Wearing a Scarf in the Grocery Store

I’m taking a writing class, and wrote a rant last week when I had to deal with the drama of paying out of pocket for my Epi-pen to replace my Auvi-Q. The rant kind of broke me, and maybe some day I’ll post a version of it here, but for now, I want to keep it tucked away in that spot in my mind where the realities of anaphylaxis live.

In the rant, though, I referenced having to wear scarves at the grocery store, and this caught the attention of my workshop peers. They wanted to know more about that experience, and their curiosity piqued my interest, because I’m not really sure what there is to say. You know when you do something that you find to be virtually mundane and someone says, “wow, that’s interesting?” and then you think about it, and you think, “oh, I guess it is interesting.” Like when someone is friends with a celebrity, and to them the celebrity is just their buddy but to the rest of the world, it’s Brad Pitt. (No, I don’t know any of Brad Pitt’s friends).

Me, in one of my scarves.

Me, in one of my scarves.

So, “Wearing Scarves in the Grocery Store: a decidedly curious exploration of what having airborne allergies is like” 

When I was younger, only one of my allergies was airborne, but I don’t think I ever used that word. The allergen was, of course, horseradish. My experience of its airborne-ness was that the one time a year we ate it, on Passover, I would leave the house when my mother would grate it. I was fine with it out and grated, but during the grating, no matter where I was in the house, I would get sick. It was the perfect time to do errands before the Passover Seder. It never once bothered me to the leave the house; I actually looked forward to it as my special break to go do errands and report back on what I saw in the ruckus outside.

When I was 15, I began to experience more airborne allergies. Specifically, to cabbage. I surmise, though there’s no way to verify it, that it was the stench of September 11 that affected my body. There were all sorts of FEMA indications that people with asthma and allergies would have worsened symptoms, so it was unsurprising to me that constant exposure to cole slaw that summer on my teen tour of the West Coast led to mild reactions. Mild meaning headaches, dizziness. Nothing too crazy by my standards, but my standards are, well, not typical.

In college, over exposure in the dining halls made my allergens worsen significantly. My list of airborne allergens grew to include all leafy greens. That was fun. When I went to the grocery store, I would simply avoid the section with the lettuce, and stay on the other side of vegetable aisle. If I was lucky — and I often was, as I tended to grocery shop in college with friends or at home with my mom — I stayed outside of the vegetable aisle all together and hung out in the adjacent aisle reading boxes of things. I didn’t always want to read boxes, and often insisted on trying my luck with the vegetables (“oh, I’ll just stand near the tomatoes…”there’s this thing called denial that’s really important) but my friends and family were really good at protecting me from myself.

And then I moved to LA, and lived alone, and had to grocery shop alone. Which was fine for a while. I could run through the aisles quickly, I could cover my nose and mouth if I ever had to pass the lettuce section. And then, it was 2012, and I started this blog because my allergies got crazy worse, and also kale and horseradish got more en vogue, and grocery shopping became harder.

I would go to the vegetable aisle and break out in hives, or have my throat swell. I would pop Benadryl in the supermarket, but then be all woozy while I shopped. It was totally unproductive. I was incredibly fortunate to have a friend offer to go shopping for me — really, N, you saved my life and my sanity a lot, and I am forever indebted — but sometimes I would forget I needed an ingredient and have to go myself. If it was between February and May, and horseradish was in season, all bets were off. I talked to my doctor about options. He suggested I wear a surgical mask. But since I don’t live in Singapore, I really didn’t want to. I have pride, you know? What was I going to do, go to the Whole Foods in Beverly Hills looking like I was scared of SARS?

But then I thought of scarves. Really, scarves are a genius invention. I often wore scarves to work because it was an easy way to dress up a T-shirt for the office, and I’d be damned if I was going to sit at a desk for 10+ hours in a fancy shirt. But scarves can also double as face masks. So, I would put on a scarf if I was planning to go grocery shopping, and in the vegetable aisle, I would lift the scarf to cover my mouth and nose. Not the chicest look, but less awkward than a surgical mask!

