by Adrienne Katz Kennedy
Adrienne’s essay appears in episode 23 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was twelve, after three years of not growing an inch or gaining a pound – a time when I should have been spurting and approaching puberty.
A chronic illness of the small or large intestine, Crohn’s often disrupts the absorption of nutrients, which explained why I had stopped growing. At the time it was more of an inconvenience than anything else. I couldn’t stay up as late as the other girls at sleepovers. I had to take medicine as often as I brushed my teeth. More often, really. There was no popcorn for me at the movies, or cheeseburgers at birthday parties: both hurt my stomach. Everything I ate under my parents’ watchful eyes had to be nutrient-dense in attempt make up for lost time. At age twelve I grappled with this, attempting to accept I was different at a time when, like every other twelve-year-old-girl, all I wanted was be like everyone else. The difficulties were thankfully mostly emotional once we finally figured out what had stunted my growth and left me so tired.
At sixteen, following a trip to the ER after pain that left me unable to even stand, I had emergency surgery, my first and only (knock on wood): a bowel resection surgery followed by a three-month stint at home.
Tutors instead of teachers.
IVs instead of pizza.
A popsicle in the back yard instead of junior prom.
My parents did their best to put a positive spin on our situation. After my surgery I was wheeled into a private room of the newly built wing of the Rainbow Babies and Children Hospital. It was as bright and cheerful as its name might indicate. At least it tried to be. The newly refurbished wing was filled with colorful murals and toys wherever you cast your eyes. I was the very first person to stay in my room. I can recall the stars and moons on my ceiling, glowing each night alongside all the symphony of beeping monitors and machines.
The room came complete with a small ice-box-sized fridge/freezer which my parents loaded with individual servings of Jell-O cups and Icy Pops – the two things other than clear broth that I was allowed to consume for the next few months. My newly licensed teenage friends would drive their parents’ cars over after school for visits. I pictured them in their cars: windows down, hair blowing in the warm breeze, tapping carelessly to their latest handpicked mixed tape (it was the ‘90s, after all). Some would tentatively linger in the doorway, unsure how to approach. But my best girlfriends would confidently, casually saunter in like it was no big deal, helping themselves to a clear, sweet snack of their choice before plopping themselves on my hospital bed, careful to avoid the sea of wires. Occasionally we’d leave the hospital to walk outside in the small courtyard, slightly out of earshot from my parents so they could feed me the latest gossip while I dragged my IVs drips, nicknamed Oscar and Felix, behind me.
My newly licensed teenage friends would drive their parents’ cars over after school for visits. I pictured them in their cars: windows down, hair blowing in the warm breeze, tapping carelessly to their latest handpicked mixed tape (it was the ‘90s, after all).
We carried on the same types of visits from my parents’ house once I was discharged after the surgery, upgrading to a full American-sized refrigerator and freezer and a portable IV backpack whose generator would audibly churn as it pumped milky liquids into my forearm.
I remember sticking my head out of the window of my friend Margot’s car like a dog off to the park as we drove away from the house the first time. The backpack was still too loud to be in public without drawing unwanted attention, but the freedom of mobility it provided made the constant churning a small, tolerable concession, a small tumble dryer whirling away on my back.
At a time when the ‘blue raspberry’ flavor had just emerged and quickly became THE flavor of choice, I was given open license to consume it. Blue Raz Icy Pops quickly became my favorite and we purchased them with gusto and in bulk – a thin thread of opportunity to participate in the world. My mother exhausted every possible Jell-O flavor and broth combination, creating a sad combination we called “barnyard soup:” a mixture of beef and chicken broth. It reeked of desperation, a feeble attempt to put a spin on a dark and unpredictable time, but she carried on in her attempts none-the-less. It’s just what parents do.
As my claustrophobia and restlessness grew, so did my sweet tooth. I developed a deep disgust of the colored, flavored gelatin; these feelings of having my wings clipped now associated themselves with its notoriously jiggly texture and the thick sour scent from lipids spills during IV changes.
It all became sickly and indistinguishable from each other.
As my claustrophobia and restlessness grew, so did my sweet tooth.
Eventually, the tides turned.
I recovered from surgery, with a scar from pubic bone to belly button as souvenir. (No bikinis for me that summer, I surmised.) I was allowed to start eating real food again, leave the house, return to school. I had a new uncontrollable sweet tooth that took years to eventually wane, alongside the desire to eat absolutely everything; equal parts rage against authority, rage against my body and a means of making up for lost time and freedoms. Eventually they too faded along with my scar.
It has been twenty-four years since my restrictive pre-and-post-surgery diet of Jell-O and Icy Pops. I have had maybe one or two mouthfuls of each since, their feel in my mouth something I don’t ever wish to repeat.
I’ll contently sit and watch my two young daughters slurp down bowls of Jell-O and whipped cream or a cool Icy Pop on a hot summer day. Treats to them, placeholders for me; pinpoints to memories and feelings I could never conjure up by brain alone, and don’t wish to by mouth ever again. I would never deny my children this pleasure, it’s a relief to have overwritten some of these old feelings of pain with ones of joy.
But, in my head is the voice of Scarlet O’Hara, “As God as my witness, I will never eat Jell-O again.”
Custom illustration by Corinne Pease.
About Adrienne Katz Kennedy
Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a trained dance anthropologist (yes, that’s a thing), turned freelance food and culture writer. Born in Cleveland Ohio where she learned to embrace her Jewish-meets-Texan heritage, you can now find her in London, England typing away at the keyboard in her tiny home office, sifting through an ever-growing collection of spices in the (slightly bigger) kitchen or attempting to grow edible things out of a postage-stamp-sized garden.