Letter To An Allergic Teenager – From One Who’s Been There

in Food Allergy

headshot1Allie Bahn
Dear Allergic Teenager,

I have decided you need to hear my thoughts as one who’s “been there” as an allergic teen. At your age, I struggled to listen to older, wiser advice. But since I am not your parent, or even anyone’s parent yet, I am hoping you will be open to my words and the truth they speak. I’ve walked your walk and get it. So give me a chance before you stop reading because you think you know better! Hah, see? I was once you.

The carefree days of summer and sunshine remind me of one major mistake I made as a teenager: I was terrible at complying with my mom’s request to always apply sunscreen. I would lie on the beach for at least an hour before lightly covering my skin with a minimal amount of sunscreen.

I rarely burned, which in my teenage brain meant that the sun was not causing harm. As time has passed, I know that I was wrong. I also know that my skin may one day suffer for this. But I just couldn’t hear it back then.

There was even this spoken word song by Baz Luhrmann when I was entering high school called Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen). The song is filled with future advice that Luhrmann says you won’t understand until you are already too old to use it, which now seems pretty accurate. Of course its last line is: “But trust me on the sunscreen.”

One Who’s Been There on Breaking Rules

I get that is just so incredibly difficult to hear anything as a teenager. It’s the age. Everything sounds like another lecture. Right? But the funny thing is, it isn’t actually a lecture. It is the wisdom of experience. It’s just hard to see that when you don’t have enough of your own life experience to process it as helpful information.

I am older now – not so much older that I can’t relate – but old enough to have some life experience to share this with you. But how did I safely get to where I am with many life-threatening food allergies, environmental allergies, and asthma? I hurtled through my tumultuous high school years, went on to fun and challenging college years, then off to graduate school. Education was followed by five years of traveling and living abroad. I made life into what I wanted it to be, and had incredible adventures. This freedom did not happen overnight, though.

In high school, I thought I had all of the answers. I pretty much always wanted to do the opposite of what my parents wanted, whether it was breaking an occasional curfew or deciding to go to a friend’s house instead of babysitting my sister. I was just a typical teenager using my occasional bad attitude to go through the right of passage called rebellion. This is not unique. If you’re doing something similar, know that you are actually following what almost every single teenager does at some point, some more than others. It’s your job!

That is, to a point. Even as teenagers, we need to figure out pretty soon where to draw the line between rolling our eyes at our parents – and putting ourselves in harm’s way. This is especially so when it comes to severe food allergies. Maybe you are not even rebelling, maybe you are actually that forgetful that you can’t remember to carry your EpiPen. C’mon though, really? Is it that difficult to remember something that could save your life?

Listen Up: Do Carry the Epi

If you aren’t listening yet: NOW is the time to ignore your phone notifications and continue reading! The one part of my teenage life that I never thought I knew better about was my allergies. I never tested the limits when it came to them. Sure, I had frustrating moments, like not being able to eat at the restaurant everyone was meeting at for dinner or bringing along my own treat to a class food celebration or an extracurricular activity. As one who’s been there – I can recall many instances, and some really bothered me. But I wanted to take part, so I did what I had to do to stay safe.

What I can’t fathom, and never could, is the idea of not carrying your epinephrine auto-injectors as a way to show teenage independence. Trust me, I get that you don’t want to feel weighed down by the injectors and antihistamines and an asthma inhaler. Especially for the guys out there. For the ladies, we can carry a purse, no big deal. But guys, what can you do? Well, pockets! Yes, use those pockets! There are even cool leg holsters now, so you can transport your medication right on your calf and under your pant leg.

While two is best, I’d still prefer you even have one auto-injector on you, rather than having nothing. Carry something, please! Not just because you will be eating. It needs to be with you wherever you go. Remember, we do not plan accidents.

Honestly, I simply can’t bear to read another heartbreaking article about a teenager losing their life because they didn’t have their epinephrine with them. I know it is easy to think that it couldn’t happen to you. But the reality is, it can. None of us are exempt from this possibility. By having our injectors and using them if needed, we are in the best possible situation to survive and live our daily adventures safely. After witnessing all the posts from your worried parents and hearing about multiple deaths of teens in the past two years, you need to hear this! You NEED to listen!

So my young allergic friend, do we get it yet? We are not invincible. We have one main job. OK, two main jobs. Most important, carry epinephrine. Your second job is to work your smart little butt off in school. Then of course there is having fun and enjoying being a teen, because it is fun. It is fun and exciting and nerve-racking and upsetting and frustrating and puzzling and truly the beginning of learning about so many amazing things that will shape you.

OK, I think we have made some progress here. Carry your epinephrine – always, dammit! Don’t forget it, don’t let it leave your sight. If you don’t have it, go get it, and don’t even think about eating or drinking anything until you do. You want to have an incredible, adventurous, completely remarkable, empowering, rewarding future, right? In order to make that happen, one thing is for sure, carry that epinephrine. Please, please, please! Thank you, thank you!

Yours truly,

A Once-Upon-A-Time Allergic Teenager

Allie Bahn is a former teacher who lives with multiple allergies and asthma. She is the founder of the website MissAllergicReactor.com, where more of her work can be seen.