It started with a bagel; a sesame bagel someone around me was eating at a brunch. I’ve always had an intolerance to sesame seeds, nothing to fret about as it had remained an intolerance my entire allergy life so I never worried too much about it, considering I had bigger, more serious allergies. I wasn’t afraid or concerned around them as long as I wasn’t ingesting them. That was until a bagel at a brunch spot in Ottawa ruined that idea. A little back-story: A year ago I was living in Kingston, Ontario during the week and Ottawa, Ontario on weekends. My Sundays usually consisted of brunch then hitting the 401 for a two-hour drive. I travelled back and forth so often I spent a lot of time alone in my car with my thoughts and a good audiobook. On this one specific drive in late May, I started to feel sick and uncomfortable, but I passed off the feeling as tiredness and anxiety about driving back to Kingston. I figured my eyes were red from over focusing and the hives were caused by stress. I pushed aside any seed of thought about a reaction… but then it happened again. It was a little more serious; my breathing was heavy and my hives were unmistakable. Those little seeds of doubt started to bloom into full-blown panic. Fast forward a few weeks later my allergist confirmed that my intolerance had upgraded to a full-blown allergy.
Following this diagnosis, I really needed to take stock of the one place where I was around food the most: my workplace. I was suddenly very aware of my work surroundings and where my new allergen may lurk; the old toaster in our office with crumbs in the bottom, knifes in the drawer were questionable as well as specs on the communal tables. The lunchroom suddenly became an area of anxiety and insecurity.
When I first mentioned my new allergy to my co-workers, I received a bit of a negative response about this “weird” allergy. This made me hesitant to talk to them about creating a safe space for me to eat in. I then internalized my allergies, trying to brush them off as not serious or a big deal even though they were causing my anxiety to go through the roof. I felt like I was back in grade school, surrounded by kids who didn’t understand my allergies or care because they wanted to be able to eat whatever they want. I began to eat at my desk or left completely to eat outside the office. I knew something had to be done.
I started with a frank and honest discussion with my bosses about the severity of my new allergy. I expressed my worries, concerns and fears about the uncertainty surrounding the situation. I got an allergy alert plan outlining: Identifying a reaction, steps to take, where my auto-injector is, and what my allergens are. I put it up in a central spot to alert others to the seriousness of my food allergies. These actions may seem easy but it proved difficult for me personally; I hate talking about myself, making inconveniences for anyone or putting a spotlight on me at all. It makes me feel uncomfortable and awkward but those of us who have food allergies need to push those stage-fright feelings aside and make sure we’re heard.
It may be difficult to tell someone in an authority position about your food allergies. Even worse, it’s always challenging to explain allergies to someone who doesn’t get it or hasn’t been around it before. It’s easy to close off, shrink back and avoid the situation, or lash out and get angry. Both of which put you in a dangerous position, leaving everyone unsatisfied. Don’t let ignorance or misjudgment deter you from keeping yourself safe or speaking up. Telling your employer about your food allergies can keep you safe and create a friendly and informed workplace. Having a plan and being prepared for anything is the best possible way to tackle any situation. Most problems start with one tiny seed, and if we ignore them they can grow into a full-blown complication. We can’t ignore our intuition, or push aside out feelings, we have to be strategic and confident and find new and creative solutions whether it be allergy related, work related, or both.