Allergies and Friendship

Last month, Verily posted a great article called “How to Make a Friend With Allergies Feel at Ease.” At the time, I meant to post it on my Facebook feed, but then I forgot. However, it also inspired me to write my own post about living with allergies.

For those who don’t know, I have some common allergies such as pollen, dust, and mold. I also have a dairy allergy that was for many years incorrectly identified as lactose intolerance; many people in my life tend to mistake it for lactose intolerance still. And then I have some odd allergies such as an allergy to cotton. (Yes, I take allergy meds so that I can wear pants. Please don’t ask me about how I discovered this allergy.) I’m also allergic to most scented products. For example, even going into Bath and Body Works means that I will be spending some quality time with my inhaler that day. That scented lotion or perfume that you just love may well leave me with a constricted airway and a headache/dizziness. Most of my allergies are based in/around my respiratory system, and it’s probably no surprise that while I’ve had allergies for years, they became much worse after I had atypical pneumonia when I was 19.

The allergy that I want to most emphasize in this post is my dairy allergy. It is my most misunderstood, it has progressively worsened as I’ve gotten older, and it is my hardest to manage at a practical level. I go to many social events where the default food offering somehow involves dairy. Pizza is, for example, a quick and easy food offering. I know this well; in about a month, I’m actually hosting a party where I will be serving pizza-simply because it’s easy to get. However, I will also order Chinese food for myself so that I can eat. However, I’m providing myself (and anyone else who needs one) with a safe option.

At many of the social functions I attend, there is no safe option for me. My only options are to either go hungry or essentially poison myself knowingly. Last summer, I attended two weddings where the menu caused me serious issues. While my friends and family remarked on the sheer volume of food and felt that they may have eaten too much, I was near tears because of lack of options. Cream/cheese sauces on meat, on pasta, on vegetables…bread that came pre-buttered…mashed potatoes made with butter and milk…I was grateful that the asparagus was only cooked in olive oil. There were gluten-free options, but there weren’t real dairy-free options.

I realize that no one intended to offend me or hurt me. It is often largely a lack of awareness or understanding. While some people with food sensitivities can eat butter in baked goods, I cannot. (Cue story about the time that a friend very kindly bought me muffins thinking that I could eat them because he didn’t really that they were made with butter; I ate half of one and never told him that it made me sick.) Some people can eat pizza if they take the cheese off the top; I cannot. I spent three days miserable last month because I ate cheese pizza from which I had removed the cheese. That proximity hurt my digestive track.

What is my goal in writing this post? I have two goals really. The first one is awareness. I would like to make both my social circle and others I don’t even know aware of the dangers of food allergies. For some reason, I’m very sensitive emotionally about my food issues, and I tend to get upset/sad when there isn’t food that I can eat. Unfortunately, people tend not to understand why I’m standing outside a restaurant (or sitting in one) crying over a menu. The reality is this: If there is ONE (and only one) thing a menu that I can eat, that hurts. I feel left out. While y’all are debating between the pasta and the fish and the steak, I’m stuck with the spaghetti and meatballs. And while I like spaghetti and meatballs, I can make my own at home. If I’m eating out, I want something that I wouldn’t make myself.

The second is to encourage reflection and potential change. When you are eating with a friend with food allergies (either providing food or eating out), be mindful of what they can and cannot eat. Try your best to make sure that your friend will have options. Ask your friend what they can and cannot eat. At the party that I’m hosting next month, I’m going to buy myself Chinese food, but I’m also going to make sure that other guests know that if they need a dairy-free or gluten-free option, they should just let me know.

Talk to your friends with food allergies. Do your best to make them feel comfortable and welcome. Ask them what they would like to eat. Browse menus ahead of time so that you’re sure that friend will have options. One of my least favorite questions to be asked (which was also referenced in the Verily post) is “So what CAN you eat?” I realize that my food issues make me more difficult, but that remark makes me feel like I’m trying to be problematic. Trust me; I wish that I wasn’t such an issue.

When I go to a new restaurant, I try to check the menu online before going. (Admittedly, this is hard when traveling.) If I don’t have at least three options, I try to propose a new option. I read labels obsessively. I ask waiters annoying questions. I say “never mind” or “forget it” to more waiters than you could imagine-and I feel terrible about it. I also tend to tip those servers more generously.

One last suggestion: Try doing your own research. Ask questions. If you ask nicely, I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. If you want a list of what I can and cannot eat, I’ll make it for you; just ask. A few of my friends have made or ordered pizza with goat cheese for me; I can’t eat that anymore, but when I could, it was the sweetest thing for me. The guy who bought the muffins? I really appreciated them because he was trying. Yeah, it wasn’t quite what I needed, but he made a genuine effort. He made me feel included. And that is the biggest thing that you can do for your friends with allergies.

Help us to feel included. Eating is a social activity in our culture, and if we can’t partake of the food, then we don’t feel as connected. Ask us what we would like to eat, what we like to make…we might introduce you to some new and awesome dishes. Consider keeping us company if we’re sick because of something we ate or if we step outside because we’re overwhelmed by a lack of “Cecilia-friendly” food.

And please try to be patient if we don’t want to participate in an event. I have been known to skip social events because I know that the food won’t be “Cecilia-friendly.” If I make that choice, please don’t judge/criticize/mock me. Please realize that I’m acting in defense of my own health. And ultimately, if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.

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