My Life-Threatening Allergies Are The Reason I Speak Up For Myself

When everyday foods are a matter of life or death, self-assertion becomes a life-saving necessity.

woman eating wrap Olga Pink / Shutterstock

I was sitting, post-yoga class, in an artisan coffee shop amid smooth flat whites and slabs of vegan banana bread. After approximately 3 bites into a breakfast burrito, I began to feel my heart racing. Soon, my lips started to swell and my neck became itchy with blotchy, raised red hives.

The swelling continued and my throat started to close. In a wheezy panic, I asked the barista what was in my burrito.


She was unusually calm and rather indifferent, explaining that there shouldn't have been any nuts (just as she had said 10 minutes prior when I placed my order, making sure to state my allergies). But, her colleague overheard and informed me that this dish was plant-based and that the "crema" was actually a dairy-free cashew cream.

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‘This is it. I am going to die because of a mediocre breakfast burrito,' I thought.

I rushed to the café's tiny bathroom, where I then shot myself with an EpiPen and popped three Benadryl under a lotus flower mural that said 'namaste.' It all happened so fast.


My mother drove me to the hospital, and I was admitted as a "Level 1" (i.e. immediate, life-threatening) patient. I received a cocktail of antihistamines that blurred my memory for the following hour. But, upon becoming stable, I was discharged late that evening.

This was just one of many incidents where anaphylactic shock sent me to the hospital.

I grew up in Los Angeles, California where if there's a Tesla charger in the car park, the bread (if you can even call it that) on the menu is probably made of blanched almond flour and flaxseed meal, so that it's both gluten-free and paleo.

Pastries in Venice Beach are often made with vegan substitutes, one common egg replacement being 'aquafaba'⁠ —  the viscous water in which chickpeas are canned.


When you're allergic to a slew of nuts, seeds, and legumes, the ubiquity of these as unstated substitutes make even historically 'safe' foods risky. As a result, I've had to speak up for myself in the face of dismissiveness for as long as I can remember.

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In LA, drinking cows' milk is like admitting to doing crack. And so, my interactions with baristas often sounded something like this:

"Can I get a latte?"

"Would you like almond, cashew, or coconut milk?"

"I have a life-threatening allergy to nuts, so I'd like regular milk, please."

"Oh. Wow, okay. I guess we could do that…"

I'd wonder if I should have added an extra 'I promise I don't hate animals or the earth, but I have to put my own safety first.' But I never did.


I was trained as early as I can remember to advocate for myself in these anxiety-provoking situations.

At four, my mother asked the classic, "what would you do if a stranger offered you candy?" I replied: "I would ask them if there are any nuts in it." I paused, then continued, "And I would have them read me the label just to make sure." Not the answer she was looking for, but she was proud nonetheless.

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As a child, I constantly had to explain the concept of cross-contamination to adults.

In a high-pitched, know-it-all little girl voice, I would tell them, "I can't have my bagel toasted…" Because, amid the fine, charred crumbs that accumulate at the bottom of the toaster there are also sesame seeds.


And "if you dipped the same knife into the peanut butter and the jam, I can't have any jam on my toast." I have no doubt that conversations like these, which came from a place of self-preservation, awarded me the label of demanding and fastidious house guest.

I've always rolled my shoulders back into their sockets and prepared to confidently educate others in order to keep myself safe. But, I'd be lying if I said I'm not met with a uniquely awful, heightened anxiety around mealtimes in fear that I might overwhelm hosts and servers with my well-rehearsed list of allergies.

While it doesn't become less exhausting, I've found a silver


lining. It is these interactions that quickly nipped any of the compulsive feminine urges to apologize for being an inconvenience in the bud. I refuse to give in to the notion that my allergies make me a burdensome friend, partner, or customer. And I will not justify my dietary needs and requests.

Recently at work, my boss commended me for how my "voice doesn't get lost" in a room full of my older, male colleagues.

She said it's "rare" for someone this young and female to be "so good at self-advocacy." I thanked her, saying: "It has everything to do with my life-threatening allergies…"

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Adele Cardani is a contributor to YourTango.