Hello all of you beautiful people!
As we leave 2023, I can’t help but look back at the year and ask, “What happened here?” Not in the pensive, “How did my year go?” kind of way, but in the perplexed, “How are you still standing?” sort of way. The highs were high-ing, and the lows were low-ing. For many reasons (one of which we’ll see below), the year oscillated between every emotion.
Welp, not much else to say on that! Let’s dive into 2023 and what’s in store for the next year!
Accomplishments (good and bad) from 2023
I did not catch COVID! Again, I’m going to celebrate this as long as I possibly can. However…
I was diagnosed with celiacs disease! Ok, it’s not the best accomplishment, but it explains all of the huge medical issues I had in 2022 (I’ll go into it down below).
I was on not one, but TWO D&D actual plays! The wonderful folks at Science and Sorcery were kind enough to let me on as both a player AND and dungeon master (or game master) for two science themed Dungeons and Dragons games! Check out the game where I’m a player, Search For the Sausage Dragon, and the game I crafted and ran, Tears of Silver. I’ll eventually write up the whole one-shot and send it to the folks at Science and Sorcery.
I got another poster award at a conference! I also got an award for my 1-minute poster talk at my departmental retreat!
I might be starting a book? What started as a joke for my Dungeons and Dragons group has become its own fully fledged project; a comedy about dragon riders that pokes fun at the genre in general. As I write this post, I currently have chapter 7 written (for my DnD player’s eyes only at the moment), and have plots and character plans for up to four books. I keep expecting my interest to die out like all of my other attempts at writing novels, but I’ve surprisingly kept my momentum so far. And yes, there’s science in it. A lot of science. The main character is a dragon biology fangirl :)
Goals For 2024
I want to start up those science writing videos! I actually have a script or two already written out for the YouTube videos, and I was set to start recording them in March 2023! Due to my health issues, though, making YouTube videos became the LAST thing on my “to do” list as I was fighting to catch up on graduate school, health, and my blog. This year, though, we’re going to do it! (I’m going to rewrite my script, though. I think I want to take things in a different direction than my original idea)
I want guest writers for the blog! I was so close this past year! Three scientists approached me with some awesome ideas! Unfortunately, I was unable to finalize my planned guest posts last year. Here’s hoping I can make it happen in 2024! If interested, please contact me on my Instagram at “phdungeon_master,” my Twitter at “beccmel2,” and my blog email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Write more back-up blog posts. Yeah, I ran out of all of my backups. That’s why I was able to post despite balancing all of my medical issues. Remember those wound posts? The “Chemistry in Fantasy” post? Yeeeeaaaaah, those were my big backups. Need to write more of those to make sure I can post regularly.
More Actualplays? Science and Sorcery, RPGeeks, or other science communication ttrpg groups… if you want a DM or a player, call me!
More dragon posts! Need I say more? It’s been a mini dream of mine to discuss the science of dragons since I started this blog back in 2019, but this is finally the year where I have the confidence/inspiration to tackle my science dragon questions!
If you know me off of the internet, or you follow me on Instagram, you’ve heard this one before. But here’s the official statement/story (and CW for discussions about diets/eating restrictions):
We think I started getting sick around 2021, due to me suddenly avoiding certain foods. But despite this sudden restriction on my diet, I felt pretty healthy. I was even on a cycling team (though I didn’t race road. Only cyclocross). I did start having asthma problems around this time as well, but let’s be honest: I live in Utah. Utah is known to have horrid air quality. That surprised no one. If you looked at me at the beginning of 2021, you’d say I was healthy as a horse.
I did start to get weaker late 2021, early 2022, but I attributed that to grad school stress. Everyone did, actually, including my therapist. My happiness started to decrease, but again, that was due to grad school, right?
Because I was doing some weird food restrictions, however, I was sent to a nutritionist. The best thing we could do (I was told) was put those “unsafe” foods back into my diet. Time to “retrain” my brain and eating habits!
That’s when I deteriorated.
Within a matter of days, I was dealing with 8/10 gut pain all of the time. My asthma was a constant problem. All of my athleticism vanished over the course of the cyclocross season, despite training. I empirically became weaker, watching my strength training drop off suddenly despite having a good diet and training plan. On top of that, I couldn’t focus on lab, papers, or anything. But I was told that it was all due to stress and depression.
After 6 months, I finally got some blood tests, mainly to test my thyroid levels. I got a call a day later telling me I had tested positive for celiac disease. On Valentine’s day, 2023, I got an official celiac diagnosis after. THat’s when the professionals I had been working with suddenly put two and two together: those “unsafe” foods I had been restriction weren’t “unsafe” in the sense of an eating disorder, they were “unsafe” in that they caused my body to start destroying itself.
So, turns out that what everyone thought was depression was actually insomnia plus chronic pain. I had spent months without sleep. I also was probably malnourished during that time. I had muscle weakness and joint pain that I didn’t even register that I had until it all disappeared. I had such bad brain fog, there’s an entire month that I can’t remember during that 6 month period.
When we look back at the “weird” restrictions I had starting in 2021, we see that everything that I deemed “unsafe” – cookies, noodles, eating out, breaded tofu, sauces, any and all bread– were all gluten or prone to gluten-contamination (I’m looking at you, “eating out”).
Now, I’m aware that this is a lot of personal medical information that I’m just throwing out there into the public space of the internet. Unfortunately, my diagnosis is something that I have to tell everyone I hang out with now. Every time people want to share food with me, I have to ask if there has been any gluten contamination. Every restaurant I go to, I have a monologue now I have to give to make sure I don’t get exposed to gluten. I have to explain that those cookies someone is gifting me may actually knock me out for 24 hours.
