Welcome back to our Whatever Wednesday: Living with Food Allergies series. I bet you thought we forgot about it, but the truth is, we needed to talk about what we wanted to cover in this series. Expect to see more regular postings going forward. And when you see one of these? Grab a cup of coffee and settle in — we have things to say, and when you give free reign to a few liberal arts majors, many words you shall receive.
This week: Relationships, specifically those of the romantic variety. We’ll touch on socializing in general in a later post.
One of the things that was a little unexpected to me after my food allergy issues arose and continued to arise, (see my Denise page and my post on a subsequent visit to the allergist) is the effect it would have on my personal relationships and my social life. Because Valentine’s Day is coming up, we wanted to just focus on romantic relationships for this post. Just as disclaimer, I did get permission from my husband, Shawn, to discuss the things I’m about to discuss, so no one should be worried that I’m putting further friction or stress on my marriage.
Shawn and I met, dated, lived together and had been married for a couple of years before the extent of my food allergies (dairy, hazelnuts, scallops at that point) was recognized. We are food people. Our very favorite thing was to go out to eat, try new cuisines and new foods. And we would have gone out to eat, oh, say 2-4 times a week, prior to the food allergy apocalypse. After the initial apocalypse, i.e. finally getting it through my thick skull the extent of my dairy allergy and how sick it was making me, things didn’t change overmuch. We could still go out to eat quite frequently, sticking to mostly safe places like steakhouses, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai joints. We couldn’t go to all the places we would have liked because there had to be safe options for me, but it was a minor bump in the road.
After the second apocalypse, when I had to cut coconut, almond, eggs, crab, clams and flax, I pretty much lost Thai food and it was still annoying but still there were options. However, after the third apocalypse, I lost corn (and all derivatives), wheat, and chicken. If it had just been wheat and chicken, it might have been okay. But corn is so ever-present in our food supply that it’s hard to avoid it trying to cook at home, let alone go out to eat (see Where’s the Corn in Foods? and the Corn Allergens List). I tried a few times. I went out and got a steak and told them to put absolutely no salt (table salt can have dextrose in it, which is corn), no seasonings, no oil (canola can be cross-contaminated), and to give me steamed broccoli with absolutely nothing on it as a side. Sounds yummy, right? I still had reactions. The only thing I have been able to tolerate so far going out to dinner is going for Japanese, and getting edamame with no salt, and a cucumber avocado roll using the San-J Tamari soy sauce, the gluten-free version (the alcohol is made from sugarcane, so also no apparent corn issues and it doesn’t cause a reaction for me), and I have to skip the wasabi and the pickled ginger. But you know what? If that’s the only dinner you can safely get eating out, after a while it’s kind of freaking boring. So because I’m tired of being sick and breaking out in blisters on my foot (part of my corn reaction), if we are invited to go out to eat, and it’s an event we need to attend, I eat beforehand or plan to eat after, and have a glass of wine while everyone else eats.
There are two effects that this has on my marriage. Although Shawn has Type II diabetes and it’s not a good thing, he can still eat the majority of foods, just as long as he limits quantities and watches his carbohydrate intake. This sounds bizarre, because diabetes runs in my family and I know that diabetes can result in serious medical complications and early death, but I am so damn jealous at times that he can still eat almost everything. I don’t want diabetes, but some part of my head whispers that it’d be easier for me to manage than what I have to deal with now (see my post on Time). If we have to go out to dinner with others, I have to run home, eat something as fast as I can, and run there and watch everyone eat really awesome things, or I have to watch everyone eat really awesome things and then go home and try to find something to eat. If we go to a party, I have to plan ahead and bring food I can eat. I recently attended a memorial service for my cousin, which included food. I had to plan ahead to bring my own. Shawn doesn’t have to do any planning at all and he can go to a store and buy anything he wants. I can’t anymore. There are no convenience foods for me anymore unless I spent hours and hours canning them, and I am so freaking jealous of that. And the thing is, it’s not his fault that I have food allergies, so I feel like a bitch from hell for being jealous that his serious medical condition still allows him to eat everything I can’t. I hate feeling jealous in the first place, and I hate feeling guilty for feeling jealous.
The second effect is how damn guilty I feel for screwing up one of Shawn’s favorite things to do with me. Going out to dinner and talking was one of our favorite activities and ways to spend time together, and it’s gone. I know this sounds ridiculous, but before I met Shawn, when I was still playing the field, if a person didn’t enjoy food and exploring new and different cuisines (i.e. limited himself to American meat and potatoes food), that was sufficient cause for me not to see them anymore. I couldn’t imagine limiting myself in that way to be with that person. And since the third apocalypse this past April, I feel like I’m limiting Shawn’s life in some way now. I’ve raised it with him and he says it’s okay and that he’s more worried about me, but it’d be really tough for me if I were in his shoes, so I continue to feel guilty. I feel like this is not what he signed up for when we got married, and that he’s getting secondary smoke, so to speak, from my medical condition. He still gets takeout, and eats it in the house, and generally I’m okay with that (unless it’s pizza, in which case I have to go in the bedroom and close the door so I can’t smell it, because then I’ll have to put my head between my knees so I won’t want to eat it, despite knowing that it will shortly cause my stomach and intestines to reject all contents), but it’s not the same.
