I had twiddled my thumbs at my desk for a while, after the students around me who, giddy with excitement, talked about the pizza special our school cafeteria was serving for lunch that day. I swallowed hard, thinking of the EpiPen in the blue pouch inside my backpack and remembering how it got there— a constant reminder that I wouldn't be eating any cafeteria meals for the rest of my life.
I grew up eating out with my parents, running after the ice cream truck with my friends, and looking forward to the simple things like snack time and the candy on Halloween. Many people don't think twice about how food plays such a large role in our lives, how it acts as an incentive and luxury— something to look forward to and share with friends and family whether it's downing a shake at Dave & Buster's or being invited to a birthday party fraught with cake and icing.
In 2009, however, I started middle school in the sixth grade and was faced a reality that would change the course of my life forever. My mother had bought me ice cream from Walmart— my favorite— and several spoons later, my throat felt constricted. Suddenly, I couldn't control my breathing and it seemed like the world was stuck inside my throat, unable to escape. Driven to the hospital, I was then referred to an allergy doctor who, several blood tests later, labeled my dilemma. I had what he called a non-typical food allergy to carrageenan, a food additive chemically derived from red seaweed and used as a thickener in products.
To my 11-year-old mind, I had no clue what that entailed, but slowly, as my mother began to sift through every ingredient before I ate anything, I began to see that the whole world I knew before could no longer be offered to me, either because restaurants and school cafeterias didn't check to see if they used carrageenan or the fact that if they did, I couldn't eat there anymore.
And the fear was a whole other animal. I never wanted to feel my throat closing again, the shortness of breath and the thought that it could be my last. My paranoia swept through me, flashing through my fingers as I watched my hands throw out the sandwiches my mother would pack me, afraid that no matter how carefully we checked their ingredients, we would miss something and I could die. In Chorus one day, I felt my body go faint as all the nourishment and calories I neglected finally caught up to me. I became even more aware that my allergy was affecting my every-day life and making me feel both helpless and hopeless. If I ate something, I could die and when I was being safe and eating as little as possible, that too was hurting my body.
I graduated Selinsgrove Middle School in 2011, my fear of food — something that is needed three times a day— at an all-time-high. My four years in high school did not change that fear, as I was still that shy girl who did not want to stand out. I was this really shy girl and I felt like the last thing I needed was another aberration to feel like an outsider. I wanted to ask the world, "Why me?" It did feel so unfair, this random hiccup in my life turning into a choke-hold that would never let me go. I had to always be alert of what food I let into my life and as other kids could eat mac n cheese, drink chocolate milk or scarf down Chinese take-out, I wondered why my body was rejecting me in such a way. Why did my body hate me? When you're in your teenage years, all you want to feel is "normal"— be just like everyone else and feel like everyone else, have no special attention to flaws that no one could understand. Yet there I was, all eyes on me, when I said no to the cupcakes during class celebrations and using a word for my allergy that no body heard of before.
I started college at Penn State University, the fall of 2016. Each and every time I changed my environment, I felt a new wave of anxiety and paranoia sweep over me. Every day of my life up to that point, I spent sitting in the cafeteria around food that if put in my mouth, could close my throat. I didn't tell anyone and I just continued bringing to school packed lunches whose ingredients were checked five times and over again. Reminders of my allergy were daily and the idea that so much could constrict my throat, constricted my heart and I always felt on edge. Now that I was starting college, I saw how the anxiety I felt over my allergy would take a new form.
It wasn't about the fear of what food I could put into my mouth or what my classmates thought. Now, it was about being a burden and being defined by allergy when it came to first impressions. Penn State's University Park is one of the largest colleges in the country and here I was, alone, among 44,000 students. Making new friends was hard enough but social settings always involve food. Apartment parties, club meetings, "girl nights", eating out — all of it contained food that could kill me but telling people, "No, I can't eat here" or, "No, I won't be having anything" came across as snotty and strange— problematic.
