The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Confessions of an Allergic Mind

Navigating food allergies is a two-way street.

This is a guest blog by my friend Sandra Beasley, poet, champion of the sestina, and author most recently of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl.

My memoir Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life has brought me into conversation with many families affected by food allergy. Some parents tell me they never allow foods into the house that could even possibly trigger a reaction in their allergic child. Grandma wants flour-gravy for her Thanksgiving turkey? She'll deal. Dad's law partner can come in, but his box of Belgian chocolates must return to the car.

"That's...great," I say. Parents notice my hesitant pause. They ask: Why would I ever choose differently? Isn't the mantra "better safe than sorry"? 

 Yes, in terms of sex, or backing up computer files. But in terms of managing food allergies as an adult in the real world, it is sometimes a little more complicated. Here's the truth: how parents advocate for an allergic child, or a child with any kind of chronic health issue, is probably going to be different from the way that child advocates for herself as an adult.

 After over thirty years of managing my allergies, I have a certain amount of confidence, a way of handling things. But sometimes that drifts into cockiness, and I admit blind spots. Furthermore, if things go wrong—even though my mind can easily identify the best, strictest, safest course of action around food—my mind is juggling the priorities of my body with priorities of my heart. Sometimes I compromise that knowledge of what I should do in the name of other, less rational needs.

Think of it as the Mother-in-Law Challenge (MILC). I don't have in-laws, but the core idea is sometimes a good first impression is key. My most recent MILC took place in Mississippi. A man I'd been dating invited me to share a meal with his mother, our first meeting. Though she knew I had allergies, I didn't look forward to listing the plethora of specifics in advance: no dairy, no eggs, no beef, no shrimp, no cucumbers, no pistachios, no cashews, no soy, and so on, and no cross-contaminated pots or spoons.

 I offered to take over her kitchen, framing it as a gift for her imminent birthday. The truth was more selfish. I didn't want to worry about allergic reactions, but I also didn't want to seem high-maintenance.  

Come Sunday supper, I went to their house and made a curry stir-fry: chicken, white rice, roasted broccoli. I dusted mixed berries in sugar for dessert. All was going well. A few more folks joined us for a toast (and to check out the new girlfriend). 

As everyone gathered in the kitchen, the mother of my guy announced she couldn't let me do all the work. She walked to the fridge and brought out a milk-soaked, utterly Sandra-unfriendly bread pudding. Everyone ooohed and aahed.

I'd believed taking over the kitchen would protect me. I was wrong. Now what? My book may be called Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, but on this particular day I wasn't the birthday girl. She was. Was I going to veto a dish painstakingly made for the occasion on behalf of a half-dozen people who could enjoy it? That's what I should do, if I was going to prioritize my allergies.

Nope. I got my Sandra-friendly fruit and I got out of their way. For the rest of the afternoon, I steered clear of kisses and handshakes. Someone casually laid a puddinged knife on the lip of the fruit bowl, rendering that off-limits, too.

But I didn't have a reaction. Nor did I have to introduce myself to these five new people in terms of my food allergies. Nor did I come off as a menu diva. And those were all equally important goals in my mind that day. 

Fast-forward through a few months of dinners—which I always insisted on preparing—and picture a rainy afternoon when I joined her for a bowl her home cooked lentil-squash stew. Tasting it took a leap of faith; she'd made her own berbere, an Ethiopian mix of 20 spices. But she swore she'd had my allergies in mind. We sipped and slurped, and she finally mentioned that...oops.

She is pretty much a vegetarian. 

This, after I'd served her chicken curry for her own birthday; chicken in tomato sauce over pasta; chicken with lemon and Kalamata olives. I recalled with a wave of embarrassment how she'd always taken just a half-portion of chicken and a ton of vegetables. I'd chalked it up to calorie counting. Her oblivious son said, "She is?"

My mind had been so preoccupied with my own dietary issues that I had forgotten to be on the lookout for anyone else's. And this lovely woman had felt silly expressing a personal preference in light of my health concerns. But while my food allergies are life-or-death, they are not a trump card to be played over the needs of others. Every guest deserves to be comfortable at the table.

A recurring theme in Birthday Girl is that food allergies take elements of the universal experience—the people who let us down, the mistakes we make, a sense of feeling left out-and exacerbate them, making them as visible to the naked eye as a hive on the cheek. It's a memoir, not a manual, I tell people, being as honest as possible about my own human failings. Just because my medical condition has made me hyper-aware of the safest choice doesn't mean I'm always going to choose it. Just because I'm an expert at securing my own allergy accommodation doesn't make me a foolproof hostess to someone else's diet. But I'm an adult. And I'm learning.

So someday, when your egg-allergic daughter invites you to her home to celebrate her engagement and you see her future mother-in-law show up with a tray of deviled eggs, suppress the urge to make a flying tackle. This is her house. She's the one with the allergic mind. For better or worse, it's her call.

 

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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