Allergies and Bullying

My friend M (I’ve got so many of those, get new initials, people) alerted me to an interesting link this morning: ABC News published an article detailing a study about the correlation between bullying and food allergies. Apparently, bullying is pretty common among kids with food allergies — 32% of kids with food allergies have been bullied because of their food allergies, according to the study.

The most common forms of bullying, according to the article, were straight-up teasing and waving the food in front of the child. Also included were instances where the kids were forced to touch the dangerous food, and where the food was thrown at them.

M asked me if I was surprised by the article.

I was surprised that there was an article, but by the bullying? Not particularly.

I don’t think of myself as having been bullied. I’m not sure if there were real bullies in the nice little bubble I grew up in. When I think of bullies I think of Hey Arnold’s Harold or Rugrats’ Angelica or Boy Meets World’s Harley. That didn’t happen to me. I sort of think bullying as a labelled thing is a very new term from this decade. But, that said, can I say I haven’t experienced the forms of bullying as labeled in the study?

No. I can’t say that. I was definitely teased about my food allergies. Not all the time, but definitely enough to make a mark. Check out this essay I wrote as a fourth grader after a classmate made fun of me. As for waving the foods? See the previous link. It talks specifically about that, and yes I remember it vividly. A classmate, let’s call her Moesha, waved a Twix bar in front of me and said “You don’t get to share snack with us because I have a Twix bar and you’re allergic so the whole class is going to trade snacks but you don’t get to because you don’t have the right foods.” But to be fair, I can’t say I didn’t do the same thing to another food-allergic kid in my class — let’s call him Jackson. I remember finishing a bag of Herr’s potato chips and showing it to him and saying, “I finished this bag of chips, but you can’t eat them, because you’re allergic to them. And isn’t it funny that I’m not? I ate food you can’t eat.” It was bitchy and mean and Jackson, wherever you are, I am sorry. I’m sure I did it just because I wanted to do what everyone else was doing, but that’s not an excuse, and I’m sorry I learned a bad behavior, and mostly, for hurting your feelings.

As for touching the dangerous foods, thankfully no one ever forced me to do that. But throwing them? Um, yes. This was probably a turning point for me in some aspect of my life:

When I was 15, I was on a west coast trip with a youth group. My allergies had gotten worse that year for reasons I’d later learn were attributed to September 11. But I was still figuring out why I couldn’t see well around cole slaw. I remember one night being super frustrated because I kept accidentally touching salad with cabbage so I kept having to leave dinner to scrub my hands. I was sharing a table with a bunch of friends, one of whom was the closest thing you could get to a bully in my world, but really, we were friends. When I returned to the table, this guy, let’s call him Ross, asked, “Are you really that allergic to cabbage that if it touches you you’ll get sick?” I responded yes. He said, “So if I threw it at you, you’d get sick?” I responded yes. The next thing I knew, a leaf of cabbage was headed my way. I freaked out. Went to the bathroom to check for hives and scrub up. By the time I got there and lifted my shirt, a series of hives in the exact shape of the lead had formed. I ran back to the table, and said, “Ross, you tried to kill me. You basically did the equivalent of pointing a gun to my head and shooting to see if I would die. You deserve to burn in a fiery pit filled with snakes.”

Then I grabbed another friend, told her to tell the counselors I needed Benadryl (because in those days, a mere ten years ago, kids didn’t carry Benadryl or epi on them regularly…and no, the counselor didn’t have any in her first aid kit, either, she had to send someone to the store), and marched off to my hotel room to shower and calm down.

Luckily, the reaction didn’t get farther than the hives. I mean, it was one leaf through a shirt, so there was no direct contact. But that moment changed me. Because a) I learned how allergic to cabbage (I’m sorry, the bacteria that grows on cabbage) I am, and b) I learned how people don’t understand that allergies are life-threatening. And they don’t care.

Now, the counselors debated sending Ross home for the summer, and he was so sad, and I know he was just being a 15 year old boy, so I told them that if he apologized, I’d move on. They made him publicly apologize. And he did, and he thanked me for letting him stay. I don’t know how I feel about any of that. Do kids deserve to be sent home when they endanger another kid’s life? Yes. But do I really think my analogy of cabbage to guns holds? In the wake of Newtown, I don’t know that I can say that. I think in a general way, yes, it holds — both are deathly tools — but I don’t think people are educated enough about allergies to know that they really are deadly, even non-peanut ones, even in people who aren’t under the age of 8 and at school. So if you don’t know that you are yielding a weapon, you can’t be held accountable.

I think this all really boils down to education and awareness. Because we can’t expect kids to know that food allergies are real, uncontrollable, deadly, and hard until adults start believing in them. Like they’re Santa or something.

Because I have to say, the bullying or harassment I face as an adult is far worse than any I encountered as a child. Children are stronger than we like to think. They might cry when someone waves a Twix bar at them, but ultimately, they can shake it off. Adults hit harder and deeper, and there are some things that are bigger than a Twix bar being waved in your face or a piece of cabbage being thrown at you.

Things like being told you’re crazy. Like that there must be something mentally wrong with you that you cause yourself to be sick when you eat foods, because it’s all in your head. That’s happened more times and from more people than you can probably fathom. And then there’s the idea that you have to divulge your medical history with everyone who you eat near. I had to tell a former boss the details of my entire testing and diet before she believed my doctor’s note that I was sick. She said, “Sounds worse than Passover! Can’t believe you’re allergic to rice! That makes no sense! Haha!” as if that were appropriate. I recently met someone who said, “Oh, you’re Cindy, you can’t eat gluten!” and I wanted to say, “Actually, I’m Cindy, and I can eat gluten, but what other misinformation have you heard about me?” (Yes, I’m blogging about my allergies, but mostly so that someone else won’t have to. It doesn’t mean I like to be defined by this one thing). Other forms of adult bullying? People questioning your parents’ habits, did they raise you with antibacterial (no, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen my mom with a bottle of Purell). Bosses and coworkers not understanding that it’s not your choice to take a sick day when you have a reaction, and still holding it against you when it comes time for raises/promotions/reviews.

All of that is a form of bullying and harassment. So can we be surprised when our kids — who are raised in a world when adults behave in the ways described above — tease kids with food allergies? Kids will tease no matter what, I think the way they learn about difference is to point it out and laugh — but when there aren’t enough adults showing them the right way, when there aren’t enough adults saying, “Hey, let me actually explain this difference to you, and why it might be hurtful, and why little Sally is sick,” can we really fault them?

And adults — we know better, right? We don’t laugh at people in wheelchairs, we don’t harass people with diabetes, we don’t bully people because they get recurring UTIs. So why do we do it with people with food allergies?

For me, the bottom line is: no, M. I was not surprised. And I want to be able to say to those kids, “It gets better,” but I can’t yet. Because from where I’m standing, it doesn’t get better. I just get stronger. But I’d like to be proven wrong. And I think I can be, if those of us who do know better raise awareness among our peers and let that trickle down to our children.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: New York Times: Can a Radical New Treatment Save Children With Severe Food Allergies? | allergyepisodes

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