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A Little Help Here, Please

I am a crier.

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that my frequent crying jags are both predictable and pathetic. Sad commercials? No brainer. Sappy movies? Of course. Weddings? Always. Funerals? Forget about it.

But even I can usually hold it together while grocery shopping on a Tuesday. I’m not saying I’ve never cried while at the market, I’m just saying the circumstances have to be especially moving. This time, it was the gluten.

That’s right, gluten.

Avoiding it is supposed to be what’s best for me, but at times, I’m convinced that it’s going to be the death of me. So why not just eat it? Two weeks ago, mydoctor shared test results that revealed I’m extremely sensitive to gluten, meaning my body simply doesn’t process it well.

I wasn’t surprised at all. The diagnosis explained a decade of horrible stomach pains, which had driven me to countless tests for ulcers. For years, doctors had said there was nothing wrong with my stomach. That it was just the way my “body dealt with stress.” What a load of you-know-what.

Of course, I never said anything to any doctor’s face. I listened to their half-hearted reassurances and denials and accepted them as fact. Sure, it’s perfectly normal to lie on the floor with stomach pains so severe it feels like someone’s stabbing you. Said no one. Ever.

Like most things in my life, I took this new diagnosis very seriously. Let’s do this thing. I immediately bought an idiot’s guide for my dilemma as well as the best-selling book that explains the science behind the problem. Here’s the gist of the latter in case you don’t have time to read it yourself: The molecular structure of wheat has changed so dramatically in the past thirty years that lots of people have a hard time processing it.

So, I cut gluten from my diet for thirteen days. I felt like a whole new person without all those healthy whole grains in my body.
I was doing well on my journey to a healthier gut, feeling proud and prepared. Until I went shopping on Tuesday, when I found myself reading label after label at Trader Joe’s only to find the words I have now come to dread: contains wheat.

The seventh time I pulled something I love off the shelf to discover that it was now off-limits, I just started crying.

Not my Oprah-inducing ugly cry, just a steady stream of tears running down my cheeks as I tried to keep my quivering chin held high. I eventually pulled myself together to face Larry, the cashier on lane six, so I could get the hell out of the store and really cry in the car.

But just as I was preparing to put on a brave face and swipe my card, something remarkable happened: I asked for help, and I received it. Here’s how it went down.

Larry: How are you today?

Me: (Long sigh) I’m finding it hard to be gluten-free.

Larry: Oh, you’ll get the hang of it in no time; don’t be so hard on yourself at the beginning. If you’re doing better than you were yesterday, that’s a big step forward.

C’mon, Larry. Please don’t make me cry.

And so it went, as Larry ran each of my items over the scanner, he taught me a little bit about it, including which ones I should put back and which ones I should buy from a different store. Wow.

After my seven minutes of impromptu nutrition school with Larry, the cashier, I felt like my load had been lightened. I breathed deeper than I had in two weeks and, most importantly, I didn’t lose it when I got into my car. I went to a second grocery store, feeling energized enough to hunt for more gluten-free goods.

And here’s what I learned from this bizarre experience on a Tuesday at Trader Joe’s: People who never ask for help, never get help.

When Larry asked me how I was doing, I didn’t respond with the usual answer “Fine.” I said I was struggling. And as a direct result, Larry didn’t give me a disingenuous “Great.” He said, “Let me help you.” Funny how that works.

And it worked even better at dinner that night. My husband, Richard, and I had a date at Sabai, our favorite Thai restaurant. Having learned from the day’s earlier events, I confided in the waitress. I told her I was newly diagnosed and didn’t know what to order. She said she’d help me, and she brought me a hand-written gluten-free version of the menu. Later, when she came to check on us during the meal, I told her how much I loved the noodles in the dish, and she told me where to buy them in Richmond.

At the end of the incredibly delicious meal, I jokingly told her I’d pay $50 to watch the chef make the exact same meal so I could try doing it myself at home. It was that good. And lo and behold, she delivered a handwritten recipe and how-to with the bill.

What the heck? Who does something like that? Who takes time out of her busy shift to ask the chef for the recipe, and then transcribes it for a random patron? The answer: somebody who has been asked for help.

People who ask for help find people who are willing to help. And here’s the love note I left with her tip: “I had a terrible gluten-free day. I might have even cried at Trader Joe’s figuring out what the heck I could eat. And then my day ended with YOU and with your help with this recipe. Thank you!”

I could have cried. But I didn’t. Why bother? I’ll save my tears for something more worthy of them, like Hallmark commercials. Or maybe the grand opening of a Trader Joe’s closer to my house. In the meantime, I’m going to figure out this challenge, and I’m going to ask for – and gratefully receive – help every single step of the way.

Ask, and you too shall receive.

Katherine Wintsch is a nationally recognized expert on modern motherhood, founder of The Mom Complex in Richmond, and author of “Slay Like a Mother.” The majority of her expertise comes from studying the passion and pain points of mothers around the world. The rest, she says, is accumulated from a little trial and a whole lot of error while raising her own two children, Layla and Alex.
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