“Faster Mom, FASTER!” I screamed as I sat helpless in the back seat of the car. My eyes scanned my body as hundreds of hives sprouted from my legs, arms, and chest. My oxygen level was so low it was as if I were breathing through a straw. I was experiencing anaphylaxis. Moments earlier, a metal needle loaded with epinephrine exploded into my upper thigh muscle and helped my body counter the allergic reactions. My predominant memories of the quick drive to the hospital are the consoling words of my parents and my overwhelming fear of death. Vividly, I remember I passed a stop sign and became intrigued. I had never noticed it before, but now I reflected, “Would this be the last time I saw this stop sign? Will food allergies stop me?”
I Am Not Alone
I have been living with severe food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and sheep/goat milk for 19 years. However, as a child I was also allergic to cow’s milk, soy, and all legumes. If I ate anything with these foods in it, or if anything I ate came into cross-contact with these allergens, death became a possibility. This is a constant worry that I harbor in the back of my mind – every time I place a piece of food in my mouth. I am not alone: others share this worry, and battle against food allergies too. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, known as FARE, about 15 million individuals in the United States, including one in 13 children, have one or multiple food allergies. From 2008 to 2013, I have had the privilege of meeting some of them; teens from across the United States living with severe food allergies get together at the FARE Teen Summit, an annual conference.
No Cupcakes for You
People with food allergies see certain foods as poisons, while others see the same foods as treats. During my childhood I was frustrated by having to cope with the problems associated with food allergies. In elementary school others would have fun enjoying cupcakes and cakes at birthday parties, and I could not join them. My mom would make special, safe treats for me, but I became labeled as the kid who would eat differently or not eat at all. To a young child this hurt. I hated explaining myself every time an event involved food. Many times I would not even go to certain events because I dreaded the hassle of explaining my allergies and being perceived as rude or needy by adults or peers. Throughout middle and high school the stigma continued. At other people’s homes I would try to explain why I was not eating, and the host would treat it as a sign of disrespect or they would just feel bad for me. Many people do not know the severity of food allergies, so it becomes very difficult to explain yourself. I did not want people to have to go out of their way for me or change their plans to eat somewhere else because of me. I felt as though I was becoming a burden. Dating even became hard because of the embarrassment of asking girls what they had eaten that day. If they recently ate something I was allergic to I could not kiss them without fear of exposure.
Hearing stories about children with food allergies being bullied saddens me the most. In elementary school I remember a kid at my table put a cheese cracker in my face and teased me about how this little cracker could kill me. In middle school a student almost put a peanut snack in my can of soda when I left the table. Though I remember those events, better memories prevail: Learning that my friends had stopped the boy from putting the peanut in my drink, teaching my concerned roommate how to use my epinephrine auto-injector, having a chef in a restaurant care to talk to me and bring me a safely prepared meal, and when a friend will go out of his or her way to make sure we will eat at a safe place. These moments of understanding and empathy have helped me move forward. They have dissolved the stigma.
Ending the Stigma
Through educating others, the stigma surrounding food allergies can become extinct. Food allergies are severe and not a joke, unlike what is illustrated in popular culture. Individuals with food allergies can explain to others what it means to live with poison on the dinner table. Together we can help end the stigma by recognizing that food allergies are not a lifestyle choice, but rather a life-threatening and life-altering immune-based disease.
Nicholas Bellacicco is a nineteen-year-old college student born and raised in Stamford, CT. He is currently in his sophomore year at Baylor University in Waco, TX studying Medical Humanities on the pre-med track. Nicholas is severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and sheep/goat milk. Living with food allergies has given him the passion to enter the medical field; he hopes to attend medical school and become a physician. In 2009, Nicholas co-starred in Nick News, “I’m Allergic to my World” television broadcast. The Nickelodeon program explained the everyday hardships of living with food allergies.
Nicholas is a TAG (Teen Advisory Group) member for Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). FARE works on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, including all those at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis. FARE’s mission is to improve the quality of life and the health of individuals with food allergies, and to provide them hope through the promise of new treatments. Learn more at www.foodallergy.org.