When I am around anyone in a social setting, I start my part-time job: tree nut therapist.
It starts innocently. Maybe someone offers me a brownie, and it’s covered in nuts. Someone says, “I love Nutella, do you?” Or, most commonly, someone puts some off-brand crackers in front of me at a dinner party and when I ask, “Can I see the package?” they say, “You know dieting is really unhealthy.”
Actually, uh, sorry, I have a nut allergy.
There is no worse combination of two words in the English language than “nut allergy.” I say “nut allergy” and I see myself instantly knocked down five pegs in cool value in the mind of whomever I’m talking to. Now I’m an object of pity. I’m being mentally compared to their four-year-old cousin Nolan, who once went into anaphylaxis at Universal Studios off some cornbread, and everyone had to go to the ER. I honestly believe my complexion becomes one shade whiter every time I tell someone I’ll die if I eat a cashew.
But once I’ve said the words, my real work begins. Because everybody’s got a nut allergy tale to tell, or a question to ask. And suddenly, I am their last great hope.
No problem, I say, I have a doctorate in anaPhalaxis. How may I be of service?
* * *
First they want to hear how I first found out. And I give it to them: I was four, on vacation with my parents at a cabin in Northern Minnesota … two hours away from a hospital. My dad offered me a container reading “Mixed Nuts.” When we finally got to the ER, three guys who canoed for two days into the Boundary Waters only to have someone break their leg and have to canoe three days back saw me and told the doctor, “She can go first.”
The truth is, I say, I’ve had eight allergic reactions so far. I let the “so far” sink in.
I tell them about the time I was seven and my parents brought me to a Christmas party that had a bowl of cashews in every room. As I walked through the party and people wished me a merry Christmas, I got closer and closer to death. Or the time I was eight and ate a nutty sandwich on a Northwest Airlines plane while simultaneously losing a tooth. We’d forgotten Benadryl, but a woman behind us had some, which was a good thing because the male flight attendant took one look at my bloody, swollen face and remarked, “Well, I’m not going anywhere near her.” (Coincidentally, how men would feel re: me for over a decade.)
And since I’m already being pitied like a cat in a Sarah McLauchlan commercial, why not give myself a leg wheel. I say: In third grade, Mrs. Greene asked the class what superpower we would want if we were a superhero. Everyone said invisibility or flying. I said I’d make all food with nuts light up green so I’d never have an allergic reaction again. She gave me an extra gold star that week for my troubles.
At this point, they always ask the same question: “Wait, so are you allergic to peanuts too?”
“No,” I say. “Peanuts aren’t actually nuts. They’re legumes.” That blows their goddamn mind.
* * *
In phase two, it’s all about the gory details.
“I’ve always wondered, what’s it like having an allergic reaction?” they ask. At this point, we’re sipping wine, and we’re on minute 35 of the same conversation about nuts I’ve had at every social function of my life.
One time I took an essay-writing class and I was assigned to write about an experience I’d had of being in an “altered state.” I think the intent of the prompt was for everyone to write about being on acid; I wrote about how it feels to accidentally eat pistachio-crusted chicken. But when I turned it in, the professor said I needed a better metaphor. What does your throat really feel like? she said. She pulled out a thesaurus and looked up synonyms for “shut.”
What I eventually settled on was this: having an allergic reaction feels like your throat is a wet towel, and someone with big meaty hands is slowly wringing it out. Like your throat is twisting and tightening in on itself, like all life is exiting your esophagus and mostly like the sweaty middle school bully from the short-lived Disney Channel series “Cory in the House” is trying to mess you up.
Often, though, they want to know what’s it like psychologically. Forget the towel metaphor — are you fucked up because of this? Is Nolan fucked up? The truth is, yes, to an extent. Because if there’s one thing a nut allergy has given me, it’s a defeatist perspective on my own death.
For example, when you check in to the ER at Yale New Haven Hospital, they ask you, “Can you breathe?” If you respond, “Sort of,” you’re given a buzzer identical to the kind they have at Panera Bread, and you’re asked to wait until it goes off. I find this hilarious.
Or there was the time I went with my parents to a dinner party whose hosts insisted the butternut squash soup had no nuts. “There’s no nuts,” they said. “We made this soup ourselves.” Sure, they “made” the soup, in that they poured a box of soup bought at Whole Foods into a pot and put that pot on a stove.
As I vomited into an upstairs sink, my dad read the ingredients of that soup out loud. Butternut puree. Water. Soymilk. Cane Sugar. Sea Salt. Expeller Pressed Canola Oil. Rice Flour. Onion Powder. Garlic Powder. Nutmeg. Cashews.
