Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

'Hi, I'm Fred.' Really? Well, I'm Alison, and I have a wicked temper and slightly depressive tendencies; I'm allergic to this, that and the other; and I have a weird and pathological fear of looking beautiful, thus the extremely short hair, the lack of makeup and jewellery, and a wardrobe almost completely devoid of skirts.

Fred is edging towards the exit by now, as well he should be: such an opening is hardly the path to a little light conversation, let alone the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. And yet it is common. I certainly have been guilty at times of identifying myself primarily by my weaknesses: Little Miss Asthma, Lady Mother Dying, The Homesick Chick. But now I prefer my primary identification to be something other than my neediness, so I prefer my vulnerabilities to be largely invisible in social contexts. I prefer it to be mostly invisible in others, too.

One thing I like to be invisible about is allergies (except, obviously, in this post). Before we talk more, we need to clean up what allergies are. The word 'allergy' is often used carelessly; I hear people say that are allergic to wheat, meaning that they get a bit windy when they eat a sandwich. What they suffer is an intolerance; this is not the same as an allergy.

Bundling allergies in with intolerances risks linking them with food fads and Hollywood diets; and this, I reckon, is part of what leads people to think that allergies are kind of funny, certainly annoying, even imaginary. Yet if people don't take them seriously, and then have anything to do with the food we eat, people with allergies get more than a bit of wind; they get a full blown reaction as their immune system goes berserk trying to rid their body of the allergen. I'm allergic to a few things, and by allergic I mean that I react to eating them by wheezing, vomiting, and, occasionally, going into anaphylactic shock.

Of course, trying to act nonchalant as a young teenager when everyone else is stuffing their face with prawn crackers – and I grew up with a crowd of south east Asians – is not easy. I have vivid memories of eating those crackers in full knowledge that they would make me sick, but hoping so much that this time it would be okay. I just wanted to fit in, but of course the dry mouth, thick tongue, itchy throat and major stomach cramps hardly helped with that little project.

As a young adult, one birthday was particularly memorable: someone bought me a Drambuie, a hitherto untried drink. I took one sip, and felt that telltale tickle – the beginnings of anaphylaxis – at the back of my throat. But I didn't want to mention it, or be rude. So I took another sip and, of course, immediately started hawking and coughing and spluttering as my throat closed up and I could no longer breathe. Not cool, Alison.

Many allergy sufferers could tell similar stories of risking their health if not their life for the sake of trying to appear normal; and I am sure many allergy sufferers would have made the same decision as me time and again, of not using or even carrying the dreaded EpiPen and risking the hubbub, the nausea and the trip to the emergency room that follows. Instead we try to flush out our systems with water and Benadryl, and hope for the best.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and interest that I picked up Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, a memoir about living with allergies. I was afraid it might be an annoying whingeathon by someone who identifies herself primarily as 'Allergy Girl', but I was pleasantly surprised.

Sandra Beasley is allergic to many things, making it very difficult to navigate eating out in any context in a culture where eating out is the norm. But to my great relief she opens with the statement that "those with food allergies aren't victims. We're people who – for better or worse – experience the world in a slightly different way", and that attitude carries, more or less, through the book.

Beasley mixes up personal anecdote with social observations and a great deal of information. I learned how the body forms an allergic reaction; why a friend's son had a second, stronger, reaction to peanut oil hours after his first reaction; why the American food landscape is so infested by soy; how food labelling laws are the result of allergy lobbyists; and what it's like to be an allergic mother to children who are allergic to different things. She dispels some of the myths surrounding the current explosion in allergies, and uses her experience as an entry point to explore many aspects of American food culture. Much of what she says is interesting, and she is up front with how her personal agenda is sometimes rattled by what she learns.

Beasley asks some particularly good questions about ritual, especially communion. Communion is the high point of the Christian religious service and involves, in one way or another, the sharing of bread and wine. At my church, we have wine and water available (the latter for those who are allergic to grapes and for recovering alcoholics); and wheat bread with a rye embellishment (the rye is for those who are allergic to wheat). Many congregations have similar practices. But some, notably those Catholics who follow the explicit directives issued by Ratzinger, are forbidden from using any alternative to the Papal-sanctioned wheaten wafers, thus excluding many congregants from communion.

She is not a churchgoer, but she raises important questions about the nature and purpose of ritual, asking "Is it inclusiveness that makes rituals valuable? Or is it maintaining the ritual's integrity that matters, even if that leaves someone out?" She writes about being the child who never got a birthday cupcake when they were handed out at school, and being the young adult who could never accept a slice of wedding cake, or shake hands with or kiss anyone who had, and how painful those exclusions were.

In the same way, it is intensely painful for Christians to be excluded from communion, and Beasley's observations on communion and church policies are helpful for the general reader. (I will add that it is clear to me if not the Holy Father that, since the greatest commandment is to love, what the communion wafers are made of doesn't matter one iota; what matters is welcoming people in.)

She also asks good questions about the current hysteria surrounding keeping children safe. Is it really necessary, she asks, for entire schools to go nut free? Surely children must learn to manage their food allergies and use a little common sense. She cites idiotic news stories, such as the evacuation of a school bus because a peanut was rolling around on the floor (apparently a threat, even though no one was planning to pick it up and eat it), and asks whether it really takes a whole village to protect a child from a peanut.

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is sensible, thought provoking, and also darkly funny in its tales of anaphylaxis at the most inconvenient times. One thinks of people with allergies as being so terribly, terribly earnest, but Beasley has a refreshingly self-mocking stance.

The book wobbles a little as it navigates between personal anecdote and more general information – I would have preferred the information to be less bound up in Beasley's personal experience – but overall it is a good read. What I found especially valuable was the normalisation of my experience: stories of anaphylaxis and its aftermath; and stories of not managing one's allergies well because of peer pressure and the desire to join in.

More than anything, however, I valued Beasley's stance that our weaknesses – whether allergies or, and I'm extrapolating here, other health and wellbeing problems – are only one part of our lives, and they are far from the most interesting part; nor do they warrant special attention. They need be mentioned only when necessary and can otherwise stay in the background. Don't Kill the Birthday Girl is a call to understand the particular problem of allergies, then move on.

As Beasley writes, "Not every page is meant to tell your story. You are not the focal point of every canvas. This town is busy... My job is to center on staying safe in this world, but my job is also never to assume the world should revolve around keeping me safe. We have more important things to worry about. Don't kill the birthday girl. The gifts are wrapped and the piñata waiting. We have a party to get to." Hear, hear.

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