Sometimes, though, if I forgot a scarf, or had a last minute trip, I’d run into trouble. I broke down in tears a few times when I realized I wasn’t wearing a scarf and was really hungry and needed food and couldn’t decide what was a better option: eating less or worse food for dinner or braving the grocery store. How fast could I run in and out of the aisle? Six seconds? You should see me shop, by the way. I’m like the Flash. Lightning fast. In and out and don’t linger.

Now, though, I don’t need the scarf. That’s the biggest thing Xolair has brought to my life. Sure, it’s nice to eat spinach salad (usually I pick out the spinach), and it’s really nice to sit in restaurants, but it’s SO NICE TO GROCERY SHOP WITHOUT A SCARF. It’s nice to be able to go to this tiny little produce market with no windows or non-produce aisles and examine my fruits and vegetables before plopping them in my basket. Even with the scarf, I used to just take from the middle (less likely to cross contaminate) and run. I would still avoid shelves too crowded with allergens — like if eggplants, which are absorbent, were next to broccoli, I wouldn’t buy eggplant. Which was hard, because I can’t really eat that much to begin with, and my diet has to stay varied, and eggplant is really important structurally to my meal plans. That’s past Cindy’s problem, though. With Xolair, and its mitigation of my allergies, I can pop by a store on a scarfless whim and buy an eggplant no matter where its staged on the shelf.

In fact, I haven’t worn most of my scarves in a while. Except on airplanes. I don’t want to be caught with stale air on a flight where someone decides to eat wasabi snacks (now sold in LAX!) and tempt fate. But my grocery scarves are now travel scarves, and who knows…some day they might just be scarves…

And side note: the writing group is a Muslim/Jewish writing group, and it’s really interesting to me that I’ve found ways to incorporate scarves into my wardrobe for a totally non-fashion related reason, and many of my Muslim friends do the same to cover their heads for prayer. While I was thinking, “I can’t leave my house without a scarf today” I’m glad to know I had friends-to-be-made that were doing the same, creating a kind of retroactive kinship.

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It’s That Season Again…Not Holidays, But Horseradish

First of all, sorry for the TERRIBLY LONG OVERDUE post. Seriously. So much has changed since I’ve last blogged, and I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to keep you all updated. The food challenges are going well (yes, I will recap them, no I haven’t any failures as of late!), and life is generally good.

But I’m inspired to blog tonight because I’m frustrated with my body, and blog and body share two of the same letters, so I figured this was the answer.

I’ve decided I’m entitled to a handful of “woe is me” posts a year, so consider this the (hopefully) cap of 2013’s.

It’s horseradish season again. I remember this starting last year in February, and I was all mentally prepared for that — the halting of grocery shopping, the need to rely on others, not really eating half the foods I can eat because they’re too close to horseradish in the supermarket, the fear of impending death every time I went into Whole Foods. That was February Cindy’s problem…or so I thought.

On Thursday night, I went to Whole Foods to buy an eggplant, and they were next to mushrooms and on top of lettuce, and I called my mom asking how to navigate the situation when I noticed that diagonally under the eggplants was my enemy: HORSERADISH. Like, a ton of it. Where it usually isn’t, at least not in that abundance.

So I ran. I ran away from the offending root toward the fruit section where I saw pomegranates that I’m mildly airborne allergic to and ran farther and started to cry.

I didn’t leave the store with an eggplant. I figured out how to make eggplant/zuchinni parmigiana, though, so WIN! (I’m trying so hard to be peppy and positive. Probably helps that I just slayed Superbass in my totally sane “rap to see if you’re breathing well” diagnosis).

Anyway, I cried about the horseradish and its early resurgence into my world for a while. Not just horseradish, but this reminder that the littlest things can be so hard for me, for all of the people who have food allergies, especially airborne allergies. That going to regular places is a life-risk. It’s not like, “Oh let me grab some groceries.” It’s “Oh, I need to grab some groceries, hope I make it out okay and can spend the rest of my day as planned and not in bed, or worse.” Plus, sometimes I just want to eat. And when my airborne allergies make it harder to eat the things I can eat because of their proximity or my getting sick, it’s just horrible. I feel helpless and hungry.

