The man who couldn't eat
August 29th, 2011
10:30 AM ET
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Jon Reiner is the author of 'The Man Who Couldn't Eat,' a memoir of his months spent without ingesting any food - a "nothing by mouth" order - due to a ruptured intestine, a rare complication from Crohn's disease.

“Look at the bright side. I won’t have to worry about Don undercooking my burger. Cooking over an open flame is tough to regulate, I grant you, but you’d think that after thirty years he’d have it down.”

Artie starts to chuckle, but stops himself awkwardly and swallows the laugh I’d hoped for. I want a comeback from him - “that’s in poor taste,” “you get what you pay for” - a softball I can connect with and knock out of the park, but his eyes are anxious and shift down to the full plate of food on his lap. The conversation stops. It’s hard for my old friend to laugh at a science project.

We’re sitting on the screened porch of Don and Tina’s Maine lake house for their annual end-of-summer party, but I’m not eating today. I won’t touch the red hamburgers and the potluck covering the picnic table: fruit salad cradled in a watermelon shell; marinated cucumbers and fiddlehead ferns; cole slaw; pasta salad; baked beans; and my wife’s deviled eggs.

On doctor’s orders, I’ve been restricted to “Nothing By Mouth” since a ruptured gut and emergency surgery surprised me in the spring. It’s temporary, I’m told, and I believe I’ll be back with the eaters by Thanksgiving. It will be our turn to host, and I’m counting on it.

For now, I get basic nutrition through a heavy-duty IV line that’s ported into my upper arm and is juiced by a battery-operated food pump 18 hours a day. I lug the motor in a backpack slung over my shoulder, and Artie is trying hard not to stare at the noisy hump. The damn thing whirrs as loud as the speedboats cruising past, an uninvited guest that came empty-handed. You can’t miss it.

The menu here is basically the same every year, unaffected by the changing fashion of food, and I love it. Summer isn’t complete without this party, without the red plastic plates loaded with food, without Tina’s funny stars-and-bars sheet cake, before we pack away our bathing suits and go back to reality.

Ritually, my mother brings the sugar-and-gold corn, picked this morning and presently going uneaten on Artie’s plate. The sweet taste of mowing through the steamed yellow-and-white kernels defines summer, like swimming in the fresh water we’re overlooking, and there’s an emptiness to being here that I didn’t expect. I depend on the party food to mark the calendar and balance the rhythms we all rely on to steady our lives.

I smell the char from the grill and the sulfur of the deviled eggs. With taste taken away, my body has amplified the other senses, and my nose leads the way. Every meal is like walking past a pizza oven when you’re hungry - the aroma is so alluring I’m ready to jump in. Without food, I’m out of sync. So, I talk about it.

“Steamed for exactly two minutes. Not a second more.”

However, Artie’s still not giving me what I want - the diversion to ditch this 800-pound gorilla in the room for the afternoon. Arthur and I have known each other since college. We’re bluntly honest on the tennis court. He’s a lawyer, and I don’t imagine he shuts down from clients like he’s doing with me. He’s stopped eating. The ear of corn lying across his plate is crying out to be buttered and salted and devoured.

Artie’s wife Helen, sitting next to him, and Marcia who’s settled across from me, have stopped eating, too. What an impact I’m having on people. If you consider the stream of chemical mother’s milk pumping into my vein to be food, then I’m the only one eating. It’s absurd.

“Artie, please, get to that corn immediately, or I will.”

“You sure?” he asks, looking at me uncertainly. His hands are dropped to the sides of the folding chair, away from his plate. “Won’t that make it worse?”

You can’t be angry with someone for speaking the truth. He’s trying to spare me more misery, and I’d be a lousy friend if I didn’t appreciate his concern. But, I need to rejoin the living, to be with them, even if it’s only by watching them live. Despite the heavy machinery on my back, I did decide to come to the party today.

“Believe me, nothing would make me happier.” That’s a lie, and we both know it. I want to bite into that sweet corn, and the deviled eggs, and even Don’s dangerously undercooked burgers. Soon, I hope. However, if my friends and I can’t share the flavor of the food today, at least we can talk about it.

