Monday, March 17, 2014

Please Stop Telling Us How Awful Our Lives Must Be with Food Allergies

By Kelley Lindberg

Here’s a universal truth: Live with anything for long enough, and you find a way to adapt to it. You find new routines, make new habits, adjust to a “new normal.” It may not be the life you’d have chosen, but you find a way to make it yours. More importantly, most of us begin to rebuild ourselves in a stronger manner. If we let them, our challenges can make us more resilient, more creative, more grateful for the things that go right, and more tolerant of other people’s challenges.

With food allergies, we adapt, and eventually we even begin to look for silver linings. When you have to eliminate pre-packaged foods because of the rampant allergens, perhaps you become a better cook. You make healthier food choices. You eat less junk, and more of the good stuff. You know exactly what’s in your food, and you feel good about it. You discover farmers’ markets. You save money by not eating out all the time. You impart healthier food choices to your kids. Your whole family is more aware of food and its consequences, and maybe you set an entire generation of your family on the road to better nutrition. And eventually, it all becomes second nature, and you barely even think about it as you fill your basket at the grocery store. You have your routines, your favorite brands, and your go-to recipes, just like everyone else in the store. Life becomes normal again.

It’s not always easy. It’s not always rosy. It’s not always fun. I’m not trying to kid anyone—it can be devastating at first. And allergies can bring a host of other health challenges with them. But if your choice is to adapt or to die, most of us choose to adapt. And with enough time, support, education, and resources, we do. We humans are strong that way.

When it’s our children with the allergies, we also spend a lot of time and energy convincing them that food allergies are manageable, they don’t have to define us, and we can live full and rich lives in spite of them. We want our kids to feel—and be—normal. We don’t want them to feel sorry for themselves. We don’t want them to be scared of life. We don’t want them to think of themselves as “less than” or “damaged” or “sickly” or even “entitled.”

We want them to believe—to know—that they are strong, vital, valuable people. And, oh, by the way, they have to avoid certain foods, but that’s secondary to being the amazing kids they already are, and the amazing adults they will someday be.

So please don’t undermine our efforts by saying things like, “Oh, how awful! What a tragedy! It must be so hard for you! I could never do that! You poor thing!”

I know you think you’re being sympathetic. But that’s not how our kids hear it. They hear it as confirmation that there’s something horribly wrong with them. I know it’s a shock sometimes to learn what we’ve had to learn. But instead of saying things that make our children question their lives, try saying things that are more accepting, like: “No eggs or milk, huh? That probably makes baking a little bit of a challenge. Do you have a good cupcake recipe I could use?”

It’s simple, really. They say if someone is in an accident, you should never run up and scream, “Oh, no! You’re going to bleed to death!” because you could send them into shock and do more harm than good. Instead, you should stay calm and say reassuring things, like, “Hey, you’re doing fine.” That keeps their blood pressure lower, keeps them from thrashing around and hurting themselves, and keeps them from giving up. Pretty powerful, those words of ours.

If someone is disfigured by an accident or disease, you should never say, “Good heavens, you look awful! What on earth happened?” First, if they come to trust you, they may share their story with you someday, but it’s not your place to demand it of them. Second, they are people first. They are not their scars. You treat them like anyone else. You look them in the eye like anyone else. You smile and say, “Good morning,” like anyone else. You do that because they are a normal human just like you. They have their routines, just like you. They have their families, jobs, hopes, and dreams, just like you.

So all I’m asking is that you show the same calm, caring attitude to everyone you meet, no matter what their challenges may be. Some challenges are right out there in front of everyone, like a scar. Some challenges are hidden, like disease, behavioral problems, or mental health. Some challenges involve finances, or relationships, or jobs, or family members away at war. We all have challenges. We all are looking for ways to become stronger in spite of them, or maybe because of them. We all need a little support. A little encouragement. A little “we’re all in this together, aren’t we?”

So try to remember this: We don’t need you to tell us how awful our lives must be. And if you’re talking to our kids, don’t tell them their lives are hard. Instead, tell them how adorable they are. We are painfully aware of all the rain that falls in our lives. What we can all use every now and then is a little sunshine.


Anonymous said...

So True! Thank you for having such a way with words to say this just right! --Francesca

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Thank you, Francesca!

Unknown said...

This reminds of trick or treating a few years ago with my son who I think was 4 or 5 at the time. I told him what he could pick due to allergies and there was an options. The lady said oh that must be so hard. My son decided that he wanted to go home after that and he was fine prior.

Kelley J. P. Lindberg said...

Oh, that's a perfect example of the unintended, yet very real, consequences. So sorry that happened to him. I hope he has learned to enjoy Halloween again since then!