Written by Lauren Laughlin
Illustration by Carmen Szeto
Some people react to peanuts the way many react to a new Nicholas Cage film: first there's a bit of annoyance, then wheezing and hives, but eventually, through hard concentration and strong will, you might be able to forget it ever happened, promising yourself to be more careful next time.
That, unfortunately, is not how I am, because when my body has decided to kill me, it goes all in. Honestly, Shatner’s Captain Kirk reacts less dramatically than my immune system. I mean for crying out loud, I reacted to the smell of the stuff. The SMELL! What kind of extra move is that? Anyway, my family and I first found out about this overreaction because no one could understand me. And no, I'm not being deep- literally people couldn't understand me. I had to go to speech therapy because I actually sounded like Donald Duck, and apparently putting peanut butter on the top of my mouth was supposed to help me enunciate better. Spoiler alert: instead of being able to communicate with people better, I think I tapped into the language of frogs, so if you couldn’t understand what I was saying before, then good luck now. I don’t even think I knew what I was saying at that point. As you might have been able to guess, it quickly became quite obvious that this wasn’t “normal.”
When I think back on that day, I remember my throat growing tighter and my parents hushed voices becoming more concerned as I watched TV. My mom decided to rush me to a doctor’s office, where people asked, “Did you find out the hard way or the easy way?" I didn’t know a lot about the situation, I was only four years old, but I knew I was scared and that my afternoon program of Cyberchase was being rudely interrupted. Still—the one thing I can’t recall is getting my first Epi-pen. To me it’s always been there, like a clingy friend, and I absolutely resented it until I needed it last winter.
In elementary school, I was always forgotten by moms who brought in food for their kid's birthday; and in middle school, people straight up thought that allergies as severe as mine weren't real and that I was faking it. Because yes, why wouldn't I want to go through the moments of embarrassment and loneliness that often comes with a totally real and scientifically certified medical condition? 10/10 logic there, you guys. However, just before entering high school, I decided enough was enough.
My friend and I did some research on desensitizing allergies, and found a place that would do it in Dallas, Texas. I forced my parents to sit through what I believed to be a Grammy worthy slide show presentation (I can assure you it was not) and they agreed. That’s when we started going down to Dallas every few weeks or so. It put strains on my family financially and absolutely ate up their time, but they were eager to help out. I was so blessed to have the opportunity and parents willing to make it happen: I realize that’s not an option for everyone.
On day one it became obvious that the process of desensitization would be very slow. I began by having only micro-grams of peanut extract in Kool-Aid (yes, you read that right), but through the time-span of less than a year I had worked up to six peanuts a day. It was such incredible and unbelievable progress. I eventually discontinued my visits to the facility when I got to a point of stability and management, but the long car rides down and time spent there will never be forgotten. Getting to that point of tolerance did wonders: I didn’t have to avoid friends who had eaten peanut butter minutes ago, or check menus excessively thinking, “Now which one of you won’t kill me?” I also no longer felt like a hindrance. Although no one should be shamed for trying to keep themselves safe, there’s a very real stigma that comes along with having a severe food allergy.
Unfortunately, allergies and reactions are still a large part of my life. One day in January, I took my six-count peanut dose, but failed to eat enough carbs, which are supposed to lessen the chance of a reaction, along with it. I swelled up, had bumps up and down my arms, and went into mild anaphylactic shock, so for the first time in my life, I had to use the Epi-pen and go to the hospital. I’m not going to lie, I cried. The whole situation terrified me, but once the Epi-pen was applied, my throat opened up and I realized how good it was to breathe.
My Epi-pen changed from a hindrance, something taking up space in my bag, to something I was infinitely grateful for. And that’s when the light bulb finally went off in my slow brain that I should’ve never been embarrassed or annoyed by it at all. It wasn’t just some piece of junk I had to haul around—it was a lifesaver. Plus, I’m one of the only students at the school who gets to openly haul drugs around: I’m not promoting recreational drugs or anything as they can really mess up your life, but it’s fun to see the looks on people’s faces when I say that.
But truthfully, in a weird way, I think having an allergy opened my eyes to how good I have it. So many people have access not only to epinephrine, but also to the chance of desensitization. And although even more people do not yet have these options of safety, progress is being made to spread these medical necessities to others. Hopefully, allergies on the whole will be nearly eradicated someday, but for now I’m happy to carry around the thing that saved my life.
Lauren Laughlin is a junior at Vestavia Hills High School in Birmingham, Alabama.
She plays cello, loves to read and write, and never fails to procrastinate on her homework. Along with peanuts, she also has an allergy to cats; however, her cat lady ways keep her from actually taking heed to this. In fact, her very own cat, Phoenix, got a few votes in this year’s election. She had him run on a ticket that stated he was a “natural orange” and that he didn’t even know what an email was: truly, a candidate everyone could agree on. She hopes her dream of writing comes to fruition someday and to do it for a living.