College Lessons: When a Roommate Resists Your Allergy Rules

in College Corner
Published: August 23, 2016

hannah1Hannah Lank gives an internship presentation.
One of the coolest things about this period of my life is that I’m experiencing new situations on a regular basis. I’m 19, studying away from home and living on my own in the metropolis that is Toronto – a far cry from my small city roots.

My novel summer experience was living with my first-ever roommate, in my first-ever apartment in the city. This is a big move for many young people, but with my food allergies, I was presented with a new set of challenges to navigate and overcome.

I’m a big advocate for food-allergic people to develop their own autonomy and strategies for navigating life with allergies, which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do. It’s not always easy, though, because I’m constantly thrust into new situations that require me to advocate for my food allergies and make decisions that can really affect my health. When I’m figuring out how to handle a situation, I need to use my best judgment and the skills that I began developing as a child.

When I moved into my summer apartment, I didn’t really know my roommate. She and I had spoken briefly and were familiar, but not close. We were brought together by the fact that we were both pursuing summer internships in Toronto, and needed a place to stay. On our first day of living together, I told her about my food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts.

Although I would have preferred a completely nut-free environment, I also wanted to be somewhat accommodating of my new roommate’s diet. Since I am generally fine with tree nuts being around me, I said that I was OK with her having nuts in the apartment. However, I also said that I was not comfortable having peanut butter in our place. This is because I feel peanut butter is much more difficult to control in terms of food cross-contact. Plus, I grew up in a home that was peanut-butter free, but not completely nut-free, so I am used to managing that exposure.

I explained the importance of even minute food allergy exposures to my roommate, and that she had to make sure she washed all utensils carefully and properly. (We didn’t have a dishwasher). She seemed to understand everything, nodding her assent.

Roommate and Allergy: Broken Trust

Yet a couple weeks later, I was unsettled to discover a jar of peanut butter in the fridge, and a knife with peanut butter on it sitting on our kitchen counter. My heart dropped, and the thought of food cross-contact got me worrying.

What if she missed a spot of peanut butter on the knife while cleaning it? What if an almost invisible amount got onto a utensil I was using and I had a reaction? Who would help me if I began to have a severe reaction? This wasn’t like living in college residence, where I had my friends around me 24/7, and a porter, trained on using an auto-injector, sitting in the office on the main floor.

hannah2Hannah amid Toronto street art and graffiti.
What rattled me the most was that I had explained my food allergies to my roommate upfront, and expected it to be smooth sailing from there. Now I knew I had to bring it up again. The next morning, I said simply and bluntly: “I really don’t feel comfortable with you having peanut butter in the apartment because of my food allergies. I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t use it for my safety.” This didn’t go as well as I had imagined; she said she would use up the jar and then wouldn’t buy another.

Reflecting on this experience, I should have just responded, “No, unfortunately that won’t work for me, since my allergy is severe. I had asked you not to buy peanut butter and I do need you to throw it away.”

But I was shocked, uncomfortable, and taken aback. So that was how things resolved: she used up the jar, didn’t buy another, and for the couple weeks that peanut butter was in our place, I was worried a lot about cross-contact.

Roommate Lessons

In retrospect, this was a mistake on my part: I needed to advocate strongly for my food allergies, and present them as a non-negotiable thing – which I had tried to do, but apparently didn’t wholly succeed at.

Thankfully, everything worked out safely, and my roommate and I have since parted on good terms, with both of us heading off to our respective schools. But I learned a lot from this experience. I’m now moving into an apartment-style university residence, and I have been advocating strongly for the need for my food allergies to be accommodated.

I’ve discussed this with the residence staff twice, and have received accommodation for all of my requests. This involves, for example, being in the smallest apartment available (with three roommates instead of five, to make kitchen space easier to control), being paired with other allergic individuals as roommates where possible, and working with my floor don to create a food allergy action plan.

Overall, I had a great summer living and working in Toronto, and I think it’s important to learn from these experiences, especially when they don’t go as smoothly as planned. I’ll be using the skills learned from this situation in the new residence. One thing I am definitely noticing: the lessons of college life aren’t just in the classroom.

Hannah Lank is a second-year student at the University of Toronto.

See Hannah Lank’s previous columns:
College Year One: Success with a Side of Jokes
Navigating Food Allergy on Campus

Related Resources:
Food Allergy Meets the Teenage Brain: Allergic Living’s investigation
College-To-Do List