Pushing food away
September had proven to be a difficult month where my relationship with food is concerned. There have been some significant ups and downs, I’ve lost trusted brands, fallen back into fearing food, and have felt like there’s a dark cloud hanging over my appetite.
These emotions were triggered by a few key events that I’m sure many can relate to…
Losing a trusted brand and feeling betrayed
Allergy people are fiercely brand loyal. We’ll go out of our way to find our trusted allergy-safe brands; emailing manufacturers is just a normal thing for us. We’ll stock up our pantries, drive across town, pay exorbitant prices, and order in bulk just to maintain our supply.
When that brand changes their ingredients or moves production facilities, they may no longer be safe for us. That’s what happened with one of my go-to pasta companies. My family had been buying their products for nearly 3 decades. When they added a “may contain soy” disclaimer to their packaging I emailed the company to inquire which soy product it may have come into contact with. I’m anaphylactic to all forms of soy aside from refined soy oil and soy lecithin. Unfortunately they wouldn’t give me any level of detail and told me the product is no longer safe for me.
I felt completely betrayed, angry, and emotional even though I knew their decision was not personal.
Finding bulk almonds
People with food allergy cook nearly all of their meals themselves, which means they spend a great deal of time at grocery stores. I patronize the same grocery store for my basics nearly every day. In the past they had stocked loose chestnuts in the produce section but removed them and washed down the bin upon my request. So you can imagine my surprise to see a bin of loose almonds situated right in the center of the potato and squash display. How many people had touched them? And what had they touched afterwards? I felt like there was almond residue all around me. Immediately I put my produce items back on the shelves and went to speak with a manager. What’s wrong with sticking to packaged nuts located in the snack aisle?
The first time it passed for ignorance, but after having told them previously about nut allergies and the danger this practice poses, this was just negligence. You can’t put “may contain” on everything. I have a right to access safe food, especially non-packaged basics like fruit, veggies, meat, and fish. The manager was very receptive and went to remove the almonds immediately. But now I still couldn’t do my regular shopping, and who knows when all the produce would turn over, and if they actually washed down the display? To make matters worse I was starving and I had been really looking forward to a big salad and some oven fries. Instead I bought a bag of flour and some applesauce to make myself less healthy pancakes for lunch.
Once again I felt betrayed, angry, and emotional. I felt like I had been pushed by the wayside and ignored. As I walked home I could feel the frustration balling up inside me and tears stinging my eyes. I called the corporate customer service number to log a complaint and found myself crying uncontrollably to the CS agent.
A mysterious reaction in one of my safe places
Not only do we have safe foods, but we have safe places to eat it. My parent’s place is one of my safe places. I went over to have a quick breakfast with my mom before she left for work one morning. We didn’t have anything abnormal; scrambled egg, spinach, strawberries, banana, avocado. A typical meal for us. Their condo is not allergen-free, but they take great care to ensure that everything is cleaned for my arrival and that contaminated foods are segregated.
In the middle of our meal I suddenly felt like I couldn’t catch my breath, my throat was really scratchy, and I was wheezing. Our “quick breakfast” turned into several hours on my parents’ couch and my mom calling in late for work to watch me. Since I only had one symptom, and I was still able to breathe despite it being labored, I used my best judgement and took Benadryl only. If any other symptoms developed I was ready to use my Epi, but the antihistamines quickly quelled my throat issues. We were so puzzled because we couldn’t figure out what caused it and we still don’t know.
I felt confused, annoyed, and worried about whether this would happen again when I was home alone. Who knows, it could have been something as careless as nut residue on someone’s hands in the grocery store who then touched our fruit (see above concern, it’s full circle).
I need to get excited about food again
There were far too many negative scenarios hanging out in the corners of my mind. I started to doubt and even judge myself. Was I being needy or dramatic? Does my patronage actually matter to these companies? Determined not to fall back into the anxiety trap I had lifted myself from over a year ago, I decided to get hyped about food again.
Find new safe brands
My first call to action was to find new brands to add to my safe foods list. I needed to regain a sense of control. So what if De Cecco pasta no longer fit the bill? I still have Barilla, and Italpasta, and Del Verde, and Garofalo. And they are all quality brands that I love and trust. I started emailing more companies about all kinds of products. I’d see something that looked promising in the grocery store, snap a picture of it, and email the company for confirmation when I got home. Recently added to my list are:
Woodhouse Lager - a delicious, easy-drinking beer from Toronto! The owner is really friendly and gave a prompt response within the hour.
Lundberg rice cakes - they no longer produce their lentil and rice blend, so Lundberg products are back on the table for me. I’ve been eating their Thin Stacker rice crackers almost daily.
Gerb’s Seeds - I cannot express the joy I felt at stumbling upon a company that produces seeds and dried fruit in an allergen-free facility. They even make a GF flour blend that I can have. I ordered 14 different types of seeds, flour, and fruit in one go. Totally worth it!
Kozlik’s Mustard - a local Torontonian company whose mustards are so gloriously delicious, I have a hard time not spreading them on everything I cook
Don’t allow the negative feedback loop
When I felt my thoughts tumbling into negativity, I’d stop and check myself. If I walked into the grocery store and could make an excuse as to why everything in there was unsafe for me (a feeling triggered by the almond event), I knew I needed a reset. I’d step out for a long walk, clean the kitchen, and give myself a pep talk as to why I was being irrational. Coddling anxious thoughts might be the easy way, but it’s so much harder on yourself in the long run. Coddling would be to say yes, my anxiety is justified and I will have a bowl of white rice for dinner. Challenging yourself is saying no, these thoughts are irrational, and I will buy (insert whatever your usual foods are) a lettuce, chicken, and sweet potato for dinner.
Let the anger and frustration and sadness out
Anxiety is not a lonely emotion; it has a lot of friends. Now in my late twenties, I understand celebrity breakdowns and mid-life crisis’ and mental cave-in’s that humans are often subject to. If you’re feeling anxious towards food, this might be accompanied by other feelings like anger (towards the brands that betrayed you, towards non-allergy people that take eating freely for granted), sadness (I used to love eating , I wish I could participate in __), and frustration (I feel like I don’t matter, like no one cares about my needs, like I’m being ignored).
You’ve got to let all these feelings out in a productive way, or you might find yourself enlisting in Twitter battles or starting arguments with strangers on the street who ‘looked at you wrong’.
Advocate for yourself
Don’t be afraid to call customer service numbers, ask to speak to managers in restaurants, carry your chef cards, let people know you have allergies and carry medication. You are your best advocate; you have to speak up for yourself in order to be heard.
There will always be events and interactions that can trigger negative emotions regarding your food allergies, and this is out of your control. What is in your control is how you react. I’m not saying it’s easy to halt anxiety, or to not feel defensive or upset. It’s actually very difficult. But one thing people with food allergy have in common is perseverance and resilience, and by harnessing these qualities I am determined that you can lift yourself out of any slump.