Just shy of my 17th birthday, I was in the car with my mother snacking on yogurt-coated peanuts that were being sold everywhere as a “healthier” alternative to chocolate. We had greedily consumed a quarter of the packet when, out of nowhere, I began to cough. I felt like I needed to clear my throat but couldn’t; it became itchy, tight and sore all at once. My face and throat had also begun to swell; I felt sick and shaky.
Thankfully, after taking an antihistamine, which my mother advised, the symptoms began to slowly subside. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was having my first of many allergic reactions.
In the wake of the reaction, I was shocked and confused. I had always eaten peanuts and never had a problem, from having peanut butter for breakfast to Snickers as a snack. I loved peanuts. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t realize that an allergy could occur at any point in life ― but apparently it could. After a doctor’s appointment and a blood test, it was confirmed: I was allergic to peanuts and a selection of tree nuts.
The doctor called me to explain my diagnosis and about anaphylaxis, and he prescribed a set of two epinephrine pens (EpiPens). I wasn’t offered any advice regarding the psychological impact of this kind of diagnosis or told how and when to use my EpiPens. It was as if someone had thrown me into the deep end of the local pool without first asking whether I could swim, instead expecting me to figure out how to stay afloat and survive alone. The diagnosis was extremely daunting. It even took years for me to be referred to an allergist, despite the severity of my allergy.
Even so, initially I was quite blasé about my condition. I naively thought that it wouldn’t change my life. I never considered how far-reaching the implications of this diagnosis could be.
However, things slowly changed. When I was 19, I had a bad reaction to a food that should have been safe for me to eat ― a chocolate cake I ordered from a coffee shop. At 21, a brand I trusted had to recall their product as it accidentally contained peanut butter and did not list it on the packet. This shook me to my core, as I hadn’t even realized that mistakes like this could happen.
As a result of these two factors, my diet became extremely restricted. I became increasingly anxious about food, and I began to see food as this monster to fear. The thought that I could take a bite out of a food and as a result have a fatal allergic reaction haunted me. I began to develop the start of an eating disorder. I became terrified to eat. When seeking support from a dietitian, I was told that this kind of anxiety is extremely common in people with food allergies, as is fear of food and restricted diets.
At first, it was only when dining out that my anxiety really took control, making me too scared to eat. Over time this anxiety grew, and it got to the point where I wouldn’t even drink a cup of coffee while out, as I was terrified of cross-contamination. When I ordered at a restaurant, I would state my allergy, but even so, I would sit there getting more and more anxious as I waited for my order. I found it hard to trust restaurants and cafes when they said the food was safe for me to eat.
To the outside world, it probably didn’t look like anything was wrong, but my food allergy was taking a serious toll on my mental health.
And my anxiety only worsened. I found it extremely difficult to eat the food that other people cooked for me to the point where I didn’t even like eating at my own parents’ house. This also put a strain on my relationships with them and my friends, as the anxiety I was suffering from meant that I restricted myself in terms of my social activities.
If my girlfriends were organizing a night in with takeaway, I would feel too anxious to go. Or if they were planning a lunch date, I would be desperate to go and see them, but due to the fear of having an allergic reaction, I wouldn’t eat. This put a strain on my relationships with them. They felt I was worrying too much, and I felt they didn’t understand.
I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t know how to fix it. The issue was that my anxiety was based on a very real concern ― having an allergic reaction ― and I couldn’t see past it. A peanut and nut allergy can be extremely dangerous ― one bite of food with a trace of nuts in it or the use of a product containing nut oil can lead to anaphylaxis, which, if not treated promptly, can be fatal.
My allergist has told me they cannot say how severe any allergy is, but it’s crucial to be aware that each reaction is different. One reaction may simply result in the need for antihistamines, while another may result in anaphylaxis and a trip to the hospital. While most of my reactions have not required hospitalization, there’s no saying whether the next allergic reaction could. I carry EpiPens, an inhaler and strong antihistamines as prescribed by my allergist; I also carry a doctor’s note and an anaphylaxis warning card. My allergy is life-threatening, but not every reaction will be, and that is hard to understand.
One area that can be difficult to navigate is the workplace. I am lucky in the fact that I work remotely from home ― partly because that’s the career path I chose to go down and partly because working remotely makes managing my allergies easier. Unless you live with a life-threatening food allergy, you don’t understand how easily a reaction can occur.
I’ve heard horror stories about colleagues who have brought nuts to work as a healthy snack, eaten them, not washed their hands and then spread nut particles across the entire office. Managers may ask that team members are mindful of their colleague with an allergy, but the reality is that it’s easy to forget to wash your hands or not to eat a certain food while at work.
The same goes for an educational environment. In the past six months alone, I’ve had two allergic reactions while on campus studying for my master’s degree. One of these reactions was to a sandwich that I believe had been cross-contaminated with the loose nuts the kitchen handles, and I still don’t know the cause of the other.
Dating is another area I have previously struggled with. I’ve been in a relationship with my current partner for nearly seven years, and luckily, he is fantastic with my allergy. He’s understanding, caring and just as clued up as I am. However, prior to meeting him, I dated other people, and this could sometimes be complex because of my allergy. My dating days were before my extreme allergy anxiety kicked in, which did make things slightly easier. However, there is nothing more awkward than being on a first date and needing to broach the topic of kissing early on, so that your date doesn’t order the food that you’re allergic to. It’s something that I always found tricky and difficult to navigate.
At 22, after four years of living with my allergy, I found a network of people in a support group online with whom I could share my concerns. Finding people who understood what I was going through was crucial to my recovery.
These groups have been slowly repairing my mental health and helping me learn to cope with my food allergy. What I found when I joined these groups was that food allergy anxiety is exceedingly common, and how I was feeling was completely normal. Although this fact didn’t fix my mental health, what it did do was reinforce the fact that it’s OK to be scared. While I considered seeking help from a mental health professional, no one locally provided support for food allergy-related anxiety, whereas my allergist and dietitian were able to provide this support.
It’s been nine years since my diagnosis, and I am currently under the care of an allergist and dietitian. I see them both twice a year for checkup appointments, skin prick testing and blood tests. They provide me with information regarding any allergy questions I have, discuss new management techniques, and ensure that I feel comfortable using my EpiPens and other medications. Having this system of support in place does help. However, I am still navigating how to combat my daily anxiety.
I have learned to manage it by being mindful of where and what I eat. I don’t eat items that say “may contains,” on the advice of my allergist. I always call restaurants before eating there to ensure they can safely cater to me. I make the people I am with aware of my allergy and where my medication is kept and what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. When I feel myself becoming anxious when eating, I try to ground myself.
I have learned to stay calmer when eating out, and after launching a successful blog, which covers local restaurant and bar reviews, I have often been invited to attend restaurant and bar launches or to review new menus. I’ve been able to see how extremely accommodating most places are willing to be. I’ve been given kitchen tours and shown how allergens are managed in commercial kitchens, which has helped to further combat my fear.
I’m grateful my life is no longer dictated by my allergy. Sure, I still struggle at times but I’m in a much better place now and I want to help others get to that place, too. My hope is to continue to connect with other people with food allergies who struggle with their mental health, while learning more about anxiety management and raising awareness.
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