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Filed under: Books • Dietary Restrictions • Think

soundoff (135 Responses)
  1. Sergio Solorsano

    The digestive system is an intricate system that can be disrupted by disease, diet, and emotional stress. Common digestive problems such as heartburn/GERD, IBD, and IBS cause millions of Americans to suffer daily and limit quality of life. Digestive problems often result in symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, gas, stomach pain, and stomach cramps. Learning more about the digestive system may help with managing these problems. ...";

    Ciao for now
    http://www.beautyfashiondigest.comds Sergio Solorsano

    June 19, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  2. brandon

    I am 31 years old and I have had chrons all my life. The only thing is because I am poor it has gone untreated till about two or thee years now. Its hard to tell with all the seizures from my epilepsy. I still can not get the tests I need because I am still poor.

    February 10, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  3. CrohnsDiaries

    Reblogged this on The Diarrhea Diaries: Living with Crohn's Disease and commented:
    This is how I feel–I would rather watch people enjoy themselves than know I'm the reason they are not eating. Everyone with a Crohnie loved-one, eat up and pretend you're enjoying it!

    January 6, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • lucewriter

      It's through CrohnsDiaries that I found this account of what you went through. This is educating the public. Very compelling.

      January 7, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  4. s4wman

    This is an interesting article. It was never stated *why* Jon was not able to ingest anything by mouth. I am curious as I have had Crohn's for 30 of my 53 years, and 12 years ago in 1999 my intestines ruptured during a severe attack. 20cm of intestine was removed, including my ileo-cecal valve at the junction of my large and small intestine. My surgeon said that I could begin eating as soon as there was evidence that my digestive system was working- a solid stool. This occurred before I left the hospital 10 days after the surgery. I have been eating pretty much whatever I want since then, although I do avoid large salads and foods with lots of fiber, since things tend to go through me fairly easily.
    So my question for Jon is why the nothing by mouth restriction? Were there complications with the surgery? What justification did the surgeon give for nothing by mouth? Was there still active Crohn's following the surgery? I am sorry to hear what you had to go through, as I have been through similar fasting for shorter periods of time and can empathize with living on a liquid diet. Friends and family often say they wish that they didn't have to worry about weight and could be thin like me. My reply is that you don't want the Crohn's that goes along with it.
    I'll be praying for you Jon- my faith in God and personal relationship with Jesus Christ have been the only thing that have carried me through 30 years with this disease.

    September 28, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Jon Reiner

      Good questions, all. Read the book and you'll find the answers. Friend in food - JR

      September 30, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  5. Steve

    Check out Sungazing man. I know it sounds crazy, but done right it works. Some dude has lived for 15 years with nothing but water and staring at the sun for an hour a day. Half hour after sunrise and half hour while its setting

    September 6, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  6. Bob

    To the author of this waste of space. Is this supposed to be a cry for attention?
    So you went a few a months with out food! This is not news worthy.
    My Grandfather lived for 15 years without a stomach. YES... thats right 15 YEARS WITHOUT A STOMACH. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1988. Soon after being diagnosed, this hack of surgeon removed his stomach before consulting with anyone for alternatives. Needless to say he NEVER had another piece of solid food again. Being a slave to his feeding he had to be connected everyday twice a day. Never again having the freedom to lead the carefree life he had when he was much younger. An infection caused by his tube lead to his death. We lost him in 2003.
    And I miss him very much every day.

    August 31, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Jon Reiner

      Hello Bob,

      As the author of this said "waste of space," I'll gladly respond to your question, "Is this supposed to be a cry for attention?" No, other than in the general sense that every act of communication has bound in it some element of attention-seeking.

      Regarding your assertion that "This is not news worthy." I wouldn't argue with that. Personal essays typically don't have much inherent "newsworthiness" unless they're written by a "newsworthy" person, which I am most certainly not. And, yes, compared to your grandfather's truly awful suffering, my episode was a hiccup.

      But, I wasn't prompted to write the essay by any of those considerations.

      My intent was to write about the role that food plays in people's lives - physically, psychologically, emotionally, socially, culturally - as I understood more acutely once food was removed from my own life. Another reader, Geoffrey, said it quite well in his own post. If you'll notice, I never mention Crohn's Disease in the essay, because the specifics of my illness really have no bearing on what I was trying to say. The fact that so many readers have seized on Crohn's is probably a validation of the editor's decision to include that information in the story's subhead, but it has had the unintended effect of influencing readers in a direction very different from the explicit content of the essay.

      September 1, 2011 at 12:46 am |
      • Matt F

        i would have liked to hear more on how the party went... how you were able to move past (or not)... and maybe a little about what other impacts you might face in your day to day life. That would have been much more interesting than missing this single party, though you eloquently enough described the issue there.

