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I'm Not Lying About My Food Allergies to Make Your Job Harder

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I want to preface this with as sincere a love note as possible to all the under-appreciated hard workers within the food service industry: I am sorry. I am sorry the self-defense barriers you have spent years building need be so readily deployed. I spent four years living the ins and outs of the culture of a restaurant where I worked, saw the mistreatment, felt the mistreatment, watched the mistreatment creep and whistle and follow each of you home. I am sorry that customers can so often prioritize the pink gradient of their steak or the timeliness of their drink order over their basic treatment of another human being.

As someone who has tried my best to carve an entire self out of a philosophy never to make the burden of someone’s job heavier, I am a huge advocate of the voices of food service industry workers. For as long as I can remember, I complacently ate ingredients I hadn’t ordered and didn’t care for. I overtipped servers regardless of their performance. I witnessed the snapping, disrespectful customer and vowed never to be anyone anywhere near that.

But then my health failed. Then my body changed. Then suddenly I was forced to confront the realities of an autoimmune disorder that diluted the wonderful world of cuisine and social outings into kale and medication and the overwhelming fear of leaving my own kitchen ever again.

I painstakingly shifted each and every one of my lifestyle habits to better facilitate my body’s healing. I went to a specialist every week. I became a flurry of supplements, vitamins, medications, injections, biopsies, etc. I arranged my workload and social life around my sleeping and cooking necessities. I avoided celebrating as many holidays as possible. At 23 years old, I was already very much confronted with the reality of never eating birthday cake and never drinking alcohol again. On top of all this regimen, I was still very much feeling like crap. I avoided friends, feelings, events, and most notably, I avoided restaurants given the newly heavy guilt/fear combo meal that came along with them.

This fear, however, was immediately and consistently met with affirmation. Though I tried my hardest to blanket every complicated order with hefty apology and niceties, even my smallest requests were most often met with notable tonal shifts, eye rolls and sometimes even outright refusal. I thought if I could just explain, just push the big, red “allergy” emergency exit button on their patience, all would be well and I could go back to the guiltless ease and enjoyment of whatever date/holiday/interview/lunch break/etc. I was there for.

But I knew the category I had been tossed in from the moment I saw each server’s face. Even if they were extremely, externally supportive, even if they painlessly took back and swapped out and read labels and made exceptions and mixed recipes with grace and professionalism, I was unavoidably, perpetually one type of customer in the summation of their workday: difficult. This very fact alone, regardless of the treatment that sprung from it, was enough to bring me to tears.

Out of all the things my illness had stripped me of, this inability to be who I wanted to be, was the hardest robbery to face. I could avoid ingredients that gave me hives, fevers, panic attacks, insomnia, nausea, you name it, but I could not avoid the prospect of being instantly hated. At the end of the day, however, if I wanted to re-acclimate and stop hiding and stay healthy, I had to confront it head-on.

What shocked me most, beyond just the basic dismay of receiving eye roll after eye roll for disclosing a health condition for necessity’s sake, was the amount of times it was blatantly ignored and I got sick as a consequence. My view from the other side has shown me just exactly why this happens: servers most often think I’m lying. They run the numbers and calculate the probabilities in their head, become a magical allergy whisperer on the spot, and then deduce whether or not they deem me worthy of real medical history. I have seen this time and time again in their response and all across the internet. I am either a liar who is just following whatever dieting trend arises at the time, or I am a lawsuit waiting to happen. And I see where that perspective comes from, have witnessed the character from the other side, the one moaning about the smallest detail and making life hell. But you do not see beyond what you are willing to see.

You do not throw basic human respect out the window just because you have a hunch that her hardship is not real. Little do you actually know, I am a terrified 20-something who had just started to feel OK about myself and my ability to get by, when an illness came from left field and smacked me in the face. Made me stay home from every conceivable social event and barely be able to wake up for work some days (today). I am not looking for someone to pity me. I cook my own meals three times a day, I enjoy what I have been able to scrape together from the nothing that I have access to. I find ways to still enjoy dancing and parties and the repeated speech I have to give to any stranger who happens to be around me when I eat. My life is not a tragedy, and I don’t pretend to deserve anything more than what you and all the others around me deserve. But as I sit here, erroneously trapped within a black hole of mean online comments in which another girl with allergies has been told to just “drink bleach instead,”  I find myself incapable of grasping all I have lost.

This is not about self-importance. This is not about some warped idea of privilege. This is illness. Whatever you think you know, even if you think I am a practical joke or your comic book nemesis sent in to destroy your life as you know it in the form of ordering sauce on the side, when someone tells you they have a food allergy and you do not take every possible precaution to accommodate that, you are putting another person’s life and wellbeing at risk. You are basically telling them you’d rather be right in your misconceptions than ensure they stay alive and well. That is about as serious as serious gets. When the consequences of your gut feeling being wrong are potentially fatal, everyone should be 100 percent listened to. Every time.

Here is the thing: I respect you. I hope the respect of others finds you and wraps around you and leaves you nothing short of whole. But if you return that same respect, I shouldn’t have to apologize for how difficult my chronic illness might make things for you.

Forget birthday cake and holiday get-togethers, forget interviews at coffee shops or drinks with friends. Erase the ease of midday hunger and the ways someone else can fill it. These are things I can handle. These are sadnesses I can take. But give me back the smiling waiter, genuine and informed, and the ways I once felt bound by compassion. Give me back the ways my own sadness did not automatically make me a “horrible liar,”  a conniving fraud. Give me back the restaurant, and a bathroom in which I do not cry, and a booth in which I do not feel horrible. Whorl the buzzing diner lights around me and understand: I am just trying to get by, too.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: July 9, 2016
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