Long Reads

Why I Ate Nothing but Soup for 54 Days

There were days I was afraid to eat. Now I'm learning to love food again.

by:
February 25, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

The chickens of Red Hook. Photo by Alex Egan

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.

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Top Comment:
“Alex, thank you so much for sharing your story. It feels very validating reading your experiences that just confirm what Ive learned about this condition over the years. This got a bit long, so I apologize for the length, but if it helps someone to know they are not alone in this, then its worth it. I've had IBS since I was about 4 years old(55 now) and learned how to manage it really well. Big time foodie, always cooking and creating my own recipes, it was my passion and therapy. Read and collected cookbooks like novels. IN my last 20's I was in a car accident, symptoms worsened, I was also finally diagnosed by my PT with Fibromyalgia. I learned that my diet directly affected the Fibro and kept it almost 100% managed for many years. About 10 years ago I was in the middle of some of the worst stress(divorce, forced to move, single, homeschooling mom and sole-care-giver for both my elderly parents(dad had Alzheimers). That was just the beginning of everything just crashing down around me. My IBS was starting to snowball, getting worse. I came down with bronchial pneumonia, was really sick for 6 weeks and had to take heavy duty antibiotics . Life has not been the same ever since. Its too long of story but after years of suffering with pain, heavy & unmanageable GI issues, my hair usually thick and healthy hair started breaking off(at 1st I thought it was falling out!)when I would wet it in the shower it would feel like it had corn-syrup in it. I started getting intense and frequent hot flashes, cystic acne and weak muscles, heart palpitations, rising blood pressure...you name it. Fibro flared up and Ive battling it like crazy. I felt like I was falling apart at the seams. I was super healthy, aside from the lifelong IBS, before this. Eventually, after much persistence, I was diagnosed with SIBO..for all the good it has done. Years of researching, following health blogs and trial and error, I've been able to improve allot of the symptoms, on my own. No Dr has been helpful. It was so bad years ago I went down to 113 lbs because all I could eat was boneless chicken and over cooked squash. I went in to see my DR(she is very good)and told her that I actually felt like I was dying. When no one could help, that was when I promised myself I would do all I could to heal. I have to say that the bone broth(chicken) was a huge save for me, along with fermented veggies. Everything started to improve after a couple of months on it. I started making homemade hair-protein treatments and using other natural ingredients for my skin. I went into PT and started walking everyday. The acne was gone, I was getting stronger, eventually I was able to go from 5 minutes a day to several hours a day, of walking. I was able to get more food into my diet and my hair was almost back to normal. Then life crashed again and Ive been chasing the SIBO down ever since. In time the bone broth started causing symptoms so I started making meat broth and I still make it 1-2 times a week. I cant really go without it. I know now that the cause of this is high-consistent, long-term stress levels. I know all the hard life events started it off, and that it was fully triggered by the antibiotics but if I was to blame one source on this, it would be my home environments. Home should be the safe place you can regenerate, cocoon, feel in control. Ive only had one place that felt like that and that was when I was improving and healing steadily. . For the past 9 years I haven't felt safe, I haven't had a sanctuary from everything Ive been through. Rising rents forced me to keep moving until I landed here over 8 years ago(cannot afford to move). What you went through in that apartment? Except for the chickens, that's been me and my son. We've had also multiple infestations, including hornets, violently screaming landlords who live upstairs (so no one to go to about this), an aggressive drunk downstairs(he finally moved out a few years ago), their dog howls for hours and hours because he left alone all day, 6 days a week and we live in an area that is a constant sensory overload. I'm a nature, peace-loving, listening to birds singing, farmers market kind of gal. Where we live could not be more opposite. Now, although I'm better in some respects, Ive become food-phobic, lost my passion for cooking(slowly getting it back). How can you heal your body. eat healthy, heal your relationship with food, heal your gut, when your body rejects food, especially the healthiest of foods and makes exercising and having a social life, almost impossible?? Im not giving up and Ive added more foods but its a struggle because every food, including water, still causes issues. When I reintro a food and it goes ok, I over eat because I feel so deprived. Now I'm dealing with weight gain and inflammation(of course) but I'm working through all that and making changes back to "in moderation". I just want to eat, cook, share food with friends and feel healthy and energetic again. I want to be me again. {{hugs}} for all you went through Alex. And for everyone dealing with this. Again, I apologize for the length. Believe it or not this is the short version. lol :)”
— Kim
Comment

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.


I know exactly what I’m looking for, not space so much as surface area, a honey-comb interior, with wafer walls and butterscotch parquet leading from room to room, each mouthful lighter, sweeter than the one before and breathed, not tasted, like a puff of icing sugar. Coming home will be a hit, a score. I’ll drop my hand-bag in the hall, tie back my hair, lie down and lick the floor.
Kate Bingham, "Home Sweet Home"

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.

A hit, a score. Photo by Alex Egan

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.

