Food is both unifying and ostracizing. For those of us with food allergies, dietary restrictions, or eating disorders, eating with others can be a challenge, humiliating, an event filled with emotions. For those who can happily eat what they like, the act of gathering together is one of great joy, perhaps satisfaction.
In order for one to thrive, one must eat. So how can something so necessary incite such different emotional responses from so many? I find it interesting to watch how others interact with food, their cravings, and emotional responses. As a person with severe food allergies, which seem to multiply daily, eating in large groups, or at new restaurants, or people’s homes has become a nightmare for me. Placing orders makes me nervous, my long list of changes, and special needs are often ignored, or no matter how nicely I say them, I am treated like I am choosing to be difficult. For those who do live with food allergies or dietary restrictions, understanding the desperate desire to not become ill which drives our laundry list of needs is almost impossible.
I choose to believe we are given certain struggles, certain disabilities to teach us empathy, humility, and strength. If we were perfect, if nothing was a challenge for us, we would never learn to appreciate anything. For example, writing has always come naturally to me, sitting to write a paper or poem has never been a challenge. I never understood writing was not easy for everyone. In fact, I loved these assignments as a child because I knew that I was in my element. PE class, being athletic, was an almost nonexistent skill for me as a child. Wearing glasses, I despised any sport that had a ball flying at my face. Not a fan of changing clothes multiple times a day, the uniforms sucked.
As I grew up, I began to appreciate my writing abilities more and more. In college, a class with nothing but papers was a dream come true. Short answer and essay tests were easy A’s. I still hated organized sports. Food was amazing, and as I eased in the Freshman 15, Sophomore 20, and Junior 30, I spent more time reading, writing, and eating than moving. Meeting friends for a snack or cup of coffee became a habit, slowly food became the center of all social activities for me.
In the coming years, my mid-twenties hit, my food allergies began to creep in. Being able to eat less and less, feeling terrible because of cross-contamination, I realized food could no longer be the center of my life. My changing body showed me the need for exercise, and I slowly, and very reluctantly developed a love. My thirties and forties have continued to limit what I can eat and increase my need for exercise. Not because I necessarily want to, but because feeling good means more to me than the hour of sweat.
Learning to live with food allergies has meant developing a paralyzing fear of eating anything I did not prepare, understanding this is a protection mechanism, and learning how to overcome it. It has meant finding ways to exercise that I enjoy, and pursuing those. Socializing has also had to change, meeting for a late-night snack is no longer an option. Trusting food will be good for me and not make me ill has been a journey. Loving my body and all the things it does for me, well, I am still not there, but I am closer.