I’m hungry, maybe a slice of cheese pizza. (Wouldn’t Gino love that?) I know but I’m not talking about Gino. I’m talking about me. I’m talking about what sounds good to me for lunch. (Fine, but I bet it would sound good to him too, don’t you think? I mean, if he could eat it.) I don’t want to think about that. (Just for a second, picture him eating a slice and how happy he would be.) I don’t know. I’m not in the mood for pizza anymore. (Why not?) I mean if my kids can’t eat it, why should I get to? (True, but you are alone and you are hungry.) Maybe I’ll get a quick cheese quesadilla and a side of beans instead. (Go ahead. Hurry and order it before I start talking again.) I’m hungry. Let me just take a bite. It’s so good. (Oh, I bet it is… with all that wheat and cow’s milk.) Oops, there’s so much cheese that when I took my first bite, a long string of it dragged across my chin. I need a napkin. (And a wipe, you know, before you kiss the kids since now your face is dripping in allergens.) I’ll eat some beans then. (Remember how much Gino loved beans before he started reacting to them and how sick he got the last time he ate them?) Maybe I’m full. (You hardly ate.) I’m not in the mood for it anymore. (So, when are you gonna eat then?) When you stop talking so much and I can forget that I am enjoying food that the kids can’t eat! (Makes sense.) Really? Does it?
Does it make sense that we feel bad for eating food that makes our child sick? Sure. Does it make sense that we find ourselves avoiding foods that our child has reacted to? Sure. Does it make sense that we should never again allow ourselves to joyfully eat that food? No. There are some parents of allergic children who choose to completely avoid the foods to which their children are allergic. If you choose to avoid foods that your child cannot eat because it makes you happy, that may well be a good choice for you. But if you are avoiding these foods out of guilt and fear, or out of a desire to make things fair or as some sort of well-deserved punishment for yourself, it might be time to rethink this. You do not need to punish yourself for your child’s food allergy.
Emotionally speaking though, it makes perfect sense that we feel we may never be able to joyfully eat the foods that our children cannot. Some experiences with food, you just can’t get over. For example, one time I found an eyelash in a bowl of potato soup in my work cafeteria, whether or not it was mine (I really don’t think it was) is completely irrelevant. I haven’t stomached another bowl of potato soup in 17 years. Another time at a Corner Bakery downtown, the man helping me with my food had an actively bloody nose while serving my mac and cheese. I have nothing against Corner Bakery (or bloody noses for that matter… just not together) but I have only stopped there once in the past ten years, post-call, to get a coffee so I wouldn’t fall asleep on my short drive home. It’s lost its appeal.
Food is emotional. Every spoonful is a memory. Every slice brings you back to a moment. We don’t just eat to eat, we eat to feel. And sometimes we don’t eat so we don’t have to feel. Watching your child turn limp, unresponsive, and covered in hives after eating an egg may, understandably, be enough to make you want to avoid egg, in all its forms, forever. I mean if an eyelash can cause a nearly 2 decade food aversion, imagine the repugnant relationship one may establish with an egg after witnessing such a devastating event. I call it post-traumatic disordered eating. And this is my self-diagnosis.
I’ve seen it manifest itself in many ways. After a long day in clinic working with two adult patients with new-onset anaphylaxis and shortly after my son’s anaphylaxis to egg, my husband and I went out to eat. I ordered salmon. I hadn’t eaten it in a long time but it sounded healthy and light. As I ate it, I started to think about work, about how fish was one of the top-8 food allergens, about my son’s near-fatal reaction to food, about the new adult food allergy diagnoses I made that day, and suddenly my throat felt tight. I felt like I couldn’t swallow well. I kept drinking gulp after gulp of water. How could this be happening? Was it really happening? I didn’t want to tell my husband because deep down I believed I wasn’t having physical symptoms but I needed to tell him because I was definitely having emotional ones. I was on the verge of a panic attack over salmon that I was not having an allergic reaction to. We talked through it and I calmed down. My throat wasn’t swelling. I didn’t have hives. I wasn’t going to vomit. But it was traumatic and it was stressful.
