Life after coffee (and other acidic stuff)

In another life, I might have looked at the title of this blog post and said, “There is no such thing as life after coffee!” But following last week’s big medical procedure, which confirmed I have gastritis and inflamed pockets on my esophagus, I have to make some serious lifestyle changes if I want to be around and well for another 60 years.

Want, all the time!

Esophagitis and gastritis mean I need to dodge acidic foods and beverages for the rest of my life. Tomato sauce, alcohol, and coffee could burn a hole in my stomach and/or throat, so I have to consume them much less frequently. Booze on the weekends is fine, but I had to knock my routine of enjoying 1-2 beers over dinner and TV with my boyfriend each night. From Monday to Thursday, it’s milk and water for me. While he sips that Stone IPA we both love so much, I must hold back, at least until Friday rolls around and I have the following morning to recover if necessary. When I do have a drink, I can’t go overboard. It’s not such a tragedy. The taste of alcohol can be awful, warm beer may as well be urine, and don’t even get me started on hangovers. Coffee, however, was slightly more challenging to give up.

The thing is, coffee isn’t totally forbidden. I just can’t be the girl who downs 2-3 cups per morning anymore, and you know what? It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I didn’t experience withdrawal migraines, and I’m sure my teeth will look whiter and thank me long-term.

My boyfriend and I used to have a morning ritual of drinking espresso and reading the news on our iPads before getting to work. Now he’s the only one using the espresso machine, but that affords me some extra time to clean up before heading out for the day. Coffee dates with old friends are going to be sad since I can never order a regular cup of joe without feeling immense anxiety about what it could do to my stomach, but I think I have a system in place that will work.

Watered down coffee  = good for me
Watered down coffee = good for me

I’ve started revisiting hot chocolate, a childhood favorite, and drinking tea, which is soothing on the throat and calms me down. In my case, gastritis came about in part due to stress, so anything to keep me sane is a win. When I do have entire cups of coffee, I add sugar and creamer, but I haven’t made a cup for myself in weeks, to be honest. I go to Starbucks for Pumpkin Spice Lattes (ha.ha.) or regular Vanilla Lattes for something with a little more flavor. It hasn’t been so bad.

Earlier this year, my boyfriend and I went on a pizza binge for several weeks. We ordered the Meat Jesus and White Pizza all the time, and it really slowed us down. We eventually chose to practice healthier habits, and now we only order pizza once every two months or so. I can have pizza and tomato sauce every month or two, but not regularly. The acid is just too hard on my stomach.

Intelligentsia Venice CAWhen I was diagnosed with gastritis in September, I got really upset when the doctor advised me to stay away from beer and coffee, two major parts of my life. I’ve since learned it’s not the end of the world to have dietary limitations. I’ve gotten thinner since making changes as well. So small, in fact, that my skinny jeans are too baggy now. The intention was never to shed weight. I just wanted to feel better, and so far it’s working. It’s nice to have room to pack on more pounds during the holidays. I’m definitely in a better place to do that now.

Bottom line? Food doesn’t have to run your life, and if it’s one of the best parts of your life, that means it’s time to pursue other interests. I used to think I’d rather die young and have lived fully, but after getting so serious with my boyfriend and knowing he’s the person I’m going to be with until the very end, I’ve realized Ian is a huge incentive for me to be around as long as possible, and in good condition at that. I want to have a family and, unlike my late father, watch my children graduate high school, marry, and prosper in the real world. My dad was unable to do that for me because his health failed him too early. I will not let mine fail me. So sorry coffee and beer, but our relationship isn’t a priority anymore.

Getting a colonoscopy at 26

My father and mother at Stanford hospital, where he was treated for cancer in 2005 and 2006. He was texting me while this photo was being taken!
My father and mother at Stanford hospital, where he was treated for cancer in 2005 and 2006. He was texting me while this photo was being taken!

Earlier this month, I blogged about being diagnosed with gastritis and having to make serious dietary changes as such. This article veered from my usual bubbly tone, and though a lot of readers praised me for telling my unsettling story, one person noted on Facebook that the post left him feeling “weird” and regret that he’d read it. I admire this individual and know he didn’t mean to be hurtful, but after divulging one of the most horrific experiences of my life, I wasn’t interested in hearing that it rubbed an outsider the wrong way. I can’t be a bundle of sunshine every time I publish, and I cannot water myself down because maybe it will put another person in a funny mood. More than anything else, I can’t be silent anymore about the stomach issues I’ve suffered for years, because that very silence contributed to the complications I’m dealing with now.

In less than a week, I have to get a colonoscopy and an endoscopy. My mom is coming down from northern California to support me, and I couldn’t be happier about that. You’re probably thinking “TMI, thanks for the visual.” But you know what? I’ve got bigger problems than embarrassment. I need to have two very invasive procedures because of chronic stomach issues that I thought were behind me. I’m nervous about the procedure and preparation day, so the last thing on my mind is how my own experience might make some uncomfortable. I’m sorry, but I don’t have the luxury of worrying about the opinions of others when it comes to this. And if you’re in need of such treatment, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about your needs either.

