I often hear people define themselves by their food allergies. Many recent campaigns tell us we are more than just our food allergies, which I fully believe. It is a bit tricky though, as one of the first things taught to food allergic children is that their food allergies are the most crucial pieces of information to carry around and communicate to others.
Stating your name and listing your allergen. It’s a concept drilled in from a young age. The most important thing to leave the house, the reason you say no when offered a snack on the playground, your parents holding their breath waiting for you to recite your allergies the first time they’re an arm's length away when a cookie is coming at you.
Then your parents hear those words for the first time and breathe a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished. At the age of three, we are able to say our names and food allergies to total strangers, not knowing what exposure to those allergens could actually mean.
It’s seared in our brains before our phone numbers, birthdays, or even our parents’ real names. And while it is essential for children to be able to verbally identify their allergens from a young age, it also leads to children defining themselves by their allergens.
I grew up in a weird time where my allergies needed to be made into a big deal in every situation because of the lack of understanding. While I didn’t view my allergies as something that defined me, others certainly did.
I quickly became known as the girl allergic to nuts in almost every setting. In school that meant I had teachers' eyes glued to me at lunch, a big red bag on me at all times containing all my medication, and a lot of parents distraught that their children could no longer bring peanut butter sandwiches to lunch. My parents worked hard to hide the backlash they received when I entered the school district, and I wasn’t even aware of all the crazy things they endured until after I graduated from high school. If I had known everything that was happening, from the bullying to the genuine lack of understanding, I would’ve felt defined by my allergies. But my parents prevented that for me.
Now, although they don’t define me, my food allergies did help shape me into the person I am today. When I was five, I was kicked out of my day camp because of my allergies. They didn’t want to deal with the risk, and frankly did not want to put in any effort to even try.
Again, I was completely unaware. I only knew my parents found a new dance and theater camp they told me I’d love. Well, they were right. I stayed there for years, and went to the dance studio year round. They were more than happy to change their food policies in order to accommodate a new camper, and I loved every minute.
Without my food allergies I never would’ve ended up at that camp. Well, because of that camp I’ve been acting professionally since I was ten years old. My food allergies helped me find my passion.
Without these allergies, I wouldn’t have found my passion for singing and dancing at an early age, my ability to advocate for myself and others, and I certainly wouldn’t be me!
Of course I’m hoping for a cure, and am confident that one day it will be found. Until then, my food allergies are only a small part of what makes me who I am, and if you ask anyone who knows me, they wouldn’t even be in the top 100 words when describing me.