Originally published on AllergyBites. Re-published with permission from the author, Kathleen O’Hagan.
HOW RAISING A CHILD WITH FOOD ALLERGIES IMPACTS MENTAL HEALTH
May is Food Allergy Awareness Month. It’s also Mental Health Awareness Month. So I decided to write about both.
Namely, how one directly impacts the other in my life. And I’m going to be really honest about it.
If you’ve been following my blog since AllergyBites was first launched, you might think that I’ve got the challenges that come with my son’s food allergies under control, that I’m done with grieving. I know I thought I was.
But then my son had several new reactions. Which led to 3 more confirmed allergies—to sesame, soy and sunflower—and suddenly life seemed really overwhelming again. To the point that I feel completely paralyzed at times.
I’m sure every allergy parent has days like these and would probably admit that, at some point during their food allergy journey, their mental health has been affected for the worse—whether it was feeling devastated after a diagnosis, experiencing PTSD after witnessing an anaphylactic reaction, living with anxiety every single day, feeling the constant strain on your relationship (for those who are coupled), or the burn-out that can result from working full time and raising a child with a disability on your own (if you’re doing this solo).
The allergy journey is a personal one, so I thought I’d talk about how my journey has affected my mental health. By being honest about my challenges, I hope to not only remind other allergy parents that they are not alone in their ups and downs, but to let those who aren’t living in fear of some foods know just how tough it can be. I’m not looking for pity—just a little bit of understanding and compassion.
So here are the top 5 challenges that are affecting my mental health at the moment. These are unique to me and my family, so I’d be interested in hearing yours.
1. Grocery shopping feels like an exercise in futility.
- Sunflower oil is in most healthy / organic / allergen-free foods.
- Sesame is a “may contain” in many breads, crackers and cookies.
- Soy is in, well, everything. (Seriously.)
- And then, of course, peanuts, tree nuts or eggs are in everything else.
The last few times I’ve been to the grocery store, I’ve walked up and down the aisles, reading ingredient list after ingredient list, eventually leaving empty-handed, defeated, and convinced I’ll never be able to get this right.
2. If we want to eat bread, we’ll need to bake it from scratch.
We’re a family of bread lovers—bagels, raisin bread, grilled cheese sandwiches, baguettes, paninis, English muffins. Since my son was first diagnosed, we’d already drastically reduced the types of breads (and brands) we’d let into our home. Luckily, we found one safe rye bread that was a staple in our household.
So the day I “ran in” to the grocery store to grab our go-to bread, and discovered a may contain soya warning I had never seen before, it hit me how tricky things were going to be from now on. What was supposed to take 5 minutes ended up taking well over 20 (as I picked up every single type of bread, combed through the ingredients and then put them back down again, one after the other). I didn’t end up finding a safe bread for my son, and I left feeling a mix of horror and panic—horror as I wondered how long I had been feeding my child something that could have resulted in a life-or-death reaction, and panicked thinking about how we’d lead a life without bread.
(I know, I know. We can bake our own. But that takes more of the one thing I don’t have right now: time.)
Which brings me to…
3. Giving up a full-time job to get things under control but feeling out of control when it comes to my finances.
With all the thinking and planning and reading and researching and re-thinking that goes into parenting a food-allergic kid, I started to realize the old adage (there aren’t enough hours in the day) is very, very true. I was (and still am) feeling overwhelmed and out of control. I knew something had to give and that I certainly wouldn’t be able to get things back on track working a 40-hour week. So as my mat leave neared its end, I put in a request to return to work on a part-time basis. When my request was denied, I made the difficult decision to resign, knowing I’d have to pay back a $5,000 mat leave top-up—piling more stress on to an already stressful situation. Because we all know that allergy stuff doesn’t come cheap. I recently paid about $10 for Enjoy Life pizza crust mix and $12 for a small jar of pumpkin seed butter. Ouch!
4. Noticing my son starting to notice is heart-breaking.
When he was young enough that he didn’t understand, things were relatively easy. We could eat a completely different meal in his presence and not worry that he’d feel bad that he wasn’t included in our “num nums.” But at close to 17 months, he gets it now. Just the other day, I served him his own special dish, while the rest of us sat down to eat takeout pizza. His recent obsession with “pi-cha” should have clued me in on the fact that this wouldn’t work. He became quite distraught, so I made him a fake slice that consisted of homemade bread (toasted) + melted cheese + sliced tomatoes. This little trick appeased him for the time being, but it’s not a long-term solution. And it isn’t very nice.
This incident was a real wakeup call, and I couldn’t help but think about how things will get harder as he gets older. Birthday parties, school events, family gatherings—all of these special occasions tend to revolve around food. It makes me incredibly sad to think about him feeling left out and different when he should be having fun, just like everyone else.
5. It puts a strain on relationships—and not just romantic ones.
If I’m not bickering with my husband about may contain warnings or sharing articles with friends and family to remind them that food allergies can be fatal, I’m consciously opting out of social situations for fear that the host may not understand just how serious my son’s allergies are. What if our friend forgot to ask the bakery if the cake contains all 6 of my son’s allergens? What if my aunt ate peanut butter earlier and didn’t disinfect her countertops? What if he forgot to wash his hands? What if she forgot to brush her teeth? Sometimes, it’s just easier to stay home.
The most recent event we didn’t attend was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday in Ireland. We had flown over for my father-in-law’s 70th the year before (pre-diagnosis), but chose to stay home this year due to the stress of travelling with numerous allergies + the anxiety that comes with staying in someone else’s home. My husband ended up going on his own, and we had a few family Skype calls, but I was so disappointed my little guy had to miss out on playing with all his cousins and bonding with his overseas grandparents.
Oh, and there are times when I just don’t have the mental or emotional energy to be nice to the people I love. (I’m truly sorry.) I’m just too busy, stressed, worried, anxious to put the effort in sometimes.
So there you have it. Brutal honesty. On good days, I feel stressed—and a little sad. On bad days? I feel like I can’t cope.
Luckily, this allergy journey has connected me with some wonderful people and resources that have helped get me through the tougher times. Stay tuned for a future blog post on where to get support when you need it.
Read more from Kathleen O’Hagan on AllergyBites.