The Importance of Being Normal
Ben came home from the summer camp he’s teaching with a story about one of the girls in his camp. She’s allergic to dairy, eggs, and peanuts, and has to eat separately from the rest of the kids in the camp in a “peanut-free zone”. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard that is — at least with my allergy, I could sit next to kids eating things that would’ve harmed me. Food, in our society (and from what I can tell, most societies), is a social thing as well as something for nourishment. When we get together with people, we talk about meeting up for lunch or dinner, or grab a cup of coffee. For kids in public school systems or very busy summer camps, lunch time might be the only unstructured social time they get with their classmates. And that means that for those of us with allergies, it’s not just eating that’s harder, it’s socializing.
I do a lot of contract work, which means I eat a lot of first meals with coworkers. The allergy comes up in conversation. A LOT. I don’t mean to be one of those people who’s always talking about my digestive tract, but when someone suggests we go out for pizza, they keep pushing for answers when I say I’m not up for joining them there. Or the number of times I’ve been offered cake or cookies, and when I politely decline, I get asked, “What, are you on some sort of a diet?” Yes, I’m on the thinner side of the spectrum (a result, I would wager, more to do with a diet low in saturated fat, rather than due to a genetic predisposition or all that exercise I avoid), so when these middle-aged women scowl at me with their slowing metabolisms, criticizing me for a diet they think I’m on and don’t need, a lot of the time I will speak up and tell them it’s because of an allergy (although, more and more lately I stay silent). When we go to restaurants, I’m used to playing twenty questions with the waiters just to find out what I can safely order.
I deal with a lot of that crap when outside the house, but now that I’m an adult, I can declare our house a Dairy-Free Zone. Okay, so it’s not a hard and fast rule, and Ben will occasionally bring something home that’s his to eat, like a tub of yogurt from the cows I nearly went to college with or leftovers from a restaurant. But for the most part, he’s voluntarily restricted his own dairy consumption, which means very little in our house. Come to think of it, we lost most of the contents of our fridge from the power outage, and I don’t think any dairy has entered the house since.
As a kid, it was a lot harder. At home, my parents kept dairy products for themselves (why shouldn’t they? As adults, we have the privilege of choosing our own food). At school, I ate my packed lunches because I could never have anything from the school cafeteria. And in elementary school, the lunch time teasing was pretty bad. I remember being chased around the lunch room with cartons of milk, having drops of milk flicked at my bare skin, string cheese wiggled in my face. Kids are really cruel about things they don’t understand, and in big settings like a school cafeteria, it’s really hard for the five adults present to keep an eye on three hundred socializing kids (had they even understood what was going on, and at that point, I’m not so certain they did).
So when Ben told me about the seven year old girl with the food allergies, who had one classmate who could sit with her because of the peanut allergy, but then shook a pudding container in her face and wiped cheese on her leg? I cried, and I don’t think it’s just the hormones this time.
I thought back to seven-year-old me and what I so desperately needed to hear.
Being a kid with allergies is so hard. All the grown-ups think they’re helping by giving you special cheese and a special plate of things you can eat. And yeah, sometimes that stuff is exciting, like when you go to a vegan restaurant and you can order anything on the menu. But special is only special when it’s, well, special. It’s only exciting when it’s different, when you can spend most of your time being normal. I can’t even count the number of times I cried myself to sleep because I just wanted a stupid ice cream cone like everyone else. Or the times I made myself sick because “well, a little bit will be okay”.
But you know what? What I eat now is normal. In our house, our normal “butter” is Earth Balance. When I say “please pass the milk”, it’s usually soy (although sometimes coconut or almond). And if I want, I can have ice cream for dessert, because we bought some at the store and it’s okay. I can open our refrigerator and eat anything I want to. And it’s No. Big. Deal.
And those decadent dairy-free desserts I make for myself? Most of the people I share them with can have dairy no problem, and don’t even care that what I made is cow-free. At Thanksgiving, my dairy-free pumpkin pie is regularly topped with whipped cow-cream. The raves I got for my dairy-free pumpkin cheesecake! And you know what else? Our wedding meal was totally dairy-free. And most people never even knew.
So hang in there, kiddo. It’s hard now, I know. But when you’re done with school and living on your own, you get to plan your own meals. And then whatever you choose to make is normal.