Besides limiting our favorite activity and the emotional repercussions of that, it also changes the dynamics of how we operate with respect to household chores and tasks. You might have noticed from the blog posts, or if you know me in real life, that I’m somewhat Type A. (Mary Kate will die laughing when she reads this.) Due to natural inclination and assorted baggage from my childhood, my standard operating procedure (hereinafter “SOP”) has always been that if I need something done, I make sure it gets done and probably do it myself, because no one will take care of you but you, and it’s best not to depend on anyone. My SOP has gotten me through some hard times. As a result, I’ve always placed a high valve on being in control of my life to the extent that it’s controllable, and managing my life so that I am not dependent on anyone for anything other than for emotional support. This can be problematic because (a) I forget to ask for help when I probably actually need it; (b) I hate to ask for help because it might mean that I have to depend on someone else; and (c) I have a huge emotional attachment to the fallacious belief that I can manage my own life without help from anyone. What is especially problematic was the application of my SOP to household chores, especially when I now spend inordinate amounts of time canning and making my own food (again, go read my post on Time if you didn’t already). It’s kind of hard to keep up with the household chores you previously did if you’re canning food you can eat 8-14 hours a day on the weekends for months on end to try to get a level of inventory so that maybe you can stop canning all the time. And it’s fricking stupid to think that you can. Unfortunately, my husband didn’t catch a clue and notice that I needed help, and my SOP, and my emotional attachment to it, didn’t allow me to ask for help until I was ready to blow sky-high. As a result, there were a few fights and a bit of friction until we re-negotiated over the new state of reality and set up new expectations for what we were each going to do going forward.
I am very lucky that my husband has been so supportive about my food allergies. He’s seen first hand the reactions I’ve had. He’s stood nearby with a wet wash cloth while my stomach emptied its contents, and massaged my back while I’m curled up in a ball with cramping that feels like I’m being knifed in the stomach and intestines. He’s watched during challenges to see me blow up like a balloon and look like I’ve gained 20 pounds in less than a couple of hours, and to make sure I don’t go into anaphylaxis and that I can still breathe. He’s helped me find words when my brain doesn’t work well for a few days after a corn exposure and I say the wrong words or can’t remember the correct word for something. He’s learned how to use an epi-pen in case the day comes when I need it. He’s been willing to pick up the slack and help when it was finally clearly communicated to him that I needed it. He has never questioned my food allergies or my need to avoid any exposure to them. I’ve heard other stories in online communities that haven’t been so positive. Stories about spouses who are not supportive because it interferes with their own eating habits, it inconveniences them, or food that is safe costs too much for their liking. Stories about spouses who will do nothing to help their food allergic spouse or help the spouse who is managing the food supply for the couple’s children with food allergies. Stories about spouses refusing to believe the allergy exists and causing reactions for their food allergic spouse or for the couple’s children with food allergies as a result. Stories that end in divorce.
People say that it’s just a food allergy, but it affects a lot more of your life than just avoiding food.
Unlike Denise, I am not married. I was somewhat newly-single — and somewhat relieved by that — when I started this food allergy apocalypse and stayed that way throughout the entirety of that initial adjustment. Part of that was because of experience — prior to the food allergy diagnosis, I was “just” severely lactose intolerant, and that had been an issue more than once in the relationship that just ended. If just avoiding dairy had been an issue, how much more of an issue would this new list of food I couldn’t eat be? I admit, I cringed thinking about attempting to order food at a restaurant on a date and sounding like Meg Ryan’s Sally with a thousand special requests (and without the subsequent performance). And then I just didn’t date for a while.
Socializing almost without fail revolves around food because it can be a good and relaxed way to connect, to have time to talk with a bit of something else to do (eat) and a relatively recognizable end time at the end of the meal. Dating, even more so. Except that eating out is rarely relaxing if you’re dealing with food allergies.
When I did start dating again, first dates meant coffee. I figured when I got around to dinner with someone, hopefully I would know a place or two where I could safely order 1 or 2 things off the menu with minimal special request. That didn’t end up being the case, it turned out, as I was invited to dinner at a small Mexican restaurant by someone interesting enough to break the first-date-coffee “rule” and come to terms with going out with someone I didn’t know to a restaurant I didn’t know. For me, not having corn issues, Mexican is usually pretty good — they are frequently making dishes from scratch, know the ingredients well, and incredibly accommodating about leaving cheese off things. It was still a giant leap outside my comfort zone, but sometimes these chances pay off.
This one did, as that dinner turned into a second date (not food-related), and a third, where, as luck and fate and whatever might have it, I got glutened. I knew it had happened as I was driving home, as gluten and I have a very specific pattern together. Beyond being sick, I spent the rest of what little energy I had trying to figure out how to break one of the cardinal rules of dating: telling your date about your medical issues.
Anyone who has anaphylactic allergies is probably better at this than I am — I am sure that a peanut allergy comes up on a first date, or at any rate before a first kiss is negotiated. But this was my first go-round with “Hey, I have a list of food allergies that would make your head spin,” and given previous experience and some of what I read in allergy communities online, I was kind of worried that this was going to make me un-datable. As Denise mentioned, unlike some other health conditions, this can somewhat limit your partner’s social activities, too.
As it turns out, that was the first and last time I’ve needed to make that confession, as the guy I’d met turned out not only not to be a jerk, but someone who was really willing to work with me on this whole “dating with food allergies” project. On our fourth date, I cooked for him. He’s learning to cook for me (which, seriously, there is nothing more attractive), including the required intensive label reading. He’s perfectly happy to be a non-allergic tester for recipe development (aka guinea pig) and has actually taken most of the good photographs that have been in my recipe posts (and the one in this post).
We have occasionally joined groups for socializing where there is nothing I can eat, and I don’t. Knowing I have some backup on that helps me feel a little less weird about it, and it seems as though, in general, his acceptance makes other people ask fewer questions. I think I’d expected the worst, as generally you read more horror stories than tales with happy endings, but instead I got the best.
We don’t go out for pizza. We’ve never been near an Italian restaurant, or an American chain. But we’ve gone in different, not-food-oriented directions for dates, and that gives us a great topic for next week.
Anyone else want to share experiences with how food allergies have changed relationships — or potential relationships?