Category Archives: Allergic Reaction

Learning to Accept my Allergies as an Adult

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop with my parents, enjoying a peach juice and a sprinkle donut. Or an iced tea and a bagel. Or my personal favourite: a milk and an oat cake. Whatever the occasion, our trips always involved a delicious, warm, baked good– one made with wheat, of course.

Whenever I had an important decision to make, my parents would, and still do, take me out for coffee. From applying for University, accepting my first job offer, and now planning my wedding, all of my most meaningful life decisions have been made over a cup of coffee and a treat.  But all that got a little more complicated recently.

I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy at the age of 30 after an anaphylactic reaction sent me to the hospital during a wintry run. After living with this allergy for three years, and having a second allergic reaction just a few weeks ago, I have been forced to redefine my identity and my relationship with food. What does it mean when I can’t eat the same food as my family and friends around the dinner table? How does it feel when I have to refuse a piece of cake at a birthday party or a treat at work for the hundredth time?

To be honest, it’s hard and I am still learning to accept that this allergy is something I will have for the rest of my life. Adjusting to a severe allergy as an adult isn’t easy. After my first reaction three years ago, I thought maybe it was just a fluke, despite my allergy tests showing a strong reaction to wheat. After my second reaction just a few weeks ago, a result of being served a contaminated dish while eating out, my allergy is literally all I think about.

I don’t often mention the ways that having an allergy has changed my life, beyond just having to say no to foods containing wheat. It’s changed the way I am able to enjoy food with my family at home, out in social settings with my friends, and most of all, the way we cook at home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last family function we had where I was able to just eat the same thing as everyone else. Coming from a large, traditional Italian family, most of our staples like pasta, pizza, paninis and most desserts are foods that I’ve either had to modify, or just stop eating. Wheat-free pasta is fairly simple to find, but a wheat-free cannoli is something I’ve yet to enjoy.

Recently, I attended my sister’s wedding and her gorgeous, three-tier banana chocolate chip wedding cake with fondant icing (my favourite) was completely off-limits for me, and to be honest, it made me a little sad. Not to mention the cheese tortellini with mushroom cream sauce and all the appetizers. Her venue was incredibly accommodating and made me a completely wheat-free meal, that was delicious by the way, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a bit left out or disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy everything that was on her beautifully curated menu.

With my own wedding coming up, it makes me kind of sad to think that I will have to have a “special meal” different from what my guests are eating. While I know that serving the Italian staples are a must, I just hope that whichever venue we choose will do their best to create similar dishes for me that don’t make me feel left out of my own big day. More on wedding planning with an allergy coming up in my next blog!

I know that accepting my allergy, and making safe food choices, even if that means feeling left out sometimes, is something that I have to accept. I also know that many restaurants and bakeries are targeted towards wheat-free living and even offer full menus that are completely wheat-free. Luckily, I live in Toronto where places like this are never too far. These days, our weekend trips to Tim Horton’s have been replaced by a stop at our favourite gluten-free bakery around the corner from our condo. While they don’t serve old-fashioned glazed donuts, they do make a mean lemon poppy seed muffin.

-Jenna

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Note to Self: Trust Yourself More. Note to Everyone Else: Trust Me Less!

Trust isn’t something that comes easily for those of us with food allergies. Once diagnosed with a severe food allergy, you learn to avoid your allergens at all costs. Ideally, we live with a certain amount of healthy paranoia- because if we’re not paying attention to what we’re eating and what else it has touched… then it’s possible we might accidentally ingest what we don’t intend. Sometimes at parties I feel like Gollum, hovering over the place setting that I just painstakingly re-washed and set with my food… Mine… My precioussssss!

The problem is that while I need that self-doubt around my food… I don’t need it when I’m actually having a serious reaction. One would expect that, having had well over a dozen serious allergic reactions in my adult life thus far, I’d be completely comfortable and confident in knowing what exactly is going on. Yet half the time, I doubt myself. I ignore my symptoms and pretend like nothing’s wrong in spite of feeling absolutely horrid.

