you’re carsick, but it’s heavy. Facing the yellow toilet bowl, I began to cry. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. It was time for testing. The doctors said, “You might grow out of it.” The cilia in the lining of my stomach were damaged, but they were hopeful, since I was so young. At their wit’s end, my parents told me, “It’s all in your head.” I didn’t feel good, but I couldn’t communicate the feeling I had when I ate.

I spent my whole life feeling sick. From 3rd through 12th grade, I hated to eat. All I could seem to say was, “I don’t feel good.” My head hurt and I was tired. I was a walking mystery. I lived in constant fear of the next meal. I would limit myself to one meal a day where I let myself have “bready” items. I skipped lunch all through high school. Many people would ask why. I wanted to eat, but at the risk of getting sick, sometimes I didn’t.

Gluten affects everyone differently. For me, it manifested in extreme nausea, headaches, fatigue, aches, and it always came out one way or the other. It happened so fast. I’d eat dinner and spend the rest of the night in bathroom. I’ll spare you the details, but I didn’t think that food was meant to be enjoyed. Without realizing it, I began to develop a very negative relationship with food. I didn’t see food as something that nourished me or provided me energy. I found food to be poison.

By the time I got to college, I’d had enough. College is a time to reinvent yourself anyway, right? The learning curve was the toughest part of the transition into life without wheat, barley, or rye. There are many sneaky items that contain gluten. Some of the ones that got me included: soy sauce, licorice, vitamins, salad dressings, and soups. Gluten can be found everywhere! It is used to thicken things, so some other tricky hiding places are cosmetics, like shampoos, lotions, and even nail polish!

Gearing up for the battle against gluten? Educate yourself and surround yourself with a group (or just one) gluten-free confidant. My go-to girl is Britta. Britta makes me feel like I’m not alone, and we all need a friend like that. She understands when I get frustrated at roommates who use my sponge, which causes me to rub gluten all over my dishes. She understands the anxiety I have about going out to eat. She understands how it’s hard to go to social events and bring your own food. (Christmas parties are the WORST!) She understands how it is awkward to refuse a baked goodie from the grandma at church who prides herself in her cookie bars, and the annoyance of repeated attempts to get her to take “no” for an answer. She understands what it’s like to dread the phrase, “Let’s just order pizza.”

Britta also understands my intense love for Chipotle. She enjoys eating clean and the joy of finding a new GF brand. She understood my giddiness when I found out Cheerios and Lucky Charms are gluten free. She understands staying in and making a meal. She understands being picky and protective over food. We share new recipes, new tips and tricks, and incessant encouragement to carry on in the gluten battle.

Being educated and discovering GF friends makes it easier to laugh, cry, eat, breathe, and enjoy life. Sure, eating gluten free changes life a little bit (or a lot a bit). It impacts my lifestyle more than people realize, but it’s worth it. Feeling better is worth it. So, smile friends, and enjoy that gluten-free cookie!