Chronically Catherine: How Hot Cheetos saved my life

A drawing of a person eating Hot Cheetos on a red sidewalk.
(Lyndzi Ramos | Daily Trojan)

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos saved my life. 

Yes, I realize I sound dramatic and that’s because I am — but it’s also true. 

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about just any old bag of Hot Cheetos off your local gas station shelf. No, I’m specifically talking about Hot Cheetos from the diner car on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train. 

To give you some context, it was five months into my health journey and things were pretty dire. At the time, my Mom and I were driving more than 120 miles multiple times a week from San Diego to Los Angeles to see my team of specialists. If it wasn’t the undiagnosed diseases ravaging this hot bod, the slog of a commute most definitely took its toll on me because, if you didn’t know, California is Satan’s butthole of traffic.

Let’s just say our loving relationship is intact today because we started taking the train to L.A. instead of driving. I mean, don’t get me wrong, going to L.A. was still an all day affair, but at least I could longingly gaze out the rainy window of the train and pretend I was in some nostalgic wattpad rom-com. 

And that’s when Hot Cheetos entered my life. 

On this particular day, we arrived at Union Station to take the usual 7 to 9 p.m. train home to San Diego, and I was seriously unwell. It was one of those days where, after back-to-back doctors appointments of being told “We’re still not sure why your body is attacking itself,” I had completely succumbed to the weight of my circumstances. 

I was mad, scolding my body like a small child as if I could guilt it into functioning properly. I laugh at that now, but in the moment I was terrified by how much weight I’d lost, the hair that was falling out of my head and the constant addition of pills to my already 20-pill regimen. I walked to our train, deeply mourning the life that my deteriorating health forced me to pause. In short, I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry — so, as soon as we got to our seats, I did. 

Naturally I did what any crying adult under stress would do and decided I needed to treat myself. I mustered all the strength of my withering body and waddled down to the diner car. With my nausea hunching me over and tears blurring my vision, I’m pretty sure people thought I’d just had one too many free screw-cap mini white wines.

I made my way downstairs to the tin shelves stocked with assorted goodies and, for some anointed reason, my eyes locked with this bag of Hot Cheetos. Suddenly, the mechanical hum of the train faded and I heard the bag whisper: “It’s OK, I’m here for you.”

I gently picked up the bag. Did it look like I was staring romantically at this bag of Hot Cheetos? Yes, it did, and that’s probably why the cashier asked me if I was OK. 

I checked out, stumbling back to my seat with Hot Cheetos clung to my chest and after that I looked schwasted, and cracked open the bag, letting the aroma fill my nostrils. 

I placed a Cheeto in my mouth and instantly began to sweat. It was like a thousand fire ants burst into a violent rave in my mouth. Maybe it was some masochistic kink surfacing — I didn’t care — I liked it, and it felt like just what the doctor ordered. 

My mom looked over confused because I hadn’t even been able to stomach saltines that morning — I was also confused. I didn’t know why, but in that moment, I felt hope. Not because I had dragged myself out of a depressive spiral, but because I had found something I actually wanted to eat. 

And so, it became a tradition. Every train ride home from L.A., I’d set my stuff down, make my way to the diner car, ask Earl about his kids at checkout and scurry back to my seat with my Hot Cheetos.

It became so much of a tradition that I couldn’t control my guttural urge for Hot Cheetos upon boarding. I looked forward to them. I thought of Hot Cheetos while giving blood from my again bruised arms, getting 30 injections of botox or while my head and joints pulsed with pain. Having something to look forward to, even something small like a bag of Hot Cheetos, gave me a finish line on those long, grueling days.

Did I know when I would return to school? No, but I knew I could count on Hot Cheetos. Did I know if I’d ever escape constant physical pain or ever get the peace of a diagnosis? Absolutely not, but I knew that while having my Hot Cheetos the scalding power of that spice would distract me from me for the time being. 

I now realize this tiny ritual of Hot Cheetos was doing much more than providing a fiery sensory symphony in my mouth, it became something I could rely on. I knew Hot Cheetos would be there for me when I made it back to the train. In my turbulent and spinning world of uncertainty with my health, Hot Cheetos on the train was something certain, and that kept me going. 

Did I know if I’d ever live independently again, or if my condition would prevent me from having kids, or if I’d die before my parents? Did I have any certainty about my future? No, but I didn’t need to think that far ahead yet, I just needed to make it to my Hot Cheetos. 

So I say Hot Cheetos saved my life because, at that moment, during that period of my life, with every train ride home, they did. 

Writer’s note: Feel free to reach out to Chronically Catherine if you’re also a student of different abilities working to coexist with daily adversity without losing sight of your fabulosity – [email protected] or @itschronicallycatherine on Instagram.

Catherine Ames is a junior writing about life as a young person coexisting with chronic illness. Her column, “Chronically Catherine,” runs every other Thursday.