Adolescence is a period full of new challenges, growing independence and social events. Therefore, it is important for teenagers to feel empowered to manage their food allergies and navigate their way through this stage of life. Reflecting on my own adolescence, my food allergies didn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do or achieving my goals and aspirations. I went on school excursions, visited friends’ houses, went out for dinner without my parents and even travelled to Europe.
Although my friends in school knew about my allergies (tree nuts and honey), I avoided talking about them too much. I disliked drawing attention to myself and being labelled as the ‘allergic one.’ Although some teenagers can be quite ungracious in conversation, (“can I be the one to stab you with your Epipen if you need it?”) my friends did support me, especially when we would eat out together.
While my adolescence was mostly positive regarding my allergies, it was certainly not uneventful. A particularly concerning experience was during one recess when my younger sister exited food technology with a delicious pasta dish. Not being able to resist the offer, I helped myself to a bit of it. Immediately, I felt a burning sensation in my mouth. The pesto in the dish must have contained cashews. I removed the food from my mouth and took an antihistamine right away. However, I didn’t tell anyone what I was experiencing. I felt incredibly irresponsible and embarrassed by assuming the school wouldn’t use tree nuts in the kitchen where I frequently had lessons.
A few minutes later, the bell rang marking the end of recess. The next lesson I had was science. I remember not paying attention to any class activities, as my energy was completely introspective as I scanned my body for any subtle or worsening symptoms. Luckily, I was okay this time. Looking back, I know I handled this situation entirely wrong. In hindsight, I should have told my sister and a teacher. I should have talked to the school about the use of nuts in the kitchen. While I was one of the only students at my school with an allergy, I considered whether this product slipped through by mistake, due to a new teacher starting. Not speaking up wasn’t worth the lonely anxiety or potential risk of anaphylaxis. I frequently reflect back on this situation. It is an experience that motivates me to advocate and speak up about allergies today.
Towards the end of adolescence, I set off on a six-month European adventure. One of the most resounding questions I was asked home and abroad is “isn’t it just too risky and hard to travel if you have food allergies?” Although I knew my food allergies would be a challenging aspect, I never considered that I shouldn’t travel because of them. Sometimes it was frustrating spending lots of extra time seeking foods that were safe to eat. However, dissecting food labels and communicating my allergies across cultural and language barriers entailed challenges and experiences most travellers would be foreign too. Overall, I had an incredible trip and I learned A LOT about how I could have made it easier. As a positive, I am full of tips and tricks I have used on more recent trips and am happy to share with other aspiring travellers!
For me, the most significant challenge during adolescence was speaking up about my allergies. However, it is unquestionably important to do so. I hope that adolescents today, feel more comfortable talking about their allergies. With the vast amount of resources, advocates and organisations that are readily available online for support, inspiration and advice, I hope that food allergic adolescents today, are more empowered to speak up. While it can feel isolating, embarrassing and scary at times- nothing is more important than your health.
As adolescence can be full of its own challenges, my advice is simple:
Speak UP– Know you are not alone.
Don’t let your allergies stop you from reaching your goals. You may have to adjust the pathway, but the destination can still be the same. Whether it is travel, dating, eating out, or going to university.
Looking at the positive aspects of food allergy has helped me, too. Whether it is feeling grateful for the support of my family, the waitress at a particular café who always makes me feel comfortable, the effort my partner goes to ensure I am safe or my best friend who will speak up for me.
Personally, I refuse to perceive my food allergies as negative. My food allergies have been a fundamental point of personal growth. I have become more self-aware, empathetic, confident and organized. So, if anyone else happens to ask me why I travel with my food allergies….it is because no one can stop me from living the life I love.