I think that tendency to want to ignore my body might very well be encoded into my DNA… My paternal grandmother wrote in her diary that on a day she felt sick, she *only* made three shirts before breakfast. My mom realized a few years back that she was able to ignore her pain so well that it caused nausea. After I broke my back, I started to notice that my colleagues who knew me well would ask me if I was feeling alright about 30 minutes before I noticed the agony I was in. I suppose that has translated into my food allergies as well- I’ll notice that I’m itchy and hot, of course, but I make any excuse to classify that symptom as something normal. I don’t want to admit a reaction to myself until I can’t stop itching, or I start having difficulty breathing, or I find myself camped out in the bathroom. I NEED to learn to trust myself more. I know the signs and symptoms of a reaction. I just need to learn to touch base with myself and have the courage to admit (and accept) what’s going on!

On the flip side… I need you to trust me less. During most of my severe allergic reactions, I’ve been a complete and total idiot. I think it’s actually part of the reaction, but I just stop thinking rationally. This can look like strange behaviours on my part, like not calling for help on the work two-way radio after an asthma attack had me collapsing on the floor… or ignoring the EpiPen® in my waist belt to go and find a different one upstairs before actually following medical advice to administer it. It’s like I’m watching from far away. I know it’s illogical and dangerous behaviour, but I’m not usually able to counteract it.

So when I DO come to you and admit I’m having a reaction, or when you notice I’m behaving very oddly… I need you to doubt me. If I’m curled up in a ball, refusing to answer questions, or just saying “I don’t know” repeatedly when you ask if I’m alright? Those are REALLY good clues that I need your help. Ask clear, yes or no questions, and point out my symptoms to me. If I finally admit in a quiet voice that yes, I think I need to be checked out? That’s your cue to call 9-1-1 and get me checked out! It’s never a convenient time to go to the hospital, so you can expect that I will be hesitant. I might be trying to talk myself out of it even as I struggle to breathe, so take a deep breath. Be courageous. Be ready to help me give myself the auto-injector if I need it. Honestly, it doesn’t hurt and it really does make me feel better almost instantly!

Then again, if I’m rationally able to articulate why I don’t think this is a serious reaction, I’m probably fine, and you won’t need to chase me down the street with an auto-injector! (That’s my brother-in-law’s standard question to help figure out if my reaction is mild or not: “Should I chase you with your EpiPen®?” LOL yikes.)

– Janice H.

That Time my Friends Realized the Seriousness of my Food Allergies

One summer afternoon a few years back, my family and I were invited to our family friend’s house for one of our many summer barbeques. I especially love going to their place because they are amazing hostesses, and I always feel comfortable eating at their house. Teresa, the mother, always goes the extra mile to make sure I can eat all the food she prepares and that I’m not missing out on anything – even the dessert!

One of the many side dishes was a delicious summery looking salad which included mixed greens, fruit, and dried cranberries. I always get excited to eat an ingredient-rich salad that’s safe for me, since I typically don’t order salads when eating out due too potential cross-contamination with tree nuts. Toward the end of eating my delicious plate of food I began to feel something in my throat that I have never felt before. My throat felt like something was scratching it, as if a piece of something was stuck. My family and friends immediately noticed that I was repeatedly coughing and attended to me, watching my every move, ready to use my EpiPen®. I explained what I was feeling and we all began to look at the plates in front of us. Teresa, who prepared the salad, immediately ran to the pantry to grab the package of cranberries she included in the salad. We read the ingredients and that was it. It said may contain traces of tree nuts. Luckily, I wasn’t having difficulty breathing, I didn’t have hives, and I wasn’t feeling any other symptoms. My symptoms did not progress over the next few minutes, and I felt back to normal after about ten minutes. This was a scenario where I should have used my EpiPen®, but looking back I realize how difficult it is to decide in the midst of a reaction.

This was a moment of realization for all of us. The scared and worried look on my friends’ faces said it all. They couldn’t believe that as much as a tiny particle of my allergen, a trace amount, caused me to have a reaction. Teresa was so shocked that she forgot to check the ingredients on the package, since she is always sure to never use bulk ingredients when she cooks for me. Accidents happen and this was a lesson for all of us.

Fortunately, this was the only reaction I have experienced after the initial reaction I had when I was two years old and I have never had to use my EpiPen®. Not only was it a moment of realization for my friends, but it was also a reminder for me to always triple check the ingredients of the food I’m eating no matter who is serving it to me.

– Michelle D.