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To the People Who Wonder Why I Don't Eat in Public

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I’ve seen you watch me as I sit, not eating, at a restaurant or diner with my friends or family. As I try to pay attention to the conversation at my table I can hear the speculating whispers about why I’m not eating. When you start to approach my table to ask me why I’m not eating, I already have my usual lines of “I already ate,” “I just got out of a dental appointment” or “I’m just keeping [insert person’s name here] company” ready for you.

Faking a smile, I watch you leave, satisfied with my phony answer. I feel embarrassed for telling another lie. I would love to tell you the truth, but my truth is stranger than fiction.

When I was 12 years old I started to have chronic gastric problems including regurgitation, stomach spasms and severe constipation. The pain would become so bad, I had to force myself to eat. On top of that I started to have multiple allergic reactions, which included facial/throat swelling, bright red itchy skin and hives. These allergic reactions led my doctors to discover I had allergies to gluten (barley, wheat and rye), oats, baker’s yeast, corn (high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, dextrose or corn sugar and margarine) and diary (whey, casein and lactose).

I struggled to adapt to a food allergy diet. My allergies were more common in everyday foods at restaurants, which led to unintentional allergic reactions in public.

During an allergic reaction I can’t help myself. Whoever I’m with has to give me my food allergy medication so I can breathe again. Yet, despite my inability to help myself, I can hear and see what’s going on around me. While the wait staff does their best to help me, the patrons just stare.

It’s humiliating to be stared at while having an allergic reaction. Faces go from pity to shock, and I often feel as though I’m the aftermath of a traffic accident. Some even complain to the management.

It became necessary for me to become educated on food allergies. I read product labels more extensively and started shopping exclusively at health food grocery stores. When I did eat out, I’d have to ask the server detailed questions about what was in their food and give detailed instructions of how I needed my food to be. The servers were honestly trying to help but were also often hesitant. I can’t blame them. The more times I asked these questions or made those requests, the worse I felt.

Over the next four years I continued to have severe allergic reactions that sometimes resulted in loss of consciousness and bleeding hives. These reactions expanded my allergy list to include shellfish, peanuts, eggs, pork and chicken.

With so many food allergies, it became too risky to eat out.

So I had to pack meals and snacks and take them with me everywhere. If I went to a restaurant with others, I would show the server a medical note about my food allergies. Usually they were all right with me eating my meal, but I did come across servers who would negatively comment on my situation under their breath. And every time they did it, I heard it.

These comments made me feel ashamed about having allergies.

In 2006, due to multiple anaphylactic allergic reactions and severe acid reflux, I developed an inability to swallow. I was limited to water, soup broth and thin liquid protein shakes/supplements. On that diet, the stares and ridicule became worse when eating out.

Sometimes the comments were so callous I would go into the restroom to cry.

After one too many times, I chose to no longer eat in public. With everything I was dealing with, including the disappointment from 17 swallowing specialist who couldn’t help, it was too much for me.

Today, I can eat solid food again, thanks to the help of eating therapy. But eating publicly is a hurdle I still struggle with.

The day I’m able to embrace my food allergies is the day I’ll be liberated from my insecurity and will eat in public. But it’s not easy accepting something you’ve been made to feel ashamed of over and over, for so many years.

So if you see me or someone like me the next time you are eating out, please don’t judge too quickly. What you might perceive as vanity could be the deep pain of ridicule.


Justina Bonilla

Originally published: December 30, 2015
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