Food Allergies Are More Than Just Life-Threatening

The psychosocial impact of anaphylaxis is something we shouldn’t ignore.

I was born in Canada during the late 1980s, and by the time I was a toddler, I'd already acquired a considerable disdain for peanut products. Peanuts, a popular staple in most households and a beloved snack for many children and adults alike, made my skin crawl from as far back as I can remember. Peanut allergies weren't a thing back then, at least not in the sense that they are today, and parents didn't get actively cautioned on how to introduce their babies to the possible allergen. Since my parents had no reason to suspect I'd be allergic to anything, never mind peanuts, they didn't deliberately introduce it early or late, they simply introduced it when they did, and let me take the lead. And lead I did take. But despite my best efforts, I simply couldn't bring myself to like, never mind tolerate, peanuts.

My brother and father both loved snacking on peanuts, and because I adored them both and didn't want to stand out, I tried my best to shove the little nuts into my mouth or eat peanut butter cookies. But no willpower could change my growing aversion, and no matter how hard I tried, it never won me over. The first few times I ingested peanuts, despite the revulsion I experienced, I didn't have an allergic reaction. It didn't take long, however, for my lip to start swelling each time I consumed peanut products, creating what felt like a sore ball under my skin. As a 3-year-old, my parents took me to an allergist who performed a skin prick allergy test on my arm, which eventually confirmed their suspicions. The spot where the peanut solution got tested turned red and swollen: I was officially allergic to peanuts.

As my allergy was still in its infancy, I could sometimes eat cross-contaminated food and have it slip by undetected. Which leads me to the fact that in the early nineties, the kids at my elementary school all ate Mr. Noodles ramen-style pasta, raw and crunched up, with its pack of salty sauce sprinkled on top. It was a terrible snack, right up there with the Ah! Caramel pastries we'd eat for dessert, and rumors were spreading that eating raw noodles could cause intestinal worms. Although this story would eventually be disproved, eating raw ramen noodles bothered me for a different reason altogether: the chicken flavor caused me to suffer an allergic reaction.

I can vividly recall a memory of my first-grade teacher walking me through the halls of my elementary school to find my principal. My teacher then proceeded to show my principal the swollen red ball on my bottom lip, snarkily remarking "so this is what happens to her when she eats something she's allergic to, I just thought you should know." My principal responded to this display in a warm and caring way, thanking my teacher for showing her my swollen lip, though her empathy did little to assuage my guilt. I was horrified and felt nothing but embarrassment for inducing an allergic reaction simply because I wanted to eat raw salty ramen like the other kids. I sought desperately to fit in, to enjoy all the nuances of being in the first grade, and to feel normal. Was that so much to ask?

By this point, I knew I was allergic to peanuts, but the reactions themselves had been more annoyances than actual threats. Yet it wasn't long after the ramen incident where this notion changed. I remember my first-grade class celebrating another student's birthday, and the kid's parents brought in cookies for us to share. The cookies came from a local coffee shop, and I know they weren't peanut butter flavored because I hated peanut butter cookies and would've refused them. If my memory serves me, I believe they were oatmeal-raisin cookies cross-contaminated with traces of peanuts. Before long, something was happening with my throat, and I worried I was getting a cold. I told my teacher that my throat hurt, and she gave me a lozenge to suck on, which, of course, was futile.

My classmates started resenting me, fearing I would threaten their ability to consume their much adored peanut butter sandwiches

An hour or so later, I was in the airport parking lot with my Mom and brother, waiting for my Dad's plane to land. I'd begun wheezing as my airway was swelling and had become increasingly compromised. I lifted my shirt to show my Mom the cluster of welt-sized hives covering my belly, and she knew something was wrong. My Dad hopped into the car, dropped off the rest of the family at home, and immediately drove me to the emergency department. I was six years old, sitting on the hospital table with an oxygen mask stuck to my nose and mouth, when the doctor told my Dad "your daughter has an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts, she needs to carry an EpiPen with her at all times."

My Dad sat on the board of our elementary school parent/teacher council and began advocating for me and my safety during instances where food would be present. He explained to the committee the severity of my allergy, and that it had the potential to be life-threatening. He provided an extra EpiPen injector to the administration for them to keep in their main office, just in case. I was the only student in the whole school with a life-threatening allergy, and it seemed as though no one knew what to do with me. Students ate their lunches sitting at large, fold-up lunch tables in our main gymnasium. Whenever someone brought a peanut product in their lunch and were sitting too close to me, I'd be moved to a classroom and told to eat alone. My classmates started resenting me, fearing I would threaten their ability to consume their much-adored peanut butter sandwiches. I also got made fun of in the schoolyard, often taunted with the threat of putting peanut butter in my face.

