At school, I hated the fact I had allergies. I was often bullied, and made fun of – one someone put walnuts into my pockets as a joke.
At lunchtimes, I wasn’t allowed to sit with my friends, because they may have had food in their lunchbox that I was allergic to. It’s where the phrase ‘allergy table’ comes from. Often allergic children feel very alone.
I was made to feel like the ‘odd one out’, because I often had to miss out on things that everyone else could take part in.
I often couldn’t attend friend’s birthday parties, because, it would have been too difficult for me to be able to eat anything, and people not knowing me would have just thought I was being precious or a spoilt brat!
My friends at school weren’t often mature enough to understand the gravity of the situation and sometimes the staff were simply uneducated about it. Often when someone is a little different they are kept at arm’s length or apart.
With this in mind, when it came to going to university I was worried. I knew I was going to have to start educating new friends. Would this lead to more subtle bullying? People getting frustrated or angry with me? More reasons for me to feel ‘apart’?
My university experience was much better than I expected.
· Going to university was an amazing turn around in events. Initially I had thought I’d be dealing with similar issues, but incredibly, it didn’t turn out that way.
· The people I was mixing with behaved in a more mature way, which meant it was easier to explain things to them. They were interested to know how they could help, rather than ridiculing me. They saw ‘me’ and quickly accepted that my allergies were part of a much bigger picture.
· I was able to tell them what to do if we were out and I had an allergic reaction. They knew exactly what to do, and that they needed to call for an ambulance, after I’d been injected with adrenaline.
· Having had my allergies from a young age, I knew what I could and couldn’t eat, and how to ensure that the food I ate kept me safe. Being able to cook for myself, creating my own menus, rather than having to rely on the university canteen, was empowering.
· When sharing accommodation with others, I could also make sure that my food, my cooking utensils and equipment wasn’t mixed in with everyone else’s. And, of course, I was fanatical about wiping down surfaces and keeping the preparation spaces clean to eradicate cross contamination.
· When we went out, I would always question the restaurant staff about ingredients, but because my friends understood the seriousness of the situation, they were happy to wait until my questions had been answered, and leave the venue if I didn’t get the answers needed for me to eat safely. I was never made to feel alone or isolated by them. It was an ‘all or nothing’ situation for them. If I couldn’t eat there, they didn’t eat there.
· Despite being ‘out there’ in the much wider world, away from home, without my parents watching over me, I actually felt safer at university than I did at school. I wasn’t made to feel different in a negative way and I learnt to take control of my day to day living.
My advice to any young people going off to university this year is, make sure you find out as much as they can about the college/university and local eateries in the town where you are studying BEFORE you get there.
Connect online with those on your course or in your accommodation before you go so that the subject of anaphylaxis and allergies is explored prior to arrival. I’d hope that now people are far more accepting of, and mindful of, those who live with allergies.
I am an ambassador for Anaphylaxis.org.uk, and I’m very happy to say that they have The Anaphylaxis Campaign’s university campaign, which aims to raise awareness with colleges and universities to the challenges students with severe allergies face.
The campaign specifically looks at students:
· Meeting their own health needs and carrying two adrenaline auto-injectors
· Eating at university events
· Eating out in their university town
· Living in shared university accommodation
My most important tip would be to make sure you communicate with the people whom you share your accommodation, and people you meet, so they know about your allergy.
Being able to talk openly and feel comfortable having conversations is the best way to keep yourself safe.
And always remember to thank them for their support, especially when they are impacted personally ie. You all leave a café or pub because staff won’t serve the one person with allergies. Show gratitude for such solidarity. The more people who are educated about anaphylaxis, the better and every moment of support is to be celebrated.