By Anne King
Having food allergies can be a challenge, from an emotional perspective. How do we find support? What role do our friends and family play? How can we develop emotional resilience, and how can parents foster it in kids?
I spoke recently with two of our community’s most insightful thinkers about these issues. Sloane Miller is a New York-based licensed master social worker, specialist in food allergy management and author.
Pauline Osena, based in Toronto, is a writer for Huffington Post who runs her own blog (hypefoodie.com). Sloane has multiple food allergies and Pauline has children with multiple food allergies. Building on their experiences and wisdom, they shared some of their thoughts.
Anne: Sloane, for an adult, how do friends and family play a role in managing food allergies, the practical side of it and the support side of it?
Sloane: Friends and family play a vital role in supporting an adult with food allergies. Especially when you keep in mind that you have the ultimate responsibility for managing your dietary needs, carrying your emergency medications, understanding and the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction and taking swift and decisive action. But after that, yes! Friends and family can absolutely support you along the way.
Anne: That’s a really good point. What is the most important thing that a person with food allergies can do to give the right direction to the supportive people in their lives?
Sloane: It is vital that you understand your medical needs first. So, if you are unclear about any aspect of your medical diagnosis, talk with your doctors about any lingering questions, even the more nuanced ones like casual and intimate contact. Once you have clarity around your medical needs, communicate them clearly to those around you and ask for their emotional support as your navigate your world safely.
Anne: What about friends and family who don’t know anything about food allergies, especially multiple allergies? I know there’s a learning curve in the beginning…
Sloane: An important point to remember is that as long as it takes for you to understand and accept a medical diagnosis, it may take some loved ones longer to fully understand and accept your needs. That’s okay, keep gently reminding them of your medical needs and keep yourself safe until you feel they have earned your trust.
Anne: Pauline, once they have an understanding of allergies, how can friends and family help with managing food allergies?
Pauline: I depend on my friends and family to support us without judgement and to help make my children feel included. I count on friends and family to look out for my children and help keep them safe by making sure their kids wash up properly after eating and before playing, to double check with me before offering any food to my child, and to look out for any signs of a reaction.
Anne: I like how you stay focused on what you need. Do you think a person can ever learn “too much” about allergies?
Pauline: There’s a lot to learn about allergies with a lot of past and ongoing research, so I don’t think that someone can learn “too much” about allergies, but I do think that a person can spend “too much” of their energy and mind space thinking and worrying about allergies.
As a food allergy advocate, there have been times where every second of my day was spent doing research on, discussing or writing about food allergies, and when that goes on for too long, I find myself feeling exhausted (what some people refer to as ‘food allergy fatigue”).
It’s important to stay balanced and make sure that you make time to enjoy activities, read books and have discussions that don’t have anything to do with allergies.
Anne: As a mom of a child with multiple food allergies, how have you adapted to the changes it has brought about?
Pauline: Changing our eating habits and finding new recipes was challenging at first, but we quickly and easily adapted because we needed to. For me, the most difficult change that the multiple food allergy diagnosis brought was around lifestyle and the challenges surrounding eating out.
Anne: With multiple food allergies, eating out can be a practical challenge and also an emotional one. Friends will ask us out to a restaurant, for example, where there are no real options for us. Practically, I know how to make the decision to say “no” to a menu. But I also need to be emotionally resilient in that moment. Dealing with disappointment, bouncing back, being honest, having positive communication strategies. How do you stay strong?
Pauline: The reason I stay strong is because I have to for my child, but it can be difficult to be strong and positive all the time, especially when faced with situations that feel unfair. I always try to keep my reactions positive when I’m in front of my children, but I make a point to acknowledge and express my feelings. Sometimes it just requires a short walk and some fresh air to rejuvenate and reset, and other times I need to vent to my partner, good friends, or other parents that would understand.
It’s important to have people you can turn to who will not judge, and in some cases it might just be an online forum of people that live with food allergies.
Anne: It definitely helps to get that validation. Sloane, what do you do on the tough days, to stay resilient?
Sloane: As an adult with food allergies (and asthma, allergies and eczema) since infancy, there are no breaks from staying strong and vigilant about my health. A break will equal ill health or worse. However, being open, present and vulnerable are all values I hold dear and knowing when I’m feeling extra food allergy vulnerable and need more support is an important skill I’ve fostered.
For me, specifically, I’ve made myself aware of my emotional limits and of when to allow myself ease while still having and enjoying a very full life. For example, performing for four hundred people right at dinner time? Eat before. Bring emergency medications, safe snacks, wipes and remind fellow performers to refrain from consuming my allergens before the show – check.
But I also know that there are moments…when I’ve hit my limits of “I can not have one more conversation about my health needs”. And those are the times that I give myself an extra break and keep it all as simple as possible and do a hard pivot during conversations with strangers when they want to hear all about my life with food allergies. And I do all of this while keeping the focus on having fun, staying engaged and staying safe.
Anne: Thank you both so much. This is an important conversation and I hope we keep it going!
Pauline Osena is a food allergy advocate, mom to three energetic kids and founder of HypeFoodie.com, an online resource for allergy-friendly living. This former dairy junkie became an expert in allergy-friendly cuisine while figuring out how to feed her two children with multiple food allergies.
Sloane Miller, MFA, MSW, LMSW, licensed master social worker, specialist in food allergy management and author, is founder and President of Allergic Girl Resources, Inc., a consultancy devoted to food allergy awareness. For more information, please visit Allergic Girl Resources, Inc. at www.allergicgirl.com
Anne King is a mom and writer. Her blog May Contain discusses parenting, community and the personal side of living with food allergies.Tags: Allergy, emotions, Pauline Osena, Sloane Miller