A Memoir Essay by Caroline Pecore

Caroline in the kitchenA new mother sits in a hospital bed cradling her wailing newborn. A man driving a red Toyota slams his fist on the horn for no apparent reason. Swirling wind scatters the melodic song of a tiny bluebird perched on a branch. As humans, we are surrounded by noise, every moment of every day. People laugh and people cry and people scream and people whisper and most of it goes unnoticed. But if you listen—really listen—you’ll hear a faint enigmatic glimmer of truth. And if you listen even deeper, if you strain your ears and filter out all the unwanted noise of everyday life, you’ll hear the sound of pure emotions: despair and pain and heartbreak and love and light and quietest of all, hope.

It took 22 pounds for anyone to notice. To be honest, I didn’t really notice myself. I had always been thin and pretty much the only time I ever weighed myself was in the doctor’s office at my yearly checkup. But at the beginning of eighth grade, my clothes were too big and my parents were concerned, so to the pediatrician we went. Sure enough, I had fallen off the BMI growth chart. My doctor took one look at the anxious and unhealthily skinny-looking girl sitting in her office and made a tentative diagnosis: anorexia. She instructed my mom to insist that I eat high-carb foods like bagels and pasta, and ordered some blood work to make sure nothing else was wrong.

One night after a dinner of takeout pizza, I listened for the clicking sound of the lock as I carefully closed the bathroom door behind me. I turned the shower knob to scalding hot, then sat down on the white linoleum floor. I buried my face in my knees and cried silently. My hands were shaking. My arms were shaking. My heart was shaking. My stomach felt like it was on fire. I felt so scared and so, so alone.

Two extremely long weeks later, I got the results of the blood test back: elevated tTG antibodies and positive for celiac disease. A gastroenterologist confirmed the diagnosis with an endoscopic biopsy of my small intestine. I finally had an explanation for my symptoms, a treatment plan and a path forward. The sound of hope may be quiet, but if you’re lucky enough to listen at just the right moment, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.

My recovery was slow and the learning curve was steep. I lost freedoms that I didn’t think about enough to appreciate before. Going to restaurants with my friends now involved a whole process of interrogating waiters and examining labels. I would never taste a Goldfish cracker again. But one day at a time, I got better. I filled my life with little things that gave me joy: sketching portraits, laughing with my little sister over stupid jokes, playing the piano, listening to other people’s stories. I joined a crew team and started high school.

Most people have never felt the sensation of their body attacking itself from the inside, but I can assure you, it’s not a fun time. Having celiac disease definitely has its downsides, but it’s not all bad either. It’s simply a part of who I am. 

Throughout this process, I was forced to reexamine my view of what it means to be strong. One of the things I absolutely love about rowing is the confidence you get from challenging both physical and mental strength and pushing the limits of what you think you can do. Knowing what it’s like to feel helpless, weak, and completely out of control, I now appreciate that in a  whole new way. To me, being “strong” is not about what one can do per se, it’s a blanket term for so many different qualities: kindness, resilience, determination, discipline, as well as being bold enough to start over and having the ability to build others up instead of tearing them down.

Caroline Pecore is a rising sophomore at Menlo-Atherton High School. In her free time, she enjoys rowing, drawing, playing piano, debate, and cooking!

Images: Caroline Pecore, rowing second from left, and Paloma Raffle, far left; Caroline’s self-portrait; Caroline in her kitchen

GF Around the World Cooking Camp for Kids, July 6-10, 2020:

Looking for something fun and socially distanced for kids (ages 8 and up) to do this summer? Caroline Pecore and her friend Paloma Raffle are running a gluten-free cooking camp over Zoom the week of July 6-10 from 4:30-6:30 PM daily. It’s $50 for the week, need-based scholarships are available, and 10% of the proceeds will be donated to the Celiac Community Foundation of Northern California. For more information about the camp, visit their website at gfchefs.com.