How is Valentine's Day different when you are diagnosed with multiple food allergies at 19?
Kylee Christensen is 21 and is a college junior studying criminal justice in Illinois. At 19, she had a severe allergic reaction and was diagnosed allergic to multiple foods. Kids With Food Allergies and Kylee recently chatted online about how she manages romance, food allergies and college friendships while away at school. We spotted Kylee when she posted a picture of an "emergency box" she keeps in her dorm. It is stocked with epinephrine auto-injectors, antihistamine and restaurant cards.
Have you created new dating rituals with your boyfriend as a result of your food allergies?
In a way, yes. His name is Derek, and we’ve been together for 2.5 years. In that time I have developed more allergies, so there is always some adjusting going on. Rather than going out to different restaurants, we tend to choose places that we know are safe for me. We both enjoy cooking as well, so we’ve cooked dinner together a couple times instead of going out. We really enjoy this, both as something different to do and also as a way to control what is going into my food. We have also created a ritual/tradition of going to a different pumpkin patch every year on our anniversary (it was our first date!) It is safe for me because we stay away from most of the foods and focus on the activities (although sometimes we can’t resist the fresh apple cider donuts!)
How have the past couple of years been different than others when you celebrate with dates on Valentine's Day?
They have definitely been a little different from previous years. On our first Valentine’s Day together, we got a few movies, went grocery shopping, and cooked a delicious and safe meal together. It helped alleviate a lot of my worries regarding my allergies, especially because I was just diagnosed with my first few. Our most recent Valentine’s Day together, we decided to be adventurous and go out to dinner, armed with epinephrine auto-injectors and antihistamine. We were very careful and made sure to alert the waiter about my dietary needs. It was a little intimidating, but made for a nice, problem-free evening.
What are all of your allergies and what are your thoughts on the foods you now must avoid? Have you found safe substitutes?
I always laugh a little when I’m asked what my allergies are because the person asking never knows what they’re about to get hit with. As of today, my allergies are: peanuts (and other legumes), tree nuts, coconut, cottonseed oil, sesame, soy, corn, shellfish, pineapple, and banana.
I’ve had several rounds of testing, and my initial diagnosis was tree nuts, cottonseed oil, sesame, and shellfish. I thought this was manageable. Peanuts, pineapple, and banana were then added during round two of testing, and this is where I got a little upset. I absolutely loved Reeses and peanut butter and to hear that these things were now a danger to me was very difficult. However, I made the adjustment and continued to search for safe foods that I liked. Recently, I had my third round of testing because I kept having reactions to food and we weren’t 100% sure what was causing it. We determined that soy and corn were the culprits, and I’ve now cut them out of my diet.
I’ve given these particular foods a lot of thought. At first I was angry that so many things I loved were now off-limits. I’ve had a lot of reactions since finding out about my soy allergy and I’ve become VERY cautious about what I eat. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it to not have to be constantly taking Benadryl® (an antihistamine). As far as substitutes go, the only things I really wanted a good substitute for was peanut butter and ramen noodles. My boyfriend was great about helping me find substitutes and got me several new items to try. I’ve also taken refuge in SunButter®, and it’s become a favorite of mine!
And you started dating him around the same time you were diagnosed...so what should someone look for in a supportive date/partner when you have food allergies? How did you know that he was going to be a good one? Do you have an anecdote about that?
I think it is SO important to have a partner that is cautious and supportive of food allergies. I think if I were looking for a partner now, I would definitely look for someone who is willing to learn about allergies and the reactions that can come with them. It’s very important for them to take it seriously because reactions can be life threatening. I would also look for someone who is empathetic. We are not victims, but sometimes we do need emotional support because food allergies can be daunting. This is something I love about Derek. When I received the first two diagnoses, I came back to my dorm room with him and had a small meltdown. I was overwhelmed and upset about all the foods that had just been taken away from me. He let me cry and complain, but then we came up with a plan that included finding safe foods and substitutes. The last thing that I would look for is someone who sees past my allergies. It is a large part of my life right now, but I am so much more than my allergies. I think some people see someone with allergies and think that it is impossible to go out on dates, or that it is just a burden that they don’t want to deal with. But it isn’t! If someone can’t see that, they’re not worth your time.
Tell us how you trained your friends - we love the emergency box you have in your dorm! How do they watch out for you when you go out? We love that you use a restaurant card!
Thank you! They’re actually right next to me, so I asked them this question as well. Two of my best friends that I’m with every day are Jayson and Kat. Jayson has been with me since the beginning of my allergy journey, so he was taught very early on how to help me. Kat has a shellfish allergy, so she knew most of this already. To train them, I made sure they knew where my emergency box was in my room. I went over all my allergies and what foods may contain the allergens. I also brought out my auto-injector trainer and went over it with them and had them practice. It may seem a little silly to some, but I felt that it was very important for them to know in case I couldn’t do it myself. Once they got the hang of the trainer, they enjoyed “practicing” it on me…several times in a row.
When we go out, they always ask me to make sure I can have whatever I order and will help me check ingredients. Kat is very vigilant about this and often accompanies her questions with a serious, motherly look of concern. Jayson says that he “just kind of hopes for the best.”
What are some fun dates for teens that do not involve food?
Going to the mall is always a good option, but I love the idea of museums. I live right outside Chicago, so going to the museums (or just downtown in general) is a favorite of mine. Watching movies is something that I do with my friends on a daily basis, and with some help from Netflix, you’ll never run out of options. Some that I personally haven’t done a lot but would love to do are bowling, swimming, hiking, laser tag, arcades, painting/art classes, or riding bikes.
What is the best advice you could give to another teen with food allergies on how to avoid a reaction on a date?
Definitely choose a place that has plenty of options that work with your allergies. ALWAYS inform your waiter of your allergies—even if you have been there dozens of times. Ask questions, inquire about ingredients, and if necessary, ask about substitutions. Don’t view this as annoying because it could mean the difference between a safe meal and a reaction. This is probably one of the most important tips. Once you have done your part to inform others and avoid a reaction, make sure you are prepared in case one does occur. Inform your date about your allergies and make sure they know how to use an auto-injector. Always hope for the best, but plan for the worst!
Have you ever had a reaction on a date?
I have! Early on in my relationship with Derek, we went to downtown Chicago to see The Phantom of the Opera. We made it through the show and decided to grab a quick dinner from one of the fast food places in the train station. I was still learning the ropes of my allergies, and embarrassingly enough, didn’t know what sesame seeds looked like. I’m cringing while writing this. I decided to order Arby’s and bit into the sesame seed bun. He quickly recognized what had just happened and we went in search of Benadryl. I was SO unprepared, it’s horrific. After we had gotten Benadryl and I took it, he immediately started searching for nearby hospitals on his phone. Luckily, the antihistamine was enough. This date will always serve as an example to me that it is SO important to be prepared, and the fact that I wasn’t terrifies me to this day. It was definitely a learning experience.
Any other advice for younger teens with allergies in regards to dating and having a social life?
I think I would just say that you need to choose a partner and friends carefully. They should be understanding of your allergies and willing to learn how to help you in case of an emergency. Having food allergies is hard enough, but being surrounded by great, helpful people makes it so much easier.
Also, I really think it is important to know that your allergies do NOT define you. It may be a large part of your life sometimes, but you are so much more than EpiPens® and Benadryl. I know that sometimes I feel like a walking allergic reaction, but this really is not who I am. Food allergies are such a minor part of who you are as a person and it is important to recognize that they do not overpower all the amazing things that really make you who you are.
KFA wishes Kylee and Derek a Happy Valentine's Day and wish her success as she pursues her dream of becoming a police officer!