Have you ever thought about what it would be like to not be able to eat or drink? Not to fast, not to go without food for 30 hours in support of starving people in Africa, but to really go with nothing passing down your esophagus for longer than a week or two? Welcome to the life of Jon Reiner, who suffers from Chron’s disease, leaving him helpless to his body’s attacks against his own digestive tract. Having lived with the disease since his college years, Jon offers up a unique insight into the mental and physical suffering that often accompanies chronic disease and disability. Both depressing and intriguing, his story left me feeling saddened for those afflicted with this terrible disease but enlightened about how Jon was able to deal with his circumstances and deal with the daily battles that he waged with his own body.
The Man Who Couldn’t Eat begins, as all good books do, with an excruciating account of pain and misery as Jon lies on his apartment floor, unable to stand or essentially help himself as he experiences an acute digestive attack that literally floors him. His mind begins to wander, wondering what has triggered this pain and suffering. Was it the dried apricots he ate earlier in the day? Was it the leftover food he indulged in last night to clear out the family refrigerator? From this point, Jon launches into an autobiography of sorts, detailing his childhood, pre-Chron’s adolescence , and finally adult life, all centered around food. Unfortunately, Jon’s lot in life was to be a “foodie” long before he developed Chron’s. His principle memories of his childhood revolve around food, and he bases much of his modern identity on his Jewish culture and the ties to food that he has had throughout his life. Therefore, discovering that he has a disease that basically robs him of the ability to eat food, any food or drink, is akin to saying that he cannot breathe. It is as if his identity is taken away, never to return. Jon then details his painful recovery and subsequent battles with his disease, which literally almost kill him. He is forced to go NPO, or nil per os in latin, meaning that he cannot eat or drink anything for a prescribed period of three months. Although surrounded by food left by well-meaning friends and family, he must sit on the sidelines and watch his family bond and develop together as he drifts inert as an outsider. His insight from this experience is phenomenal. It is a contrast between food love and food hate that exists in such extremes that it is truly mesmerizing.
I have to admit that I went into reading this book knowing little to nothing about Chron’s disease and being a bit skeptical about Jon’s obsession with food. With my medical knowledge limited to other specific diseases, I was familiar with certain disease processes physically, but I was at a loss to the mental toll of disease by and large. After reading this book, I have nothing but the utmost respect and compassion for Mr. Reiner. To endure what he had to; to face the reflection of failure in his family’s faces every night, knowing that he was not only unable to be a dedicated father, nor a provider for the family must have been devastating. The physical toll of his illness was extremely hard to bear alone, but adding the mental stress and depression must have been unimaginable. However, his ability to persevere onward and survive this black hole in his life is a testament to the type of person Reiner is. The lessons that his experience left him with are invaluable, and the strengthened relationship he has with his family is inspirational. It is as if food both took away and gave him back his life. I found it an invaluable read that made me think about myself and my relationships with those around me. Definitely check it out, it’s getting published today! You’ll be glad you did.
4 out of 5 stars