It was 1981 in a small town in Northern Michigan and I was in the kitchen waiting to get a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. With a “ding” from the timer, my mouth began to water. After a brief cooling period and very little patience, I was handed a cookie that I quickly gobbled down. It was so good! The delicious cookie made me twist my feet on the smooth linoleum as I grasped my hands to my chest with a big smile on my three year old face.
Suddenly, I stopped. There was something wrong. My mouth was itchy and my lips felt weird. I complained to my Mom, but food allergies were unheard of in 1981 and she told me I was crazy. Little did she know, anaphylaxis had just made its first appearance in my life.
Remembering that day when I was 3 years old, my Mom and I now laugh at her reaction to my symptoms. The cookie had ground walnuts in it, which was the typical recipe in the Moore house. Tree nuts continue to be my most severe food allergen, but now we know how to handle it.
Growing up in an era when food allergies were not only misunderstood but often ignored, those antibodies kept building as I continued to accidently get exposed again and again. Tree nuts were on the menu for birthday parties, at every holiday gathering, picnic, sports event, friend’s house, school lunch, and so on. It was so difficult to avoid because the adults around me didn’t understand anaphylactic reactions and when I said I couldn’t eat something, they often thought I was just being a picky eater. As I grew through my first 8 or 9 years, my reactions increased in severity and involved itchy mouth, swelling down my digestive track, vomiting, skin rashes, and they were likely life-threatening. Luckily, I lived through it!
My reactions worsened as I got older, but I became a better advocate for myself. I knew to ask about ingredients, and by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade, folks around me were becoming more familiar with food allergies. People were beginning to understand how severely sick I could become if I accidently ingested a tree nut. There was also an increased awareness of anaphylaxis and its severity (though this primarily came from bee sting induced anaphylaxis). I still did not carry an EpiPen, nor had anyone recommended I get one. It was almost the 90’s and my first visit to the ER due to food allergies was approaching. This is when I finally knew this was a real thing and not something in my head nor something I could ignore any longer.
I was finally coming to terms with the fact that certain foods were poison to me. This realization came with increased self-consciousness because I was now different and could not participate in so many social celebrations (as the food often did or could contain nuts). Sometimes, in an effort to avoid feeling different, I just ate the food anyway without enquiring about the ingredients (as long as I didn’t see any nuts). I was creating a more difficult future for myself, as each exposure better primed my body to have a faster reaction next time. I now face the reality of going from tree nut exposure to unconscious in about 15 minutes. It is terrifying, and no, I do not eat anything anymore without knowing the ingredients (and whether any of the ingredients were processed on shared equipment with tree nuts). My knowledge that I have severe food allergies went from non-existent, to denial, to acceptance, and finally, to allergy freedom.