That’s what I found myself doing this weekend. I took my father-in-law and my son out to cruise yard sales (found: 4 dinos for my son’s next video blog series, only 40 cents!) and then out to lunch.
There’s one restaurant we go to around here – since we don’t live in a metro area we are very, very limited to restaurant choices. To give you an idea, the fanciest one within 100 miles of me is a Ruby Tuesdays! There’s this one small in-state chain restaurant that can, most of the time, handle the dietary needs of me and my son.
After the one time they didn’t – when my husband took our son there to eat, and our son said “This isn’t prepared right. It looks different.” and the waitress rolled her eyes and assured him it was fine, and he took three bites and spent the next 2 hours in a grocery store bathroom being violently ill from both ends, and I called the manager and went all Mama Bear on him…they know us there now.
The manager tried telling me “if you have food allergies that are that severe, you shouldn’t go out to…” and I cut him off right there with my nice little rant about how currently, the food industry has convinced the government to allow them SIX MONTHS to change food labels after manufacturing changes. That’s right, SIX MONTHS. That means that I never – not once, not ever, not unless it’s food I’ve grown and harvested and cooked myself – never do I feel safe putting a bite of food in my mouth. So if I choose to take my son out for a meal, they can darn well prep it the way I request.
He asked for 2 weeks to train his staff, and now, when we go in, no matter who the wait person is they know exactly what we’ll order, exactly how it needs to be prepared, and exactly what will happen if they screw it up again. I’m not sure they look forward to us being there, but we make sure to tip 20-25% on the bill every time to make up for the insistence on working with us, so we haven’t had any complaints. ;-)
Anyway, what I started to say was:
I took my FIL to eat there, and he ordered a salad. A salad with, as it turns out, huge hunks of walnut in it. He offered me a bite. I declined, politely. He offered again, because he’s generous and likes to share things he enjoys, and I declined with a “I’m sure it’s delicious, but so is living.”
Now, he’s aware that I have food allergies, but he and I have never really discussed it beyond him knowing that I’m very particular when we go out to eat. So we sat there and ate lunch and talked about (my) reality living with allergies.
I’ve had food allergies all my life, from what I can piece together. Starting from when I was placed on formula at 2 weeks old, food has not been kind to me.
However, the church we attended forbade seeking medical treatment, and couched everything in terms of spirituality. When you live that far outside the mainstream, everything is epic. You don’t have a headache, you are under attack from the enemy. You don’t suffer from the consequences of spending your money unwisely, the enemy is stealing your financial victory!
And, in my family at least, when you eat something and you break out in hives and you scratch yourself so hard you bleed because Jesus doesn’t want you to have a Benadryl, you are experiencing demons trying to take over your body. Now…in one of the earliest instances of irony I experienced, my father actually is a medical professional. They had some story about him working in that field to witness to people so they could get saved so they would learn Jesus didn’t like doctors, or something like that.
I’ll never understand how someone who went through years of medical school, and worked daily to help save people’s lives, could look at his daughter struggling for air and breaking out head to toe and swelling up and think “yep, demons!” But he did, or he claimed he did, and so my allergies went untreated. (Well, since I’m being honest, my mother would often hit me when that happened, because obviously it was those dang demons making me scream and cry and act grumpy. Gotta drive them out…because it’s spiritual warfare.)
Since this isn’t a Lifetime movie…
things did get better for me. One of the first things I did upon turning 18 was use the medical insurance I’d been paying for since I was 17, and make an appointment with an ENT. He was appalled, and angry, and did something that I’m convinced saved my life – he ordered allergy testing.
Surprise, surprise…there were no demons detected via his test, but instead a huge list of allergens. I went on a elimination diet, right down to rice and veggies and gluten free bread, and then started working foods back into my diet. Because the list was *so* extensive, the doctor wanted to be sure that there were no false positives, so we introduced one allergen in small quantities every 2 weeks. The ones that I reacted to stayed out of my diet.
The fallout from all that, of course, is that the foods that once made me get hives now made me go into anaphylactic shock. I started learning to carry 2 epipens everywhere I went, and benadryl, and eventually I ordered a medic alert necklace.
