Content note: This article may be a trigger for individuals who are dealing with or have dealt with eating disorders.
Food used to be a confidant. It soothed my anxious soul and connected me with my friends and family. My grandfather’s fall-off-the-bone ribs, my aunt’s tender lamb, and my grandmother’s layered coconut cake were holiday staples. They brought us together and made me feel connected to my cultural traditions.
Because both of my parents worked full-time jobs, we often ate fast food or something from the supermarket’s frozen food section. By the time I was in middle school, I was significantly bigger, taller, and darker than the rest of my classmates, which made me a target for incessant bullying. After that, my relationship with food became a codependent one.
If I was sad, I ate. If I was happy, which was rare, I ate. If I was indifferent, you could find me with a Twix, a peach Faygo, and some hot fries. It wasn’t healthy, but it was a comfort as I dealt with body dysmorphia and the onset of my chronic skin condition.
When I was in middle school, I developed hidradenitis suppurativa (HS). The condition causes recurrent boils and cysts in places where skin touches skin. For me, that meant my armpits, lower back, breasts, and stomach.
I would get flares every month — sometimes every week. The boils often grew to the size of a golf ball or larger and brought an indescribable amount of pain. When they burst, my clothes became soaked with pus and blood and I reeked of garbage. No matter how often I washed or how much body spray I used, I always felt dirty.
Unable to unpack the emotions that came with the condition, I ate. By the time I entered high school, my whole body was covered in tracts, boils, open wounds, and scar tissue. I was finally diagnosed with HS by a dermatologist I met in a clinical trial. He suggested my diet could be one of the many causes of the condition. He encouraged me to lose weight and to make some significant changes to my diet.
By eliminating foods like pork, beef, chicken, and dairy from my diet, I was able to lose more than 150 pounds and bring my chronic skin condition into remission within about 2 years. The more I learned about trigger foods such as dairy, brewer’s yeast, soy, processed sugar, wheat, and gluten, the more foods I kept off my plate, literally.
This year I started to see the effects my diet was having on my system. Through Facebook support groups for HS and additional clinical research, I learned that the list of foods I should avoid was longer than I’d initially thought.
Foods such as legumes, garlic, onions, cauliflower, nuts, grains, seeds, and nightshades were causing inflammation in my body, worsening my HS symptoms and my gut health.
Without legumes, grains, and seeds, I’m afraid I’ll become malnourished. At the same time, I fear eating meat again. I don’t know for sure if eating meat is what contributed to my outbreaks, but when I stopped consuming it almost a decade ago, my HS went into remission.
Fearful as I am, I know I have to eat. I’ve decided to go back to the drawing board despite the risks. For now, I’m crossing veganism off my list and bringing seafood back into my diet.
I’ve learned to live with the restrictions, but I wish my body would allow me to enjoy the processed fatty foods I used to eat.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on my health journey is to listen to what my body is telling me. How does my condition feel after I eat one type of food versus another? Do I feel better, or does it cause a flare?
If something doesn’t work out, I’ve learned to deal with the frustration, process the emotions, and go back to the drawing board. It’s challenging, but until I find a system that works, I’m forever experimenting. At the end of the day, I’d rather be healthy than malnourished and flaring. I just can’t give up hope.
Jasmine IVANNA Espy is a journalist turned filmmaker working as an executive assistant for talent agencies and production companies within the film and television industry. As she pursues a career in entertainment, IVANNA continues to show up as an advocate for the HS community through her documentary film work and the summits, advocacy, and awareness campaigns she produces. It’s her goal to procure finishing funds to release “My Gold Lining: A Documentary on Hidradenitis Suppurativa” at the top of 2021.