My friend called me up from Philadelphia.
“How have you been, J?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve been okay,” I answered, “I had an allergic reaction last week though, so things could be better.”
He paused before asking, “So what exactly happens when you have an allergic reaction?”
“Well… my skin itches and gets red, sometimes my cheeks flush… my stomach gets very upset, and I start to shake… my gums feel tingly and sometimes there is a tickle in the back of my throat, and then if it goes too far, I can feel my throat start to swell and my asthma kicks in.”
“So, could you die from this?” he asked.
The question hung in the air over the phone. “Yeah,” I answered, matter-of-fact.
Two months earlier, I had stayed with this friend on a visit to Philly. I had a full conversation with him before my arrival about my new food allergies, and I requested to cook a dinner for him and his housemates to alleviate the stress I feel from dining out and when traveling in general. He was caring about it all and quickly accepted the offer. I thought this meant that he understood exactly what this all meant to me – but I realized when he asked if I could die from this that for whatever reason that message had not gotten across.
We carried on with our conversation as usual, and I tucked my nugget of frustration into my back pocket. Later, I took it out and thought through how this could have happened. Had I not explained it well? Had he not heard it?
I think it may be difficult for friends and family to hear about life-threatening conditions. It can be difficult to process, and many don’t want to fully face the reality of such an uncomfortable fact. There is not an easy way to start a dialogue with friends and family (or continue one, if they don’t hear it) that involves the fact of a very real possibility of a life-threatening situation. We don’t want to hear that our friends could die. We don’t want to be responsible. We don’t want them to be uncomfortable, either.
It’s possible I didn’t want to scare him, and so left out the gory details of what happens during an allergic reaction. It’s possible my friend wasn’t really paying attention the first time. Or perhaps he didn’t want to hear it, or thought I was over-exaggerating. Perhaps because he cares about me, it was too difficult to consider. No matter the reason, our phone conversation led me to the conclusion that food allergies, and health-restricted diets, and life-threatening conditions, are not an easy or regular part of our social dialogue.
Let’s start the conversation.