I made it to college in the big city, calming my allergy anxiety in the process. First published in Allergic Living magazine; to subscribe click here.
Moving to Manhattan straight out of high school had always been my dream, but as a person with a severe peanut allergy, it was also my worst nightmare.
From the time I was in middle school, I knew I wanted to ditch the small Georgia town I had lived in my entire life for a city teeming with life and traffic. I thought about it constantly, daydreaming about my glamorous urban future, but one nagging thought in the back of my head almost kept me from taking the leap. What happens if I eat a peanut?
My whole childhood my mom protected me from this legume that packs a deadly punch. She talked to every teacher and school nurse, she hung up signs in my classrooms as a constant reminder and attended every class party to eye the food table. Leaving no box of granola bars unturned, she instilled in me the importance of being diligent. But even my faith in my ability to read ingredient labels couldn’t quiet that voice. What happens if I eat a peanut?
By moving 900 miles away, I would be flying every time I came home, a logistical migraine for any food-allergic person. The only thing scarier than an allergic reaction is an allergic reaction at 30,000 feet.
I would be living with roommates who might not grasp the severity of my allergy. I would be eating in a dining hall where cross-contamination would be a continuing risk. I had never wanted anything more in my life, but all of the anxiety-inducing thoughts rained down on my dream. Did I really have it in me to take on the challenge?
I came to the conclusion that I needed to reform my thought process. So often those living with food allergies are told that our well-being is out of our hands, that we are somehow fragile or weak. I realized I’d been letting what other people presumed to become my own truth. While what I am allergic to is out of my hands, it dawned on me that the way I handle it is up to me.
I chose not to let my allergy stop me. It’s not my fault, it’s just how the peanut-free cookie crumbles. I began addressing every obstacle that stood between me and the Big Apple, the largest being flying. I chose to fly with United Airlines, since they don’t serve peanuts on their flights. They do serve almonds in the pricey seats, which won’t suit every allergic traveler, but the policy fits with my needs.
Upon boarding, I inform the crew of my allergy, my seat number and where to find my auto-injector in case of an emergency. Approaching with a smile seems to go a long way toward winning the crew over, and I let the people in my row know about my diet needs before takeoff – to avoid awkward in-flight conversation about their snack choices. I also bring along my own safe food, and have now flown reaction-free numerous times, gaining confidence in the process.
When roommate hunting, I was very clear about having a severe peanut allergy. I was not willing to compromise my own safety and comfort in my home away from home. If I was going to move hundreds of miles away, I was going to do what was right for me and roommates were a piece of that puzzle.
Another piece was eating at the school dining hall. Fortunately, I was able to have a full conversation with the staff, who confirmed their kitchen does not use any peanuts or nut oils. Plus, all of the dishes are labeled for allergens. The dining staff has been incredibly helpful and respectful. Another fear melted away.
The nagging voice in my head that reminds me of everything that could go awry will never go silent, but where it used to shout, now it sings. Instead of inducing fear, now it serves as a simple reminder to remain watchful while I live out my dreams. Moving to New York has been the adventure I’d hoped, but it’s never a walk in the park. I have to remind myself daily to be careful, and to speak up when I’m concerned. Instead of letting a food allergy manage me, today I manage my allergy.
Emma Webster is a 19-year-old student living in Manhattan.
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