As Julie’s husband of 18 years, I’ve come to learn a thing or two (or 20) about food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. Although I personally don’t have any food-related health issues (okay, maybe one: garlic makes me belch), I’ve seen firsthand with my wife how just one bite of the wrong food can wreak havoc on her body.
Even before we were married, I’ve stood beside her, lending support, but feeling helpless when her stomach pain literally doubled her over, when her mouth swelled and was covered in small, but painful sores after even just one bite of something (sometimes, anything), and when migraines made her vomit and curl up in a ball in a pitch black room. She doesn’t usually let it get her down too much, but there have been times when her allergies and sensitivities wore her to a nub. The few times she cried, revealing her vulnerability, I felt powerless – supporting her emotionally, but unable to do anything to help her discomfort. Fetching the Epi-Pen (which she’s never had to use, thank god, but we keep nearby just in case) or bottle of Excedrin from her bag, or ringing out an ice cold rag for her head hardly seemed enough.
These days, thanks to years of testing, researching, documenting and digging, she’s found a system that works pretty darn well for her (you can read more about the steps she took under the ‘Tips & Tools’ section of this website). Although her food allergies and intolerances are still plentiful, a number of once off-limit foods are now able to be tolerated in small doses. She’s still incredibly careful about what she eats and knows her body like the back of her hand, recognizing even the smallest signals that serve as a “Don’t eat that again!” warning (most of us would miss those signs altogether – or ignore them because we don’t want to give up the foods we love).
That’s not to say there aren’t ongoing challenges, though. Food and drinks are one of the biggest players in the social scene. When friends call, they often want to go out for dinner and cocktails – or invite us to their home to linger over a meal and bottle of wine. It’s been challenging for both of us because we don’t have the luxury of just signing up for whichever restaurant or meal someone chooses. We have to scope out restaurants and menus far in advance to find one that can meet Julie’s dietary restrictions, and when we do find one, she’s always embarrassed to let the waiter know that she has terrible allergies and needs to modify her meal. Every time, it’s the same dialogue: The waiter asks, “What are your allergies? Are you someone who can’t do gluten?” and Julie usually replies, “Well, it’s not just gluten, it’s the grain itself. And it’s probably easier to tell you what I can eat than what I can’t.” Most of the time, the waiters are great, but there have been times when her plain grilled salmon arrived at the table smothered in rice pilaf and some creamy sauce that drifted across the entire plate. And when we had to send it back, we’ve seen the eye rolls and sensed the frustration – and maybe even a look of disbelief that her allergies could really be that bad.
Our closest friends understand her restrictions and do their best to accommodate her, but we usually show up to their homes with a bag filled with “safe” foods from home. She eats dressing-free salads with baked chicken and goat chest (when she can tolerate it) or an organic apple and almond butter from a Tupperware bowl, while the rest of us eat a heaping plate of pasta or a juicy steak. Julie has long said that she feels some friends have fallen off the map because it’s hard for us to dine out or just take part in ready-made plans. I must admit, I feel she may be right. No doubt about it, food is a social thing and when you have to remove it from the equation, it’s a challenge for everyone.
Outside the ONE restaurant in San Luis Obispo, Calif., where Jules could safely eat.Thankfully, it was delicious!
Travel presents its own unique challenges. Suitcases are filled to the brim with bags of produce, pre-grilled free-range, organic chicken breasts and other tolerable foods, and hotel stays can’t happen unless there’s an empty mini-fridge to store her food (teetering items inside a jam-packed mini-bar just doesn’t work). One trip to Santa Barbara, our favorite California spot, was particularly eye-opening. We were staying in a hotel near the ocean and were starving from the drive from Phoenix. We headed out to find a suitable lunch spot, but struggled to find anything she could eat. There we were, in the middle of busy State St., surrounded by restaurants, bars and cafes, and we’d walk from one to the next – scanning the menus outside the entrance, our stomachs growling, and then dragging ourselves — fingers crossed — to the next place. Finally, we found a place that served grilled artichoke. That (and the bag of baby carrots and raw almonds in her purse) was her lunch and dinner that day. Since then, we’ve decided to scrap the hotels (when we’re able) and rent a small home or cottage with a full kitchen. That way, we can stock up on groceries and cook for ourselves.
One of the biggest challenges being the spouse of a food allergy sufferer is eating their once-favorite foods in front of them. We both love pizza, but she hasn’t been able to eat it for years. She’ll still order it for me from our favorite neighborhood shop – Barro’s – but when she comments about how good it smells, I feel guilty – like I should be sneaking bites from the back of a dark closet. And when she bakes her famous lasagna, but can’t have a bite, I feel like I should support her by eating the same meager salad or that bowl of black beans she often has sitting in front of her.
No, I’m not an allergy sufferer, but I can certainly sympathize with the problem. Those of us who love our spouses can’t just turn a blind eye to their problems – in a sense, they become ours, too. And sometimes, those problems become blessings. Her respectful relationship with food has also made me healthier. Although I have the occasional pizza, burger, fries and soda, we both, for the most part, shun junk, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, fast food, and the like.
My wife thanks me…and so does my heart and waistline.