Benjamin Velani / Dining Editor

March 11, 2020

A Spicy Take on Chronic Pain

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One of my earliest memories is of being five or six and having my father, a spicy food fanatic, make me eat one of the dried chilis that comes in kung pao chicken. That was the day I learned that the best antidote to a mouth on fire is not water or even milk, but mouthfuls of plain, steamed white rice. It was also the beginning of my own descent into what my mother felt was madness. From then on, my dad and I were like a cult, only instead of a god we worshipped capsaicin. We went to fancy hot sauce stores on vacation. My dad joked that he wanted to be buried in a casket shaped like a habanero pepper. I became known for casually snacking on whole jalapeños at lunch. We were insufferable.

Then, one morning in the summer of 2018, I woke up to a blinding pain in my lower abdomen. Over the next weeks and months, the pain moved around and changed quality, but it never completely faded. My doctor literally shrugged at me. A different doctor asked if I was seeing a psychiatrist. Finally a specialist mentioned IBS, Crohn’s, endometriosis and about ten other possibilities before handing me … peppermint supplements. She also told me I was probably eating too much beef (I was a vegetarian at the time).

Most chronic illness patients are accustomed to recommendations like these. It seems like the more poorly understood a disease is, the more “lifestyle changes” we are told to make — whether it’s by doctors, other patients or well-meaning strangers giving us unsolicited advice. For Crohn’s disease, the no-no list includes red meat, alcohol, saturated fats, nuts and carbonated drinks. People with endometriosis can consult countless websites telling us to avoid caffeine, gluten and chocolate. Supposedly, garlic can trigger lupus flares.

The problem with this is that for many of us, refusing all the foods we actually like eating while trying to make a point of consuming more flax seeds is an excellent way to suck the remaining joy out of a life that too often feels joyless. Eventually, a time comes when it doesn’t feel worth it anymore. For me, that was when I was told to cut out spicy food. I did, because the pain was incredible and I was willing to try anything. For almost a year, I ate nothing with more than a hint of spice, and I did notice small improvements. The constant cramps were slightly less intense. The ache in my back was maybe a little duller.

But one day, home for Thanksgiving during my first semester at Cornell, I found myself sitting in a Japanese restaurant with my grandmother, staring at a bowl of ramen and a bottle of sriracha. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was drown the noodles in enough hot sauce to turn the broth red. So, even knowing that I would regret it later, I did. And I ate the entire thing. And it was delicious. There were consequences, of course. I spent about an hour that afternoon curled on my bed in the fetal position. Surprisingly, though, I had no regrets. Yes, my body’s reaction did feel like a punishment, but eventually shame becomes exhausting.

The issue with dietary restrictions as a treatment for illnesses that have no treatment is that they are usually based on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence, and they play into a depressingly common attitude among able-bodied people that chronic pain is somehow within our control; that choices we’ve made are what made us sick. The reality for most of us is that regardless of how much kale we eat or how many French fries we don’t eat, we will always be in pain.

Some people may find that cutting out dairy helps, and if it’s worth it for them that’s great. But I once had a doctor tell me, in one breath, to try to eat more fiber and also limit foods that were particularly high in fiber. It’s depressing, confusing and often contradictory, and that’s why I gave up.

Since Thanksgiving, I have, for the first time in my life, become one of those insufferable people who eats whatever they want. Sometimes that means ordering way too much ice cream at the Dairy Bar and eating it all. Sometimes it means getting the mac and cheese from Zeus or eating seven egg rolls in one sitting even if it might make me sick. Sometimes it means eating Doritos at ten in the morning. But, mostly, it means having all the hot sauce I can get my hands on, even if it might make me feel a little worse. If I am going to be in pain no matter what, I’d rather my food have some flavor.

While I was working on this piece, my editor asked if I have any foods I use as medicine. Through this,  I realized that I don’t. Physically, nothing has ever worked. Not the peppermint supplements, not the flax seeds, not the fiber. Emotionally, though, I guess the best medicine is all the foods I’m not technically supposed to eat. In a body that almost always feels out of control, it can be empowering to decide not to let sickness dictate my entire life. I may not be able to fix what’s wrong with me, but I can eat a straight chili pepper, and no one (and no illness) can stop me.


Brook Jaffe is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].