The main daily challenges I face usually revolve around food shopping, visiting restaurants/cafes, and generally living with others in university. Beginning with food shopping, a lot of people do not seem to realise that allergens on products can change, so even food I am familiar with I must check. But the most challenging part is finding food I can eat. Because I avoid food labelled “may contain”, or “produced in a factory that handles”, I can be limited in what I can buy. Some products are easier than others, I can buy most fresh foods and meats, but I still have to be careful. If there is a specific meal I want to make, sometimes I have to plan which stores I want to go to, for example if I want to make a curry for dinner but I want croissants for breakfast I will sometimes have to go to different stores to get the ingredients I can actually eat. Another issue I have recently encountered is ordering groceries online. Even though one company did listen to my response and added allergy information to their online groceries, the information is so often wrong. There have been times where £10-20 of the food I have ordered is inedible for myself.
I would agree that my allergy has had an impact on my mental health. I have experienced a lot of anxiety surrounding my allergy.
Restaurants and cafes are the second issue. Going to a restaurant is not as easy as deciding we want to try somewhere new and booking a table. We must have a selection of restaurants, look at their allergen menus, then decide how safe I would be at the restaurant. Some things that help me feel safe are a good reputation, an in-depth allergens menu (including may contain ingredients from ingredient manufacturer), and good allergy education. For example, at some restaurants only managers can take my order as they have been fully trained to understand allergies and the allergens in their food. The red flags are badly made allergen menus (very little information or sometimes labelling coconuts as nuts etc.), dishes that use whole nuts, especially the ones my allergy is most sensitive to, and sometimes refusal to supply cohesive allergen information even though it is a legal requirement. Cafes are also difficult for me now that they use a variety of milk. I am happy there is a selection of milk because now those with other allergies can go there knowing they have options; however, the cafes need to start understanding cross-contamination and start cleaning their equipment with something that is not already soaked in almond milk (I have watched this happen).
Finally, just living with other people. I have gone from living with a fully supportive and understanding family to people who cannot fully fathom the severity of a food allergy. They think it is rude when you request, they not use your kitchen utensils, and do not listen when you ask if they can use a different sponge to clean their dishes from the one which is your own. Most people think I am being pedantic, but I am not. I cannot use the same sponge that has just been used to clean a bow full of crunchy nut cereal, and since noticing that they have been using my kitchen cleaning equipment I have had to start hiding it. It has very quickly become difficult to be safe in my own house. But outside of the safety aspect, I also feel rude. It is common in university to make dinners/shop together, but I have to refuse because most people cannot or simply will not check for allergens.
I would agree that my allergy has had an impact on my mental health. I have experienced a lot of anxiety surrounding my allergy, sometimes even showing symptoms of a panic disorder. I have a bad habit of setting timers at restaurants when my food arrives. At 10 minutes I will start to feel reassured that I am safe and will not have an allergic reaction. But going to a restaurant, ordering food, and then eating the food all causes me a lot of stress, especially when the restaurant does not seem to care about the severity of food allergies. I also experience a lot of guilt, having to say no to food-related gifts, or explaining why I can’t order certain food/go to a certain restaurant is difficult. Sometimes it makes me worry people would rather not spend time with me, because even something as simple as going out for cocktails or even coffee can be difficult.
Always be completely transparent about your needs and if someone is not willing to put in that little bit of extra effort to keep you safe then they are not worth your time.
Do not be afraid to stand your ground. You did not choose to be in your situation, and you do not owe anyone anything. Always be completely transparent about your needs and if someone is not willing to put in that little bit of extra effort to keep you safe then they are not worth your time. If someone serving you at a cafe/restaurant is being rude or refusing to understand your needs, you are not obligated to give them your business. Learning this and allowing yourself to leave situation that makes you uncomfortable will make a big difference in how you feel. And most importantly, make sure the people close to you understand what should be done if you do have an allergic reaction, this way you always know that whatever happens, you are in safe hands and that will make all the difference in your day-to-day life.
My allergy has affected many areas of my life. I believe I had many opportunities to socialise as a child taken away from me. For a while in school I was sat away from my peers at a separate table for lunch, I was so young I did not realise it was wrong until I accidentally told my parents. I also feel as if parents were hesitant to have me at their houses due to my allergy because they did not understand it or know what to do if I did have a reaction, so socialising outside of school was difficult when I was young. I also remember being sent home from school after mentioning having a slight stomach-ache because the teachers believed I was having an allergic reaction. I was not listened to when I explained it was not a reaction but looking back now, I realise how that incident shows how unprepared the school were to deal with my allergy. They were not prepared to keep me safe in an event of anaphylaxis and did not understand the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
School trips were also difficult. I did attend multiple trips to France during secondary school, but they were not easy. Despite my amazing teacher explaining my allergy perfectly wherever we ate, I still came close to danger multiple times. It really put into perspective how difficult travel is, when other countries are much more unaware of allergies than your own. It has made me quite afraid of traveling, as I have realised no matter how well I am able to communicate in any language, they still may not understand how to cater for my allergy. Making the journey itself is also difficult, as even when I have contacted airlines well before departure dates they refuse to cater for my allergy. They have refused to stop handing out whole nuts as in-flight snacks, and although there is a long list of meals for every dietary choice, if you have an allergy, you will not be eating on flight, no matter how long your flight it, they will not cater for you.
If you know someone who suffers from an allergy, ask them about their experience and their specific allergy/allergies, then you can understand how allergies affect them specifically.
Due to my allergy, I have also experienced some unwanted comments. Some people have questioned the legitimacy of my allergy because I avoid/do not avoid something someone else they know does, or sometimes people think I am too cautious, and I am lying about the dangers of my allergy. Many people do not seem to understand how allergies can differ from person to person, and therefore think I am lying about the severity of my own allergy. Some people have compared me to others, making comments about how my allergy is not ‘that bad’ because someone else they know is allergic to X, Y, Z etc. Allergies are not a competition. A person does not deserve less care or understanding because someone else is perceived to have a more severe allergy. This would not be said about other medical issues, therefore it should not be said about allergies.
There is a mountain of recourses online thanks to organisations like Allergy UK. You might think that they are only there to help people with allergies but reading factsheets and allergy related articles can be a really good way of understanding allergies. If you know someone who suffers from an allergy, ask them about their experience and their specific allergy/allergies, then you can understand how allergies affect them specifically.