I first tested positive to food allergies at the age of 2. I was tested because my dad had anaphylactic allergies, so it was recommended that my brothers and I all be tested at a young age. Before this, my mum had tried to feed me a peanut butter sandwich, and I had simply refused to eat it (and she didn’t know why). I had also had fun exploring the fridge, discovering the eggs and leaving myself with a very blotchy face.
Needless to say, all I have ever known is the allergy-lifestyle. I grew up knowing that I couldn’t really eat at children’s birthday parties or when they brought birthday treats to school for the class. Mothers of the friends whose houses I went to would be informed in detail of my allergies. All the kids in my class knew that I was allergic. We didn’t have any peanuts in the house. I couldn’t share other people’s food. Etc etc. I’m sure you all know the drill.
Back in my day (wow that makes me sound old!), schools weren’t even nut free. Other children could bring their own nuts to school. I would have to ask my friends to wash their hands after eating nuts. School camps, in particular, were a nightmare. Having someone other than your allergy-accustomed parents catering for you for days in a row can be very tricky, especially when you have a grand display of allergies like me. One year, the school guaranteed my parents that there would be no nuts served at the camp, but I discovered that there was a Nutella-type spread served on the tables at breakfast. Thank Goodness (for both me and the school), I noticed and questioned.
After that, it all changed. My parents spoke to the school, explaining the seriousness of telling a child something is or would be nut free, and then not following through. After this point, shit got serious. The school implemented a nut free policy and sent all their teachers to allergy training. They took it very seriously. And rightly so. I think that most schools now similarly take this issue very seriously and I’m sure that today most schools are nut free (to the extent that that really means anything). As the body responsible for children, they owe a duty of care to their students. It is too risky for schools, especially from a litigation perspective. But there is still always the risk that children/their parents won’t respect that rule.
With food allergies increasing at the rate that they are, and with our increasingly litigious society, children are becoming more and more protected from allergies. Now, there are even products on the market, such as special cutlery or cutting boards dedicated to allergy-safe foods, aiming to reduce the risk of cross-contamination for Allergians.
Obviously, until a child can understand the complexity of living and dealing with food allergies, they need to be wrapped in cotton wool and protected in all ways possible. Given the risk of cross-contamination, the risk of a child eating something without first checking, or the risk of what other children might do, I do promote the idea of “nut free”.
But whilst I think that it is incredibly important to protect children with allergies from potential exposure when they are too young to know any better, I would urge that there be a limit to this [and yes, this is also for the protection and benefit of us Allergians].
You see, all this protection and cotton wool becomes really problematic when we grow up. Most information out there on the Web deals with children suffering from allergies. Clearly, this is because parents who give birth to children with allergies may have absolutely no idea how to deal with this and it is important that this information is out there.
But what about when we grow up? Then we have all new things to learn.
I am 23. I have recently graduated from university and I am about to begin my career as a lawyer. I have found that entering the “Real World” has been more challenging than growing up with allergies.
I was in a (predominantly) safe, protected, familiar bubble. My friends knew about my allergies, my family friends, my boyfriend. I knew the restaurants or cafes in my area that I like and don’t like. I knew when I needed to check if there were nuts in a dish.
Once we leave the bubble of our safe environment, we are left without these security blankets. We are exposed to new people (who aren’t aware of our allergies), we won’t always have a say in the places we eat and we are likely to have to eat sophisticated food (sorry, no more burgers and pasta). We have to sit at meals next to people eating nuts, we have to shake their hands, we have to find something to order on a complicated menu. All whilst remaining cool, calm and collected, mature and possibly professional. Most importantly, we cannot be too (publicly) neurotic and cautious about our allergies in certain environments. I somehow feel baby-ish and embarrassed being too nervous about nuts or question too much when I am in “grown-up” or professional environments. People just don’t really understand.
In year 9 or 10, each person in our class had to do a speech to the class as an assessment. I chose to do mine on food allergies. I figured that people couldn’t really understand what it was like living with allergies and I wanted to help them understand. Other people can’t possibly understand the fear that goes into it. I set up an analogy: nuts, to me, were like poison. I asked each of them to imagine they are sitting at dinner with a group of people and everyone is eating poison around them. The people are not being careful with their meal, they are touching the salt shaker, the bottle of water, they are licking their fingers. You can smell the poison all around you. Would you feel comfortable? Would you enjoy your meal? Unlikely.
No one prepares us for growing up. I never even comprehended that this would be a challenge. I recently had a “grown up” experience which really threw me out of my comfort zone and into the deep end. And it’s scary having to learn how to deal with.
In reality, if we look at the statistics, deaths due to anaphylaxis are extremely rare. According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, in the period 1995-2007, there were only 112 deaths caused by anaphylaxis, with only 7 being due to food allergies. That’s quite comforting. But regardless, we will still be nervous and we will still be neurotic.
This leads me to the point of my post and the message I’d like to convey to you.
For those raising children with allergies, I think it is important to instill in your child a level of neurotic tendencies – to never blindly trust and to always question others. But more importantly, teach your child how to take responsibility for his or her own allergy. We need to ask what we can and can’t eat, we need to ensure there is no cross-contamination, we need to be able to identify whether there is a risk.
However, (in my opinion) you shouldn’t ever (once they are of an old enough age) completely control your child’s environment. He or she needs to learn how to cope with the reality of this potential danger. He or she needs to learn what precautions to take to deal with this. Because ultimately, we will have to do so. The “nut free” bubble won’t apply in the workplace. We will go to events or functions that are not “nut free”. This is inevitable.
If your child has never been exposed to their allergen in surroundings, it will be that much harder to cope when he or she grows up and has to face that reality. Whilst my mother was very neurotic, I was not brought up in the environment that many children are being brought up in today and yet it is extremely difficult for me to deal with my entrance into the Real World. Protect your child and teach him or her the right messages; but don’t let the child live in an entirely nut-free bubble.
Until next time..
An Allergian Abroad