Not too long ago, I worked for a company in which I, well, just didn’t fit. The people were very nice and extremely good at what they did. They ran as a well-oiled machine of grant writing and money-getting efficiency. The writers could crank out wow! narrative in mere hours and their editors could detect spacing deviations between lines of text, around text in tables, from left margin to right margin, and even between your knitted brows, all in less time than a lunch break. I marveled at their prowess. And I miserably failed at fitting in.
A grand example of how I didn’t fit in came during a discussion about what it means to have celiac disease. They were wondering why I didn’t want to go to trivia night at a nearby bar specializing in bun-derful burgers plus breading and frying every food you could imagine: fried pickles, fried wings, double fried french fries, fried okra, fried mozzarella sticks, breaded and fried bacon. Accompanying said finger lickin’ good fried fare were more than thirty craft beers. Pitchers of beers. Mugs of beers. Beer flights. Every special kind of beer–lambic, stout, black, blond, pale ale to pilsner–had its own special kind of glass delivered to the table in a flourish. I’m sure they tried to coat a blob of beer in seasoned breading and deep fry that, too, but it must have been a gastronomic failure because it wasn’t on the menu. Beer ice cream, however, was.
I explained to my coworkers about cross-contamination and the dangers of it in a place that dripped breading and beer–which is loaded with gluten from the barley, wheat, and rye lovingly fermented with the hops–from the rafters. I explained how I couldn’t safely eat a salad there because the kitchen hadn’t been trained to keep gluten free ingredients separate from gluten containing ingredients nor did they have the time to appreciate the importance of changing gloves and using a separate prep area when making something gluten free so crumbs from gluten-containing ingredients don’t get into the GF dish. I talked about how I got sick once at a coffee-bakery-sandwich shop where I only had a cup of coffee because the server grabbed my coffee cup with his bare hands after making a sandwich with his bare hands and I didn’t know it until my dining companion mentioned it after our meeting. I was sick in bed for a week but I didn’t explain the lovely symptoms: no one wants to hear about that. I didn’t wax on about the dangers of getting beer spilled on me or crumbs dropped on me as the evening wore on. That’s happened, too, in similar establishments, and with dire consequences for my gut.
The head of the company who was listening to my explanation got a horrified look on his face and said, “Oh my God, that’s horrible!”
I thought he was commiserating with me about the misadventure with coffee. And then he continued.
“I couldn’t live like that, having to be so careful about what you eat. How horrible! You can’t have a beer? You can’t have a sandwich? You can’t even eat a salad at a Wendy’s? Ugh! I’m so glad I don’t have a horrible disease like that.” And then he shivered, as if talking about me having Ebola or smallpox.
It’s just celiac disease, for God’s sake.
I tried not to feel hurt, tried to tell myself that it was his fear talking, that his words were more about him than about me but I still felt hurt.
I felt hurt again when the office went to lunch several weeks later to welcome a new team member. On our way to the restaurant someone complained about having to walk four extra blocks to get to Restaurant B when Restaurant A was across the street.
“We have to go there because of Sam,” was the reply with some eye rolling.
Yes, we were going to Restaurant B because it had a GF menu and the company was (and is) committed to extensive training and protective measures to minimize cross-contamination and it earns high marks from GF dining bloggers and casual diners alike. Restaurant A, while it claimed to have a GF menu, wasn’t safe according to the dozens of GF bloggers and casual diners who went there and got sick and then posted reviews about their experiences on various GF restaurant finder websites.
These incidents were just the tip of the iceberg of ways I didn’t belong in that company. I quit soon after and I still am glad I did.
People can be insensitive with and without ill intent. They can be judgmental out of fear. They can be dismissive because they believe food-related illnesses are all in someone’s head. They also can be kind and considerate and supportive and inquisitive, all with glad and open hearts. Each of us gets to choose what kind of person we are and we get to choose to change, to be better, every day. We also get to choose how much someone’s insensitivity or fear hurts us.
I have a disease that makes dining out anything but a picnic. If you don’t, lucky you. If you think my disease is horrible and you want to put me down for it, go ahead, but be prepared for what’s horrible to change: it’s not me. It’s you.