I used to love eating out and trying new foods from different cultures. I wish I was still that person, but I'm not that person. Going out to eat was once the highlight of my weekend and now it's the cause of stress and worry. You see, I'm allergic to everything. No really, I'm allergic to almost everything. Most of my dinner conversations go something like this:
"Would you like a salad with that?"
"Not unless you want to kill me."
"What do you mean?"
"I wish. I have to carry an EpiPen with me at all times, just in case."
OAS, also known as pollen food syndrome, occurs when I eat anything with birch pollen (apples, carrots, celery, cherries, hazelnuts, kiwis, peaches, pears, plums, and the list goes on), grass pollen (melons, oranges, peaches, tomatoes, etc.) and ragweed pollen (bananas, cucumbers, melons, sunflower seeds, zucchini, etc.). I know it sounds ridiculous. I thought so too when I found out.
But it wasn't always this way.
I grew up on a farm in rural Colorado and suffered horrible hay fever as a child and teen, something that's common with adults who have been diagnosed with OAS. As a child, I was able to eat everything without a problem. It wasn't until my senior year of college that this all began. One afternoon, I took out a bag of grapes for an afternoon snack. I ate one grape with no problem. When I put the second grape in my mouth I noticed my throat began to itch but didn't think much about it. By the time I finished the third grape, my throat began to close and I was calling out for help. I was rushed to the ER, where the doctor told me I must have developed an allergy to grapes. I had no idea that could happen. The doctor recommended that I see an allergist and stop eating grapes immediately.
It felt like nature was rejecting me.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see an allergist at that time (broke college kid syndrome), but I stopped eating grapes and life continued. Or so I thought.
Within months of that incident, I started to notice that the same thing was occurring with other foods. It happened with cantaloupe, oranges, apples, broccoli, and carrots. Finally, at the age of 24 (by this point, I'd had many allergic reactions), I visited an allergist who did an extensive test panel on me. I was diagnosed with a severe case of OAS. I was also given a list of other allergies he discovered: flowers, trees, grasses, nuts, fish oil, and a variety of animals.
I was shocked. I didn't want to believe it, but in a way, it all made sense. I always felt sick or congested because I was allergic to everything around me. It felt like nature was rejecting me.
I hate telling people about my allergies because I've told the same story over and over and over again. Some people have a hard time believing me, choosing to Google my condition at the dinner table because it sounds so ridiculous. Many people figure that because I can have fruits and veggies that have been cooked or canned, my allergy must be pretty manageable.
That's far from the case.
One time, my ex ate a banana and then gave me a quick peck on the lips. Within minutes, my lips broke out in a rash and I had to take Benadryl to stop the reaction. I've been to the hospital many times because of food contamination in restaurants or while dining with family. I've also had reactions to dishes that had nuts in them from servers who forgot about it, or menus that didn't list them.
Over the years, my allergies have evolved. Now, with many fruits or veggies, I have a reaction just being near them. One time, I was sitting with a group of friends as they were eating fresh strawberries. We were all sitting near a floor fan and then, all of a sudden, my face started to itch and break out. Another time, I was cutting potatoes for a meal and my hands broke out in a rash.
A year ago, my office had a few watermelons sitting in our kitchen. The moment a staff member began cutting into the watermelon, my face started to break out and my throat became itchy. I was a good 10 feet away when this happened and had to immediately leave the building.
Every day can be a struggle. Just today while attending a tele-conference at work, I had an allergic reaction to a woman who was eating an apple across from me. I had to quickly leave the room and take a Benadryl. I'm always stressed at dinner parties or even while out drinking with friends. And then there's this: I'm single. Dating with severe food allergies is not easy. I've had guys plan dates to go out for sushi, or they've cooked me dinners I can't eat. I've had men buy me chocolate-covered strawberries, or kiss me after they've eaten something I'm allergic to. The first date is always a lot of fun (wink-wink) while explaining my condition.
It's frustrating having to always question if something is going to contaminate my food or drinks or cause an allergic reaction. My friends are all relatively healthy and try to be aware of my condition, but because it's unique, it can be difficult to attend all dinners or outings comfortably. Not to mention: I'm bored. I miss fruit smoothies. I miss being a healthy eater. And although it doesn't burden me financially, I do end up spending more on groceries because I try to remain as healthy as I can.
So from now on, my purse will always include a pack of Benadryl and an EpiPen next to my eyeliner and cell phone. I've learned to live with my allergies, but every time I see someone eating my favorite fruit, I feel a little pang of jealousy. So the next time you find yourself enjoying an orange, take a bite for me, won't you?