Home sweet home. Photo by Alex Egan

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Alex was born and raised in Upstate New York, and now lives in Washington Heights with her fiancé and their many beloved plants. She went to a small state college, where she was an English major and literary magazine editor, and from there came to New York to get her master's degree in Publishing from NYU. Through previous jobs at Scientific American, Time Out New York, and Hearst, she tried on a variety of hats before stumbling into SEO. She is now Senior SEO Strategist at Food52.

19 Comments

Diane March 7, 2020
Thank you for sharing some of your journey with us Alex. I am amazed at the great lengths you went to to feel better. And kudos to Tom for sticking by you through your ordeal. You are a very brave woman and an inspiration to all who suffer with GI issues. And I love Washington Heights!
 
Mariam March 6, 2020
What an inspirational and touching piece. I totally and thoroughly understand your suffering, Alex.
Unfortunately, nowdays I am living a life that is similar to your past painful time. I can't build a healthy or even a satisfying relationship with food, and the situation worsened because i am experiencing Amenorrhea, weight loss and fear of eating anything; literrally anything and when even try to improve my apetit, the result is always awful. (My mother is crying every day when she see me as i am like a skeleton)
I am also crying every night, can't deal properly with my friends or my social circle.
One of my friends told me that I have to spend some time alone, enjoy the feeling of solitude and try to change my routine (I lost my father suddenly without saying GOODBYE) (I lost my lovely job without any appreciation)...
Sometimes I feel that I really need to focus on myself, love it, eat and do what really makes me happy.
I hope to move to another apartment with a BIG balcony, talk only with birds and listen to Mozart - I think that the good mood, the good relationships and the thoughtful partner will bring my lovely life back and of course will rebuild, or restore my relationship with food and eating , the most beautiful and sacred ritual in my life.
Wish you the best.

 
Kim February 29, 2020
Alex, thank you so much for sharing your story. It feels very validating reading your experiences that just confirm what Ive learned about this condition over the years.

This got a bit long, so I apologize for the length, but if it helps someone to know they are not alone in this, then its worth it.

I've had IBS since I was about 4 years old(55 now) and learned how to manage it really well. Big time foodie, always cooking and creating my own recipes, it was my passion and therapy. Read and collected cookbooks like novels. IN my last 20's I was in a car accident, symptoms worsened, I was also finally diagnosed by my PT with Fibromyalgia. I learned that my diet directly affected the Fibro and kept it almost 100% managed for many years.

About 10 years ago I was in the middle of some of the worst stress(divorce, forced to move, single, homeschooling mom and sole-care-giver for both my elderly parents(dad had Alzheimers). That was just the beginning of everything just crashing down around me. My IBS was starting to snowball, getting worse. I came down with bronchial pneumonia, was really sick for 6 weeks and had to take heavy duty antibiotics . Life has not been the same ever since. Its too long of story but after years of suffering with pain, heavy & unmanageable GI issues, my hair usually thick and healthy hair started breaking off(at 1st I thought it was falling out!)when I would wet it in the shower it would feel like it had corn-syrup in it. I started getting intense and frequent hot flashes, cystic acne and weak muscles, heart palpitations, rising blood pressure...you name it. Fibro flared up and Ive battling it like crazy. I felt like I was falling apart at the seams. I was super healthy, aside from the lifelong IBS, before this. Eventually, after much persistence, I was diagnosed with SIBO..for all the good it has done.

Years of researching, following health blogs and trial and error, I've been able to improve allot of the symptoms, on my own. No Dr has been helpful. It was so bad years ago I went down to 113 lbs because all I could eat was boneless chicken and over cooked squash. I went in to see my DR(she is very good)and told her that I actually felt like I was dying. When no one could help, that was when I promised myself I would do all I could to heal.

I have to say that the bone broth(chicken) was a huge save for me, along with fermented veggies. Everything started to improve after a couple of months on it. I started making homemade hair-protein treatments and using other natural ingredients for my skin. I went into PT and started walking everyday. The acne was gone, I was getting stronger, eventually I was able to go from 5 minutes a day to several hours a day, of walking. I was able to get more food into my diet and my hair was almost back to normal. Then life crashed again and Ive been chasing the SIBO down ever since.

In time the bone broth started causing symptoms so I started making meat broth and I still make it 1-2 times a week. I cant really go without it.

I know now that the cause of this is high-consistent, long-term stress levels. I know all the hard life events started it off, and that it was fully triggered by the antibiotics but if I was to blame one source on this, it would be my home environments. Home should be the safe place you can regenerate, cocoon, feel in control. Ive only had one place that felt like that and that was when I was improving and healing steadily. . For the past 9 years I haven't felt safe, I haven't had a sanctuary from everything Ive been through. Rising rents forced me to keep moving until I landed here over 8 years ago(cannot afford to move). What you went through in that apartment? Except for the chickens, that's been me and my son. We've had also multiple infestations, including hornets, violently screaming landlords who live upstairs (so no one to go to about this), an aggressive drunk downstairs(he finally moved out a few years ago), their dog howls for hours and hours because he left alone all day, 6 days a week and we live in an area that is a constant sensory overload. I'm a nature, peace-loving, listening to birds singing, farmers market kind of gal. Where we live could not be more opposite.

