It took three years of living in New York for me to finally find a place that felt like home. When a friend of a friend posted on Facebook in the fall of 2012 that the apartment next door to him and his wife in Red Hook was opening up and came with a shared backyard, I couldn't break the lease on my tiny windowless room in Williamsburg fast enough. Along with the yard came eight pet chickens, which meant I could run outside and in minutes would be biting into the vibrant orange yolks found only in eggs that fresh. My neighbors would make frozen egg custards in the summertime, filled with swirls of jams and crumbled homemade cookie bits.
After two years of living in that apartment, my neighbors split up and he moved out, leaving behind not only his wife but the chickens as well. She worked nights and wasn’t always home to lock up the coops before night fell, when the raccoons and possums of Brooklyn arose from their daytime slumber. It very quickly became a regular occurrence to hear the chickens’ awful, strangled screams in the middle of the night as they fell prey one by one.
One of those nocturnal animals then took up permanent residence in the ceiling directly above my bed. The scratching and dragging noises that went back and forth above my head woke me on the nights the dying chickens didn't. Then, unrelatedly but simultaneously, a hoard of carpenter bees made a nest directly outside my window and eventually ate their way into my bedroom. Live bees flew around my room daily.
My friends and family didn’t really understand why I was suddenly and completely losing my mind, and I think most of them thought I wasn’t around that much simply because I was blissfully wrapped up in a relatively new relationship. I had been dating someone for about nine months at the time and he was the only one aside from me who heard the nightly scratching and screaming, who saw the bee carcasses lining the windowsill. Even my roommate somehow remained blissfully unaware in her room at the opposite end of the apartment. Plus my landlord—the final and most dreadful plight of all to descend upon my apartment—either didn’t believe me or didn’t want to believe me. He did everything but help, including cutting down all the beautiful mulberry trees that grew in our backyard. I spent more and more time sleeping in my tiny living room or at my boyfriend Tom’s apartment in Harlem. I dreaded going home.
I continued to live in Red Hook with those plagues for two more months. I don't remember exactly what made me get up on a Saturday morning and walk over fifteen miles going back and forth between Bushwick and Bed Stuy to look at apartments—but suddenly, I had to get out as soon as possible.
The apartment I moved into, off the last J train stop in Bushwick, had a railroad layout that echoed my place in Red Hook. But this one was newly renovated, complete with sparkling appliances and fresh blue-gray painted walls. I still lived on the end of the apartment with the backyard, but now I could only see it from two stories up—and of course, there were no chickens. It should have been an upgrade, but after leaving one of the most inaccessible neighborhoods in New York, I felt more isolated than ever. My friends, my job, and anything to do were all even further out of reach, and as daunting as the commute between Red Hook and Harlem had been, the two hours and multiple train changes necessary to get to Bushwick made my then one-year-old relationship feel truly long distance.
At that point in my life, four years ago, I had been experiencing some level of abdominal discomfort for as long as I could remember. But it was sporadic, fairly infrequent, and what I would have called manageable. Every once in a while, over the years, I would try to do something about it; I went to doctors and gastroenterologists, got endoscopies and colonoscopies, and was always told the same thing: Lower my stress, take some Gas X, and go home. The symptoms were often uncomfortable, sometimes painful, but not consistent enough to do anything about other than to accept.
Then, a few weeks after I moved to Bushwick, my symptoms worsened. My every-few-months pain became monthly and then weekly and then daily. This time I became determined to find a doctor with an answer, and by the spring of 2016, at age 29, I was diagnosed with SIBO (or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth), a gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal bloating and difficulty digesting certain foods. The gastroenterologist who finally gave a name to the pain I had felt on and off for years made it sound as if it would be so easy to make it better: Take antibiotics, go on an elimination diet. I did those things and did them again and again. And again.
Almost a year after my diagnosis, I was sitting on the floor of Penn Station crying on the phone to my mother, telling her I didn’t know if I could get on the train. On each of my arms hung a neon-orange cooler filled to the brim with cardboard containers of salad—days’ worth of food I had packed for myself to get me through a weekend away because it was supposed to be “safe.” I knew I wasn’t going to be able to eat what everyone else was eating when I got there. This was also food I had realized minutes earlier was probably causing the sharp, radiating pains in my stomach, making it unthinkable to even stand.
When the multiple treatments and diets prescribed by the millionth gastroenterologist failed, I started seeing a naturopath who recommended that I should focus on “soupy, stewy” foods because they were easier to digest. She told me that if I was going to eat anything raw, I should eat it with hot liquid. I started drinking hot tea with my daily lunch salad, and because all of the foods I put in my salad were “compliant” with the new elimination diet she put me on, I figured I was doing everything I was supposed to do. But the pain persisted, and at that moment on the floor of Penn Station, I felt afraid to eat anything.
