All The PB & Js I Never Had

All the PB & Js I Never Had

Growing up with a peanut allergy, and how I was cured of it.

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When I was three years old, I went to birthday party for a friend who lived up the street. Our moms met at the grocery store while browsing through the cereal aisle. I grew up running in their backyard, playing with toys and climbing the ladders and slides on their jungle gym. It was a place of laughter; summertime sunshine, bruised knees, birthday cakes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

That afternoon, I told my mother I was hungry. So she went over to the food table and plucked a few various items here and there to give me a variety of choices on my plate: maybe some mac n cheese, or a chocolate chip cookie. Some potato chips and a couple vegetables, just to give it a shot to see if I'd have any of it. And, of course, half of a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich. When my mother presented my plate, I went with the PB and J. It took one bite.

Within five minutes, my mom noticed the swelling red marks dotted on my skin. Across my arms where my hands had grazed, across my mouth and my cheeks.

The allergist did prick tests and blood tests and all sorts of checks. After two weeks, I was diagnosed with a peanut allergy. Although my allergy was minor at three years old, with time it would worsen. They said that within a few years, if I ingested a peanut, I was capable of experiencing anaphylactic shock: my throat would close in on itself, oxygen would fail to reach my lungs, my body would self destruct. To parents of a young child, this is obviously terrifying.

I was prescribed an epinephrine pen; we had an 'EpiPen' in every room in our house. There was one at school. There was one at my summer camps, and at the homes of close friends. From then on, I was designated to sit at the dreadful 'peanut free' table in the far corner of our elementary school cafeteria. At restaurants, our waiter was always drilled on the chef's awareness to allergies, what oils they fry their chicken in, or what kind of nuts are in the dressings. So much for desserts; who knows if the ice cream scooper delved into the Reese's before the cookies n cream. There was too much of a likelihood of cross-contamination; it's not worth the risk. The repetitive statement I was lectured upon as a young child- avoid peanuts at all costs-eventually left a permanent mark in my existence.

From then on, my plate at birthday parties often consisted of food brought from home; processed in a nut free facility, brownies made from scratch. Maybe I'd be lucky if there was pasta available. Or sometimes, there'd be nothing at all.

At one point, the allergy seemed to brand my existence, becoming part of my identity. Around the time I was diagnosed, my parents noticed how much more shy I became. I would often seclude into myself, much like how we strove to stray clear of any potential threats to my safety. It just simply became another quality, as obvious as the color of my eyes. I was trained to always check the ingredients on granola bar packets and move to another seat on the school bus if even the slightest trace of peanuts crept up my nose.

And so for my entire childhood, I was that girl with the peanut allergy. Things can clearly be worse. I didn't suffer, I still grew to be happy and healthy without skippy jars in our pantry. By the time I was in high school, it was just the way it was. In the grand scheme of things, my allergy was an inconvenience, a reminder of childhood insecurity, and a perpetual fear of a potential disaster.

When you avoid something your entire life, it's strange when someone tells you it's okay to eat it. Especially your parents.

As I progressed through my high school years, my parents became concerned about my allergy while I was in college. Despite their faith in my independence, they feared that lacking a safety net in the form of themselves could result in some sort of allergic reaction, if I was accidentally careless in the university cafeteria or out late for dinner with friends.

That's when my parents heard about a treatment plan headed up at Stanford, called the oral immunotherapy study, or OIT for short. Doctors realized a connection between patients ingesting allergens as a form of treatment for their allergy. Focusing on children, doctors would present an allergen in the smallest dosage imaginable, and the patient would eat it. Over time, the dosage would gradually increase, until they were able to consume more every day. And after the dosage reached a certain capacity, these children were considered allergy free.

My mother placed me on a waiting list, and for three years we waited. Over the course of this time, I experienced initial reluctance to undergo this treatment. I respected the reasons why my parents were so adamant about the treatment, but, to be honest, I was kind of scared. When you're told your whole life that peanuts can kill you, it leaves an impression. What if I was a case where it didn't work, an exception? Or what if I ingested too much too fast?

As I considered undergoing the treatment, I thought about how different things would be. It may not seem like much. If you really think about it, though, it's crazy that I never knew what a kid's staple lunch meal tasted like. Sure, I had almond butter and sunflower butter (my friends loved to tease me for this of course), but that's not the same. And there wasn't a single meal that went by where I looked down at my plate and knew I was safe. Strange to think about how much uncertainty I endured.

So when I was the next patient on the waiting list, I decided to try.

For the next year, my parents and I would make a monthly trek to Long Beach Children's Hospital. The office was welcoming. Each room filled with families and kids, just like me, younger and older, about to undergo a life-changing endeavor. Dr. Inderpal Randhawa introduced himself to us. He had successfully cured thousands of patients with allergies to nuts, dairy, egg, soy, wheat, seeds, shellfish, and others. I was next.