And I entered the world of trying to eat when I’d go out with friends.
Let me tell you, restaurant staff really have NO. IDEA. I don’t know if they aren’t paid well enough, or don’t care enough, or what. But I have a slew of horror stories from those days, days where I’d take a bite of food and start choking. Thankfully, I have really good friends, and my then-boyfriend (now husband) has always understood.
Even now, as an adult, there have been times when I’ve had problems. The waitress who was convinced that I wouldn’t notice if she just picked the allergen off my plate and handed it back to me. The family member who put a peanut in my food to convince me I wasn’t really allergic, I was just dramatic and seeking attention. (Their big – dare I say dramatic? – reveal was spoiled by me instantly going into anaphylactic shock, which was not fun for either of us.) The waitress who, in spite of my very clear directions, kept bringing me out food prepared with my allergens “because it’s HEALTHIER and you SAID you WANTED GOOD FOOD.”
It’s socially awkward – I’ve learned to eat as little as possible when I travel for work, because it’s a little embarrassing to be the one at the table holding everything up going through a list of rules. If I can find some lettuce, I’m good these days. A little bit of cheese for some protein, and I can make it back to the hotel where I’m hiding my stash of greek yogurt. ;-)
But it’s hard to convey just how very unsafe food is when you have allergies. Even that lettuce on my plate, that thing raised in a greenhouse and devoid of nutrition…the person setting it on the salad bar could have just refilled the almond slices before they refilled the lettuce. Someone could have scooped sunflower seeds next to the lettuce, dropping some in, and the trail they left could be enough to leave me once again at the mercy of paramedics.
My silverware could have not been properly washed, and could have cross-contamination. The person plating my meal could have just fixed my FIL’s salad with walnuts, and then put my food together. My husband’s steak could have been lifted over my food to go on the tray, and the residue from that is enough to make me ill for hours.
So here’s what I want you to take away from all this:
If you work in a restaurant, and someone like me comes in and is very, very, very particular :
- Don’t dismiss them as a pain.
- Don’t think you can show them up by sneaking an allergen onto their plate.
- Do follow *good* contamination-avoidance procedures.
- If they ask you to wash your hands after dropping off that peanut-chocolate sundae at the table next to them, after they have just seen you wipe up the spill, go do it. With soap.
If you have a friend or family member with food allergies:
- Even if you think they are just making it up, don’t test it. (That’s attempted murder. That’s a no-no.)
- If you’re invited to their home for dinner, and they say “don’t bring anything, I’ve got it” – accept that they mean just that, and they will be seriously annoyed if you ignore it and bring peanuts into their contaminant free kitchen and they probably won’t invite you back.
- If you invite them over to dinner, and they say “I’d love that! I’ll bring my meal, don’t worry about it” – don’t take it personally. What they are really saying is “Food is scary for me, and I’d much rather enjoy my time with you and not be worried that the next bite will bring a trip to the hospital.”
- If they do go into anaphylaxis in your home or wherever you are sharing a meal, and they are gasping for air and trying to reach their epi-pen, DO go ahead and stab them with it just like they showed you. It really is ok.
- Do not make jokes about how hoarse they are after being intubated, or about how shaky they are after being stabbed with multiple epi-pens. They will not appreciate it and they probably will even blog about it in a passive-agressive fashion.
The good thing about allergies?
- I know who my friends truly are. They are the ones who never make me feel uncomfortable when we eat together, the ones who may ask questions but only because they want to understand so they don’t kill me. :
- I’ve learned how to be assertive, and to be proactive in keeping myself alive.
- I’ve learned how to be set boundaries, and to remove people in my life who don’t respect them.
- I’ve learned how to get really good service when I go out to eat ;-)
- I’ve learned that I can be happy with a much more restricted diet than I ever thought possible.
- I’ve learned that I feel *GOOD* when I don’t eat things I’m allergic to.
- I’ve learned to trust my instincts – to recognize when something isn’t safe, even if it’s just my spidey senses telling me so
So…that’s what happens when I speak of allergies. Feel free to share your own stories, too – even if it’s just to rant about the waiter-who-nearly-killed you. Because here? You’re talking to someone who really does understand….