Looking back now, it’s still hard to comprehend how this condition that had been completely unknown to me only a few years ago could so suddenly turn food—one of the most fundamental and enjoyable aspects of my life—into a genuine fear. Eventually, I made it onto the train, getting through the weekend by eating tuna out of a can and cooking my salads in a pan when I had access to a kitchen. When I returned home to Bushwick, I didn’t know what to do—so, of course, I turned to the Internet.
For the next two months, I brought those orange coolers back and forth to work, but this time filled with giant glass containers of soup to eat at my desk for breakfast and lunch. I made the soup according to a book I had found online, which claimed that eating it could “heal my gut”—an irresistible promise for someone feeling as helpless as I did. At the time, it seemed to be my only hope.
Every other night, I would roast two packages of beef bones and put the bones into my slow cooker along with the molten marrow, salt, and whole black peppercorns. Before work, I’d pour the bone broth into a big stockpot and add chunks of pre-cut stew meat and a limited variety of chopped vegetables. (At one point, I needed only two hands to count how many foods I felt were safe to eat, even in boiled form.) Sometimes I’d put in a little extra effort by buying ground meat and forming meatballs or pureeing the vegetables into something that reminded me of a time in my life when the word “soup” represented a meal to be enjoyed.
Somehow I managed to do this for 54 days.
The 54th day of soup was also Tom’s birthday. For the previous 54 days, I hadn’t left the house to do anything other than go to work. Making and eating soup took up all of my free time and energy. I didn’t see my friends or family, and if I saw him, he stayed at my apartment, so far from his own. Sometimes he even ate the soup with me, uncomplaining. The week of his birthday, I was determined to take him out, and not only that, I was going to stay overnight at his place for once, away from my slow cooker and stockpot and the very tenuous routine I had been maintaining for almost two months.
So I prepared. I filled my orange cooler with extra soup—enough to get me through five meals in two days. I packed an overnight bag and ate my dinner soup at my desk before I met him at Madison Square Garden for the Knicks game I was surprising him with. Just when I was starting to think I had pulled it all off, near the end of the game, that old familiar pain started to spread through my abdomen. In that moment, I realized even after 54 days, I wasn't getting any better, and the soup wasn't going to be the cure I thought it was.
We hurried out of the game right as it ended and, in the process, forgot my overnight bag under the seat. As we sat on the floor in the hallway of the stadium, waiting as the nighttime cleaning staff radioed each other to find my bag, I realized I had remembered all the soup but had forgotten the supplements prescribed by my naturopath back at my apartment in Bushwick. We didn’t stay at his place that night, and that was the last time I ate the soup.
In the summer of 2017, nearly three years into our relationship, Tom and I moved in together into a two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. At the end of a quiet red brick–lined block with windows overlooking the Hudson River, our new home was about as far from Red Hook and Bushwick as you could get while still living in New York. It was there I came to find that Red Hook hadn’t been the home I thought it was, even before it fell apart. Because this was.
With its uneven wooden floors, glass doorknobs, and an archway leading into the living room from which we could see the sun setting over the river every night—coming home always felt like “a hit, a score.” For months after we moved, I would come through the door, kick off my shoes, and throw my hands in the air to exclaim, “I love living here!” A wide blue couch would catch me in the living room. The new apartment was full of natural light, and it was also where I have laughed every single day since we moved in, because Tom lives there too.
One of the rules of the soup diet was that I was allowed to eat soft-boiled eggs, but only in the soup. A few times, when I just couldn’t bear to eat soup for breakfast again, I cheated and ate just the eggs—but it felt wrong every time, as if even the slightest deviation from the diet was undoing any progress I might have made toward feeling better. In the end, the soup didn't help me, but it's not because I broke any rules. And three years later, I still have SIBO. But I do feel better, most days.
I've since learned that food is neither a cure nor something to fear. To this day, breakfast is still my favorite meal, but the most complicated for me. All of the best breakfast foods now come associated with a label that my particular experience with SIBO has attached to it. For my body, gluten and dairy are “inflammatory,” coffee “causes stress,” raw fruit and nuts (the latter of which comprise most nondairy alternatives) cause real pain, I’m not supposed to eat eggs or pork (read: sausage and bacon) because a blood test told me so, and don’t even get me started on any form of sugar. Sometimes I ignore all these rules and eat sausage, egg, and cheese bagels for a week straight. Other times I eat (gluten-free) oatmeal or coconut milk chia pudding for breakfast for days on end and miss the bagels.
Yet there is the rare time I find an elusive balance.
A few weeks ago, I made breakfast for Tom to celebrate a year since he proposed to me at home on the blue couch in the living room of the apartment we both love so much. That Saturday morning, I set our dining table with some of the dinnerware we had received as an early gift from our wedding registry and served French toast with bacon. The challah bread was special-ordered and gluten-free, the bacon was pasture-raised from a CSA, and the maple syrup was organic. I skipped the butter, but it tasted just like the French toast served at celebratory breakfasts of my past—only this time, there were no symptoms. No soup, either.