To begin, they first confirmed my immunity to other allergies, which was tested with various food challenges. Afterward, I was awarded my first dosage of peanuts. Within a small plastic vile mainly comprised of water, the slightest trace of peanut protein dissolved itself in the solution. Each day I drank from a little vile. Gradually, over weeks and weeks, the dosage of peanut extract increased. Until, finally, I had reached a tolerance great enough to ingest a single peanut.

When I ate it, my mom burst into tears. It may seem ridiculous. It's just a peanut. It wasn't always just a peanut, though. It was dangerous and life-threatening. But now, yes, that's all it was. For a parent who had lived in constant worry of a potential reaction, who had rid any peanuts, peanut butter, 'manufactured in a facility,' 'may contain' or 'contains' from our kitchen, this was a big day.

By the next week, I was eating three peanuts a day. Then five; ten; twenty; thirty. Like medicine or vitamins, I consumed the food every day. I was giving exactly what my body hated most until it learned how to process it. Eventually, I was incorporating other products into my diet: peanut butter, Snickers, Reese's, trail mix, peanut butter protein bars, you name it.

In total, the treatment took about two years, and I successfully completed the whole process last summer. I can honestly say I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When I go home from school on weekends, there's peanut butter in the pantry, one of my brother's staples now. I can eat Thai and Chinese food without a hint of stress. And I only have one EpiPen, just in case.

Growing up, I was lucky. I never experienced a serious reaction like many, never experienced an emergency trip in the ambulance. In the grand scheme of things, I'm a minor case. Regardless, this treatment has changed my life. For those who have numerous allergies, or more serious ones, I'm sure it would change theirs even more so. For the rest of my life, I will never be held back from dinner dates with friends, or traveling to foreign countries, buying groceries or sharing food with roommates. For anyone who has an allergy, I can't stress enough how wonderful it is. The reward is greater than any fears you may have. Sign up, take a leap of faith. It's worth the wait.

Yeah, I missed out on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for eighteen years. But I'm catching up on them now, and it won't be a problem.

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Living With a Life-Threatening Nut Allergy

It can be rough. How aware are you?
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I have had a peanut allergy for as long as I can remember. But I am told that it started when I was 18 months old. Realistically, it likely began long before that—my immune system might’ve started fighting off nuts while I was in the womb, for all I know, but my first allergic reaction took place when I was just a tyke in a high chair, shoving a piece of toast smothered in beautiful, creamy peanut butter into my little mouth.

I don’t know what it’s like to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (jelly and fluff was my jam, though… get it?). No idea what an almond really tastes like, besides the all-too-familiar feeling of my tongue and lips swelling; my throat becoming constricted. I’ve always said that I don’t have “anaphylaxis,” which is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, and a word all too common in the allergy world. But lately, it’s become more and more obvious to me that yes, I do have that, and while I was told over and over again as a kid that perhaps I’d grow out of my allergy, as far as I’m concerned, it’s only gotten worse.

I’m an active person. Well, this is to say that I like to work out (though I’m rather sedentary moment to moment, read: Netflix and books). But I love to run and bike and lift weights, all to the chagrin of my allergy. When I do any of the above, my heart rate increases. Blood pumps more quickly through my veins, and if I’ve had any of the plethora of things I’m allergic to—any and all nuts, even just the tiniest bit—within the last, say, 8-12 hours, I’m in trouble.

I’ve never written about this before because, for me, it’s a touchy subject. I used to find it embarrassing that I was so deathly allergic to something so many people love and enjoy daily. M & Ms? Nope. Kit Kats? Not ‘til I was 13 did I start eating anything in that potentially dangerous category. And now that nuts are more Vogue than ever when it comes to health and wellness, my eating reality has only gotten more difficult. Again, I like to be active. This also means, often, though not always, that I like to eat well. Eating well these days is practically synonymous with chia seeds, flax, and things like that—which I’m good with, thankfully. But then there’s the dreaded almond—the macadamia nut—and peanuts, of course, which seems to appear in everything. I’ve been reminded of this too, too many times lately, all while I’ve been working out. Well, trying to work out.

The last two allergic reactions I had occurred while I was on a run. One happened at the gym, and thank God I had someone present there to help me (this was not his first time coming to my rescue). I called him desperately, my fingers barely working—hands and feet beginning to go numb—from my throne, aka the toilet, where I thought I was either going to shit my brains out, or throw up all over the floor in front of me. Neither happened, but my head lolled after I got off the phone and I started to panic, wondering how quickly he’d get to me. Perhaps I should have called 9-1-1, I don’t know. But this has been my reality so often, of late, that I’d constantly be in the hospital if I called an ambulance every time it happened.

