From Actress to Advocate: Jennifer Esposito’s Celiac Journey
The set was ready. The crew was waiting for the actors to arrive and for the Hollywood magic to begin. Jennifer arrived on set, weaker than ever but dedicated to taking on her role as a resilient police detective on the CBS show Blue Bloods. She opened the car door, stepped an achy foot onto the concrete, and lifted her exhausted body from the car. Something wasn’t right. Immediately, her legs buckled and she dropped to her knees. The doctor had warned her about working in her condition. She needed IV fluids and had no choice but to return to the doctor’s office. She would have to resume filming another day, a day when celiac disease didn’t decide to wreak havoc on her life.
Celebrities often seem indestructible and untouched by the health concerns faced by so many others. But just a simple internet search of “celebrities with celiac disease” will reveal that not even the stars are exempt from far-reaching health issues. Although stars may have more resources at their disposal, those resources may not matter when a health issue is as misunderstood as celiac disease.
Jennifer Esposito is a fitting example of this. The actress struggled with undiagnosed celiac disease for 20 years as she was constantly disregarded, misdiagnosed or given unnecessary medications. Little did she or her doctors know, she was battling an autoimmune disease that had presented itself in a multitude of symptoms.
Jennifer grew up with what her doctors called a “nervous stomach,” which included high fever, bloating, and nausea. She often came down with colds and sinus infections and experienced a lingering feeling of anxiety and loneliness. This feeling intensified when she hit her early teens, leading to her first anxiety attack when she was just 15 years old.
By the time Jennifer graduated from high school, anxiety and stomach issues were the norm for her. Not only were these health concerns part of her daily life, but she grew up watching her mother experience the same issues. “I didn’t know this wasn’t right,” Jennifer said. “I was used to seeing it, so it didn’t faze me until I started to live on my own and realized that it wasn’t normal.”
After high school, Jennifer moved to New York City where she pursued her dream of acting. During this time, she searched for an answer to her health problems. Unfortunately, no matter how many doctors she visited, Jennifer faced a common problem for those with undiagnosed celiac disease: she was not heard. Her doctors didn’t understand that her psychological symptoms were associated with her physical symptoms. The doctors who did associate the two told her that her physical symptoms were merely a product of her psychological symptoms – that she was basically making herself sick or being a hypochondriac. “Being disregarded on any front is hard, but especially when it is your health,” Jennifer said. “Instinctively, we all have that voice that tells us something’s wrong.”
And luckily for Jennifer, she listened to that voice. She continued visiting different doctors until she eventually saw a doctor who thought to test her for celiac disease. And thus, the next chapter of Jennifer’s life was about to begin. Although she was told that cutting out gluten was the cure to all her problems, she had many more obstacles ahead of her that she simply wasn’t informed about. Jennifer soon discovered that being undiagnosed for so many years had caused significant damage to her intestines and nervous system. She had to take supplements and remove additional foods from her diet.
“I just couldn’t believe that after I was diagnosed was really when the craziness started,” Jennifer said. “There were no road maps. I was like, ‘Hey, I have a diagnosis now. Help me!’” As it turned out, the people who helped Jennifer the most were the bloggers, authors, and everyday people living with celiac disease. “It was the celiac community that made me feel like I wasn’t crazy,” Jennifer said.
A few years after her diagnosis, she decided to give back to the same community that helped her through her journey. She opened Jennifer’s Way Bakery about a year ago in New York City. The bakery sells handmade treats that are free of gluten, grains, sugar, corn, and soy. “It’s a safe zone,” Jennifer said. “I wanted to regain that feeling that food should be fun.”
Not only is Jennifer bringing gluten-free treats to residents in NYC, but soon she will be bringing them to consumers across America by way of a 17,000-square-foot gluten-free manufacturing facility in Queens. “We want to provide products that will be the celiac standard,” she said. Jennifer has also been planning a TV show that would focus on the operations of her bakery as well as daily struggles with celiac disease. Planning is still in the early stages, with Jennifer seeking potential networks to produce the program.
In addition to her business endeavors, Jennifer wrote a book, Jennifer’s Way, about her battle with celiac disease. It offers hope to readers by showing them that there are other people out there who understand the struggle.
With a successful bakery, an up-and-coming gluten-free product line, a potential TV series, and a new book, one would think that every Hollywood talk show would be raving about her efforts. Unfortunately, the mass media does not always take celiac disease and gluten sensitivity seriously. They often make jokes and associate the real illnesses with the gluten-free fad.
“If the person who gets into peoples’ homes and speaks to the masses doesn’t keep it pure, it can end up hurting people,” Jennifer said. “Let’s say the audience hears that gluten-free is a scam, and then one of those people goes to work at a restaurant and I go into the restaurant and say, ‘I have celiac disease and can’t have gluten.’ They go back to the chef and they laugh about it and then I get poisoned because they can’t distinguish whether or not someone eats gluten-free for medical reasons.”
Despite the disinterest the mass media has towards the issue, Jennifer continues to try to spread awareness of celiac disease. “I don’t know why but the harder it gets, the more I keep on going,” Jennifer said.
If her ability to work successfully as an actress despite the often debilitating symptoms of celiac disease is any indication of the extent of her perseverance, then it is obvious Jennifer Esposito will not give up on her efforts to bring awareness to celiac disease. Having roles in more than 50 movies and TV shows, including Spin City, Crash, and Blue Bloods, perhaps her most important role is that of a celiac disease advocate.
This role, Jennifer said, is better than any movie. “Nothing can compare to being able to deal with people on this level and make them feel like they are heard,” Jennifer said. “With this, you’re touching peoples’ lives.”
By Malory Speir