Allergies shouldn’t restrict chance for new experiences


Jacob Posner, Features Editor

“Peanuts, tree nuts, chickpeas and green peas.”

I say this phrase to every server of every restaurant I visit. It has an almost rhythmic quality to it. A mantra.

I have said this phrase thousands of times. As my parents brought in more and more doctors, I became aware of the seriousness of my allergies, I became deathly afraid of a reaction. They kept saying the word, repeating it, describing it: “anaphylaxis.” I could die. I was terrified.

At first, doctors said I was allergic to soy, peanuts, tree nuts and beans. Over the years, through endless blood tests, scratch tests and food challenges, my doctor eliminated all but cashews, pistachios, peanuts, chickpeas and green peas. But the fear stayed.

As my number of food allergies decreased and I grew older, I began to experience a wonderful transformation — becoming independent.

No longer was I held back by my parents’ vigilance. I could travel the city with my friends. But there was always a cautionary voice in the back of my mind warning me to stay in Hyde Park instead — to just eat what was in my refrigerator or what my mom was cooking. I knew most adventures in the city are accompanied by food. But to experience them I would have to repeat that awful mantra and put myself at unnecessary risk.

I knew the consequences: wheezing, EpiPens, ambulance, hospital, doctors — I had done it all before. My worst experience involved a fateful summer day, a peanut-contaminated cake, suffocating anxiety, breathless running, EpiPens and a visit to the emergency room.

I had never eaten Chinese food, Thai food, Middle Eastern food, Indian food or gone anywhere without my parents on the North, West or South sides, except to visit friends’ houses. I avoided tarts from French bakeries for fear of pistachios, store-bought cakes at birthdays for fear of peanut contamination, and veggie bowls for fear of hummus.

Slowly I began to realize that I was trapped in a food — and therefore cultural — bubble. Caution had been so ingrained in me that it took me years to realize how little of my city I’d seen, and of the potential adventures I was depriving myself. I realized that continuing on this path would hinder personal growth because I was not exposing myself to a range of experiences.

If you have food allergies — or any fear, any phobia — do not allow them to keep you trapped in a bubble, as I was. You should do what I did earlier than I did it and expose yourself to what may produce life-changing experiences.

I was depriving myself unnecessarily. All I had to do was ask the waiter — or parent, or caterer, or friend — if I was allergic to the meal.

I try all restaurants now, regardless of whether one of my allergens is common in their dishes. This means I visit places I otherwise would not have, and I get to experience what goes along with a food adventure: peeking into shops, finding dessert, wandering through parks.

Of course, I must still repeat the terrible mantra and read ingredients and politely decline food, but I no longer allow my fear to control me.