Saturday, 13 July 2019

Why I'm So Done With Apologising for My Food Allergy

Four years into my gluten free journey and I'm still apologising. Not anymore.

Have you ever ordered chicken from a restaurant that came out a bit too pink? You send it back for fear of being, you know, poisoned and the staff apologise profusely and bring another, now, safe plate. Okay, now imagine that situation again, but instead of the apology and fresh plate, you're met with an eye roll, a heavy sigh, the plate whisked back to the kitchen to have only the pinkest bit of the chicken removed, then returned to you with the expectation that you'll eat the rest of the pink chicken and just deal with the consequences. Yeah, that's life with an allergen.

Unfortunately, in the mere four years I've been diagnosed with coeliac, I've had my fair share of eye rolls and contaminated plates that I'm expected to put up with, and even apologise for, to save restaurant staff the trouble. From gluten free steak that still had onion rings on it, to breakfast with 'muggle' toast littering the plate, where I actually saw the chef get mad at the waiter before he just picked up the toast and sent the crumb-filled plate straight back to me. Between the waiters and chefs, I end up feeling like an awkward, public pain in the arse, when really I'm just trying not to get ill. That is why I am SO DONE with apologising for my food allergy.

In April 2015, I got the call – my official diagnosis of coeliac. Just like that, a switch was flipped and the way I navigated my health and my relationship with food was changed forever. All aboard the gluten free train. Unlike most allergies, coeliac is a lifelong auto-immune disease, which means the consequences of eating gluten are heightened, as it causes serious damage to the digestive system and can cause other health complications, including Osteoporosis and even cancer. The choice was get on board or live in constant pain by the toilet bowl and an early death. So I did what we all have to do: learned how to interpret the Morse code that is allergen labels.

I'm not one for complaining about the cards that life has dealt me. I know I'm lucky to have a clear diagnosis and that a simple change in diet was the cure (you can read more about my diagnosis here). But with that came a whole new ball game. Going from carefree and grabbing anything edible for twenty years to suddenly having to check every tiny detail for possible contamination, out of fear of becoming ill, was more shits than giggles – quite literally. Four years on, I've made peace with it. I can't change it. I can only try to rebuild that relationship in a healthy and enjoyable way, that doesn't destroy my insides.

But the bit I'm not okay with is Muggle attitudes – those without an allergen who dismiss my condition and put me at risk of getting ill. Often found in restaurant staff, they treat my illness like a joke. I blame fad diets and lack of education. But the worst bit is that their dismissiveness often makes me feel like I'm an inconvenience, an embarrassment and a 'difficult' customer when it comes to eating out. I have to ask questions for clarity, so I find myself lacing them with apologies: "sorry but can I just check...". In establishments that have less, or worse, loose allergen procedures in place, this often means staff are running around checking with managers and for some reason, I feel an innate need to apologise for making them walk two feet to ask an extra question – a tiny feat in comparison to the risks I'm facing if I eat even a crumb of wheat. Sounds extreme, but those who know coeliac know that sometimes a crumb is all it takes, and each one adds up.

Last weekend was the Allergy and Free From Show in London, an annual free event for all free fromers to have the chance to nab some free nibbles, try something new and save a bit of cash on their expensive allergen-free alternatives. This was my second year attending the event, bringing along my lactose intolerant bestie Hannah Ost. It was another year of a broad variety of free samples, great deals and an overall positive day, finding new treasures – including Schar's new gluten free Maltesers: Delishios (and yes, they are delicious).

But this year, the one big thing that stood out was the overwhelming positive atmosphere and total competency in the staff; everyone was so friendly and informative! That feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment at having to ask "is this gluten free" or "is it processed in a factory that handles wheat" (yes, really, u muggle) was gone. Our fears were either put to rest by clearcut signs or staff clearly describing the products and any contamination risks in a friendly way. There were no eye rolls! No huffs! We'd never felt so free, so guiltless, yaaaaaas! It was so lovely to be in a safe space for all of us with bodies who like to make our life difficult, meeting others with similar experiences. There's just an unspoken understanding of the difficulties of life with a food allergy or intolerance, where the burden was lifted and the shame eradicated – I can't recommend the event enough! It wasn't until later that it really dawned on us. When Hannah and I stepped out of the comforts of Olympia and back into the real world, we were once again embarrassed to walk into a local chain restaurant and ask "Yes but does the sauce contain milk?", or "Yes, but do you cook it on the same grill as any wheat?", where we were again met with eye rolls and heavy sighs.

Of course, if you don't have an allergy it's not your responsibility to understand it. Before I was diagnosed I had no idea what a rabbit hole it is. But that doesn't mean it's okay to be complacent and dismissive. I've realised I need to take ownership of having coeliac to bounce back from the bad attitudes. If I laugh with every waiter who says "I asked what the difference was and the chef said there isn't, he mixes it up for a laugh LOLZ", then I'm just enabling it. But from now on, I'm going to try to stick to my guns and not feel that I should stop asking questions, say "sorry" for the hassle, or just settle for a contaminated plate to avoid being awkward. You get to know which establishments are safer than others and where's best to steer clear of – that's part of the job. Until then, I'm not apologising for my food allergy anymore, and neither should you.

Thanks for coming to my ted talk.

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