It comes pretty naturally for (most) people to be understanding when it comes to visible special needs. But when it’s something they can’t see, especially when it’s something that they are unfamiliar with, it can be really difficult for some people to wrap their head around. They might ask questions, they might understand, they might be kind enough to try to help… they might be confused, they might look at you like you’re crazy, they might make rude comments, they might give you their “opinion” where there really is no place for one.
And when you’re a parent of a child with a special need that people can’t see, one that turns ordinary situations into life-threatening ones for your child, everyday life can be pretty terrifying at times.
That’s what it feels like raising a child with severe food allergies.
Food is everywhere that people are. E V E R Y W H E R E. When you really think about it, food is the thing that many people look most forward to at events or gatherings. We get together with people and go out to eat. We have parties planned around the foods that we will serve. People come over and we want to feed them. We visit people and they want to feed us. Wherever I take my kids, the first thing people want to do is offer them a treat. People love FOOD! They love to give it, they love to receive it, they love to share it, they love to eat it. No wonder food is freaking everywhere!
And that is why we need more food allergy awareness.
My husband and I are extremely cautious and protective when it comes to our son’s food allergies. We bring safe food for him everywhere we go, we don’t keep his allergens in the home at all anymore, and we make sure that the people we are with wherever we go are aware so they do not inadvertently give him something he’s allergic to. We also watch him like a HAWK when we’re out, especially when there are other kids around who are likely snacking on something (because kids are ALWAYS snacking). But for as careful as we are, and for as much as we monitor him when we’re out, accidents still happen.
A close call…
My daughter had just started dance lessons, and my husband, my son, and I all went to watch her take her first class. My son was happily playing with blocks when my husband and I just so happened to turn away at the same, like, 15 seconds. When I turned back around my son was eating something from a stranger!
Cue heart attack on all motherly levels.
I started shouting in the lobby full of parents and grandparents, asking frantically what she gave him and yelling for him to spit it out. Turns out it was Cheerios, which thankfully are ok for him, but I was still spazzing out and continued asking if they had been in a container with anything else, as well as if there was any chance that they had touched any other foods. She was a grandmother of another child in my daughter’s dance class who, like many other very nice people would have done, simply wanted to share the snacks that she had brought for her grandchild. But if it were goldfish, we would have ended up stabbing him in the leg with an EpiPen and would have been headed to the ER. And she would have felt terrible because she was a sweet grandmother who just wanted to share.
I will never forget scaring the bejeebers out of that sweet grandmother. On a positive note, I’m sure she’ll ask parents from now on if it’s ok to give their child food before offering it… because I seriously freaked out on her.
Nice people like to share, and they certainly don’t want to be the cause of sending anyone to the hospital with a life-threatening attack.
According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education),
“Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under age 18. That’s 1 in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom.”
And they say that food allergies are on the rise. That is already a LOT of people… and it’s getting worse. No, they are not all life-threatening, but even the fact that certain foods can make someone not feel well is enough reason for concern. No sane person wants others to suffer. Not from a stomach ache, a rash, fatigue, etc.
It really is THAT bad.
For our little man, and for many many others, it really does affect everyday life. Being in places where his allergens are present feels like he’s walking around little land mines that will only go off for him. And I don’t know where they all are. Giving him freedom in places with food is like watching him walk along the edge of a cliff, hoping and praying that he doesn’t take a step in the wrong direction. I’ve read too many heartbreaking stories about people, kids and adults alike, whose EpiPens couldn’t save them.
Even as I’m typing this, sitting in my daughter’s new dance studio, there is a little girl sitting next to us eating goldfish crackers and 2 other children just walked in eating ice cream. Both of which, to me, look like death threats to my son. To everyone else, they are just snacks and treats for their kids to enjoy. They are a source of joy, not a source of anxiety. Like I said, food is everywhere. We’re at a dance studio for goodness’ sake… not a place where you would think about food being an issue. But, unfortunately for people with food allergies, it is.
We want to make people aware, but we don’t want to change their entire way of life.
For us, we take the precautions that we need to take. We avoid many situations that could be dangerous for him. We don’t expect anyone to bend over backwards to accommodate our situation. But we need people to be aware of the weight of the reality for people with food allergies. Awareness saves lives, and ignorance is extremely dangerous. When someone scoffs at or questions the validity of a person’s food allergy, it terrifies and angers me. But then I remember that they probably just don’t know, like we used to just not know. The heavy truth though, is that many people have become permanently disabled or have died from a lack of awareness. And we can, and must, do better.
Shout out to all the people who go above and beyond…
…because they make all the difference. We are so fortunate to have family and friends who love our son, and who are amazingly supportive and understanding when it comes to his needs. My family has sacrificed many foods at our holiday gatherings and parties just to make sure that he is safe and we can comfortably attend. We have the most amazing friends that we are about to go camping with for an entire weekend who are all willing to give up many fun foods on our trip in order to keep him safe. These people make a world of difference in our little world. And when I say sacrifice, I mean it.
For most of us, giving up our normal foods is really hard. It was for us, because we honestly didn’t know how to eat a full diet without his allergens until we were forced to learn. And it took time to get used to. It’s seriously not easy, and our appreciation for these awesome people couldn’t be greater.
How to Help
It’s not necessary for the whole world to go allergen-friendly. There are a gazillion different foods that people are allergic or intolerant to. However, there are very simple ways to make the world a safer place for the food allergy community:
- Always ask parents before offering food to a child, regardless of how well you know them.
- Listen, and be understanding, when someone tells you they have an allergy or intolerance to something.
- Know that there is not a person on the planet who enjoys food allergy life. It sucks, straight up. We don’t eat a special diet because we want to, but rather because we have to.
- Help spread the message. People need to understand that food allergies are a real, serious problem, and not something to be scoffed at or brushed off as inconvenient.
May 13 – 19 is Food Allergy Awareness Week. Please spread the word. You can make a difference. You never know if sharing information with just one person could save the life of another.