Allergy 101: Empathy empowers me!
What if my allergy was a real, live person? And what if I could talk to him about what he’s taught me over the years?
MIDDLE OF THE STOMACH, ABOVE THE BELLY BUTTON...
I’m sitting at the coffee shop. Mr. A, my allergy, sits right next to me, a little too close, of course, as he always seems to hover. He’s looking around and has a smirk on his face.
“You’re feeling it again, aren’t you?” he says. “I know you are.”
I ignore him.
“It’s in the middle of your stomach, right?” he adds in a mocking tone. “About a fist’s width above the belly button?”
He pokes me right at the spot. I slap his hand away.
He’s referring to the pit I often feel. It’s not the feeling of having a reaction. It’s the feeling I get when I’m worrying about having a reaction. It’s a cross between anxiety and some unknown, bottomless blob. When I was little my mom, always the optimist, called it my “Spidey-sense… your magical radar that just tells you to be on the lookout.”
Mr. A. continues to nag me.
“Aren’t you glad I’m in your life?” he asks, acting like a three-year-old, before adding in rapid-fire succession: “You are. You are. You are.”
I turn my head and stare directly at his eyes. Then I quote my grandfather.
“I don’t wish heartache like you on anyone,” I say. “But if you’ve gotta visit a House of Pain, don’t fill your bag with the costume jewelry when you walk out the door.”
He looks at me confused. He never had much of an intellect.
“I actually wish you were NOT part of my life,” I say. “But if I have to put up with your pain, I’m ransacking your finest jewelry… your finest lessons.”
He leans back. “Ohhhh, an optimist,” he mocks.
I ignore him.
He keeps muttering, of course, but I’ve learned a long time ago that he isn’t real. I don’t have to listen to him.
I am the person I am today because of my allergy.
Although my allergy has given me a fair number of challenges, it has blessed me with empathy, an incredible insight into the needs of others.
But not just the obvious needs. The ones people keep hidden. But I know where they hide it. I know where they feel it.
That little pit… center of the stomach… about a fist’s width above the belly button.
That little blob that mom called my “Spidey-Sense.”
Many people are good at caring for people when they see the problem. A broken arm. We get it. We see the cast. “Let me get the door for you.” A turned ankle. We see the crutches. “I can carry your books.” A Kickstarter campaign because a family lost their home. “Where do I donate?”
But having an allergy has given me an empathy for the unseen — the hidden burdens we carry.
When you have a food allergy, you look normal. Put me in a cafeteria, and I look like every other hungry kid. No one sees the bombs of anxiety exploding around me. When I’m surrounded by food, I often feel like I'm storming Omaha beach in one of those old war movies.
Those unseen bombs of anxiety exploding inside of me cause me to pause, to stop, sometimes for just a nanosecond as I assess my surroundings. And it’s that pause — it’s that momentary stop— that I can see in others.
It’s the hidden hesitancy of an anxiety-ridden kid just before he walks out into the hallway. It’s the silent stammer of a new student walking into the cafeteria. It’s the extra breath that a friend holding a terrible secret takes before getting out of the car.
This empathy has allowed me to look out for others, to ask that extra question, to hang back a second longer and say, “Hey, you OK?”
It’s that empathy that allowed me to champion causes, causes that never personally affected me. Why? I don’t have to know why the person feels the pain, I just have to be aware that the pain exists.
In high school, I traveled across the nation talking to youth about depression and suicide. One time after a large conference, a newspaper reporter interviewed me. She wanted to know my story. She wanted to know why I was connected to suicide awareness.
“Did you lose a family member?” she asked. “A best friend?”
“No,” I said. “I’m here because I care…”
She pressed me further.
I wanted to tell her that I have a food allergy but that would have sounded a bit trite. When you’re talking about suicide, not being able to eat a Snickers really doesn’t sound like much of an inconvenience.
So I pointed to my gut.
“Did you ever get a feeling here when you’re hurting?” I asked, putting a fist above my belly button and pointing to the spot just under my rib cage. “I do sometimes, and it doesn’t feel very good. I just don’t like it when others have that feeling too.”