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What I learned from working in organic grocery

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:07pm

“I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” – Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip’

I worked in grocery for around five years before I discovered the accommodating and relatively high-paying (until I moved to New York) world of clerical work-study. Three of those five years were in natural and organic grocery, and two of those were spent stocking, ordering, cleaning, and selling produce. I never heard of gluten sensitivity or candida or even food allergies before the organic market. I listened to countless stories, almost always told by women, about their symptoms: weakness and fatigue, the aches and pains and the often drunken not-of-this world brain fog that shrouded their lives. These things led them on arduous journeys to root out a wheat allergy or a yeast overgrowth. Often it took them months or years and often no one helped them along the way; maybe one or two of them had a naturopath’s assistance. I wonder now how helpful in truth that assistance was. So many people abruptly swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other; omnivores suddenly eating raw diets, vegetarians adding red meat to their menus. I always listened intently to these women while they told their stories. I often asked questions. “Well, what do you eat while you’re trying to find out your allergies?” “How did you know that was ultimately what was making you sick?” These women were always thin and almost always middle-aged. They were sometimes hippies, and other times they could have passed for suburban soccer moms, and they probably were just that, willing to drive east or over the river to the urban fringe to pick up their organic food. Some of them practiced healing arts, as I suppose their experiences empowered them to be more than just well for themselves. Sometimes they espoused all kinds of New Age crap that I couldn’t care less for. Sometimes they didn’t.   I confess now that I didn’t always believe them. It is difficult to explain. I respected their stories, especially the parts where they were symptomatic. Who wants to feel that way? I had lived my whole life feeling like something wasn’t quite right – depression and lethargy despite a natural optimism. I had aches and pains too, and it was always difficult for me to lose weight – my body always seemed like it wanted to hold on to things, especially hurtful things. During the parts of their story where they figured out what was making them sick, I even cheered them on inside, but I don’t know if I ever fully believed them. How could something as innocuous as food make you that sick? Surely the relationship was not causal. Something else was going on. Hormones? Stress? A latent medical condition? I took these stories with a grain of salt, the way I took the stories of women who went on olive oil diets and lost tons of weight.

For the past two years I have felt sick and no doctor has been able to find a cause. In order to cure, a cause must be found. The one causal factor identified, my gallbladder, was removed one year ago, and the procedure only minimally lessened my symptoms. And gradually, all the symptoms returned. I have been back and forth in these two years with food. I have at times felt empowered when investigating my food, happy that I could actually be the one controlling not only the disease but the cure. I have at other times felt helpless and burdened. Food = my fault, again. I can’t just take a pill, get some rest, eat smaller meals. All this time, however, I have secretly and silently taken my strength from the women in the organic grocery store. I am only 32. Probably the age of many of the women I spoke to when they first began to hunt down their intolerances and allergies. Now I realize that the women who lost weight on olive oil probably did so because they put down the sugar and the bread. Now I realize that food can make us all incredibly ill; the same food can make us all ill for different reasons. I feel that I have a lifetime of diet detection ahead of me. But I feel that one day it may be old hat, it may be comfortable, and I may see lasting benefits that will allow me to tell stories that begin with “I went through a couple of very rough years until I figured out that I….”

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