The other day I was watching a nature show about the birds of Finland and a thought occurred to me.
When an allergic kid goes off to school or work and leaves their parent's side, they are like the baby bird that has to learn to fly by jumping off a cliff. Much like the bird that's hesitant to go, my mom shoved me off that cliff with her foot and told me to spread my wings. Ok, now this metaphor is getting a little too Oprah. Consider it swiftly abandoned.
My point is that being a young allergic kid means that your parents or guardians take care of things for you. You don't worry as much about social situations because your mom's always got your back and will think you're cool even if no one else does. She'll pack you a safe dinner so you can eat at the restaurant with your family, she'll send a slice of chocolate birthday cake to your friend's party so you can take part in the social right of passage. And she does this all fearlessly. If other mothers gripe about it she'll shoot them down , her main goal being to protect her kin and make sure they have fun at Chuck e Cheese too dammit!
Parents do all the arranging behind the scenes; they are the directors of our seamless childhood experiences. They see someone about to cause cross-contamination and quickly put a halt to it, read all the labels while you're off playing, create foods that mimic the "real" thing so your friends will enjoy it too. And once you become an adult you have to do all of these things yourself while also trying to forge a semblance of social normalcy.
The age at which you are released into the wild differs from person to person. For some it may be high school, others their first job, and for many it's moving off to college or university. For me it was when I moved into residence and felt that real pang of separation and independence. So I've put together some advice that I would love to go back and share with younger me.
Moving Away To School
Don't worry so much about being "normal" or "cool". I avoided so many social situations because I was worried people would think I was a freak and as a result a lot of people thought I never ate anything and only socialized in bars or common rooms. I was going so overboard in trying to hide the fact that I have so many severe allergies that I ended up giving people the wrong impression. Or I would take a chance and eat/drink things that I was unsure about, a risky move.
It's okay to suggest to your new friends that you all eat in a restaurant that will accommodate you. They're all new and trying to make friends too. And sometimes if you skip out because everyone is dead set on Thai food, that's fine. Try suggesting alternate hangout ideas like going to the movies, the school play, or something that doesn't revolve around food if it makes you more comfortable. The cardinal rule: Bring your Epi Pen everywhere, all the time. Whether you're going to a party, hanging out in the common room, in class, the library, anywhere at all - make sure it's near you and that someone you know is trained on how to use it.
Meeting Your Significant Other's Family
Real talk - this was the most stressful thing for me, even more so than managing work-life or moving into student residence. I felt like I was demanding that an entire family who had not previously been afflicted with allergies suddenly change their entire way of doing things for me, a person they barely know. I worried that since my boyfriend and I grew up eating different types of food maybe I wouldn't be able to eat in the restaurants they liked or would cause undue inconvenience; that maybe I would offend them.
In the past this fear prevented me from allowing myself to get serious with some people or made me not want to meet their families. I thought there was nothing worse than the possibility of having a reaction to something my partner's mom cooked because, wouldn't she be really offended? I know this sounds ridiculous in hindsight but this was honestly how I felt. And now that I'm over that hump (and clearly less self-conscious) I realize that if your partner loves you their family will try their best not to put you in danger. I did have a reaction at one of their favorite Persian restaurants once and now we just don't go there if I'm around. They don't make it seem like an inconvenience; it's just something we don't do anymore.
When it comes to eating at home I think the best advice I can give is to help out in the kitchen. It gives you a chance to bond but also allows you the opportunity to teach others about your allergies in a practical way. If their family is not willing or able to accommodate you then insist that you eat in restaurants you know are safe or, if you live together, have them over to your place instead.
Work: Team Lunches and Events
I've been fortunate enough to work in some interesting places since graduating from The University of Toronto in 2012. I worked as a researcher for one of my profs which entailed me sitting in an office alone and working independently - no team lunches, no food aside from what I brought myself - no real challenges. Then I worked at a publishing company for a couple years which involved a ton of team "parties", lunches, and events involving food. It was here that I learned a huge life lesson: people can be mega rude about your allergies and you need to learn how to shut that shit down or it will make you really unhappy.
It began when I first went to one of our birthday parties where someone would buy cake and drinks and we'd all sit in the meeting room around the table and chat for a half hour. I had some pop or whatever drink was served but I didn't have the cake. This caused a number of questions about my allergies and then took a swift turn into a very personal zone. Will my face swell up, will I vomit, will I suffocate, will I pass out, will they have to save me, will someone have to stab me with "that needle" in the butt, will you die, omg are you dying right now? Then there was a round of shock, disdain that I didn't want to give detailed answers to these questions, and a round of "I feel so bad for you," "I would die if I couldn't have ice cream," "poor you", and a lot of fake pout faces. It was safe to say that I felt completely belittled and isolated. Not everyone was participating, but a good portion of the group was.
From then on this exact conversation was re-hashed by the group every time there was a celebration or event involving food and it always made me uncomfortable. I tried to just brush it off or go along with it because I was the most junior person and I needed the job. After a while though, it becomes hard to respect people who talk to you like that and I did end up quitting, not specifically because of that but it was one of the things that I didn't like about my work life. Earlier this year when my Huff Po article came out I actually received an apology from someone I used to work with for having treated me that way. I was appreciative but it was also a lesson to me that I should have stood up for myself in the beginning instead of being so worried about "talking back" to my superiors. My advice: the response you give the first time this happens will establish whether or not it happens again. If it makes you uncomfortable make it known that you will not accept it. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself.
Side note: The company I moved to and still work at has a very inclusive attitude towards my allergies.
If you have a story to share we want to hear it. Flip a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org - we'd love to chat!