Every time we are out to eat with other parents of a food allergic child, we absolutely have to comment on the fact that we are eating foods that our kids cannot. They talk about how they feel about their child’s allergen(s) and we talk about how we feel. It’s the elephant in the room (or more likely, the peanut on the plate) and until we verbalize it, I don’t think that anyone is really able to enjoy their dinner. We have to talk about it, so we can stop thinking about it. These internal dialogues can, and do, grow very tiresome. Then we can choose which foods we will still avoid and which foods we will eat because we don’t get to eat them at home. At this point, I usually dig into the center of the loaf of bread and pull out a dense, soft middle piece that I will soon cover (smother) in butter. Then I repeat this, literally, ad nauseum. This sort of over-compensatory, rapid (and often secretive) eating of food that your child cannot eat is another sign of post-traumatic disordered eating. (Remember this is not an official diagnosis but one that I have coined myself and frankly, have cornered the market on.)
For our ten-year wedding anniversary, my husband and I went to Table 52, and they served deviled eggs along with these unbelievable cheese buns. I looked at the eggs. They looked at me. I hadn’t had a deviled egg in the 6 years following the boys’ anaphylaxis to egg in a cookie I made for them, but I used to eat them with great joy. My husband and I looked at each other. We looked back at the eggs. He said, with a certain level of disgust, “I’m not eating those.” I said with a certain level of desire, “I won’t either.” See the difference in those remarks? He really didn’t want one. I wanted one but wasn’t going to let myself eat it if the kids couldn’t eat it. After a few minutes, he was able to encourage me to eat one. He could see how much I wanted it. And for the first time since the egg anaphylaxis, I put a deviled egg into my mouth. The flavors. The aroma. The experience. I was transported. I was a child on Easter morning and a little girl at my gramma’s house. I hadn’t been back to those memories in many years. I missed them and eating that deviled egg is what brought them back.
Food does this like nothing else can. It captures all of your senses and literally can put you back in a space and time. Eating a cashew puts my hand deep into a blue can of Planter’s on an airplane (I know, gasp) to Florida with my family as a kid. Eating a Butterfinger blizzard brings me to the Dairy Queen in Bourbonnais after early-dismissal from grade school. I can see my gramma’s hand swirling as she made it for me. Eating an eggroll at a Chinese restaurant drops me in the back seat of our family car with my sister after a trip to TJ Maxx followed by dinner at China Gate. Our memories are intertwined with food.
Our children’s memories may not be filled with deviled eggs or cashews or blizzards or eggrolls but no matter what food they have to avoid, they will have their own food memories. Food memories that we have created for them. They may have Benjamint Bars from Divvies on Easter morning, or Cybele Pascal’s vanilla scones at Christmas or Hanukkah, or Cherrybrook Kitchen chocolate cakes for birthdays. They will have loads of fresh fruits and vegetables, food of the earth. Each food with its own smell and taste, color and texture. Each food tied into its own childhood memories. See, you are not denying them childhood food memories. You don’t have to deny yourself them either. It’s good for us to take a bite of the otherwise forbidden foods and let it take us back, every now and then.
We talk a lot about the emotional effect food allergy has on parents, but mostly in regard to our fear over our children eating allergenic food. I don’t think we talk enough about the emotional toll that eating foods our children cannot eat has on parents. It’s okay to admit that eating can sometimes be difficult. It’s okay to have these feelings. It’s okay to need to work through them. It’s okay to reach out and ask for help. The next time you go out to eat, think about what you will order and imagine eating that food before you actually do. Imagine eating it in happy moderation. Imagine eating it without regret or guilt. Work out the kinks and anxieties so when you sit down for a nice (and likely rare) night out with your spouse or friends, that you can do so in peace. Take a deep breath and do your best to enjoy yourself, nuts and deviled eggs and all. Bon appetite, friends. You deserve it.