        September 2, 2011 at 11:40 am |
      • Lauren

        I just had trouble with how it was written... it was almost unreadable. I had trouble understanding the voice, the conversational sections left me wondering who was speaking and who was being spoken to... I just re-read it and I teach high schoolers who write better than this. I think I'll print it out and have my students dissect it and re-construct it in a style that reads more easily.

        September 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
      • Philoctetes

        To Lauren and your "almost unreadable" criticism, apparently Simon & Schuster, Esquire magazine and other publishers of this author disagree.

        September 19, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Guest

      Thats sad what happened to your granddad

      you dont have to act like an @*sshole,however

      September 22, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  7. Jessica

    I'm 26 yo and I've had Crohn's for almost 4.5 yrs now. Feel like I'm at an AA meeting of sorts. lol Anyways, support is a major factor when it comes to this disease. This is one of the only media outlets I've seen post so many articles relating to Crohn's. So, this is also, one of the only media outlets I've seen this many articles about. I found this article on crohnsforum dot com. It's a site where people all over the world talk about their IBD, or their friends/family's. Please know that you're not alone. <3

    August 31, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  8. Geoffrey

    What Jon is also getting at is the larger cultural and social role food and eating plays in our lives. Beyond the specifics of his condition this is a meditation on how food and eating connects us and affirms us as friends and family.

    August 31, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  9. O'Bagel

    If Crohn's disease is an autoimmune dysfunction wherein your own immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tracts, then it can be considered to be similar to asthma and other allergies. Therefore, could the cause and treatment also be similar? For example, let's first look at asthma, the cause of which most experts now believe to be parental sanitary obsessiveness, leading to insufficient immune challenge by soil-borne bacteria. If desensitization therapy by incremental exposure to the known antigen is effective in this case, we should assume that there is also a similarly effective therapy for Crohn's, provided that we can determine exactly what we need to desensitize against.

    You may say, how do you explain peanut, soy, wheat, shellfish, nut allergies, or lactose intolerance? How are these related to excessive cleanliness? Simply, anything foreign or unfamiliar can become psychologically linked to fear and result in a hostile response both mentally and physically. That would not be surprising to any criminal psychiatrist who has seen how a single traumatic event in a toddler's life could evolve into a deadly fetish. Asians, the greater part of whom have had no exposure to dairy products, lactose is indeed a foreign antigen. To an overprotected child (especially boys), whose natural curiosity and hunting instinct are suppressed in favor of extreme caution, peanuts represent potential choking danger, and shellfish are frightening to look at anyway.

    Could it be then, that Crohn's and all allergies can be treated through desensitizing the patient to fear? How many of you have ever sat in a classroom for an exam with a queasy feeling in your stomach, even to the point of diarrhea? How many of you hate roller coasters, horror movies or job interviews? None of these are life-threatening (except the job interview), yet our adrenal system keeps churning out vile chemicals that rot our intestines as if we were being chased by a serial killer.

    I admit that, as a child, I used to live in fear of exams and roller coasters because my parents were academically demanding. I started drinking heavily on my 18th birthday and forgot what it was that my parents taught me to be afraid of. Then, at 51 years of age, I read the above article and I remembered. I was supposed to be afraid of failure. I was supposed to always look behind me to see if anyone was coming up on my heels. Boy, am I glad that I'm a failure!

    August 31, 2011 at 3:18 am |
    • Matt

      WTH? You would make a great snake oil salesman.

      August 31, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • Sugarland

      I lost most of my esophagus due to cancer. I now weigh 130 pounds down from 230 pounds. Eating is very difficult and I don 't have the stomach capacity that I once had. I am, however, fortunate to be alive with having had this terrible type of cancer. Survival rate is very poor.

      August 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • sgspharm

      o'bagel you are a moron.

      September 3, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • GBIBD

      I have ulcerative colitis which falls under the IBD umbrella. I'm not usually one to comment on posts such as these, but O'Bagel, your comment is so "unscientifically correct" that I had to say something. I suggest you research autoimmune diseases and then research the specific hypersensitivity reactions caused by allergens. Obviously if we could treat IBD with a desenitization process the we treat some allergies, then people (myself included) wouldn't have to take high doses of immunosuppressants and immunomodulators every day. As to the actual topic at hand- I have never been NPO, but I have been on severely restricted diets in the past. It is so true that food plays a huge role in our day to day lives and interactions with the people around us. My roommate in college wouldn't eat dessert after dinner because she knew I couldn't eat it. I told her multiple times that it was ok, but she always felt bad. I'm very thankful that I am currently capable of eating almost anything I want. Hopefully one day science will find a cure for IBD.

      September 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
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