I'm not going to lie, I really struggled with how to write this article. I could feel back to school season looming and I knew I had to write about it, my experiences, some quotes from Jo, some photos of us from whence we lived together. Some dramatic story that brought us together. But I really struggled with writing it for a few reasons. First, I never used to have allergy anxiety. Prior to going to university (or "college" for all you Americans) my last reaction that required an Epi Pen was at the age of 13, when I was younger and mentally more nimble and able to let it slide right off. The thing I did have was massive personal insecurity.
Jo and I had a discussion about my lack of "preparation" things to talk about after listening to one of Food Allergy Canada's uni-themed webcasts, and I surprisingly found it hard to relate to some of what others in the discussion were saying. Did I live in a bubble after twelfth grade, or am I Benjamin Button-ing and living my mental phases in reverse? Here I am now in my twenties, an adult body with the mental state of a frightened child.
Or do we all just progress at our own pace?
These teens were talking about researching their dormitory food policies, bringing their own food to parties, and being cautious about which alcohol they drank, or not drinking at all. I admire their maturity, but I was not that person at the age of 17.
I knew which school I wanted to go to (University of Toronto) and which residence I wanted to live in (Woodsworth, the apartment-style one). And that was all. It was only when I was told that I needed to register with the disabilities department that I began to understand I had more to consider. I was placed in an apartment at Woodsworth with Jo and two other girls, all strangers. We all chatted on Facebook (we had to post on each other's walls back then, there was no chat feature) but I don't recall ever moving past our interests and into what I was allergic to. On move-in day I discovered that one of our roommates was also allergic to nuts, peanuts, dairy, and egg, and that helped me feel comforted. The disabilities office had placed us together intentionally and I was so happy about that.
On move-in day our moms scrubbed the kitchen really well. It was undoubtedly sterile. I brought and ate my own food, but didn't think to label any of it; we had our own sections in the cupboards. When our whole floor was out for Vietnamese food on the first day, I sat there and drank a pop. I was unbothered by this. I talked to our res don about safe snacks she could make at floor events. She made plain popcorn with rosemary and salt, I ate it, and it was delicious. She told me she used a new sponge, and I was glad she thought of it because I hadn't. I was fortunate to have a leader that really cared about my food allergies and made sure there were safe snacks for me at floor meetings and events.
The words of Joella, in regards to her thoughts before moving in with 3 roommates: "I hope wherever I'm going, they'll be clean"
I reunited with 2 friends from elementary school and made some amazing frosh week memories. That feeling you get in your first week alone is so liberating. I recall there was an "ice cream social" for our building about which I thought, that is a terrible name. I did not eat the ice cream obviously but I did hover around and try to make friends. I went to a Dragonette concert with one of the aforementioned elementary school friends. I cooked dinner for myself and only used my own plates. Joella spent a lot of time talking with her parents and boyfriend overseas so we didn't really get into friendship mode until a few weeks in. In fact, our friendship might have sparked on the night Obama was elected and I decided to pick her up on my back against her will; the two events being unrelated. Paparazzi by Lady Gaga and Paper Planes by M.I.A were playing on repeat from my iPod speaker.
You're probably wondering what these memories have to do with anything; I'm not providing any advice or sharing any big experiences. But that was just it for me, it was just business as usual for week 1 of res life. So when Jo and I listened in on the starting university forum/discussion a few months ago, our main conclusion was just that. Maybe I hadn't placed as much focus on my allergies as I should have, I possibly wasn't adequately prepared, maybe I hadn't yet experienced anxiety. I know it was partly because I was trying to pretend my allergy didn't exist. But whatever the reason, starting school was one of the best experiences of my young life and I hope it is for yours too.
"Nobody is allowed to sit on my bed unless my cat blanket is on" - Joella Almeida, constantly since 2008 (see blanket below for reference)
Suggestions for things I probably should have done:
- Talk to the residence don (or RA) on your first day and make sure they understand your allergies and will take you into account for all events involving food
- Talk to the disabilities office ahead of starting the school year, especially if you plan to stay in dorm-style residence
- Ask to be placed in apartment style housing if the university cannot accommodate your allergies in the cafeteria, or if you feel you will be more comfortable cooking for yourself
- Reach out to your roommates ahead of time if possible
- Make allergy accommodations part of your criteria for selecting which school you attend. Some schools are more willing to consider your needs than others, and you deserve to have an education where your safety is taken seriously
Do you have any other suggestions? Share them with us in the comments section below!