I never intended to write a memoir. So, here’s how that happened…

(This essay first published in Good News magazine, May 2015, to honor and promote celiac disease awareness month.)

I’m sitting in the cafeteria at Wilkes University, but I can’t eat. It’s mid-week during the first of many eight-day residencies I will be required to attend over the course of attaining my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. The year is 2006. I’ve been eating from the salad bar twice a day, every day. This is the solution the cafeteria directors came up with after many back-and-forth emails about my dietary requirements prior to the residency. Four years before that, I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

Now, I gaze at the loaf of gluten-free bread someone placed at the end of the salad bar just for me. Untoasted, it crumbles like a sand castle to the touch and boasts a similar consistency and (I have to presume) flavor. I don’t know what I’m expected to do with this rice bread at the end of the salad bar. At least they tried, I think.

By this point in the week, the cross-contamination of foods has launched my system into a full-on attack. Anything I consume is now the enemy.

“Are you OK?” my classmates ask, concerned.

“I just have to give my system a rest,” I lie, shifting my gaze out the window and wondering how I’ll navigate the remainder of the week, let alone all future residencies. That’s when I settle on a topic for my final project. My thesis—a full-length manuscript—would be a memoir. It was time to share my story.

I vowed that my memoir would not be a cookbook or a “how-to” like the guides for “dummies” series. This would be a riveting narrative filled with humor and adventure. I’d draw readers in with tales of my travels—supporting my boyfriend’s dream of becoming a dog musher and moving across the country to Utah so he could do just that. I’d pique readers’ interests with quirky elements of culture shock and unravel a mystery by dropping hints of my illness throughout the book. It wouldn’t be about celiac disease, per se. First and foremost, my book would be an interesting story—a journey of self-discovery. Through reading it and relating to those elements, people would inadvertently learn about a disease that affects 1 out of every 133 Americans—one percent of the population. This book would be called Mush, and, eight years later, it would finally be published.

Though it took much longer than expected and the road to publication was far from smooth, my memoir was released by Plain View Press in January 2015. Mush: from sled dogs to celiac, the scenic detour of my life tells the story of my journey toward someone else’s dream and the lifesaving self-discovery that resulted. Through sharing my story in Mush, I hope to generate honest conversation around celiac disease and the gluten-free lifestyle. I hope to inspire others to share their stories as well. Perhaps most importantly, I hope this conversation grows in mass and volume, to the point of drowning out the naysayers and voices of those who dismiss the gluten-free diet as a fad.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, just like type 1 diabetes and lupus. It is real, it is life threatening, and the only treatment is a gluten-free diet. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), 83% of people with celiac disease remain undiagnosed. I hope Mush plays a part in helping to change that.

Note: Facts and figures taken from the NFCA website.

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