In my early 20s, I began writing poems about the life-threatening allergies I have had since birth, which include foods many of us take for granted – such as milk, eggs, beef, shrimp, soy, cashews, and so on.
One draft opened with the technical definition of an allergy attack, as given to me by a doctor when I was in the third grade: “Each food was a shape eyed by the antibody, looking for an immunoglobulin hole to match,” he’d explained. “A good fit would make for a bad reaction.”
Then came the child’s translation, the metaphor I made of my illness: “My bloodstream was a Fisher-Price workbench, full of exact and waiting geometries. I was a lot of good fits waiting to happen.”
In the gulf between what my allergist termed “immunoglobulin” cells and what I internalized as “immune goblin holes,” I knew there was a story that needed to be told. But the story didn’t fit in verse. So I turned to prose.
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With the rising prevalence of food allergies in children there has been plenty of discussion about prevention, treatments, and peanut-free zones. Concerned parents and scientists drive that conversation, sometimes without much direct input from those with the allergies. This can result in significant blind spots.
A mom may be prepared to talk to her 12-year-old son about avoiding tree nuts when he goes to a baseball game. But will she be ready to level with him on his 21st birthday when – no matter how drunk his buddies get him – he needs to steer clear of nut-liqueur laced shots?
In my new memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I delve into the nitty-gritty of how food allergies affect us, all the way from childhood into our teenage and adult years. I don’t just mean how allergies impact our physical selves (though that can be comically mortifying) but how they shape our social selves, our romantic selves, our role in a family, and our sense of mortality.
Your worldview changes when something as simple as a bite of cake or a first-date kiss can send you to the hospital.
Though my experience is at the heart of this book, researching allergies took me far beyond the realm of hives and EpiPens. America’s big eight allergens – dairy, egg, soy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and wheat – are central ingredients to the last 100 years of food science, community rituals, and culinary culture. I wanted to tell some of those stories as well.
Taking side-trips through history is one of my great joys as a writer, whether I’m led to Henry Ford in his all-soy suit or an anchovy-spiked martini in New Orleans. In a poem, I once compared having a reaction to being in an airplane as it crashed.
In Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, I learn to embrace life’s ride.
SANDRA BEASLEY is the author of the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling, which won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. Her honors include a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Washington, D.C., where her prose has been featured in the Washington Post Magazine.
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RIFers! Do you live with allergies, have kids with allergies, or know someone who does? Share your stories with us!