“Try this, it’s delicious.”

Sitting on the table before me, she looks innocuous enough seductive, even. The slice of cake beckons me with ganache and jewel-toned berries. I cannot feign immunity to her cocoa-flavored charms, but I’m no fool and she certainly takes me for one. We square up, this dessert and I. Eat me, she taunts. I dare you.

I weigh my options. Her polished exterior betrays no immediate signs of danger. But then I recall the first time I laid eyes on her in the glass display case: rubbing shoulders with the other pastries, conceived most likely in the same pan. The whole affair reeks of cross-contamination.

I shake my head. “No thanks. Better safe than sorry.”

My personal kryptonite crowds the shelves of supermarkets, populates the pantries of restaurants and bakeries, litters ballparks and bars and birdcages. Green and smooth-shelled, brown and bulbous, cream-colored and comma-shaped. Sometimes they are purchased in their original forms, pried from their husks and ingested as is. More often, they team up with other ingredients or shapeshift forms: butters, brittles, candies, extracts, flours, makeup, milk, oils, pastries, purées, soaps, spreads, syrups and almost anything vegan.

If you’ve never thought about the ubiquity of peanuts and tree nuts, it’s probably because you don’t have to. Only a small sliver of the population — approximately 2.5% — is allergic to peanuts, while tree nut allergies range from 0.5-4.9%.

It never ceases to amaze me that something so ordinary, so mindlessly enjoyed by those around me has the potential to end my life.

Peyton Stotelmyre / Daily Nexus

I was reminded of this fact a few weeks ago at a Sunday brunch gone wrong. Two bites into a baguette smeared with vegan cream cheese (what did I tell you?), the alarm bells started ringing. All the telltale signs were there: the itchiness on my tongue; the feeling of sand filling my throat as it constricts; my lips going pillowy with numbness; my swollen eyelids reducing my eyes to slits; and worst of all, the panic that sends adrenaline pinballing through my body, drumming up my heart rate and alighting every nerve.

I checked the label on the container. Sure enough, the first ingredient listed was “RAW CASHEWS.”

A moment of callousness and two bites of cream cheese. That’s all it took to launch my immune system into shutdown and my body into the bathroom, where I spent the next hour with my head in the toilet. This time I got lucky: With the aid of some Benadryl, my breathing returned to normal and the vomiting subsided.

There are a thousand ways this situation could have played out, a thousand parallel universes determined by a single detail. What if I hadn’t been with friends who live minutes away from a drugstore? What if I’d been at a party surrounded by strangers? Or in a foreign country? What if my body went into anaphylaxis and I didn’t have my Epi-Pen with me?

I have experienced all of these scenarios in some form or another. From hives at holiday parties to barfing at the beach, I’ve seen it all. So it goes without saying that I am grateful my most recent reaction didn’t land me in the hospital, or worse.

That being said, a tiny, irrational part of me wishes it did.

Oftentimes, there is a disparity — a chasm, really — between the emotional and physical scars left by a traumatic event. Each time, my body outpaces my mind in the recovery process; my eyes de-puff before my tears dry. My allergy is life-threatening, meaning that every time I have a reaction, I am faced with the possibility of my own death.

That such a serious medical condition is called an “allergy” strikes me as wildly inappropriate. “Allergy” is a silly word that conjures up images of snot-nosed kids and springtime pollen. It undercuts the terror that seizes me when I realize that something tastes “off.” It makes it difficult for others to empathize with my experiences. No, I don’t live with chronic pain or have to inject myself with medicine on a daily basis. Yes, I am otherwise healthy and able-bodied. But when you live your whole life thinking you could die at any meal, it takes an emotional toll.

Countless times, I had wondered what my life would be like without my allergy; never had I wondered who would I be without it.

For this reason, the more drastic the reaction, the easier it is to cope with it. In the wake of a reaction fraught with dramatic details — pastries, Greece, family vacation, deserted island, paramedic tent, no Epi-Pen — I received an outpouring of sympathy from my friends and family. The intensity of their concern matched the misery of the experience. However, this was an exception, not the rule. Reactions that occur under ordinary circumstances, such as Sunday brunch, don’t elicit the same response even though they are no less terrifying for me. This can be extremely isolating, to say the least.

The feeling of being heard but not understood makes me want to exaggerate the details of my reactions the way I sometimes embellish stories, a trait at which my friends and family often poke fun.

I was struck by this as I lay in bed after the Bad Brunch, snapping me out of my post-reaction slump. Countless times, I had wondered what my life would be like without my allergy; never had I wondered who would I be without it.

