“If lost, please return to the free from section of any supermarket”.

In honour of my five year anniversary of being gluten free today, how better I spend it than reflecting on my journey from having a fully functioning digestive system to being doubled over in pain at the mere touch of a breadcrumb.

Let me take you back to the summer of 2015, when my life was spent hauled up in my bedroom frantically memorising Pythagoras theorems and Spanish verbs for my GCSE’S.

What many don’t know was that my life back then was also filled with the fear of leaving my house in case of a random stomach attack coming on and leaving me a slave to my bathroom.

One of the standout moments which kickstarted my eventual diagnosis was the morning of my first GCSE English exam where I popped several Buscopan tablets (IBS relief medication) on the floor of the school toilets and cried down the phone to my mum that I couldn’t possibly sit the exam as my stomach was in bits.

Of course, the awaiting poem which sat at my desk needed to be analysed didn’t care that my insides were quite literally, on fire. So, off I went, soggy tissues and medical note in hand to complete the paper.

Typing this now it’s rather funny to me, as if only I could go back and tell my unbeknown self not to have the large bowl of shredded wheat for my pre-exam breakfast as it is simply intestinal poison if I were to ingest it now.

From experiencing extreme fatigue to loosing half my hair, the GP’s office slowly became my second home as I spent the rest of the year undergoing blood tests, endoscopes and getting biopsies taken of my small intestine which concluded that there was something much more sinister going on: coeliac disease.

A quick google definition of the disease states, “It is an auto immune condition that mistakenly attacks healthy digestive tissue as a threat to the body”. How delightful…

Surprisingly, the initial relief of finally knowing the root cause of my stomach woes meant that I wasn’t too phased until my mum made a passing comment about needing a gluten free wedding cake that really struck home to me; I was going to have to be hyper aware of everything that entered my mouth and touched my skin – for the rest of my life.

You’ll never catch me go a day without saying at least one of these phrases, “Do they cater for gluten free?”, “Let me check the ingredients” or “I can’t eat that sorry”, I am unapologetically known by my nearest and dearest as ‘Allergy Girl’.

A gluten free dream (Image credit: Chloe Keys)

When the world wasn’t mid pandemic and leaving your house was illegal, going on first dates were always amusing when I dropped the bombshell mid date of not being able to eat a McDonalds, lick an envelope shut or have a sip of my homeland’s pride and joy, the Guinness Pint. You could say I left them speechless (or at least that’s what I’m telling myself).

All joking aside, my life as a coeliac is much more than poking fun at myself on awkward dates, it is a serious and lifelong dietary commitment which if I don’t follow strictly, can lead to intestinal cancer, osteoporosis and prevent me from having children in the future.

Food is the key to many people’s hearts, the simple pleasure that has the power to bring people together yet my restrictive diet has left me feeling socially anxious due to the constant rhetoric of being the ‘odd one out’.

When I moved into shared accommodation in my first year of University, the worrier in me dreaded the thought of having to cook my rather weird and ‘special’ food combinations in front of nine complete strangers, coming across as rude when I would turn down flat takeaways or certain alcohol in Freshers Week.

Thankfully, no one batted an eye lid and I soon became known as the Irish girl who fried her broccoli and ate gluten free potato waffles dipped in hummus.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as one thing that my five years of avoiding gluten has taught me is that your health is most certainly your wealth.

What many don’t realise is how their grab-and-go snack purchase in the local corner shop is something I will never get to think so mindlessly about.

Careful planning of what I will eat (and food shops filled with enough fruit and vegetables to feed the 5000) enables me to be able to reverse the countless nutrient deficiencies that left me a shell of my former self caused by my intestine simply not having the strength to absorb my food properly.

So, next time you catch a glimpse of the rather pathetic looking gluten free loaf in comparison to its wheat counterpart, maybe spare a thought to those who don’t eat the free from food by choice, but as a means of necessity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a hot date with my cup of green tea and gluten free banana bread.

By Chloe Keys