On September 11th, 2001, anyone old enough to remember the day can remember precisely where they were and what they did. I was in the seventh grade during a time in which middle schools still existed, serving to bridge the gap between grades six and nine. Our principal asked all classes to congregate in the gym and updated us on the status of the terrorist attack. He also took the opportunity to advertise to the entire school that I had a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and cautioned students to be careful around me. It was the first week of school, and I'd officially inherited a label that wouldn't soon disappear. Later that day, I remember visiting the allergist's office for an updated allergy test. My Dad and I were sitting in the waiting room while the office television updated us on the status of the attack. I had an ice pack against my inner arm, as the peanut area of the skin prick test had quickly swollen into a large, red hive. I’d begun to understand that this allergy wasn’t something I’d outgrow or outrun — that it would be a difficult and high-maintenance companion for the rest of my life.

Hoping that a new school came with a fresh start, I was disappointed to learn that clearly, this wouldn't be the case. The fact that I was now old enough to carry my own EpiPen, which I kept in a non-conspicuous and very “uncool” fanny-pack fastened around my waist, certainly didn't help the matter. The teasing and escalated to the point where a girl who believed I didn’t like her made sure to pack peanut butter sandwiches as often as she could, so she had an excuse not to sit near me at lunch. When I discovered this news, I was so upset that people found new and innovative ways to use my allergy against me and cast me aside. I was once again an outcast, a threat to everyone's right to eat the food they loved, markedly different from the others. By high school, the teasing took on new faces and circumstances, but the intentions were the same. I ran into girls who disliked me for whatever trivial reason, so logically they made threats to shove peanut butter in my face. One of the girls involved in this harassment campaign recently began working in the same building as me, and although it's been fifteen years since it happened, I can't bring myself to be friendly towards her. I see her and instantly remember that she chose to hit me right where it hurt — tapping into the insecurity I always felt about not fitting in and exploiting it as a joke for everyone else to laugh.

By the time I graduated from high school, my former elementary school had just begun implementing a peanut-free policy. It was a good initiative, sure — but of course, it came six years too late. In university, the teasing eased a bit, but I always found myself sitting in a lecture hall next to the one person who pulled out a peanut butter sandwich. I'd feel awkward, having to explain I wasn't changing spots because I didn't want to sit next to them, but because the smell of their food heightened every survival instinct in my body, and flooded me with memories of the sensation of having my throat close. Then I'd inevitably have to deal with their frantic apologies and would have to explain to a stranger that no it's okay I'm not upset, I just can't be here right now, and proceed to spiral into feelings of shame and guilt. In this circumstance, I'm instantly a kid again, feeling awkward and overly apologetic for merely being myself. And don't get me started on having to interrupt the first date by asking, "have you eaten any peanut products in the past twelve hours?"

I'd love to say the mocking ended once I moved on from university and entered the workforce, but apparently, that would be too ambitious. I'd begun working as a probation officer in a small office comprised mainly of middle-aged women, all with young kids of their own. When my manager requested we make the office peanut-free and gave everyone a two-week deadline, I assumed my coworkers would be understanding. Mainly because the initiative came about after I'd gone home and suffered a particularly jarring allergy attack, which sent me to the emergency department with two intramuscular needles in my lower back. But my coworkers proceeded to bring as many peanut products as they could for two weeks straight, seeing the deadline as more of a challenge, and leaving knives covered in peanut butter in their wake. I was perceived as a threat once again, this time to their takeout pad thai.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that not everyone had been a total asshole when faced with my peanut allergy. For years, my aunt and uncle have provided me with a brand new margarine container when I visit, to ensure there's no risk of knife cross-contamination. My sister-in-law loves to bake, and she always makes sure her baking is allergy friendly for me. My parents and siblings have always been understanding when I cross restaurants off my “safe” list. My husband hasn't eaten his favorite takeout item, peanut chicken, since we began dating, and he doesn't hesitate to abide by the strict peanut-free code in our home. He’s explained that while he loves peanuts, he loves me more.

But even with strict diligence, I’ve had several allergic reactions throughout my life, the most recent of which occurring last year. My whole family was having dinner at our place, and we’d ordered takeout from an Indian restaurant. The kitchen staff assured me they didn’t cook with peanuts, but after a few bites, I began feeling that familiar lump in my throat. Within minutes, hives began appearing all over my arms, my eyes and ears flushed pink, my nose plugged up, and my lip and tongue began swelling. As usual, I got flooded with an acute sense of panic and wasn’t sure what to do. Luckily, my brother happened to have a bottle of the antihistamine Benedryl on hand (which I've since stocked up on). Shortly after taking some, my allergic reaction began slowing down, and the symptoms eventually dissipated.