Now, although I'm better in some respects, Ive become food-phobic, lost my passion for cooking(slowly getting it back). How can you heal your body. eat healthy, heal your relationship with food, heal your gut, when your body rejects food, especially the healthiest of foods and makes exercising and having a social life, almost impossible??

Im not giving up and Ive added more foods but its a struggle because every food, including water, still causes issues. When I reintro a food and it goes ok, I over eat because I feel so deprived. Now I'm dealing with weight gain and inflammation(of course) but I'm working through all that and making changes back to "in moderation". I just want to eat, cook, share food with friends and feel healthy and energetic again. I want to be me again.

{{hugs}} for all you went through Alex. And for everyone dealing with this.

Again, I apologize for the length. Believe it or not this is the short version. lol :)
 
Author Comment
Alex E. March 2, 2020
Kim, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry to hear about everything you’ve been through. It’s simply unfair. And I believe you that it’s the short version! I totally get the feeling of just wanting to be yourself again. And maybe there’s no going back but I’m still hoping for a better way forward. I hope you feel the same way, and I really hope you feel better soon.
 
Kim March 3, 2020
Thank you Alex. Its nice to share how hard this can be. I'm still hoping for a better way forward, as well! I don't give up easy but...oy. ;) Thank you again for sharing you story. <3
 
Susan February 29, 2020
An important essay, because it’s about thoughtful living. Life is nothing more than a journey of ups and downs for all of us. There are no perfect answers, just adaptations . You have articulated beautifully a trying time in your life. More than this you have created a useful template for coping . This will serve you well in what I hope is a long personally successful life!
 
Author Comment
Alex E. March 2, 2020
Wow, thank you so much for your extremely thoughtful (and eloquent!) note, Susan! Your positivity and kindness means so much.
 
Barbara February 28, 2020
Thanks this sounds lots like my journey with G. I. Issues for the past 30 something years! Been told everything from ulcers, IBS hytatial hernia Hpylori twice! First time i have heard of this ! Gives me some hope !
 
Author Comment
Alex E. March 2, 2020
I’m so sorry to hear you’ve been through something similar, Barbara, and for so long. I hope you find something to help you feel better soon!
 
Avo A. February 26, 2020
Dear Alex, after a bout of ulcer and a regimen of antibiotics, I started having these horrible stomach pains and bloating. Anemia, bad breath and heart burn were also part of it. I diagnosed myself after two years by chance. I was listening to a friend explaining her symptoms which were exactly like mine. She was lucky enough to be diagnosed with SIBO. I immediately went to my GI and asked for the test and sure enough it was positive. SIBO is just awful. I also had pain and bloating. My stomach was a mess and my bowels, well I would rather not say! My husband told me that I should immediately start on a broth diet. I ignored him and started on those special antibiotics. I immediately felt better, but food was still my enemy. No legumes, no salads, no nuts, no breads and no sugar. All my favorites were a NO! My husband kept telling me to start the broth diet and I still ignored him and went to see a nutritionist. The first thing she said "broth diet!" Imagine I had to come home and tell my husband I had to go on a broth diet. Of course, he did not admonish me, he started making me a variety of broths. From pork stew (which is my favorite and my stomach loves it) to fish to chicken to bone broth. They were all amazing. First it was only the broth. Then slowly we added vegetables and then meats. For the 6 months i was on that diet, i felt like my old self again! It was heaven! I slept better and i was back to my 20s weight. It was just HEAVEN. Then life intervened. I can eat almost everything now, but still no legumes, and no beans, no bread which is still my favorite. Although I try. I am slowly going back to the broth diet, our freezer is full of it. Not because of SIBO, but because it is the best diet for me. Thank you for bringing this awful disease to light so people can read about it. I do not wish this on anyone!
 
Author Comment
Alex E. February 27, 2020
Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience, Avo. As difficult as the symptoms can be, I agree that giving up some of our favorite foods can be the hardest part. I’m glad you found something that helps, and I hope for even better days ahead!
 
Kristen M. February 26, 2020
Alex, thank you so much for opening up about this—I'm sure so many people (myself included) will relate to the torment of broken bodies with no answers. Congratulations on getting through the soup gauntlet!
 
Author Comment
Alex E. February 27, 2020
Thank you so much for reading, Kristen! I hate to hear that you can relate, but I agree it helps to commiserate. Hope you find some answers soon!
 
Max M. February 26, 2020
I am the raccoon living in your ceiling.
 
Author Comment
Alex E. February 27, 2020
*Flags as inappropriate*
 
Juliana C. February 26, 2020
Beautifully constructed essay with so many interesting layers. Thanks for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Alex E. February 26, 2020
Thanks for reading and for the feedback, Juliana! I really appreciate you taking the time.
 
Arati M. February 26, 2020
I loved reading this raw, beautiful essay, Alex, thank you for sharing your journey with such honesty. I also love how you've set the story against the shifting backdrop of these homes and neighborhoods...
 
Author Comment
Alex E. February 26, 2020
Thank you so much for reading, Arati, and for your thoughtful comment! It really means so much.