This month is celiac awareness month so I wanted to take a (short) break from delicious restaurant reviews to focus on life as a celiac, specifically as a graduate student…something that isn’t often discussed. I am very fortunate that I am not a child who has to miss out on birthday cake during a classmate’s birthday or pizza in the cafeteria, but being a graduate student with celiac has been challenging. I hate to complain because I know so many other people have it so much worse…but when people say “well all you have to do is not eat gluten! why do you need a cure?” it wears on me. They do not realize the social and professional stress that this autoimmune disease causes. Yes, I bring my own snacks and plan as much as I can (key words: as much as I can), but I can’t bring my own food into a networking dinner held at a restaurant. I can’t bring my own meals for 3 days straight while traveling for interviews/conferences where I do not have access to a mini fridge or microwave.
1. Navigating graduate school interviews: For biomedical sciences, schools pay for your flight, hotel, and food for 2-4 days for you to visit the school itself and interview with faculty and admissions there. It’s stressful and exhausting, but a huge honor. I was very fortunate to have interview offers extended to me by several schools across the country. However, I wasn’t sure what to do about meals. Current graduate students told me that meals were typically catered so that faculty could network with the applicants. Great idea for getting to know the prospective students; terrible idea for food allergies! I was terrified to email the coordinator to inform her of my dietary restriction. I didn’t want to come across as “picky” or “high maintenance.” I REALLY wanted the schools to like me. I wanted to pursue a PhD so badly. I didn’t want to have celiac held against me. That sounds ridiculous, right? Because it is! It is horrible that I have to worry about my autoimmune disease being held against me. So timidly I e-mailed the coordinator:
“Dear _____, I am looking forward to visiting and interviewing at _______ . Thank you again for arranging my travel. I wanted to let you know that I have a dietary restriction due to Celiac disease (gluten-free). This is usually not a problem at restaurants, but I was not sure how meals would arranged during the the weekend. Will there be gluten free options at the meals? If you have any questions, please let me know. Best, Gluten Free and Glitter”
Surprisingly, every single school e-mailed back saying that they would be able to accommodate me and thanked me for letting them know. Each school labeled their offerings with allergens. Some schools were better than others in their offerings. Some lunches I ended up with a salad with no dressing. On the other hand, one school (Notre Dame) even bought me special gluten free sandwiches and desserts for the lunches–there was actually another girl with celiac interviewing so we both had special meals. The universities did not normally label for allergens for catered meals but because I contacted them ahead of time, they were able to adjust accordingly. There were lots of buffets…which is sometimes problematic due to cross contamination. However, the schools were kind enough to ask people with allergies to go up and get their food first! So that helped a ton.
2. Lunch seminars: Let me preface this one…I love seminars (talks by faculty) except when they are at lunch. Here at my university I have 3, yes 3, required lunchtime seminars.I hate them and would much rather go to an 8am or 4pm seminar instead because I am forced to sit in a room for an hour with everyone eating delicious gluten filled foods. Always pizza or sandwiches..which means crumbs galore everywhere. Yes, I pack my lunch, but my options of what I can feasibly eat there are limited. There are no tables, just chairs, so I can only really bring one thing to hold. Hot foods are limited because I can’t reheat them after I get to the seminar so they end up being luke warm at best. I cannot eat anything with my hands because opening and closing the door would surely cover my hands in gluten. I am also required to sign in–I now bring my own pen to avoid the one covered in pizza/sandwiches. Because we are packed in a room, there are numerous times where crumbs from the sandwiches or pizza somehow end up on my lap…making me fearful to actually eat anything during the seminar. Everyone is attempting to balance their pizza/sandwiches and when I bring my own lunch, I just dread the inevitable “oops.” Emotionally, it is tough. I try to avoid meal related activities because I prefer to eat where I know it is safe and not have my dietary restriction be the focus of the conversation. When I spoke to someone about this, I received a “just pack your lunch and bring it.” If only it was that easy. We don’t get paid much as a graduate student and when my friends can have free lunch at seminars every single day, it stings. To have the ability to eat whatever…
3. Faculty meetings/networking during meals: this one may be arguably the worst. Almost every single meeting or networking event revolves around a meal either catered or at a restaurant. There have been several times where we have had meetings at restaurants with zero gluten free options. And here I am trying to network and focus on my future…but the focus turns to me and celiac disease. “Why aren’t you ordering anything?” “Are you really just going to have a water?” I wish that celiac disease did not come up so we could focus on my scientific accomplishments rather than my autoimmune disease. Celiac does not define who I am, but it can dictate the topic of the conversation I have learned. There are times I have wanted to go events but didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb…again. Even if I eat beforehand, people seem intrigued as to why I don’t order any food and the waitstaff becomes annoyed that I am taking up space.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. That is what it is. It is not a choice. Yes, it is great that we know what triggers our illness BUT there are circumstances that are VERY hard to handle. “Just eat gluten free” is easier said than done especially in the context of professional development. Some situations are out of my control. Each day I try to start with a positive attitude but every so often, it becomes too much.
Why must everything revolve around food? That is what I want to know. Even ignoring those with celiac, what about other food allergies? What about those battling body issues or eating disorders? This puts those people at an uncomfortable disadvantage. It is tough enough to feel “different” but these food-driven activities exasperate the problems. I often feel alone in this and hopefully someone with a similar experience will be able to relate and not feel so alone.