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I have to sit down.

It’s May 2009. I’m walking down Embassy Row in Washington, DC – heading back to my Du Pont Circle hotel from the National Cathedral. It couldn’t be a more beautiful day.

My stomach hurts. It’s been gnawing at me for two years. But today the pain is sharp and wince-worthy in the “ow f–k f–k f–k f–k F–K!” variety. I’m grimacing and sweating and wondering if I had Skittles for breakfast and chased them with Drano.

And I have to sit down.

Why now? Why this week of all weeks?

I’m pretty much off work – taking a class in Our Nation’s Capital. First time there. My family is not with me and I have to admit: though I want to share the experience with them, the break is kind of nice. I’ve been free to wander and explore, walking miles, sometimes in museums, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes aimlessly in museums (Smithsonian Air & Space anyone?).

Emotionally though, I think I’ve eaten glass.

I got off the phone with my Dad that morning. My hero was breathless and scared. I’ve never heard him like this. Diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer two weeks before, he was on his way to his first treatment. I hang up convinced he’ll die on the way there. I feel helpless.

Oh: and my then-wife told me last night that she didn’t miss me. And really hasn’t for a long time.

Walking – my usual salvation – padding problems into the pavement – isn’t solving anything for me today.

I can’t go any further right now and I don’t understand.

Dan Wool treadmill workout circa 2009

I am 38 years old and I exercise — therefore I’m healthy! I do weights and run on a treadmill like Napoleon Dynamite with ear buds. I play soccer on Saturdays.

I eat healthy too. I mean, I’ve single-handedly kept the vegan teahouse next to my hotel in business this week! So shouldn’t I be well?

And then I actually have the thought, “I need to sit down.” I stop on the sidewalk, look around me and creak down onto the concrete steps of an African embassy.

And….

Holy shit…am I?…am I…crying? I’m crying!

Just like Mr. Smith — or George Bailey. Quiet. Heaving but  apparently trying not to draw much attention. Trying to avoid the askance glances of judgmental pigeons. Swallowing and stuffing emotions into my stomach. Twist twist goes the invisible knife again.

What do I do? (“Help me Clarence!” Or Saunders. Or God. Or the Kenyan attaché. Whoever. Somebody.) But the cavalry is just me. Dances with Wool.

You have CELIAC!

And this time I give up. I’ve fought this until now – trying to do it all myself. This, I painfully realize, was foolish. I make an appointment with my primary care physician assistant when I get home. (I haven’t actually seen my actual doctor in years). I’m referred to a gastroenterologist who scopes me. We follow-up.

HIM: You have Celiac disease
ME: Never heard of it. What is it?
HIM: Nothing too serious. Just eat a gluten-free diet and you’ll outlive all your friends.

He smiles and hands me a scrip for industrial strength Prilosec and leaves.

Despite my initial disappointment and confusion, I figure out the Gluten Free Diet pretty quick. No bread? No beer? No problem! Whole Foods has a gluten free aisle! This is going to be easy! I spend an hour there examining labels and buy everything tasty-looking that doesn’t say “wheat”.

I start immediately. Day One:

  • Morning: Bob’s Red Mill Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal with maple syrup
  • Morning snack: Glutino gluten free crackers with cheese
  • Lunch: Turkey sandwich with Udi’s gluten free bread.
  • Afternoon snack: Gluten free soft snickerdoodles (so good I eat the whole box – they’re gluten free!)
  • Dinner: (I treat myself!) Gluten free pizza at Picazzo’s

Okay, I exaggerate. But not by much. (Sometimes’ I’d go into chipnosis draining two or three baskets of warm (corn is gluten-free!) tortilla chips at the Mexican restaurant downstairs at work).

Six months later, I felt…blech. But I was no longer in pain on my new gluten-free, proton-pump-inhibited diet. So… #winning.

Then at a Christmas party, I’m standing outside on a 72-degree evening and I’m shivering.

My friend Leslie is a woman who has no trouble getting right to the point. She asks me what’s wrong?

“Chilly out here,” I say.

“No it’s not!”

“You’re not cold?”

“No, Dan! It’s beautiful out! Look at you! You’re skin and bones! That’s why you’re cold! You look terrible! I thought you were fixing your stomach thing.”

“I am!” And I proudly explain my gluten-free diet and grab a couple mini-carrots off the crudité tray.

“It’s obviously not working. Get your shit together Wool! You’re freaking me out. Go get help.”

Today, I weigh about 160 lbs.

That night I was 122 lbs.

I heed Leslie’s advice. I go online and find the best nutritionist I can: an older woman with 40 years experience. Perfect! Jessica Fletcher’ll know everything and solve the case!

She meets me at a Starbucks. A shee-shee one in Scottsdale. I get a venti vanilla soy latte and find a table among a gaggle of plastic-fantastic yoga MILFs.

Two minutes in my new nutritionist says: “Don’t worry! They have a gluten-free aisle now at Whole Foods!”

I spend another polite half hour with my immediately former nutritionist who doesn’t seem interested in answering the question: “What the fuck do I need to eat?!”

I leave to gloriously release my stifled soy farts into the driver’s seat cushion of my Dadmobile — still sickish and frustrated.

With little knowledge and fewer action items, a friend recommends her naturopath, Dr. Alan Christianson. In his office I work with Dr. Ann Lovick. She spends 90 minutes with me. She listened. She used simple logic. She tested. She gave me gentle herbal supplements to calm my stomach. Minerals to build my body back up. She ordered blood tests and a food allergy panel. I had eliminated gluten but was allergic to dairy, soy, a few nuts and some of the veggies and gluten-free grains I was eating as well. I wasn’t absorbing key nutrients. My hormones were crashed out.

And…

Holy shit..am I?…am I crying? Yes! I’m just so happy someone listened and validated my concerns. And fixed them. And gave a shit doing it.

I then get a great nutritionist, Karen Graham, who knows Celiac and tailors a meal plan. My seasonal allergies — once debilitating — disappear. My stomach gets strong.

A year later I had my follow-up with the gastro. Can I get off the PPI? He shrugs. “Why? You can be on those things forever.” That didn’t sound right.

I Dr. Google an opinion to corroborate my obvious medical genius and stop taking my triple dose immediately. Big mistake. The next day it was like a kick to the gut all day. I re-pop three Prilosec and appease the gastric gods.

Back to Dr. Lovick, who explains rebound and the damage that could be doing inside. Oh. We’d have to wean off slowly. After 8 weeks, I was off.

And that was that. I was better. Sounds short but sweet but it took about a year. I felt like I could do anything.

Like go to med school.

I have to sit down.