My allergy and I have been attached since birth, our fates tied together by the pad thai noodles that sent me to the hospital at age one. I can’t remember living without it, and data indicates that I probably never will. Which means that for better or worse, my nut allergy is woven into the fabric of my being. If personalities are like smoothies — a random blend of family, culture, DNA and environment — who’s to say it wasn’t a formative ingredient?

Some manifestations are positive, highlighting aspects of my personality that may have otherwise remained in the shadows. I was always a precocious child, the kind that enjoyed talking to adults and hogged the camera in all the home videos. Yet my engraved emergency bracelet was my first real taste of the spotlight. I would shake my chubby fist at anyone who would listen, reveling in the attention it garnered me. Eventually I graduated from bracelet-waving to bragging, as if being in constant latent danger was cool. I feel lucky for myself and my parents that I was such an obnoxious kid, never hesitating to announce my allergy to anyone offering me food.

I also credit my allergy for my Doomsday Prepper tendencies. When you have to carry a chunky plastic medicine stick and 1-2 tablets of Benadryl with you everywhere, you become one of those people who anticipates disaster at every turn. I have since blossomed into a one-woman drugstore, never without band-aids, floss, tampons or gum on hand.

Growing up with a severe allergy also prematurely exposed me to some dark truths. The most heartbreaking lesson of childhood is that your parents can’t protect you from everything, and I learned this early on. Proactive and careful as they were, my parents couldn’t be there every time there was an incident. In fact, they were the accidental perpetrators of a few reactions. To chalk up my neuroses and distrust of adults to a nut allergy might seem, well, nuts, but it can’t be dismissed.

Would I wish a fatal food allergy on anyone else? No. Can I imagine my life without it? Strangely, also no.

It’s part of who I am, for better or worse. The disadvantages of a fatal allergy are obvious. They read like the side effects delivered in hyperspeed at the end of a commercial: nausea, vomiting, swelling, redness, anaphylaxis, death.

And the upsides? I am long past the point of considering attention one of them; no amount of pity or compassion can counteract the trauma or resulting isolation. Moreover, I do not subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” theory it’s disrespectful toward the victims of senseless tragedies and frankly, it’s bullshit. Some clouds are gray without a touch of silver. Some lemons are just meant to be lemons.

Yet despite the drawbacks, having a severe allergy has gifted me with an alternative perspective on my own life. Along with all of the other timelines by which we organize our lives relationships, family pets, schools, career milestones exists my personal history of reactions.

The details surrounding these incidents are forever vivid in my mind: the holiday decor at the Christmas Party where I ate white chocolate walnut fudge at age nine; the sunlight and rolling green hills at my second grade field trip, crumbs glinting off the knife that had been used to cut a peanut butter cookie moments before; the security of my mom’s hand around mine when she picked me up from kindergarten after a classmate’s birthday cake made me sick.

While allergic reactions make for unpleasant memories, they go hand in hand with special moments that I wouldn’t recall otherwise.

There is, however, one definitive benefit of having a deathly allergy: It gives people a way to show that they care about you. There’s a line in “Lady Bird” that goes, “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?” In this case, I think they are. Considering how nuts are exceedingly normal and harmless for about 95% of the population, a person needs a reason to care about their presence. I am that reason for my loved ones.

Every time someone takes extra precautions to ensure my safety, I feel like they’ve just handed me a present. Like when my friend Samantha insists on asking the waiter if the pizza we ordered has nuts, even though I’ve read the menu twice and pizza never has nuts, idiot. Or when my aunt Millie hands me the bowl of sweet potatoes that she personally prepares for me every Thanksgiving. It’s not just that my people look out for me; it’s that I never have to ask. They’ve already thought of it.

Most of the time, living with this condition is perfectly manageable. Unlike many people, I’m fortunate to have a support system that includes access to medical treatment in case of an emergency. As of this moment, no cure has been found, though I’m sure it won’t be long now (and when it is, it’ll probably be outrageously expensive).

Would I wish a fatal food allergy on anyone else? No. Can I imagine my life without it? Strangely, also no.

As I was writing this, I got a text from Aunt Millie. “Can you eat sunflower seeds?” she wanted to know. “We’re going to make an appetizer for Passover with sunflower seeds in place of walnuts.”

Harper Lambert has never tasted Nutella, and she is not sad about it.


Harper Lambert
Harper Lambert was the Editor in Chief for the 2020-2021 school year and previously served as Opinion Editor. Long ago, she dreamed of becoming a child actor. She hopes it is not too late for her.