On Caution

This is an essay I wrote in 2001. It seemed appropriate for my first blog post on my new site. Enjoy!

So I don’t eat peanuts. It’s not a big deal. I just avoid them in a polite and less violent manner than some people who express their dislike of, say, eggplant. And, yes, my childhood was just fine without peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Certainly there’s a need for caution. I read ingredient labels and always try to remember to ask when someone passes me home-baked goods. Unfortunately, I can’t trust anyone — even the well intentioned — as a recent chutney episode at my in-laws taught me. But I understand. They aren’t used to policing their food.

Sometimes you can’t figure out where the peanut is hidden. Like the time Mr. Peanut and his friends, Peter Pan and Skippy, mugged you by draping themselves all over the care-package Rice Krispy treats. Or that time in high school when eating chocolate M&Ms sent you reeling out on a gurney. You flew past all your friends and a panicked parent arriving to rescue you. In those days, they mixed peanuts in the M&M chocolate and didn’t mention it on the label. Yes, they did; and no, I’m not confusing them with peanut M&Ms, thank you.

Then there are items that people prod you to eat, although you have memorized the ingredients label. They never believe that peanuts would be in this product or that. “Certainly not this,” they say in well-meaning, know-it-all voices. There is sometimes distrust in their eyes then; the unspoken idea that maybe you are just making it up and don’t really have an allergy. “How can you tell?” they ask. Patiently you explain what it means to eat a little. Just a little. You tell about how your mouth and throat become itchy. Or how they start to swell. Or you explain that anaphylaxic shock can be fatal.

You trot out one of the many stories of your life that will help explain. You tell about when a restaurant worker sliced bread with a knife he had used to make a non-menu item, a peanut butter and ____ sandwich. You relate how you took a bite of the sourdough bread while waiting for your entrée. Your reaction was immediate and you began casing the table for the offending item. You tore apart the sliced bread, piece by piece. You explain how that microbe of peanut butter on that bread put you out of sorts for hours. Your eyes itched. Your throat grew tight. Your tongue swelled. The listener’s distrust vanishes and a look of pity appears.

Once, when you were a lonely tourist, you decided to go for Italian food. As your throat began to close and the itchy hives started speckling across your stomach, you were certain the waiter hadn’t told you the truth. How could eating pasta send you into shock? The day after, you tried to explain to the restaurateur your reasons for needing to know what they put in their pesto. They were evasive. You explained an Epi-Pen and anaphylaxis and how after each reaction, a chink weakens in your physiological armor. Unbelievably they treated you, a paying guest, cautiously and with disdain. As if you were a criminal.

After that night in the hospital, you look twice at every morsel on every plate set before you. Each reaction builds on the last, making you feel worse and worse. Increasing your caution. Because of the restaurant’s attitude, you never do find out what it was in their pasta sauce that put you in an ambulance. But you never forgot it.

The battleground isn’t reserved solely for the restaurants. Airplane passengers become irate and less than understanding about what happens when a hundred people in an enclosed air space open their packages of honey roasted peanuts. After all, they’re not force-feeding you! (As if you have a choice of the air you’re breathing). And so, you bring an inhaler everywhere you go. Just in case.

Now, more and more schools and parents and the public are learning about what you’ve lived with your whole life. Today the allergic will spend their childhoods segregated to “peanut-free” zones. A cover story appears in The New York Times Magazine and friends from all over send you copies. A food allergy network marks its tenth anniversary and a peanut antidote may be on the horizon. Your reaction to these is bittersweet.

I am grateful there is more press about food allergies, hopefully not just peanuts. I am relieved that food companies are much more serious with their labeling. Although, if I’ve been eating something for years and an allergy warning label shows up — “Processed in a plant with nut products” — it makes me a little suspicious. Still I cross it off my list of things I can eat safely. Just in case.

On the other hand, it’s strange. Growing up I never spent any days segregated by my allergy. I learned not to panic, as my breath grew more labored. I educated school nurses when I requested a hot drink, preferably warm water, as my throat began to constrict. No, not tea, thank you. I learned how to purge my body of its last peanut-tinged morsel. As reactions worsened (which they do naturally), I bought a “fashionable” bag I still carry with me. It looks like I’m transporting cosmetics. In it I carry an Albuterol inhaler; a 0.3 mg Epinephrine auto-injector; homeopathic Sulphur pellets, which I’ve always been too nervous to try; and a container of neon pink Benadryl tablets, my first line of defense. This bag is my junior medical kit. My bag of caution. Just in case.