Understanding food allergies is one of the main challenges I deal with on regular basis. There have been many more times where I have experienced people not understanding my food allergies than truly “getting it.” For someone who has grown up with allergies, it is hard for me to understand why it is so difficult to be understood. A typical response to someone who just doesn’t get it, and needs it spelled out could be something like, “…this means that under absolutely no circumstances can I eat or be in contact with peanuts, tree nuts, fish, etc. I can not touch them. I can not eat them. No, it is not okay if you use the same utensils, and not even just a little bit of that, or I will have a reaction.” Comprende? Nope! So many just don’t get it! I have some excellent examples of being completely misunderstood!
Last fall I was living in a town out in western Massachusetts. For a college town and a generally open-minded area, the majority of restaurants were rude and allergy-ignorant, clearly emphasizing a lack of allergy safety knowledge and understanding. I was turned down from more restaurants in one year than I have in all the others. People just wouldn’t accommodate or serve me. One night my boyfriend and I went to a restaurant that we had been going to for years. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, and handed over my chef card so that the server could double check my allergies. She came back a few minutes later and said, “I’m sorry but we can’t serve you here. We use a nut oil.” I said, “Okay, well I guess that has changed. Is there anything else I could order that would be okay? Maybe a salad? Would you mind asking the chef?” She said, “No, I’m sorry, but they don’t want to serve you anything here.” That was that. My boyfriend’s food had already gone through, we each had a drink in front of us and now I wasn’t allowed to eat! We had been busy all day, so we were both starving. My boyfriend suggested that I go across the street and get a slice of pizza and bring it back. I told him that I thought they may not let me in with it, but at that point I was so hungry, I decided to go anyway. I walked across the street, bought a few slices and had them put in a small box, then walked back across the street to the restaurant. I walked in and the hostess said, “you can’t walk in with that.” I said to her, “My boyfriend is sitting over there. I was here, but no one will serve me with my allergies, so I am just going back to join my boyfriend while he eats.” I started to walk over to my friend, and she came over to me and said in an angry, confrontational tone, “No! You can’t bring that in here. You have to leave my manager said!” “Fine. Thanks for your help,” I snapped back in a very sarcastic tone. “Where is your manager?” I asked. “He went upstairs,” she said. Fuming, I said to my boyfriend, “I’m not allowed in here. I will just go sit outside and eat. Sorry!” I went and sat outside on the curb of the street in front of the restaurant and ate my pizza. After a few minutes, my boyfriend came out with his food wrapped up, and we both sat there and ate. We never even had time to drink the drinks we had ordered, and he had even paid for them. I was so angry with how this was handled, that when I finished eating, I went inside. I asked for the manager. He came over. I explained to him what had happened, and that I wasn’t sure if it was him or not that wouldn’t let me back in to the restaurant, but that I wanted to explain. He said, “Well, we can’t have food from another restaurant in here.” I said, “I completely understand that, but I was trying to be as discrete as possible. I was told I couldn’t eat anything here because of my allergies.” Then the manager said, “Wait. So, like, you can eat the pizza over there, but you can’t eat our food here? Oh, so you mean, the pizza doesn’t have oil you are allergic to, but we do? Why is that?” Oooh, I was so frustrated! There was really nothing else to explain to this completely clueless man. I tried to explain that I hoped they would handle something like this differently in the future, and talked about food allergies and how they were not a choice. I tried to get through to him so that if someone else came into the restaurant with allergies, they would understand and be more accommodating, but when I left, I still knew he didn’t understand. That is just one, of so many examples of being completely misunderstood.
My ex-boyfriend and his family are another perfect example. For years his mom thought that I just didn’t want to eat her cooking. She did not understand that it was not a choice. That it was a do or die situation! She was clueless about cross-contamination. She tried to understand by asking me to write out a list of my allergies, but more often than not, I was petrified to eat anything there! I decided that this lack of understanding was familial, because my ex-boyfriend had an extremely tough time understanding about my allergies when we first started dating. For the first year at least that we were together, I had to remind him not to kiss me after eating something with nuts, or to wash his hands after touching the fish he had for dinner. I know he wanted to understand, but for some reason it was not intuitive for him and took a lot of patience and educating on my end. His mom would also get frustrated if I asked what she put in the salad dressing. I am always very careful and I don’t care how many times I have to ask. I need a straight answer of what is in it, or I won’t eat it. No food, no matter how appetizing, is worth the risk of a reaction! She would exclaim, “It is the same dressing as last night!” I would then list the ingredients from the night before and ask if that was it. It was the same with dinners, too. I would always try to be as involved as possible with the meal making process in their house so I could see what was going in the foods. It was an exhausting five years of dating!
I have tried to put myself in the position of someone who can eat anything. What would that be like? To be able to walk into a bakery and pick out any eye tantalizing dessert and not have to ask any questions before eating it. The paradox of this is the way I live my life. Questioning everything I put in my mouth, no matter how simple it may seem. That is the life I have always known. So, I suppose like many things in life, it is the way you have grown up that affects much of your understanding.
Here are two different scenarios to try to help with understanding:
Imagine walking into the grocery store. You just need a few quick items that you ran out of for the week. You walk onto the cereal aisle to get your favorite cereal. Before throwing the box into the cart, you read the label, “Manufactured in a facility that also processes foods with tree nuts.” You put the box back on the shelf with a feeling of disappointment and frustration, then you move on to look for another cereal instead. You pick up a few more boxes and find a similar warning. You decide that really you just want cereal bars instead. There is only one kind of cereal bar that you know you can eat. You pick up the box, read the label, and nope, not anymore. There it goes, back on the shelf.
That is just a glimpse into what it can be like to go grocery shopping. What it feels like to have a favorite food that you have been able to eat for years, changed. With a law that was passed on January 1, 2006, foods must have labels that use plain language and labeling on ingredient lists. Before that, I would sometimes get a reaction to something that had no allergens in the ingredient list.
Now imagine you are back at the grocery store for those items you are out of. You go down the cereal aisle. You see a few you have never tried, and decide to throw them in the cart with out a second glance. You then whiz over to the next aisle. You see some crackers on sale, so those go in the cart too. You remember you need some bread. You go down the aisle, and grab one that looks good. Then you’re done with the items you need, and as you are waiting in line, you see your favorite candy bar and add that in, without a second thought.
That is what I imagine it being like with no allergies. Just being able to grab whatever it is that looks good, or is on sale, and buy it. To be able to see your favorite food and not even glance at the ingredients. That must be awesome! So, for those of you reading this without allergies, is that what it’s like? I’m curious to know…