Tonight, I wanted to spend time with a friend who was hungry, and I accompanied her to a restaurant. I was fine staving off my own hunger to join her where I couldn’t eat. That’s par for the course, and I’m fucking Tiger Woods of this restaurant golf metaphor. But then I wasn’t fine. I could feel the avocado and lettuce of her salad on my tongue. I’m usually okay around those if the space is big enough, but those allergies are the kind that you don’t know until you know, and I knew. We moved outside where I could get more air and less avocado. But to no avail. My tongue was prickly, my throat was hurting, my thoughts slowing down. I felt like I had at the moment before my doctor stopped me at my avocado challenge way back when.

So I came home. In tears. Because I wanted to hang out with her. I wanted to then come home and eat dinner. But I have to wait for the Benedryl to kick in first so whatever I eat next doesn’t get conflated with the previous poisons. Because my body does that. It loves to have allergic reactions all the livelong day to foods that are generally fine because it lives on the tipping point. If my body were a Lady Gaga song it would be “The Edge of Allergy.”

I should be able to be around my friends when they eat without dictating their diets (and making them feel guilty for something they didn’t do wrong — J, you are TOTALLY entitled to your dinner, and if you feel bad for even a second I will feel worse). I should be able to have normal social interactions. I should be able to eat dinner when I damn please and grocery shop, too, and get along just fine. And 99% of the time, I do.

But it’s horseradish season.

And I’m the one who has to hibernate.*

*I may be overdramatizing. But hey. It’s a good closer.

Seriously, Whole Foods? Or Should I Be Mad at HuffPo?

Today’s Huffington Post featured a story about an error at Whole Foods. Basically, a bunch of stores carried a curried chicken salad and a vegan version of the same salad that had mixed up labels. In addition to this being annoying for die-hard vegans or chicken lovers, the article also notes that the vegan version contained soy, and the chicken contained egg, and due the mislabeling the allergy information was also incorrect.

And then the article says, “The company, based in Austin, TX, says no illnesses have been reported.”

Um, right. Because most people don’t call up Whole Foods mid-anaphylaxis and say “Hey, any chance your chicken salad was mislabeled? If so, I’d like to report an illness” Most people take epi and then spend their days wondering what got them sick and how.

I once called Trader Joe’s to get answers to why I had a reaction to their food. This was actually the incident that spurred my new allergy testing. I got cheese and crackers from Trader Joe’s for lunch, and a few bites in, starting losing my eye sight. I went to get water, and was shaking as I walked back from the water cooler. Then, BOOM, something happened to my breathing that felt, seriously, like a BOOM, like someone punched me in the lungs and in a Nate Dogg circa Next Episode voice was all “Hold Up!” and I threw my benedaryl at my friend/intern T and he scrambled to open the benadryl and my boss at the time asked if I needed to go to the hospital and I said no and then a minute later was all “I think I should go to a hospital” and my coworker got me a mug of water and looked up directions to St. John’s and T opened the benadryl with his keys and I went to the hospital and they gave me more medicine and asked what I’d eaten and I’d told them that I didn’t know why cheese and crackers did this to me and I decided it was probably the rennet because I didn’t know what rennet was. (If you’re wondering why that was a the world’s longest run-on sentence, it’s because that’s what the moment felt like). Anyway, a little while later, I had T unhook the oxygen from me and tell the nurse I was going back to work. We bought a box of donuts, I went back to work and felt like shit for a while. And then my best friend told me I needed to go to see an allergist because my constant reactions were getting ridiculous, and finally I agreed.

Anyway, after that, I emailed Trader Joe’s because I was super curious. I have done this like a handful of times in my life, and I’ve had way more than a handful of allergy attacks in my life.

