a special post by Lydia Pejovic
From as young as three years old, I remember carefully reading ingredients on wrappers, bags, boxes, nutritional facts PDFs. My severe food allergies made me realize that, when my parents were not around, I had to rely on my own knowledge to keep myself safe. When teachers would hand out snacks at school, I would look at them suspiciously, turning the packages over in my hand and searching the label for keywords like eggs, egg albumen, lecithin (soy lecithin was okay), almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts, coconut, macadamia. Oftentimes, my teachers would gently remind me that I had this same snack just the other day and offer to open the package themselves, just to get me to start acting like a normal child, one who didn’t obsessively read and reread and reread cookie wrappers.
“I can’t be sure you checked. My parents need me to check.”
Every year, my mom would take me to the allergist to get the same sort of spiel about my allergies. Normally, a very elderly man with a clipboard and cold hands would ask me if anything had changed (it hadn’t), and then say, “It’s likely your daughter will grow out of her allergies. Many children are able to wake up and eat things they were allergic to out of the blue!”
I always sensed that “growing out” of my allergies was impossible for me. Maybe I thwarted the possibility through sheer frustration at how unlikely supposed mystery cures seemed, but I did not grow out of my allergies. My food restrictions are still severe: I don’t allow roommates to keep or cook eggs in the house (cross-contamination), I can’t go into breakfast restaurants (egg proteins travel in the air and give me hives, plus the possibility of cross-contamination), I don’t touch walnut wood (it makes me break out in a rash), I can’t kiss my boyfriend if he’s eaten anything that contains nuts (he needs to brush his teeth first), and much more.
However, despite the severity of my allergies, I cannot imagine my life without them. In fact, my allergies taught me to read carefully and to read a lot. I constantly had reading material, and that material mattered. The words written on those packages were life or death for me. I learned to value words, even seemingly boring ones. It’s significant that words mattered to me from a young age, that I was trained to read and react accordingly. In a funny way, my restrictions and challenges intertwined me more deeply with my first and greatest love: reading.
Growth can be found in the strangest of places. For me, it was found on the ingredient labels I had to, and still have to, read. I wouldn’t choose to have food allergies, but they remind me that words matter. Even if I grew out of my allergies today (I won’t, I’m far too old for that) or if they were magically cured, I wouldn’t change my habits or mindset. And I think I’m satisfied with that because that’s part of who I am.