Everyone gets to know!
What is Celiac Disease?
It wouldn’t be a Getting The Science Write post if I didn’t add some science facts! Time for some learning!
Before you ask: no. I don’t have anyone else in my family who has celiac disease. I do have a family history of other autoimmune diseases, but I’m apparently the first in my family with celiacs (go me! A trailblazer!).
But let’s answer what celiac disease. It’s an autoimmune disease, meaning that my immune system, when I put gluten in my body, releases IgA antibodies that target tissue transglutaminase and reticulin. IgA is what we call the antibody that your gut releases, and these two antibodies are what can be measured for a diagnosis. Since the antibodies ultimately target components of small intestinal cells, a patient’s small intestine will begin to be attacked and damaged by their own immune cells. The finger-like villi of your gut can be absolutely wrecked, leading to the patient being unable to absorb their nutrients to… well, live. Patients can undergo an endoscopy where they send a scope down into your gut and take images and tissue samples to determine the damage.
What symptoms are there? According to the Celiac Disease foundation, there’s over 200 known symptoms. And that’s if you’re symptomatic; there’s also asymptomatic celiac disease where your cells will be attacked and you won’t feel any pain/constipation/muscle fatigue/etc. Your body will still react by gaining or losing weight due to your gut still being targeted by your immune cells, and that’s usually what can lead to a diagnosis (we’ll get into the disease’s mechanisms later).
My symptoms include: joint pain, abdominal pain, full body swelling, swollen lymph nodes, chronic pain (think 9/10 pain over your entire belly for hours), extreme brain fog, muscle fatigue and degradation (most likely from malnutrition), and drastically reduced energy. And I’m very, VERY sensitive to cross contamination, which I found out by accident. In short, if I’m exposed, I’m going to be out for about 24 hours.
If you were to compare my symptoms to another celiac patient, though, you may get a small overlap of symptoms, but they’re ultimately going to have their own unique list of gluten grievances/symptoms.
Is there any cure for celiac disease? Nope! The only way to effectively treat celiac disease is to avoid gluten in your diet. This is easier said than done.
If you want a challenge, I want you to go to your cabinets and fridge and look at all of the ingredients on the back of as many food products that you own. If you find any of the following ingredients anywhere on the ingredient list, you can’t eat it:
Triticale Natural Flavors* Oats**
*Natural flavors are unique in that they never list the exact ingredients used for said flavors. Some natural flavors can have gluten in them, so you just have to be willing to gamble if you see this on the list.
**Oats are naturally gluten free, BUT you must consider them contaminated with gluten unless the product specifically says “gluten free” on it. Oats are usually processed with wheat, barley, rye, etc.
That’s the food situation, but what about your kitchen utensils?
Has your sponge cleaned anything with gluten on it recently? Have your knives touched bread? How about your cutting boards? Have you used your colander to drain noodles? (Those are HARD to get gluten out of) Have you cooked gluten cookies on those baking sheets?
And no, putting things into the oven doesn’t destroy the gluten contamination. The most effective way I’ve found to clean items effectively is to shove it into a dishwasher and let it run for a long time.
And we’re not even getting started on the art of cross contamination! If you made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you cross-contaminated the jelly and peanut butter by putting the knife on the bread and then putting the knife into the condiments.
If you want a real challenge, then it’s time to eat out! Take what you know about gluten-free eating and contamination, and try to eat at a restaurant while not getting exposed! Hopefully your server will be familiar with celiac disease, but you need to describe to them every time how to avoid cross contamination, just to be safe. Online forums recommend telling your server that you have a “gluten allergy” to ensure that they take your dietary restrictions seriously. Yes, this makes me die a little on the inside as it’s not an allergy, but whatever makes the food safe, right? You also must trust that your server will know/remember which items on the menu may have some hidden gluten (like soy sauce).
Is It Overwhelming?
It can be, but at least I can enjoy food again! Big payoff
Nowadays, I’m more irked at the higher gluten-free prices that I have to deal with than the actual food restrictions. $6 for a bag of gluten free oats is, in my opinion, a viable excuse for a riot. If anyone wants a gluten-free revolution, call me.
Does Having Celiac Disease Make You Disabled?
This is a valid question, as there is some argument to be made that having such a restrictive diet due to health makes it excruciatingly difficult to navigate through non-accommodating food plans or food options (like what you’d have at a work retreat or science conference). And the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does cover celiac disease.
Taken straight from this document available on the ADA website:
“It depends. A disability as defined by the ADA is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as eating. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the functions of the gastrointestinal system. Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA- particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods…”
If you’re to ask me if I consider myself disabled, though, I’d honestly say no, I’m “inconvenienced.” Maybe I’ll change how I label myself after more years living with celiacs, but for right now, a year in, I personally don’t describe myself like that. (Disclaimer: I do not speak for anyone else in the celiac community.)
Buuuuut, if you’re someone or know someone who is struggling to get your University or workplace to provide gluten free food for events… Their employers do need to adhere to the ADA! (Not so for places like restaurants).
So, Is There a Moral To All of This?
…Don’t develop an autoimmune disease in your late twenties?
Shrugs. You know, I feel like there’s nothing more that can be pulled out of this wild story of mine other than “bad luck finds you sometimes and you gotta roll with the changes.”
That’s all that I have for you all!! Here’s to another year of science communication!