This is the conversation we had:

Me:

“Last week, I ate the mozarella balls, and had a severe allergic
reaction. I had to be rushed to the hospital. I have many food
allergies, so I always check ingredient lists prior to eating food. I
double checked the cheese, but none of the ingredients listed match my
allergies. Please let me know if there are any ingredients not listed
in the cheese, or perhaps what “herbs and spices” are used so that I can
make sure I am not at risk in the future. It’s very dangerous to leave
ingredient information off of products, as not all food allergies are as
mainstream as treenuts, milk, soy, etc.”

TJ:

Thank you for providing this valuable feedback. We would like to extend
our apologies for the disappointing experience you had. We believe that
quality is essential to good value, and that’s what we are all about!

I have notified the appropriate department regarding your experience,
and we will continue to monitor this product for future trends. Please
be assured that we do take quality control issues seriously and all
ingredients are fully disclosed within the ingredient list. Trader
Joe’s does not hide ingredients in any product.

I also wanted to make sure you are aware of our “Product Guarantee.” If
you are dissatisfied with any product purchased in our stores, you can
take it back for an exchange or full refund. We stand behind our motto,
“We tried it! We liked it! If you don’t, bring it back for a full
refund, no questions asked.”

Me:

Can you let me know what specific herbs and spices are included in the product, given that it only lists “Herbs and spices?” If I’ve developed a new allergy, I need to know, as this is potentially life threatening.

No response, as their email address doesn’t actually accept incoming messages. Just an auto reply that I should talk to someone in the store. But come on, we all the know the cashiers in the store didn’t make the cheese.

Anyway, after a conversation like that, why would I bother talking to another company? I’m sure the people who ate this soy chicken and got sick probably didn’t call Whole Foods. Or if they did, it wasn’t when Whole Foods was aware of the issue and they probably got a stock response. That doesn’t mean no illnesses occurred. And it sort of bothers me that the article suggests that. It makes allergies — and especially allergy labeling — seem like no big deal. But really, it’s just not the sort of thing you call people about. That’s a big difference.

Ah, nothing like dissecting journalism.

Oh, It’s Horseradish Season Again.

I haven’t had a horseradish reaction since early September. But I guess four months was all I got, because today, I ran into some horseradish in Whole Foods. Oh, airborne allergies, how I love thee.

I was looking at some eggplants and found myself a little off, but I was mulitasking on the phone. I look down, see horseradish, gasp (smart — intake the breath, Cinds) and run out of the vegetable aisle. Well, jog-ish to the peppers, look to see if the yellow ones are organic, and jog away.

And then the tongue tingling started. Like I had just burned my mouth with hot soup. Burning and itching (delightful, right?). No swelling of the throat so that was cool, but I ran through the rest of my grocery order, started feeling like I was going to pass out, and drove home.

Seriously, this ugly random food is my kryptonite. Can I at least get a cape?

Seriously, this ugly random food is my kryptonite. Can I at least get a cape?

Took some Benadryl as soon as I got in, and glanced in the mirror. There were so many hives on my chest and neck. Like, 10? Maybe more?  And then one appeared on my left wrist, which is where my horseradish hives have tended to appear — why, I have no clue. All I know is, thank God for steroid cream!

But seriously. Does this mean I’m not going to be able to grocery shop properly? Do enough people even eat fresh horseradish root to make it a good item for sale? It’s a bitter herb, folks. It’s supposed to symbolize torture and slavery. It’s the Zero Dark Thirty of foods. Not that I’ve ever tasted it — never been close enough to try — but I can’t imagine it’s that good (I know my family members may disagree, but I still don’t get it).

I don’t really know what to do. Last time it was in season, I just ran out of the Santa Monica co-op all the time. But I was at a job where sensitivity to my allergies was abundant, and if I was off my game from a reaction one day, the world went on turning. Now, notsomuch. Which is fine. But worries me, because if every time I grocery shop, I’ll have to take Benadryl, I’m bound to be a little woozy.

Anyone want to be my personal grocery shopper during horseradish season? Like Fonzworth Bentley, P.Diddy’s umbrella carrier? I’ll cook you dinner every Sunday if you go to Whole Foods for me…