The most recent reaction occurred when I was on a dirt road in Martha’s Vineyard. On Chappaquiddick, to be exact, which is a largely uninhabited island off of the Vineyard. I was about a mile and a half from any Benadryl or human help, and again, I started to panic; not sure whether I should run back to the house and encourage the reaction further, but arrive at help sooner. Or to walk, slowing my heart rate and trying to keep calm. The latter, I decided, didn’t make sense, because it might happen that I wouldn’t make it back to the house before I passed out—my blood pressuring dropping that low—on the side of the road. This thought, of course, only makes things worse, and panic ensues, whether you want it to or not.

Back at the house, I called out to the friend I was staying with, who is luckily a very well trained EMT. He found me sitting in a cold shower, fully clothed, socks and sneakers still on, shivering, my face, neck and stomach, red and hot. He took my pulse, asked if I’d taken Benadryl (I had), and told me that I actually looked okay. Asked if I was disoriented (I was, but it was getting better), or if I thought I needed to go to the hospital. Much like my other rescuer, who has helped me so many times with this, my EMT friend was so calm, so helpful, I almost cried at his kindness. Mind you, this is not a cute scene to walk in on. I’m puffy and blotchy and scared out of my mind, every time. Even writing about it now frightens me, and I can’t help but wonder when the next time this will happen will be—where I’ll be, how bad it might get.

To be honest, and to use that cliché at will, I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I guess because I think it’s important not only for me to come to terms with the gravity of my allergy, after so many years of belittling it, even in my greatest moments of terror, but also to bring to light the seriousness of food allergies in general. To impart to those of you who work in the food industry, for instance, making patrons’ sandwiches and salads and things that might contain nuts: this is no joke. If you think that it might be contaminated, say it. We’ll take our chances if it makes sense to us and our persona sensitivities, or we’ll go with something else. Obviously, this reaches far beyond just nut allergies, though in the US alone, peanut allergies represent .6% of the population. And that's just peanuts.

For those of you who are so, so genetically blessed not to have this problem--because that's what it is, really, plain and simple: a problem--I think it’s important for you to at least be a little bit more aware. The immune system shut down our bodies go into with the slightest ingestion of an allergen is an issue, and it’s a serious one at that. Sure, it's our issue. But only to an extent can we take full blame. Food allergies, for all intents and purposes, are an incredibly frightening life-setback that can rear its ugly head at any given moment (see below for something pretty yikes inducing stuff... I know, it's a big photo, and I know it's not cute. But it's so, so real. That's sweat dripping off of my hair, by the way. And moments later I was swaddled in a huge sweatshirt, freezing. Obviously, this isn't at the height of things. It's a good time after, when I could function in some capacity). Even for someone whose entire life has been riddled with this plight, the moment you realize something is happening never gets easier, or less terrifying.


If you want to read more about all of this, though it is quite sad, head over to this piece about a young boy whose life was taken by his allergy. I don’t know what I’m doing about my allergy right now, besides visiting an allergist for the first time in a long time, very soon. But I think this is a start. Just talking about it. Coming to terms with the fact that this is my reality, and so many others', but I—we—need help keeping ourselves safe. Help us, help ourselves, yeah?

Cover Image Credit: Google

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If You Don't Experience Allergies On A Daily Basis, Count Yourself Lucky

Whenever I wake up, I am always sneezing nonstop.

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Every day, I have allergies. Whenever I wake up, I am always sneezing nonstop. I have to get tissues like every second when I am brushing my teeth, washing my face, and eating breakfast. My family can hear me sneezing and they always wonder if there is a way for me to stop sneezing. Sometimes, I will stop sneezing after breakfast. Sometimes, I will stop sneezing later on. Sometimes, I keep sneezing for the whole day.

Whenever I go out somewhere, I must always bring tissues. There will be a time when I am going to need it. Sometimes, I forget to bring tissues so I have to find replacements like napkins and toilet paper right away. I do not want my snot running nor have anyone see my snot! Bringing tissues is like my self-confidence. If I do not bring some with me, it is like I do not have any self-confidence at all.

Tissues are way better than the replacements that I have to find. Toilet paper and napkins hurt my nose. They make my nose red and dry after. Tissues are softer yet they bring the same effect to my nose. This is why I must always make sure that I bring tissues on the way. Usually, I feel very happy if I see a tissue box in the area that I am at.

Most of the time, I wish that I am allergy free and tissue free. Not everyone has to suffer like I am. They get peaceful mornings without doing anything to their noses. They do use tissues, but not like me who needs them like 24/7. I really want empty pockets and purses without tissues because I do not want to worry about my allergies when I am going somewhere. I always wonder how it is like to not have allergies at all. All I know for sure is that it is a very good feeling.

Some people say that I take medicine. My family and I do not trust medicine too much because they will bring negative effects to our bodies. Maybe allergy shots can help because my mother has heard and seen the positive effects of them. As of now, I still have my allergies. I always bring tissues with me whenever I go to college and I find napkins in college whenever I forget to bring them with me. Despite my wishes in ending my allergies, all I know for sure is no matter what happens to me or where I am, allergies are my destiny and I must endure them for the rest of my life.

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