Life with Food Allergies: the Struggle is Real, But Getting Better

For a teen like me, food allergies are so hard. You watch others eat foods that are your poison, you hear the 'jokes,' you feel alone. So will things get better? I'm finding, amazingly, they do.

26 November 2021
By Cara Kelly

This is difficult to share. I am 15 years old. Imagine being told from the time you were 14 months old that eating a certain food could take your life. Sometimes it’s hard for me to avoid thinking: “What would happen if I accidentally ate ….”

I’ve wrestled with these thoughts while growing up with food allergies. I am thankful to have received mental health support at different times in my life. Therapy has helped me to process my thoughts in a safe space, while also building healthy coping strategies.

Food is a part of life that brings everyone together and provides comfort. But for those of us living with food allergies, gatherings around food can trigger the most frightening, scary and unwelcoming feelings. Especially when having to trust that the food being served by someone else is safe. 

If I’m being honest, every day is a struggle. Even though the research says death from anaphylaxis is rare, that doesn’t help me feel any better. I still have to travel this food allergy road, while taking good care of myself.

Imagine watching everyone around you eat the most amazing desserts. You just have to sit there and watch them, knowing that if you ate it, the food they are all enjoying could potentially kill you. It’s hard.

Imagine going to a friend’s house and having their parents want to feed you so badly. You keep saying, “No thank you!” because your anxiety is crippling. It’s hard. Every day you wake up and wonder, “What if I have a reaction today? Will I receive my epinephrine in time?” It’s unexplainably hard. 

Will This Person Try to Hurt Me?

I have struggled with anxiety because of this. I can feel so alone. It’s not normal anxiety, like the stress you might experience over a test or a sports game. This anxiety is over losing your life because of – food. It’s even harder to express because most other people don’t get it. 

At times, I feel like I’m running a race, alone. Believe me, there are cheerleaders on the sidelines, doing all they can in support. Yet, they will never feel the same exhaustion I feel when crossing the finish line each night, when my head hits the pillow. 

Every comment hurts, no matter how hard I try to hide it. If it’s your best friend or worst enemy, it stings. It could be comments like, “Imagine being allergic to nuts” or “Your allergies are fake!” or “If you have allergies, you are the weakest link!” People may think they are joking around, but it does affect me. It makes me wonder: “Will this person ever try to hurt me?”

When managing food allergies as a teenager, you need one friend who is going to look out for you. This friend needs to know how to use your epinephrine auto-injector and the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction and anaphylaxis. Your friend also needs to stick up for you, no matter what! Most importantly, your friend needs to be kind to you, like my best friend Lizzy. With her, I know I’m not alone, especially when I’m at school. 

Facing Up to the Monster

I just went through an oral food challenge test. That’s what got me thinking about all of this. Although I’ve had two challenges before, neither were as big a deal as this one.

After doing an oral food challenge, Cara learned she had outgrown her hazelnut allergy.

This challenge was to hazelnut. Yes, peanuts and tree nuts are the foods that I’ve been told, for as long as I can remember, to strictly avoid. As a toddler, my mom says I would ask people before eating, “Mommy, check it?” 

Can you imagine then having to eat hazelnut, after years of being afraid of it? After years of reading every food label and questioning how foods were made? I can tell you this much: It’s the most unsettling feeling. I can also tell you that any non-food allergic person would probably think this is the most over-dramatic piece they have ever read. Well, that’s too bad!

Sticking the monster on my tongue for the challenge was scary. But I did it. I had trust in my allergist. In the challenge, I was given gradually increasing amounts of Nutella to swallow. And I passed! Ironically, I even liked the taste.

This challenge experience filled me with questions. That’s what food allergies are, one big pile of questions. I have one I think about a lot and will attempt to answer: Does it ever get better? 

Although I wonder every day, slowly but surely, I am finding it does get better. I hope it continues to improve. In a couple of years, I will leave home for college and start my young adult life. I’m working on it all! It’s definitely a process. Managing food allergies does become easier and I have gotten used to it. Realizing this helps me to ground myself when I feel overwhelmed. 

Advice to Other Kids 

I’d like to end with a few tips for kids who have food allergies who are younger than me: 

  • Always have your two epinephrine auto-injectors with you.
  • Read every label.
  • If you are out with friends and don’t feel comfortable eating, remember: You don’t have to eat! Eat before or after or bring some snacks with you. 
  • Have a good friend that you can truly trust.
  • Allow your parents to help you.
  • Ask for mental health support, if you find yourself struggling with anxiety.
  • Remember, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

You’ve got this. I promise it may seem like an eternity, but it will get better.

Cara Kelly is a 10th Grade student in Long Island, New York. She manages allergies to peanuts and several tree nuts, and has outgrown allergies to hazelnut, sesame and soy.

This is one of two articles on life with food allergies by the Kelly sisters. Second article: Elaine Kelly, 17, on growing up with EoE, a life-altering food allergy, and why it’s so tough to explain it to others. 

Main photo: Cara (center) on her birthday with sisters Erin, Elaine and Colleen, plus friend Lizzy (top right). 

Related Reading:
The Surprising Side Effect of Food Allergies: Confidence
Food Challenges You, But It Can Also Change You
Staring Down the Food Allergy Bully, In a Way That Wins