I felt like a misunderstood pariah, having to bring food from home or other places in order for my friends to get to eat where they want. Even going out on dates was a trigger of anxiety, for the guy could never pick the restaurant and I did not want to be defined by a food allergy for a first impression. I felt so alone and so small, hating that something so small like an allergy dictated so much of my life and my friendships and my first impression on people.
In this way, I rolled up my rock up the mountain of life just like Sisyphus, but there were still days where no matter how hard I tried, that rock would just roll down to the bottom all over again, and my feelings would be just as raw.
I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with my best friend, Sherry, when the rock tumbled down again. I went to Five Guys to get a burger I knew I was safe to eat and took it with me to a café Sherry wanted to go to. I placed my brown, nondescript bag on my knees and only slid out the burger onto a plate when Sherry finally got her food.
"Excuse me, but you can't eat outside food here or I'll get in trouble," my waitress suddenly quipped when she came to check on our table. I began to explain to her about my allergy and how the food at this café would be life threatening but my friend wanted to eat her when she cut me off quite rudely.
The manager soon got involved and the scene turned ugly. Tears formed in my eyes as I stared at my burger and Sherry kept repeating that they were being too harsh with the situation and I did not need to be talked to like a child. I twiddled my thumbs just like I had that day in sixth grade, with the same small feeling inside me that everyone was staring and my allergy was all people thought of me as, in that moment. I felt the looks bore into my back, and it always hurts. I constantly get these looks whenever I eat different food in a restaurant. The manager retracted by the end and said she knew how I felt, but all I could think was, "How can she possibly?" I realized, then, that my allergy gave me a certain empathy that others might not have. I never would have judged another person for eating other food and wouldn't bat my eyes twice if someone told me they had an allergy, life-threatening or not.
Sherry asked the manager for to-go bags and we made our way out of the café.
And then there was the anxiety I felt over my career choice of becoming an anthropologist and how my allergy could affect me there. For anthropology, I have to travel a lot and immerse myself in different cultures. People I meet may not realize how much eating food impacts their lives and even more so when it comes to traveling. In 2015, I went to the Netherlands, Belgium and France and it was nerve-wracking for me to think about where I could eat and when. All the other students got to eat at restaurants without thinking twice and there I was, eating plain salads out of my anxiety that I would have my throat close in Europe. I never got to try local cuisine or new foods and I thought about how this would affect my dream to work a job where staying and eating in different countries is a must. Was I doomed to wake up every day paranoid whenever I traveled for the work I love?
The summer of 2018, I went to Israel for an anthropology class through Penn State. To not feel so left as I did during my high school trip, I prepared by talking to the professor leading the trip and felt a whole better. I realized my progress in opening up about my allergy would also progress my ability to feel safe doing the work I love. This time around, even though my nerves were less than settled, I still felt more comfortable knowing there was someone out there who knew about my struggle. I felt more confident this time around, ordering rice, boiled eggs and fresh chicken breasts. I followed my gut instincts about which food I could eat and I did not fail myself. The experience made me realize confidence as well as confiding in someone can help you overcome your anxiety. I know that when I graduate in spring of 2020, I won't be afraid to follow my dream job and go after the life goals no matter what restrictions my body has.
I did not ever want to be defined by my food allergy. It's learning to accept that part of yourself, to truly love what is hard to love… that is where you find your own self-worth. Self-validation and self-love doesn't come easy and perhaps it shouldn't. My allergy taught me that it's through the pain and struggle and seeing how you deal with it, that's where you learn to really rely on yourself and love that you can do that for yourself.
And I also saw another shape of love take form and that is the love my mother has shown me through it all. For nine years, she has become my definition for unconditional love— it doesn't phase her to call restaurants in advance, to stand up for me, to always be meticulous about cooking because she knows my life is on the line. To not only find love for myself, but to see the love other people show me — like my mother, or Sherry standing ground for me at the restaurant while tears were streaming down my cheeks, or my professor being so kind and understanding throughout my trip to Israel— that is something rather extraordinary. The world is still mine to conquer. And it makes me feel invincible.