For many people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, holidays represent a bit of torture — we're faced with seemingly endless spreads of terrific-looking goodies, and we're not able to enjoy any of them. At the same time, we have well-meaning but clueless friends and relatives trying to lure us into trying tidbits that almost certainly aren't safe.
I'll admit, there have been times I've avoided socializing around the holidays, especially with friends and relatives I don't see very often. Most of them don't understand how careful I need to be (in some cases, it's obvious they think I'm being ridiculously over-cautious, or worse, a little crazy). Fewer still seem to "get" how excluded you wind up feeling when you can't eat any of the food that's being served.
However, in most cases it's not necessary to skip parties and other social events. It will take some getting used to, but you can reorient your emotional mindset so that you're not focused on the food at all, just on the people and the celebration. Here are five thoughts and ideas that may help you cope:
• It's okay to feel sad. Food is a big part of most people's lives, and it plays an even larger role around the holidays. Therefore, when you're faced with yet another holiday spread with nothing on it that's gluten-free (but plenty of foods you'd really enjoy if you didn't need to follow the gluten-free diet), sadness is a perfectly normal emotion. Acknowledge the feeling, but don't dwell on it or (worse yet) wallow in it. Instead, promise yourself a safe treat at the earliest possible opportunity, and focus on the people.
• Don't be tempted into taking unnecessary chances. Cheating on the gluten-free diet isn't an option — even if you don't get severe symptoms from gluten ingestion, you still run the risk of damaging your health. However, it's easy to talk yourself into taking risks you wouldn't normally take, especially if you're drinking alcohol at the party. Don't do it — you'll regret it tomorrow. (If you do make a mistake, have a look at my tips for recovering from an accidental glutening.)
• Remember that your friends or relatives are uneducated, not unfeeling. It's easy to feel excluded at a holiday gathering where no one has bothered to provide anything for you to munch on. I've felt that way even when I've told people not to worry about making anything for me — unfair and irrational, I know, but it's tough to shake those emotions. Again, acknowledge the emotions and try to move past them. You're there to see the people, not to eat Christmas cookies.
• Don't get judgmental, and try to keep quiet about other people's gluten issues. This is another big one for me — I get upset when I watch people (both relatives and friends) gorging themselves on gluten foods when it's clear they have health issues that indicate a possible problem with gluten. It's difficult for me in those circumstances not to say anything — these are people I care about, after all. But nagging people to get tested or go gluten-free won't help — in some cases, even saying it once might alienate them. I mention the subject once with each person I think the diet might help (my conscience would bother me, otherwise), but then I try to shut up about it.
• If at all possible, host your own holiday gathering, and make sure everything is gluten-free. This is my favorite out of the five tips I outline in my article on coping with the gluten-free diet over the holidays. I can't stress this one enough: it's wonderful to be able to socialize and not worry one bit about the food, because you made it all and it's all safely gluten-free. It's also pretty difficult to feel excluded, since everything at the party is safe for you to eat. It's a lot of work, but it's absolutely worth it.
This is a process, not a one-time event. There have been times even recently when I've wondered if I should just stay home, rather than face another get-together where I can't eat any of the food. Yes, you can bring your own food (and you should) ... but that gets old, too.
However, it's been worth it to make the effort in almost every case. The holidays were my favorite time of year, pre-diagnosis, and it's wonderful to enjoy them while feeling really healthy. Bake yourself some gluten-free Christmas cookies, find some candy canes, or create an entire gluten-free Hanukah meal ... and enjoy the season.