Screw you, Whole Foods.
* * *
No one wants to hear a Debbie Downer. So I give the people what they want: the plus side to severe anaphylaxis.
It wasn’t until 5th grade, when I went to a two-week French immersion camp in Bemidji, Minnesota, that I realized I could use my nut allergy to my social advantage.
The camp was called “Lac du Bois,” and it required you pick a new French name and an afternoon extracurricular “activité.” I was informed upon arrival that although I could certainly change my name to “Louise,” the art class was full so my activité would have to be either Ultimate Frisbee or this apparently French recreation that — swear to God — involved searching for chocolate coins in the woods. Obviously there was a right answer. But as I responded in French, chocolate in the woods please, my counselor looked down at my form and said the chocolates might have “noix.” Frisbee it was.
I was the only girl on the Lac du Bois Ultimate Frisbee team. I don’t remember many of my fellow teammates, other than a guy with long hair who called himself “Baguette.” Our coach was a fratty 19-year-old guy who went by “Vincent” even though he told us his real name was Cooper. I was not good at Frisbee, which is why I needed another social in. And on the third day of practice, it came. A miracle, in the form of an EpiPen.
“What’s that?” asked a super cool 13-year-old boy on the Frisbee team, prominent in the camp social scene for knowing every word to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
“An EpiPen, only this one —”
“Woah, so there’s a needle in there?” he asked.
I wanted so badly to impress him, but I was holding a “practice” EpiPen. They come in every two-pack to teach you how to use the real ones. I must have grabbed the wrong one on the way out.
I looked from the fake EpiPen to the boy and back. It was the first time a guy had ever taken real interest in me. His nametag read “Jean Paul.”
“Oui oui,” I said. “There’s a huge needle in it. It can even go through jeans. Wanna watch?”
Then, before he could answer, I plunged the fake EpiPen against my thigh until I heard the click, and let out a scream that I hoped imitated the part where Lindsay Lohan gets her ears pierced in the movie “The Parent Trap.”
I was the it girl of the summer. Thanks, Mylan.
* * *
Truthfully, sometimes I try to avoid work. It gets tiring answering questions about the mechanism of EpiPens. I’ve got other things to say.
So I try my hardest not to mention my allergies. “I already ate,” I’ll say, eying some Indian curry. “Thank you so much for the nut bars, I’m full now but I’ll bring them home as a treat for later.” One time, I actually tossed an entire muffin out of a first-floor window at a wedding reception for fear it might contain nuts.
But sometimes it’s unavoidable. Take, for instance, a recent lunch I went to with my parents and their friends. When the waiter came around, I tried whispering as inaudibly as I could, “I have a nut allergy, can you let the kitchen know?” He couldn’t hear me, so I said it louder. “I have a nut allergy, can you let the kitchen know?”
“Did you say you have a nut allergy?” a woman across the table asked. She looked delighted.
“Yes,” I said.
Then, for the next two hours, I got to hear all the intricacies of her daughter’s walnut allergy. How they found out, what they were doing, how sometimes she felt as if her daughter was poised on a cliff. “Have you read that new New York Times piece about why we’re seeing more food allergies now?” she asked. A favorite discussion topic. I knew as soon as she said it she was going to bring up Nutella in Israel. “You know, in Israel, apparently kids have way less nut allergies because they eat Nutella growing up!”
Finally, the woman asked me something she’d clearly been mulling over. “Abigail, is there any way you could call my daughter to talk to her about kissing? It’s just she’s 13 now, and I’m worried someone will kiss her after eating walnuts. I know we just met, but she’s not going to listen to me.”
I didn’t end up calling her, but here’s how I imagine that conversation would have gone down:
“Hi, is this Nina?”
“Who is this?”
“My name’s Abigail, and I’m calling to … talk with you … about your nut allergy.”
“You know, Nina, your mom tells me you’re in middle school, and the thing about being your age … God … the thing about being your age is that people start to develop feelings. Like … when you see someone, maybe a boy but also maybe a girl?”
“Well, as a 17-year-old who’s definitely, uh, yeah and definitely has allergies too, well so someday you might want to get close to someone and, yeah, kiss them.”
“And I guess, so it’s super cool to just be like, ‘Hey have you had any walnuts in the last 24 hours?’”
“Yep, that’s what I came here to say. What I called to say. I’m so sorry Nina. I’m so sorry about this, and about everything.”
*“Abigail Bessler, Ph.D” received an Honorable Mention in 2017’s Wallace Prize in Creative Nonfiction