A little more than a month ago, I started having noticeable changes in the way I processed food. Then came the persistent burping and random, sharp abdominal pains. For our one-year anniversary dinner, my boyfriend took me to a wonderful fish house in West Hollywood and I was terrified the whole time of swallowing oysters, which I really love. The constant hiccuping made me fear I’d choke, and the stomach pains got progressively worse. Scariest of all was the prolonged bleeding, which cannot under any circumstances be ignored. I’m not mentioning these symptoms to be gross or make your own stomach turn, but to relay that certain abnormalities need to be checked out no matter how nervous or shy you may be. I tend to be private when it comes to this sort of thing, but this experience has taught me that silence is perhaps the leading killer of severe health issues, and if I can convince at least one person to seek medical attention about an ongoing problem, I will risk looking foolish in order to help. The bottom line is a problem I thought I resolved returned much stronger this week, leading me to book a visit with a GI who could hopefully explain why the medications prescribed to me — Omeprazole and Sucalfrate — hadn’t stopped my internal bleeding.

“This isn’t an isolated incident,” he said during our session. “I could tell you to wait for it to go away, but I don’t want to blow you off and then hear you developed a horrible ulcer we could have treated.”

At my uncle's wedding party in 2005
At my uncle’s wedding party in 2005

With that, I should be getting some real answers on Thursday. If it’s an ulcer, which seems doubtful since I haven’t been vomiting or nauseous, they’ll take care of it on the spot. The same goes for an inflammation or polyp. My blood tests didn’t pull up anything cancerous, so, obviously, that’s a relief. The good news is I found whatever’s bothering me early enough to tackle it full-force, but that means undergoing a procedure 25 years earlier than normal. I thought I had more than two decades to face this procedure, which I associated with old people up until three days ago, but life throws you curveballs every once in a while, and some happen to be weirder than others. After my dad’s untimely passing from liver disease nearly ten years ago, I don’t want to ignore any stomach issues that come my way and assume my body is resilient enough to heal itself. His was not.

In the past, I’ve been shamed for oversharing on the Internet, and I know this is definitely applicable. People might blush and mock me for publishing too much information about my life. Trust me, the last thing I want to do is tell the world that I’m going to have my personal business examined by doctors at Cedar Sinai in Beverly Hills. It’s not a pleasant topic to discuss, but the reality is millions of people experience stomach-related issues every year. 25 million Americans will suffer from a peptic ulcer at some point during their lives, and 2014 alone has seen more than 20,000 new cases of stomach cancer. And because it’s socially awkward to discuss digestive disorders, most people, like me, are quiet about them, unaware they have a potentially fatal problem on their hands. This is why I love Katie Couric for filming her colonoscopy process a while back: She watched her husband die from colon cancer in the 1990s and didn’t want the same to happen to her. They had kids to look after, and she had quite an amazing life to continue living.

We exist in a culture that likes to joke that women do not defecate, belch, or pass gas. Some feel so self-conscious about this that they avoid trips to the bathroom at work or wait until they’re all alone to do their business. I’ve been aware of society’s discomfort with biological functions since seventh grade, when that scamp Brandon D. repeatedly asked during PE whether I’d ever gone to the bathroom before. Yes, he was an immature middle school boy, but the discourse online isn’t much different these days, so I’m sure you can understand why lots of people, particularly women, struggle to talk about issues of the digestive variety. My lady friend even emailed me to say thanks for tweeting about having to get a colonoscopy, as stomach issues are too often set aside to avoid making others feel awkward:

“First of all I’m so happy that you are so open, you have no idea what that means to me (someone who has also always had stomach problems). I feel like people ignore or don’t want to hear about intestinal issues but that only creates silence and fear and stigma.

People ignore stomach problems or brush them off as just part of life they have to deal with, but it’s not. and being honest and seeking treatment and sharing that experience with others is really inspirational. And I wanted you to know that I continue to be impressed and inspired by you.”

At Chipotle in 2008 --- wearing sweatpants!
At Chipotle in 2008 — wearing sweatpants!

I don’t blog about this to be “gross” or involve you more than necessary in my life. I choose to write about this because I am literally sick from the silence that has accompanied me on this drawn out, uncertain journey. I refuse to be silent when millions around the world are dying and fighting for their lives to beat stomach problems of all kinds. Until we start speaking freely about the negative impact of digestive abnormalities, people like me will continue doing their insides, and ultimately themselves, a major disservice. That must end.

I’ve been anxious all my life and often find myself in the fight or flight state, which I’m confident has provoked my stomach issues. I also haven’t been particularly healthy the last year. When I moved from NYC to LA, I was 116 pounds, which is well below the proper weight for my height. I put it all on over the last year thanks to fun nights out with my boyfriend, comfort food binges as an underemployed sadsack, and neglecting exercise. I told myself I looked better with the extra baggage. My face was gaunt before and I had no color. While I loved indulging Chipotle and burritos all the time, my stomach did not, and my body slowly started rejecting all the bad stuff I shoveled into my mouth.

When I burst into urgent care sobbing last month, I was 129 on the scale. Now I’m 124, and that’s from a month of daily salads and healthier choices all around. I still love my burritos and mac n’ cheese, but I must consume two nutritious meals to make up for every even semi-unhealthy one, and when I do opt for junk food, my portions are significantly smaller. I used to chug 2-3 cups of coffee per day, but now I go days without ever pouring a drop of caffeine into my system. I thought I’d feel sick from the lack of coffee, but I might even be better off without it, I just doze off on the couch even more than usual. I’m limiting my alcohol intake as well, and I know my stomach appreciates that.

Am I worried about going under next week? Oh yeah. Am I terrified to wake up and find out things are worse than I imagined? More than I could ever convey in words. But nothing scares me more than living day to day thinking maybe my problem will fizzle as long as I take better care of myself. It doesn’t always work like that. You have to be proactive with your health, and that can mean telling the world that you need a colonoscopy and endoscopy because you’ve failed to eat well, relax, and talk about your issues openly for years. It isn’t too late for me, and if you immediately address any issues of your own, it will never be too late for you.