First of all, if you haven’t seen this part of the Freaks & Geeks episode where Allan the bully sneaks peanuts onto Bill’s (who’s severely allergic to peanuts) sandwich during lunch, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch.
Now, I use the word “bullies” because “people who think they’re being funny or are just too curious or clueless” was too long for a title. I experienced this often in school, and even still today, for my allergies to milk and tree nuts.
I don’t believe they ever had malicious intent, like Allan. I think they were just under-educated on food allergies and over-curious. And who’s to blame them?
My younger cousin once asked, so what does your food allergy mean? I told him that if milk were to touch me, I’d get red itchy bumps all over, and if I drank it, I’d die. He seemed to ponder this for a moment, then next thing I knew he poured his glass of milk on top of my head.
A few years later when I entered high school, I tried explaining my food allergies to a group of girls at lunch. One girl simply did not believe me. She looked at her bag of Cheetos then asked, “So if I were to touch you with a Cheeto, you’d just break out in hives?” Having a flashback to when I tried to logically explain my allergy to my cousin, I decided to go with humor this time. I replied, “Yes. I mean, you could find out for yourself, but then you’d have to explain to my biology teacher why I missed her class.” She rubbed the Cheeto on my leg.
But in both cases, I ended up getting an apology with a side of a bouquet of flowers the very next day. My cousin said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that you’d get red itchy bumps.” My classmate said, “I’m sorry, I seriously thought you were joking!”
It comes down to making your allergies a very real risk to the “bullies.” And the bullying doesn’t always come in the form of physical torment. In fact, most of the time, people just absent-mindedly say things without thinking about how it would make you feel.
So here are three of the top things people say that’s condescending to people with food allergies, and confident responses.
The skeptic: Come on, just try it. How bad could your reaction be, really?
You say: I could die. My throat could close up, I could lose consciousness, and then you’d have to inject my EpiPen with a giant needle into my thigh, call 911, and explain to the paramedics and my family how you pressured me to “just try it.”
The downer: Oh my GOD! How can you live without milk? I’d kill myself if I couldn’t drink milk. Your life must suck.
You say (with a smile): I love my life. And because I eat so healthy I’ll probably even out-live you!
The vapid: I totally understand your food allergy. I’m vegetarian.
You say: Oh, congratulations on your decision. Also, if you eat meat, will your throat close so that you can’t breathe? Could you die from eating a hamburger?
Unfortunately, there will be just plain mean people out there – kids and adults alike – that simply won’t get it, no matter how you respond. They’ll be manipulative, pressuring, or condescending. They’ll chase you down the halls with a peanut butter cookie or try to get you to have a reaction.
When extreme measures need to be taken, there is no shame in getting help: your HR department, your teacher, your parent/guardian, the bully’s parent/guardian. Consider showing them a video (like the one above) to visually show them what could happen. Explain the consequences to them if they continue to bully. There should be a zero-tolerance for any kind of bullying, especially when your life is at risk.
Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) has great tips and a 30 second video for anti-bullying. Check out their page: Food Allergy Bullying: It’s Not a Joke.