When I was 14, I visited the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. My first ride? An ambulance. The reason for my hospitalization was something that I had dealt with since birth.

At six-months-old, I was diagnosed with an allergy to milk, eggs and soy. I would eventually outgrow the latter and add peanuts, along with the rest of the dairy family to the list, all before the age of four.

Now, I consider myself to be quite lucky. My mind functions to the best of its abilities. I was born without any major birth defects and continue to enjoy the use of all important limbs and appendages. I have no problematic vices.

However, food allergies have always held me back, in ways that others don’t always perceive. They are a constant obstacle that inhibits me from living as I would like, and it can be difficult to explain to those who don’t understand. 

The condition can be a silent inhibitor. When a reaction occurs, especially in public, people assume that this is the extent of the condition — a flare-up every once in a while. But what happens beyond the flare-up?

Allergies are seen as an ailment of the body alone — a response of the immune system to a substance that is usually harmless to a human, but for those who suffer from them, the substance is considered an “invader,” due to genetics and environmental factors. 

However, they are also an ailment of the mind, one that can wreak havoc on one’s mental well-being just as much as their physical.

Frontiers in Psychiatry published a study that exposed the link between allergies – as well as related conditions asthma and eczema — and mental health struggles.

“That is one major caveat of my condition – I can never relax. Not when I’m out with friends, not when I go to family functions, not even when I’m on vacation.”

The study observed that patients with these afflictions suffered emotionally and that the stress of living with allergies worsens pre-existing psychiatric conditions.

The severe lack of understanding around allergies cannot help the mental state of those who have them — 27.3 per cent of Canadians aged 12 or older — nearly eight million of us. Allergies aren’t just an occasional annoyance — they control our lives.

That is one major caveat of my condition – I can never relax. Not when I’m out with friends, not when I go to family functions, not even when I’m on vacation. 

Each instance of me landing in the hospital due to my allergies happened as a result of becoming too comfortable: a missed ingredients list here, a life placed in the hands of an incompetent server there. 

The Disneyland incident stemmed from a dessert of dairy-free, but not egg-free, sorbet. After a few bites, I was surrounded by suits taking careful notes as I threw up, managers kindly reminding my parents to pay the bill before we left and paramedics guiding me through a crowd of onlookers to the “alpha unit,” which is what the cast members call an ambulance.

It takes a concerted effort to ruin the happiest place on Earth. Yet, my allergies found a way.

Travelling has granted me a laundry list of allergy-related stories and encounters, from the teppanyaki chef at a Japanese Village who kept calling me “allergy boy” in front of the entire table, to the scenic drive through metropolitan Honolulu in the back of a medical transport van. 

Jennifer Duggan is a travel agent based in Victoria, B.C. who specializes in helping people with food allergies have safe vacations. She understands the challenges of leaving the comfort of home with the condition.

“It starts with finding out what their level of risk is. Do they regularly eat in restaurants? Do they go out to public places…what precautions they take, and then finding travel providers that can fit within their comfort level,” Duggan says. 

Having researched many allergy-friendly destinations for her own information, “it’s a little bit easier to help people match themselves with the correct travel product that will keep them safe.”

Duggan entered the travel industry as a result of her own adult-onset allergies. One particular experience she went through while in a foreign place left her with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, reinforcing the link between allergies and mental health.

“I have triggers now that I didn’t have before. Ambulances or sirens will cause me severe stress or anxiety or fear…[I am] afraid of things that should actually be helpful, so that’s challenging to manage.”

“Travelling has granted me a laundry list of allergy-related stories and encounters, from the teppanyaki chef at a Japanese Village who kept calling me “allergy boy” in front of the entire table to the scenic drive through metropolitan Honolulu in the back of a medical transport van.”

Dr. Pooja Newman is the founder of Global Anaphylaxis Awareness and Inclusivity. Her professional work around food allergies also stemmed from a frightening personal event — an allergic reaction involving latex balloons dropped from the ceiling at a concert in her native Adelaide, Australia.

For her, the emotional impact of food allergies is a pillar of the organization she started to improve understanding of the condition.

“Our message around inclusivity is in response to recognizing the sort of extensive mental health burden that such chronic disease…can result in,” Newman says.

The mental influence of allergies can have a particular effect on young adults. According to Newman, the demographic is “high risk, because they don’t like to disclose their allergies, partly because they’re embarrassed…we would like to make it easier for young people to live normal lives, to feel included in society, to have meaningful relationships and fulfilling careers.”

As someone who is very cognizant and careful about my allergies, I will have no choice but to adapt as the prospect of a career and a life that promises to disrupt routine and take me to new and unfamiliar places approaches.

As I do, I would appreciate a bit of understanding. It’s all that anyone with food allergies can ask for.

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Editor: Brian Wells | bwells@cjournal.ca