Jennie Marsden describes her first allergic reaction and the difficulties she has faced as an allergy sufferer.
Lashings of smooth peanut butter upon buttered white bread used to be my favourite teatime treat, one that I regularly enjoyed until out of the blue, aged sixteen, I developed an allergy to all nuts and sesame seeds. My allergy was triggered by eating four cashew nuts and provoked swelling, hives, a drop in blood pressure and debilitating lethargy.
Twelve years later, my allergy has impacted many aspects of my life; learning to live on my own at University, eating out with friends and travelling abroad all proved tricky but not impossible; I have learnt not to risk Indian, Chinese and Thai restaurants, to check everything that I ingest or put on my skin. Checking ingredient lists, googling Latin translations and gently giving back nut filled gifts from my students. Nothing goes unchecked.
People presume that issues will only arise while ingesting something but shampoos, body creams and hair sprays often use nourishing but toxic nutty ingredients. Argan (Argania spinosa) has become the recent miracle oil and is now used in many mascara brands. I am still to find a lipstick that does not contain shea butter.
Visiting a foreign bathroom is now stressful and means sniffing the toilet roll to try and detect whether it has shea oil on it and then reading the ingredients of the soap bottle to check whether it’s safe. I recently bought a pair of nude tights to find that they had been infused with shea butter and have nearly drunk a can of cola with peanut oil in it. There is also a hazard in my job as a music teacher after I was informed by a piano tuner that he often uses walnut oil to condition the piano keys.
Social niceties pose problems too; I dread the kiss on the cheek greeting and then having to go through it all again when saying goodbye; kisses from family members who know about my allergy but forget that they have had a pesto sandwich for lunch then means an hour of worry when my cheek erupts in a nasty rash. I’m very lucky that my family are so understanding but it is exhausting having to remind people.
The hardest thing to come to terms with is the sense of ignorance that others have around you; a member of staff and an old ‘friend’ regularly roll her eyes at me if my allergy is mentioned; it really upsets me as I would like nothing better than to live allergy-free and not have to carry adrenaline; reactions like that make me feel embarrassed and anxious about my condition; careless and mocking attitudes will make taking risks more likely and it takes a lot of courage to stand up for yourself and appear ‘different’.
Unfortunately, I have been disappointed with the support available to me as an adult; reacting at 16 meant that I was not a priority and as a result of little support and a lack of reliable information, I suffered terribly with panic attacks and refused to eat out for many years. When enquiring about shea nuts, my GP told me to avoid them and yet other national bodies online have said that shea shouldn’t provoke a reaction; I had a negative blood test against coconut but was told by my GP that it wasn’t a reliable test so I should avoid it anyway and he couldn’t refer me to an allergy clinic ‘because they didn’t do that anymore.’
Twelve years on, I have learnt that only I can make life easier for myself; I took an aromatherapy course to learn more about cosmetic ingredients and now use essential oils to create my own toiletries and cosmetics. The fact that I can’t eat a lot of chocolate keeps me slim and my sugar levels down and because of my allergy; I am described as ‘special’ when I eat out. What more could a girl possibly want.