Whew. I’ve been writing a book for the last two years now (off and on between everything that has happened to us and the world between August of 2016 and today). A large chunk of the writing is about what it has been like parenting with chronic illnesses. As I looked back on blog posts and diary entries and photo albums I have been reckoning with the idea that my youngest had inherited pretty severe anxiety from me. I wasn’t sure if it was the messaging he got when I was undiagnosed and very sick (that the world can be scary and unpredictable), or a unique set of genes that seem to have skipped my oldest. I blamed myself, often, for passing this on to him. I had stalled out on a chapter called “Inheritance” because I needed to make peace with my internalized ableism, with the idea that having my children become like me might be a curse. I have passed Lyme down to my oldest, but so far his immune system is keeping it in check. Lyme is awful, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone much less my children who didn’t ask to be born. The harder part, though, is seeing some personality traits that had plagued and tortured me much of my life live on in them.
Especially with my youngest. I recognized the same reactions to failure that I had, the same reluctance to try something new or to try something new publicly. The same pressure to make creative endeavors perfect. I have a lot of blog posts about these moments with him. I have worked with myself so much to make sure I am not passing down an environment soaked in perfectionism. I’ve tried so hard practicing being kind to myself. I’ve tried to model taking chances that just ten years ago would have been completely unthinkable because it would have involved too much risk. But, just as with my illnesses, a purely cognitive, positive-messaging, psychological approach made only a small amount of difference. That difference was important, and necessary, and has made our family life a lot happier, but it didn’t change the underlying anxiety that was humming throughout our days.
Even though I gave up dairy six years ago based on a food diary and accompanying horrible symptoms, I never felt I had a problem with gluten. I swore up and down that the few times I gave up gluten felt worse that ingesting it. Until I got treatment for Lyme. And we tested my oldest for Lyme. And tested out an elimination diet for all of us this summer. Turns out a huge amount of my immovable fatigue was related to eating gluten. And my inability to regulate body temperature. And my neck and shoulder pain. But it was so obscured by all of the other horrible symptoms I was experiencing that I didn’t recognize it.
Turns out that the current of disabling anxiety electrifying my youngest’s brain starts when gluten in his system flips the switch. I don’t want to tell all the details right now, because it is hard to think about how often he must have felt so awful. Suffice it to say, when he eats gluten he becomes inconsolable. All those years of trying to comfort him through his worst times with a hug and the right words and not having them work became clear. There is only so much a hug can help when your brain feels like it is on fire. And until he had days without his brain being on fire he thought this was an inevitable part of who he was. He would tell me he hated himself. He can feel the difference now. He doesn’t hate himself any more. He does still hate how he feels when he is off, but he can separate that feeling from who he intrinsically is.
One morning recently he had cereal that was not officially gluten-free; it was made in a factory that also produces wheat cereals. Within fifteen minutes his eyes became glassy and he started to tell me his joints hurt and he didn’t want to go to school and just hugged me tighter and tighter. I had him take enzymes that can help break down gluten in case of accidental ingestion. Within another ten minutes his emotions righted themselves. It was scary and telling. There is no doubt in my mind that gluten has been hurting him for years.
This may also be inherited. It could be Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can run in families with other autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s or Rheumatoid Arthritis. I could take a 23 and Me test to see if I carry genetic mutations for Celiac. As I go gluten-free some of my autoimmune conditions seem to be reversing, so it is possible that it isn’t just a sensitivity but a trigger for my body to keep damaging itself. My youngest has had lots of disparate and seemingly unrelated symptoms that also make sense in the context of Celiac, although he never had classic symptoms. I never had classic symptoms. If it hadn’t been for this experiment I may have never known. And as an Italian-American foodie, I might never have given up my carb-heavy lifestyle without this push. And my youngest inherited those sensibilities from me. He wants to have a cannoli food truck when he grows up. We’ve ordered some gluten-free cannoli shells online.
One article I read said that a child’s system may repair itself 3-6 months after adopting a gluten-free diet. All I know is that after about six weeks of a gluten-free diet my child’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth has improved a ton and a weight that was on my heart has been removed. He talks about his ideas so much more. Homework isn’t the same struggle, neither are chores or new hobbies.
My chapter called “Inheritance” isn’t stalled so much now as it is complicated by every new twist and turn, but somehow I don’t feel the same guilt as I once did. Quite possibly because my youngest isn’t suffering the same way he once was. Quite possibly because I’m not suffering the way I once was. The random nature of how the universe assigns predispositions and chance encounters in diverse environments and how that all comes together to create your life – I cannot take the blame for the whole universe. I can’t take blame for possibly being an asymptomatic Celiac sufferer born to family with a great-lasagna-making Italian grandmother. I can’t take the blame for not knowing I was bitten by a Lyme-carrying tick when I was six.
But I can take credit for every time now I try to make my youngest his favorite foods without gluten, and how I’ll tell him that this isn’t my most polished or logical essay, but I got writing done today and I am proud of myself for that, and all those years of hugs that didn’t solve him feeling horrible but at least let him know that we were there.