We all have different ways to deal with our allergies and to, specifically, deal with the challenges that allergies can create when we are dating or in a long-term relationship. The following story details what has worked for a couple living within this context and has some insights about what works for them and what does not. You, as someone with allergies or dating someone with allergies, must decide what is practical for you and what makes you feel and stay safe.
My name is Philip Parry. I’m a schoolteacher, a musician, a marathoner, a boyfriend and, yes, an adult at risk for anaphylaxis to peanuts, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and soy protein. Truth be told, as I child, I never really identified as someone with allergies. I grew up in a household with two other siblings with their own sets of allergies; so all of the food passing through the house was guaranteed to be safe. My school was early to adopt an allergy-safe policy and my two best friends had their own unique food needs (diabetes and lactose intolerance respectively). Surrounded by informed and caring people, I managed to make it to my late teens with minimal participation on my part.
The first real challenge set in when I left home to study music in another city. Suddenly I was responsible for deciding upon all of the food that went into my mouth. My first run-in with allergies happened on my 19th birthday during an impromptu and inebriated game of capture-the-flag on campus. My roommate had just returned from a visit with his grandmother and had brought back some of her secret recipe chocolate chip cookies. After a few catch-up drinks, my roommate was slurring his way through an invitation to try said cookies. Being a well-trained allergy kid, I piped in with the obligatory “are there peanuts in here?” The second he said “I don’t think so” my party-fuelled munchies kicked in and I managed to scarf down an entire cookie while simultaneously thinking about the interesting flavour I wasn’t used to. It only took a few seconds for the two of us to realize that grandma’s cookies, although containing no whole peanuts, might have a certain secret ingredient… peanut butter. After a grueling night spent in the hospital (and a missed capture-the-flag opportunity!) I learned a few things. First, be careful of drinking and snacking! This is one thing they don’t teach you as a kid. Allergies don’t take the night off; so you can’t either. In addition, asking “the question” isn’t always enough. Many people are inexperienced in dealing with food allergies and aren’t used to thinking about food as its component parts or thinking about cross contamination between food items.
The most interesting and complicated issue to arise from being an adult with allergies has without a doubt come from the world of dating and relationships–as if that weren’t complicated enough already! It started out simply. A girlfriend of mine in high school loved peanut butter sandwiches and would have them for lunch more often than not. By this point, I’d already heard that a common cause of reactions was from contact with a significant other. So I got into the habit of asking her every day whether or not she was lethal. If she was, we’d have to wait until the next day before we could kiss.
Taking someone out on a date brings its own set of problems because it leaves you with one of two options. Option A is to go somewhere familiar or well researched. If you’re careful, you can take a date somewhere that has been vetted in advance. This usually works well so long as her favourite food isn’t Thai, Indian, Ethiopian or Mediterranean, and the place isn’t full, overpriced or hard to get to. Option A works if you aren’t concerned about being spontaneous or adventurous when going on dates. Option B is the guess-and-check method. In this scenario, you walk into a restaurant with your date and start asking a long series of food preparation related questions. This option works fine so long as you’re prepared to spend more time talking to the server, chef, and manager than to your date. And this is only if the first restaurant is able to accommodate you. Be prepared to try a few places before someone is willing to risk feeding a ticking time-bomb. In either case, you’ll end up feeling guilty for making a simple meal into a complicated mission.
I was fortunate enough to find someone who was able to tolerate my food allergy shenanigans (and my personality); but being in a long-term relationship as an adult with allergies has also been a rocky road—no pun intended. In our house, peanuts are a straight up ‘no-go’ (I’m particularly sensitive to them). And I constantly feel guilty taking away one of her favourite treats. We keep other legumes (to which I’m allergic) around as a staple protein source because, of course, she’s a vegetarian and, like me, a protein-hungry marathon runner. This generally leads to making separate meals for both of us to get the protein we need. It’s not only difficult. It is extremely time consuming. It takes a careful mix of compromise, advance planning, cautious food preparation, and Tupperware in the freezer to make things work. Even though we somehow always find a way to feed ourselves, it hasn’t been easy. And it hasn’t gone flawlessly. Did I mention that all vegetarian protein powders are basically made with peanuts or peas? Barbra making a Vega smoothie means I have to run and take cover.
