Sending "The Text": Talking about Celiac Disease with a New Roommate

Stories and Advice from Gluten-Free Students

By Casey Cromwell of Casey the College Celiac

My fingers paused, trembling over my phone’s pop-up keyboard. I knew what I needed to say, but how do I say it? The term “celiac disease” doesn’t usually turn on any light bulbs. “Gluten-free” makes me sound like a human bunny rabbit who wants to live off lettuce to lose weight. Pausing for a moment to gather my thoughts, I slowly typed The Text to my roommate: I have celiac disease. For my intestines, gluten is a nuclear bomb.

During the end of my senior year of high school, I asked myself the normal questions about my future dorm roommate. Would she like me? Would we get along? Would she stab me in a bloody shower scene like in the midnight horror movies? Of course, at that time, I was a normal high school athlete, playing soccer and eating like a linebacker, in spite of the constant nausea, acid, bloating and weight loss that plagued me. I finally got an answer the week of my senior prom: celiac disease with a side of a gluten-free diet. That’s when everything changed.

Casey Cromwell

Gluten-free and happy!

Of course, when I stayed up until midnight for my dorm and roommate information to be released, the excitement of finally discovering my dorm assignment and roommate pushed celiac disease into the corner of my mind. My roommate, who I will call Katie, and I Facebook messaged for a few minutes past midnight, sharing the usual – What’s your name? Where do you live? Can you believe we’re college freshman? I went to bed smiling, ready to embrace my new housing and housemate.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the reality of living in a dorm with celiac disease hit me. The problem lay in the tradition of sharing of a small room, fridge and microwave. At first, I figured we’d split like everyone else. Gluten on one side, GF on the other. Then I learned about this little thing called cross-contamination. Some people don’t notice the symptoms of cross-contamination, but for me, I swear my intestines still mimic a scarred wormhole in appearance and an active volcano in behavior. I won’t take any chances.

And so, a day after talking to Katie online, I bared my medical history via text and broke my promise to split. I’m not ashamed of having celiac disease. Give me an anti-wheat (and barley and rye) t-shirt any day! But, I want people to know me first as a teenage girl with a quirky sense of humor not the girl with the autoimmune disease. In this case, though, celiac disease didn’t give me much of a choice.

In the end, Katie gave the best response possible: “I don’t know anything about gluten-free, but I’m willing to learn.” What more can I hope for when three months ago I couldn’t have said whether gluten was animal or mineral?

As confident as I feel with Katie, though, my stomach is still tied in (gluten-free) knots. Starting college is hard enough without also beginning a new gluten-free life. There will be too many food temptations to count: steaming pizza at parties, packaged snacks waiting on the dorm’s kitchen table, piping hot Mexican food during my school’s traditional midnight burrito runs. There will be social activities that make avoiding food even more awkward, like parties, dates and cafeteria lunches.

Perhaps the scariest aspect, though, is facing all of these challenges alone. I’m a newbie to the celiac disease world with only three months on my résumé, and I’ve leaned heavily on my family for most of it. Now, even though I’ll only be 45 minutes away, I must slay the gluten-breathing dragon with my own gluten-free sword.

Like every novice, I know I’ll make mistakes. I’ll face medical setbacks, share a romantic, but gluten-filled, kiss and clutch my glutened belly in bed for a class or two. But, I will always try to put my health first, no matter how difficult, just as I did with my dorm room. I will pack my own gluten-free snacks, talk to the chef at restaurants and in the cafeteria, and educate others about celiac disease.

I already sent The Text. Surviving and thriving as a gluten-free student in college can’t be any harder than that!

– Casey