However, it's certainly not uncommon for me to experience an allergic reaction with takeout or restaurant food, despite being assured that the food is safe for me to eat. I had a reaction while eating at a restaurant in Paris, and I had two from the same restaurant in my hometown, eating different dishes. I've reacted while traveling for work, and with food that had no business containing nuts (barbecue sauce, vegetable soup, and Italian risotto, to name a few). I've eaten at restaurants who've claimed not to cook with peanuts yet still charged me for my meal after I experienced an allergic reaction (and left the food mostly untouched). My allergy has become so common-place in my life and the lives of those closest to me that I sometimes forget to mention it to people who've just met me.

Now that allergy rates are rising, more and more schools and child-centered establishments are outright banning the presence and consumption of peanut-products, mitigating a large part of the threat from the onset and removing the burden of advocacy from the child.

Though I must admit, it's a lot easier to talk about today compared with the climate twenty years ago. According to a 2015 journal article published in the World Allergy Organization, peanut allergies afflict between 1–3% of children in many western countries, and cases have been markedly increasing since the early 2000s. To better put it into context, according to research, there are nearly 100,000 new cases of peanut allergies each year within the US and the UK. Now that allergy rates are rising, more and more schools and child-centered establishments are outright banning the presence and consumption of peanut-products, mitigating a large part of the threat from the onset and removing the burden of advocacy from the child. It’s no longer rare to hear of a child allergic to peanuts, or any other life-threatening allergy for that matter. Though willful ignorance remains, the conversation surrounding life-threatening allergies is slowly beginning to shift.

A 2019 article on the psychosocial impact of food allergies argues that most attention surrounding anaphylaxis is treatment-focused. Yet they highlight that the mental health ramifications are high, with many people suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bullying. A 2010 article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology discussed a survey in which data gathered from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network patient conferences estimated that 24% of children in the sample had suffered bullying or harassment due to their food allergy. Most of the bullying occurred more than once and was perpetrated at their school by a classmate. Shockingly, 21% reported the perpetrators of the bullying to be teachers or other school staff.

Not only is our society changing how we talk about life-threatening allergies, but we’re also seeing a shift in efforts made to prevent, reduce, and even cure the prevalence of anaphylaxis. The National Institutes of Health announced in 2017 that experts were now recommending children be introduced to peanut products as early as 4 to 6 months old, and no longer waiting until they turned three years old, which was the previous recommendation. "Fully 80 percent of peanut allergies can be reduced this way," says Dr. Adelle Atkinson, a clinical immunologist. The SickKids Community in Toronto launched its Food Allergy Anaphylaxis Program, determined to promote awareness and raise funds towards preventing and curing food allergies by the year 2026. They've even partnered with Kraft Peanut Butter to launch the #InOnly10Years campaign, working together in hopes of someday curing anaphylaxis.

SickKids Food Allergy And Anaphylaxis Program

While being tormented by my life-long food allergy may sound trivial, it’s something over which I have very little control. I can’t pretend the smell doesn’t flood me with panic, or the threat of ingestion isn’t a real danger. Peanuts threaten my life, and I find myself reminded of this each time I have an allergy attack. Now that I’m older, it offends me even to consider that people could hone in on mocking me for something I can’t work on, fix, or resolve. And yet I’m certainly not the only person to suffer adversity for something outside of my ability to change. But armed with this perspective, I’m much more empathetic towards others who feel left out or isolated. And I’d argue that instead of allowing our issues (health-related or otherwise) to be divisive, we can welcome them with the inclusivity and compassion they deserve.

So I urge you to consider that while one person may prevent you from eating your favorite treat at school or at the community rec center, it’s a small sacrifice in proportion to what the allergy sufferer risks losing in return. You can eat your pb&j in the confines of your own home, but for us allergic folk, the angst doesn’t end when we walk out of school. I’m thirty-one years old, and while I left the classroom nearly a decade ago, the impact of suffering from a life-threatening food allergy and the chronic teasing that ensued still follows me wherever I go. I’m working on unraveling the shame and disentangling the parts of my identity woven into this diagnosis, but the fact that this article is the first time in which I’ve been candid about my allergy just goes to show there’s still work to do.

I’m basically a house cat with a penchant for introspection | linktr.ee/shanleighwats

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