Sandra Beasley, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl

My daughter has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy and a fairly serious egg allergy. I’m a worry-wart by nature (just ask my kids!) but worrying about her allergies has added a whole different dimension to worry-warting. I am working hard, though, to be realistic and constructive, and to train her to navigate as safely as possible in a world that is not and should not be nut and egg free. The biggest challenge is finding the right line between taking precautions and being prepared–and figuring out what’s reasonable to hope for or expect in terms of accommodation. I have never seen a topic attract as much vitriol as this one on comment threads: I get really depressed about the people who feel there’s no sacrifice to their convenience worth making to help protect someone vulnerable in this way. I can understanding wanting to balance everyone’s rights and interests, and to decide based on fact rather than paranoia, but people are both callous and self-righteous about it, which is painful when it’s your beautiful child they are talking about. Happily, in real life I have found pretty much everybody would rather be helpful than not. We don’t try to create a safe bubble for our daughter, but it sure makes her life more fun and ours more relaxing if, just for instance, the cake at a birthday party is not laced with peanut butter. We always send along safe alternatives for her, though, and she brings benadryl and her epipen along at all times. Now that she’s older, she takes more responsibility herself, including reading lists of ingredients and declining food if someone can’t show her that list. “Don’t assume,” is our number one safely rule, and “no epi-pen, no food” is the other.

But it’s one thing to convince yourself (and her) that she’ll be OK if she’s sensible and prepared, and another to control the anxiety. So there’s lots to appreciate about this memoir, including the author’s frank descriptions of how difficult her allergies made her life, and her parents’. She has a much wider range of allergies than my daughter, and reading her story I felt selfishly grateful that my daughter’s are fewer and more or less easier to control for. The technical stuff about allergies was not that interesting because we’re reasonably familiar with it. The author is rightly emphatic that people who claim to have allergies but don’t aren’t helping people with life-threatening ones get taken seriously. At the same time, she makes some good arguments about problems with attempts to create allergen-free zones–she is, or at least positions herself as, an advocate for good information and sensible policies, a moderate (despite the severity of her own allergies) amidst extremists on both sides.

This all seems like a good way to go forward, except that I felt, reading along, that her repeated insistence that she knows the world does not revolve around her allergies (e.g. she can’t and shouldn’t try to control other people’s choices, homes, air plane snacks, lunch boxes, etc.) is undermined by her many, many stories of derailing outings, vacations, parties, and so on by having reactions severe enough to require trips to the hospital. Her determination to get out there and live with everybody else has clearly had consequences for everybody else and I wondered if eating out a lot (she spends a lot of time talking about restaurant food) and either having reactions or sending plates back that weren’t prepared quite as specified is really as non-confrontational as all that. Is it really better to end up curled on the floor ill and needing rescue from parties than to negotiate safer food choices with your friends? In her case, given the range of her allergies, maybe there’s just no degree of compromise possible and I can see resolving that it’s worth some risks not to live like a hermit. But couldn’t you ask your boyfriend to give up milk if the option is not kissing you? Which would he really prefer? Live and let live sounds like a good policy but it doesn’t really operate as ‘let live’ in practice. But these are really tough choices and negotiations.

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