Sometimes when reading articles about food allergies, I’ll see a recurring phrase in the comments section: “People with food allergies just want attention.”
There’s also a more cut-and-dried version: “Attention seeking” written below a post on social media. Really??
After 18 years of raising a son who has multiple food allergies, it crushes me to know he is reading these same dismissive comments along with everyone else.
The fact is, people living with food allergies are the opposite of attention-seeking. They actually want to blend in with those around them, in an era when everyone wants to stand out. In their pursuit of being discreet, they may use what my family calls “food allergy camouflage” to hide their condition. This can feel empowering at first, but there are serious pitfalls to this way of thinking.
The problem with this type of camouflage is that it’s isolating and even dangerous. If no one knows that you’re managing a serious health condition, this increases risk and can lead to life-threatening situations. It can take years and a frightening scare for a person with food allergies to appreciate the importance of speaking up.
Recognizing Allergy Camouflage
So what does “food allergy camouflage” look like?
It looks like whispering or speaking quietly to the waiter while ordering food. This is so the rest of the people at the table won’t notice you have food allergies.
It looks like allowing your date to pick the restaurant, even though your allergen is all around. Wearing this camouflage relates to not wanting to seem difficult or to make a bad early impression.
When you go to the restroom alone when you think you’re reacting, once again this is camouflage. You hide behind it when you don’t want to make a scene, in denial of the risk of being too ill to inject your own epinephrine.
Camouflage looks like saying, “my allergies aren’t that severe,” because you don’t want to stand out or look strange.
Camouflage is sitting silently on an airplane, not telling anyone you have a nut allergy. You wear it to avoid the risk of being thrown off the plane, or ridiculed by other passengers, or by the flight crew.
Advice to Drop the Camo Gear
How do we free ourselves of the stifling camouflage gear once and for all? Let me provide 4 key tips to get the job done.
- Practice Makes Perfect. Making the decision to be open about your food allergies is an act of bravery. After that, it has to become part of your routine, your life. Our son Alex began by telling his close friends about his food allergies, since he knew they would support him and care. Then he moved on to ordering his own food at restaurants with his parents present to help guide him.
He never passed up an opportunity to order for himself, and over time began to feel more comfortable with it. Now, at age 19, it doesn’t matter who is at the table. Alex is confident in himself and his ability to ask questions and stay safe. The comfort level does come with time and practice.
- Find Your Own Voice. Everyone has their own way of interacting with the world to feel comfortable in it. Resist the urge to blend in and wear the allergy camo by embracing your own style. Our son found that his preferred way of communicating at restaurants begins with his proximity to the server. He learned that he doesn’t like asking questions across a busy table while others are talking, making it harder to hear and be heard.
Once the server is close enough to have a conversation, he maintains eye contact and pays close attention to their reactions to his allergy questions as he orders. Alex needs to notice if they don’t seem to be taking his food allergies seriously or haven’t written down the details for the kitchen. By making these few tasks his only focus, it helps him to tune out completely whatever else is going on at the table. If anyone makes comments, he doesn’t know about it and doesn’t care. It has taken years of experience to reach this point, but he’s there.
- You’re Worth Knowing! An important point I reinforced to my son was that the people he spends time with deserve to know him – the real him. This includes the fact that he has food allergies and needs to take steps to stay safe.
Hiding his allergies under camouflage may have seemed like a good idea at first, but it was heavy and exhausting. It also kept people at a distance.
Speaking up to protect himself has actually been liberating – for him and for me, as his mother and lifelong protector. His openness has even inspired other young people to speak up about their own challenges – including their own (hidden) food allergies.
- Do it For Yourself … and Everyone Else. Even airline passengers who roll their eyes when they hear someone has food allergies don’t actually want a front-row seat to a severe allergic reaction. They may huff and puff and express doubts, but they don’t truly want to sit through an emergency landing or a flight delay.
I have assured my son many times that speaking up isn’t just about his protection. He’s doing everyone around him a favor by taking care of himself. Yes, even those who are blithely unaware of the very real medical condition of multiple food allergies.
On a positive note, the more exposure non-allergic people have to those with allergies, the sooner they may accept this as a growing medical condition worthy of respect.
Shaking Free of Camouflage
So in closing, I stand by the point that attention is the last thing anyone with food allergies is seeking. Instead, our allergy families would love to have compassion, understanding, and support from friends, family and those we must depend on out in the world.
I encourage everyone to take off their food allergy camouflage and be open about what you need to stay safe. Accept that you have a legitimate medical condition, even if others don’t realize it yet. You do need to take steps to stay safe every time you eat or drink. No exceptions.
The more you practice, the more comfortable you may feel moving freely out in the world. You aren’t “seeking attention,” you are navigating the complicated and uncertain world of food allergies.
Caroline Fleur is the author of Destiny and Other Dilemmas, a novel with twists, turns, romance and a dash of food allergy perspective. The former bilingual and special education teacher has a son with multiple food allergies and EoE, and she is dedicated to raising food allergy awareness.
Top photo: Writer Caroline Fleur with her son Alex.
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