Having a severe peanut allergy should not limit your life in any way. You can travel the world, eat cuisine from distant lands and enjoy it all. But you have to accept you have the allergy, that it’s serious, be open about it, be mindful of what is going into your mouth and carry the adrenalin injection.
It sounds straight forward, but for me accepting the allergy was the biggest challenge. It was not until I was rushed into accident and emergency, losing consciousness and unable to breathe that I accepted I had a fatal peanut allergy.
I was 21 and in the second month of a year-long stay in Japan, and had just eaten a noodle dish cooked in peanut oil, which resulted in anaphylactic shock. After being diagnosed with the allergy at 12 and having used my Epipen (adrenalin shot) five times before that incident I should really have taken the allergy seriously. So why did it take me so long to accept it?
...in your teens
Accepting you are mortal is a difficult concept for anyone but for children and teenagers it’s nearly impossible; add to that the concept that something as ridiculous as a peanut could bring about your death and it all becomes totally implausible.
As a young adult you need only look around at the faces of your disbelieving friends and smirking classmates to have that confirmed.
It’s funny to hold you down and put a Snickers in your face… or to discuss who will get the privilege of firing off an adrenalin shot into your thigh. I laughed along too. You eat a curry here, some chocolate there, have a couple of reactions which you live through and begin to question the diagnosis. Now in my mid-twenties I still meet people who think I am just a fussy eater or on a weird diet.
Vicky Field from the Anaphylaxis Campaign (01252 542029 www.anaphylaxis.org.uk) says acceptance is a real problem for young people. The charity arranges workshops and helps them acknowledge they have a life-threatening allergy and explains that by its very nature it’s unpredictable. But whether you have accepted it or not there are other things to grapple with.
There are two main issues here: the first is the restaurant; the second is those with whom you are dining.
An excellent idea is to phone ahead to let them know about your allergy. But if, like me, you are not that organised always ask ‘the question’ as my mum calls it. I always check that what I have chosen is not laced with nuts and never assume.
Although, in my experience this brings about the response, ‘We can’t guarantee there won’t be any nuts in the food...’
At this point I want to morph into some kind of incredible hulk-like figure and roar, ‘Why not?’ Instead, I sigh, say ‘I know, just don’t put nuts on my food’ and take the risk.
‘Eating at all is a risk’
For eating at all is a risk, whether it’s evasive waiters or defensive or vague food labelling, unless you yourself have pulled it from the ground or plucked it off a tree there’s a risk. But, as the old cliché goes, so is crossing the road.
The last time I fell foul of taking this risk was in London’s China Town. After a lengthy explanation about my allergy I was presented with a wonton which, after the first bite, revealed itself to be full of whole peanuts. I spent the night in casualty.
I am now pretty firm when I go into a restaurant that I speak to someone who understands me. And I do not think people with a low-standard of English should be allowed to wait on
tables. This may not be a ‘PC’ opinion to hold, but I think I have just cause.
The second issue is the explanation. Fellow diners raise a questioning eyebrow at my request for no nuts and I trot out the tired old explanation of the wheres and whyfores of my nut allergy. However, I recently found people better informed, saying things like, ‘Oh yes I have heard of that’, or ‘my friend has that’.
So instead of heaving an inward sigh at every introduction being followed by a monologue of my malady, I launch forth into a dramatic tale. So when next they meet someone with a peanut allergy they will simply say, ‘Oh yes I met a girl with that’ and not require an explanation.
Dining out with old friends is a treat as they are the ones who become indignant, and select restaurants on my behalf, for which I am both relieved and grateful. So it does get easier.
While I love eating out for the social aspect, my relationship with food is coloured entirely by my allergy. I do not have a sweet tooth because of years of turning down biscuits, cakes and chocolate due to the ‘may contain nuts label’.
I do not look forward to, or ever think about, food. I do not have a love of cooking; I do not have a strong preference when choosing food from a menu and do it within a matter of moments. In fact, if there was a pill that contained everything I needed and filled me up, I would happily swallow it down. I wonder if this is something others with food allergies feel? Although I don’t think it’s strange, given that eating can be a danger and a chore, I do think it’s the saddest part of the allergy.
‘May contain nuts…’ is a sure way of getting me wound up. Two of my favorite treats took on such a label about seven years ago, much to my dismay. So it was either, scratch off another treat from the list or take this risk.
Every allergy sufferer must come up against this and it all comes back to risk. You take an informed guess but ultimately it’s a risk. I have developed my own kind of assessment framework. I don’t risk it with anything to do with chocolate or with pre-prepared sauces. Pre-prepared food is pretty much out but from a health perspective this is probably no bad thing. I then measure my desire to have the food against the likelihood of it actually containing nuts and make a decision. There is also a light at the end of the tunnel in regard to labeling as certain supermarkets have started using labels that guarantee no nuts and I make a point of choosing these brands over others.
Apart from the incident in Japan - where I was careless - I have not had any problems travelling abroad. But I do take a few extra precautions.
I always take three Epipens with me and a letter from the doctor explaining why I carry them, should there be a problem with airport security. I’ve had none so far.
On the flight I speak to the air hostesses and get them to translate a few blunt sentences about the allergy (‘I am allergic to peanuts and all nuts. Do not give me nuts or I will die. Thank you’) into whatever language I need. This coupled with selecting plain menu choices has served me well.
Accepting the allergy and its seriousness is an important step towards managing it. Obviously there are far worse health issues, and there is no reason to be maudlin about it, but the cold hard fact is this could, and nearly did, kill me.
So when people do smirk or think its funny I don’t shy away from letting them know it’s serious. New boyfriends or girlfriends need to know not to snack on peanuts before or when they see you if they are hoping for a goodnight kiss. Friends need to know ordering a nut curry and sitting next to you is not fine and family need to know that double dipping in the peanut butter and the jam is not alright.
In the last 15 years living with a nut allergy has got easier as more and more people know about it. It has got harder due to defensive labelling and language barriers in cities. But my acceptance of it and taking responsibility for it is undoubtedly the thing that has made it easier. So while there will always be a risk, it is a calculated one.
First published in 2008
If you found this article interesting, you will find many more articles on peanut and tree-nut allergy here, and reports of research into the conditions here.
You can also find articles on anaphylaxis here, cow's milk allergies here, egg allergy here, histamine intolerance here and articles on a wide range of other allergic and intolerance reactions to a wide range of other foods here.
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