The first time I had an allergic reaction while I was with Barbra was agonizing–both physically and emotionally. Having a reaction makes you feel stupid and guilty to begin with because, in retrospect, you can usually figure out the mistake you made to land yourself in the hospital. Now add onto that the fact that you have to make a phone call in the middle of the day to tell someone you love that you put yourself there–a call that you know will make them scared, worried, and stressed-out. In the best-case scenario, they are able to make it to the hospital and sit with you while you turn purple, break out in hives, and gasp for breath right in front of their eyes. This is what happened in my case and I’ve been told it’s a very traumatic experience. If she hadn’t been able to get out of work or class, she would have had to sit and writhe in her seat for hours wondering if I were suffering or recovering. In either case, it’s not a fate I would wish upon anybody.
Despite all of the challenges, I’ve managed to keep a positive attitude and look for the silver lining that comes with being an adult with allergies. Having discovered early on that food made by other people, no matter how well intentioned, is a potential hazard, I was forced to cook exciting meals for myself and for others–not a bad date idea in itself. For a music student, struggling to pay tuition, this proved to be an invaluable skill. As a person concerned about healthy eating, having allergies has been a very useful status to invoke for both me and Barbra when being offered junk food at a social event that might otherwise be rude to refuse.
When it comes to being in a relationship as an adult with allergies, the best piece of advice that I can offer is to have fun with it. Take some time to look up the best restaurants or specialty food spots in your area and make an adventure date out of it. Look up recipes for foods you love to eat and make a game out of perfecting your own allergen-free versions at home. The more you do things like this, the more you and make your partner feel like allergies are less of an inconvenient problem and more like an interesting quirk.
Wow…Philip writes a lot. My name is Barbra Lica and I’m a Jazz singer-songwriter as well as Philip’s frustrated but understanding girlfriend. I must say, I don’t have nearly as much to write as him because food allergies are only a five (six?) year old sport to me. Before Philip, my ultra Eastern-European-pride household consisted of the following people: those who think food allergies are a myth, those who think food allergies are curable with prolonged and consistent exposure, and those who think it’s one of those things that happens if you don’t breastfeed enough. And only North Americans don’t breastfeed enough I’m told. I even had a family friend warn me about the dangers of having children with this boy. “Date him, love him–no babies!” Of course, I don’t take any of that to heart. Philip has a zillion great things to pass on to babies. I mean, we’re still not having any in the foreseeable future; but his allergies certainly aren’t the reason why.
Anyway, I won’t lie, there were many difficulties at first. I love food. I eat every emotion I ever have and, to top it off, I’m a vegetarian with marathon training on the docket. So I basically need the foods that kill Phil as a protein source. It still meant giving certain foods up entirely because they’re too difficult to keep contained (peanut butter) or, alternatively, eating them away from the house followed by a paranoid clothes-removal and wash-down. I’ve gone so far as rinsing my mouth out with soap! Even with all that effort on my part, the Philip I met in University was a very reckless fellow who insisted on eating the free unlabeled intermission food at every music recital the Faculty of Music had to offer. The first time I saw him have an attack, I was horrified. Truthfully, the image is seared into my brain and I cried so hard I think it’s part of the reason he’s more careful now. But you can be as careful as you like and still have accidents. I remember one time we called a restaurant I liked before going there to ask about peanuts; and they said it was no problem. We confirmed this again when we got there. As we rushed out of the restaurant to the hospital, I remember hearing “No peanuts! Peanut butter only!” Safe to say, I no longer like that restaurant. So here I am, several years later, and do I miss Peanut Butter & Jam sandwiches? You betcha! But they’re that much tastier when I go out of town for a gig. We also cook at home together a lot more these days and it always turns into a fun date where we’ll put on nice music and cook up about 5 dishes in one night that are allergen-free and easily freezable. I’ll even put chickpeas in my salad because they’re easy to keep in a jar in the fridge and pour directly on my salad as an add-on without hurting Philip. So yes, I worry about crazy, reckless Philip quite a lot and, sometimes, I’m even the culprit when it comes to feeding his chocolate addiction–he’ll stare in the window of a chocolate shop with big puppy eyes right next to the sign that advertises special edition peanut truffles and I’ll be all “maybe those ones didn’t come in contact with the peanut ones.” But, all in all, we’ve found a routine and I’m just used to it. After all, nobody ever said anything against JAM sandwiches!! JAM!! So…I might have an issue with Jam….don’t look in my fridge…
Check out Barbra’s song and music video at the link below!