Food Allergy 101: I am not alone

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What if my food allergy was a real, live person? And what if I could talk to him about what he's taught me over the years? Every Thursday, I get that chance...

This post originally ran in April 2018.

Mr. A, my allergy, approaches me in the coffee shop and empties a box of red paper clips on my table. They fly everywhere. A few fall to the floor. 

I stop reading my book and look at him. I throw my hands in the air and roll my eyes.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he quickly says, pulling out a seat. "I'll just sit here and listen to music."

He puts in earbuds and starts scrolling through his phone. He selects a song and begins shuffling the paper clips. He grabs a book from his bag and places it on the table, revealing a dark gray back cover. He begins placing the red paper clips on the book, carefully sliding them to the far edge of the corner closest to him. 

After he has about 15 paper clips cluttered on the book, he reaches into his shirt pocket and removes a white colored paper clip. He places it by itself on the other corner of the book, the one closest to me. As he does this, he starts singing out loud, a classic song from Three Dog Night.

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do...
One is the loneliest number.
One is the loneliest number.
Onnnnnnnnnne is the loneliest number...

I know I'm the only one who can hear him, but he still is bothering me. I look at him.

"Sorry, sorry," he says again interrupting his song and removing his earbuds. "I just love songs about being alone..."

"Why are you singing those songs now?" I ask.

He makes a sad face. "I guess I'm just thinking about you always feeling all alone," he says. "Don't you ever think about being all alone, as if you're the only one with your allergy?"

I scoff. "For a long time I did," I say. "When I was growing up, I thought I was the only one who had an allergy this bad."

He smiles, taking a certain glee in my pain.

"But then I realized I am not alone," I continue. "There are millions of people who have food allergies. And there are millions more who advocate for us."

He loses his smile. 

I look to his book. The paper clip symbolism becomes clear. All the red paper clips are on one side, near him. The white clip is all by itself, near me.

"Don't you get it," I say carefully spinning the book around in circles, making sure the paper clips don't move. It looks like a bad game of spin the bottle, only it's a book. "Indeed, the white paper clip is all alone, separated from all the red ones. But you're not looking at this correctly."

And with that, I stop spinning the book. The white clip stops in front of him.

"It's simply a matter of perspective, which you've inadvertently taught me over the years," I say, my voice dropping to a stern whisper. "That lonely clip isn't me. It's you."


JJ Vulopas is a senior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An advocate for young people, JJ has lived with food allergies his entire life. He is the author of the children's book, Land of Not. You can read his daily blog at Follow him on Instagram & Twitter @thelandofcan.