When I was three years old, I bit into a caterpillar sandwich provided by my teachers at the Long Daycare Centre that I attended.
Now, in case you were wondering, a caterpillar sandwich isn’t filled with bugs. It’s a long white roll with olives for eyes, celery for legs and smeared between the bread, some peanut butter.
From what I’ve been told, as soon as I took my first bite, my eyes began to puff up, my throat closed in and my breathing changed. I was having a life-threatening reaction and my body was going into anaphylactic shock. To this day, an image of the sandwich has been my earliest memory. It was on a red table cloth and we were outside. But that’s all I remember.
This event happened in 1989 at a pre-school. If this had been in 2020, there wouldn’t have been a peanut butter sandwich.
When I hit primary school, I was two of 600 children who had an allergy to peanuts. Now, three in every 100 children are diagnosed with the same allergy.
Growing up with a nut allergy back then was more difficult for my mum than it was for me. Having to explain to her child that loves sweets that she couldn’t have a cupcake or chocolate at a kids birthday party would have been tough, but explaining to the other mums who didn’t even know it existed was tougher.
They’d still offer me a lolly bag so I didn’t miss out and one time when I was eight years old, an air hostess handed me a bag of peanuts to hold on the plane because she felt sorry for me. I took it and within seconds, my eye became swollen and I resembled Quasimodo for the rest of the trip.
Other kids were just as bad. In year two, some kid put a peanut butter and honey sandwich on top of my school bag as a joke. Yes, kids are idiots and I have my suspicions who it was — but in their defence, they had no idea how bad the situation could become.
Even now as I head into my mid-thirties, my mum still checks all the ingredients in food whenever we go somewhere. It used to really pain me. I felt embarrassed for making a scene — but we both had our reasons.
Mine, was because I had grown up being ostracised because of food I couldn’t eat and her, because she had been so traumatised by her daughter’s severe reaction. In hindsight, I should be less harsh on my mother. I know she’s only protecting me.
Just yesterday, I had a severe reaction to peanuts while working from home. I live on my own and there was no one else here. I had bought a chia pudding for breakfast from a new coffee shop. The legalities surrounding COVID had prevented me from going inside to look at the counter. It was a small space and social distancing was in place.
I saw someone had ordered a chia pudding and it looked delicious. I ordered one without checking for peanuts. I didn’t even think, and it wasn’t mentioned.
Back at home, as I sat writing about the Kardashians saying goodbye to their TV show, I took two mouthfuls of the pudding. Within seconds, my tongue was swollen and cracked, my throat was burning, my lips were tingling, my heart was racing and my chest tightened.
Nowadays, my allergy is a tiny bit less severe — but only in the sense that my eyes and face do not swell. According to the Sydney Local Health District, it is evident that the allergy can fade in up to 20% of children.
Everything else still happens and as quickly as you could imagine. Luckily, I don’t require an Epi-Pen anymore, so I took two antihistamines which usually settles it down. This time, everything took longer to heal. Sitting at my desk I felt ill and rushed to the bathroom. I threw up on and off for the next hour.
After I began to feel better, I called the cafe and asked them what was in the pudding. They “swirl it with peanut butter” and the staff are “supposed to check with customers if they have an allergy”. They did not check, but in fairness, neither did I.
It can be confusing for those who I socialise with. I can eat almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts. However, peanuts (groundnuts) are a legume and therefore from a different botanical family to tree nuts that grow on trees.
It’s not uncommon for others to make fun of people with allergies or simply not believe they exist. Whether it’s gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, nut allergies, seed allergies or even an allergy to seafood, for the person experiencing it, it is very real and very scary.
It’s important to note that with all allergies, although most life-threatening reactions are triggered by ingested foods, serious reactions can also occur from skin contact, eye contact and inhalation of food particles. Something that the general public may not be aware of.
After this latest experience, I have realised just how precious my life is and how serious this allergy is.
The reaction I experienced with the chia pudding was the worst one I had had as an adult — and while quite traumatic, it has made me re-think about the relationship I have with the allergy and how I can change this moving forward.
If you know of someone who suffers from any type of allergy, it’s important to respect that what they have could be life-threatening and important to be understanding when they have to ask questions at a restaurant.
For more information on peanut allergies, head to allergyfacts.com.au.