I’ve been feeling this surge of passion bubbling in me for quite some time now and have a need to share this.
As a child I woke most nights with horrendous cramps and nausea, more often than not resulting in me being up all night with diarrhoea - very pleasant start to a blog, I am aware - and I would go downstairs where my Dad would stay up with me, rub my stomach and give me Alka-Seltzer to settle me. I had quite a bit of puppy fat, bloating, bad eczema, psoriasis and terrible dark circles under my eyes. My Mum also suffered throughout her whole life with the same. The cramps would get so bad we would have a tag team of heat pads in the microwave and a sizeable stock of strong painkillers to make any pharmacy jealous. My Dad finally had enough of his girls being ill and booked my Mum into ‘The Food Doctor’ in London, hoping whatever she was eventually diagnosed with would be helpful to me too. Here, she underwent rigorous, horribly invasive but vital testing to finally conclude she was Lactose Intolerant. We both cut out cow’s milk lactose from our diets and automatically saw huge improvements. I was thirteen and finally felt and looked healthy, energised and pain free.
However, back in 2007 food intolerances were still not widely understood, especially socially. The fear of going round a friends' house to eat, having a school dinner or going out to a restaurant started to creep in. I couldn’t count the amounts of times my Dad would explicitly explain to restaurant staff our allergies and yet we’d still receive baffled looks, comments such as “Oh, that should be ok” or “I doubt that’s got milk in” without them thoroughly checking or being made to feel as through our illness was a nuisance. I’d get anxiety on car journeys to new restaurants that we’d have to face massive confrontation before we felt the staff were taking it seriously enough that we could feel safe enough to eat there.
I also started experiencing some quite scaring comments; a supposed “friend” of mine said to me when we were fifteen “Abbie, you’re going to really struggle to get a boyfriend because you’re lactose intolerant.” I mean, what!?! At the time this had a huge impact on me to the point where I would hide my intolerance from boys in case they thought I was weird or “difficult”. I look back now and I wish I could give my fifteen year old self a hug and that “friend” a slap. Years passed and there I was, suddenly twenty, moving out, about to start drama school in London. I began meeting loads of new people, explaining why I had “special” milk, snacks etc. and being met with comments like “What do you even eat!?”, “How do you live?” and “I would die if that was me!” At this point I’d heard these comments time and time again and they just made me laugh. I’d always respond “Trust me, if you were really ill when you ate *insert food here*, you’d do the same and be FINE!”
During my first year at drama school I started to get noticeably ill again; dreadful cramps, gas, diarrhoea, nausea and worst of all, to me at the time, wide-spread, fierce acne. As a training actress, seeing myself back on camera was AWFUL. I started plastering my face in makeup, resulting in me pretending to touch my face in voice classes and an overall feeling I was hiding. I went on a series of antibiotics which softened the blow but didn’t get rid of it. My dark circles were back with a vengeance and my energy was at an all time low. I met my wonderful boyfriend during this time and if he stayed over or I over his, I found myself turning the light off before taking my makeup off (which he would promptly turn back on and ask me to look at him - he fought hard to help me feel beautiful). But I can honestly say my skin was making me depressed. I HATED looking at myself and didn’t want to leave the house some days.
My Dad, one again, the saviour he is, picked up the phone and said “Abs, you’re going to The Food Doctor”. For my first consultation I had to go without any makeup on which was a real bloomin' challenge for me but a necessary one. I took a food diary that I’d kept for a few weeks and we chatted about having tests. Once these results were in I went back and the nutritionist showed me a graph and explained she hardly ever comes across someone as intolerant to gluten as me and she thought I had long-term damage in my gut causing holes in the lining where bacteria could leak through into my blood stream, hence my rashing, spotting skin. I was put on a different course of antibiotics, garlic, oregano and a mix of probiotics for 6 months to heal my gut wall and get rid of the infection. She told me I really needed to completely cut gluten inc. Barley, Rye etc out of my diet. Suddenly I was lactose AND gluten intolerant but on the road to recovery.
Why am I telling you all of this?
I’m not seeking sympathy nor a platform to share my “life story” but more to support my following comments. Having a food allergy / intolerance (or several, in my case) comes with a massive stigma. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been called “fussy” or “one of those” etc. Dude, I WISH I WAS FUSSY! One scenario that sticks in my mind was in a cafe and I was ordering food with a group of friends and I purely asked the waiter if he could check if the mayo had any milk in. I was met with an eye roll directed about me to my friends and a chuckle. I felt a bubble of anger inside me and confronted him after a few other comments he made and said “I’m a customer, asking very politely to find out if I am going to be safe eating your food or not, I don’t really see how that’s funny?” He was stunned to say the least and apologised. I completely understand this could be classed as “banter” but when it’s to do with someone feeling safe and taken seriously enough to trust what you’re serving them won’t hurt them, you need to leave the humiliating jokes to one side. I hope it taught him a valuable lesson. I don’t think many people who haven’t been exposed to intolerances/allergies truly understand how vulnerable you feel when trusting food that is made for you when it could very easily poison you, leaving you ill for days.
I also feel this stigma in social situations. As an actor I am constantly meeting new people and being catered for in events/ workshops/ meetings etc. That dreaded email comes (as grateful as I am for & important as the email is) “Please let us know of any food intolerances/allergies.” I’ve found myself on several occasions replying, apologising for being “one of those annoying people who can’t eat gluten or milk products.” I actually feel ashamed to admit that I’ve said that and would like to say a big sorry for ever buying into that stigma and calling us “annoying”. What on earth is it that made me feel ashamed enough to apologise for an illness I have? if I had a different illness, would I be pre-facing emails with an apology?
I also found myself, whilst having tea with a new group of actors during rehearsals, pulling my Oat Milk out of my bag and being asked why I had “different” milk, replying “I’m lactose intolerant” but purposefully leaving “and gluten” out through fear of being judged. I feel, on reflection, annoyed with myself for not being proud of who I am. My intolerances effect me very single day on multiple occasions, yet I can’t be proud of them? Why? What is socially, stopping me from this? I didn’t choose this, I don’t preach about it nor am I “fussy” but yet something about my past and recurring experiences when it comes to me exposing that I have food allergies leaves me feeling judged, thus, I find myself apologising for the way my body works just as it’s different to “the norm”.
Having said all of this, I am so overwhelmed and appreciative of how far companies and every mindsets have progressed in the understanding of these issues with food and how this had reflected in the ever-growing food substitute market; an absolute saviour for us GF/ DF etc. folk.
I am also fully aware that a lot of this said stigma I’ve spoken about derives from food “fads” where people choose to cut, for example, gluten out of their diet for 5 out of 7 days a week. By no means do I see this as “fussy” (grr, I hate that word) but I can see how this “trend”, per say, has cultivated a casualness when it comes to intolerances/allergies. But to put it plain and simply, eating any sort of food that has gluten and a product made with cow’s milk (butter, yogurt, cream, whey powder… the list goes on) makes me really poorly. I don’t see why I, or other’s like me, should face ANY sort of hostility or “mick-taking” about this. I am a chilled person who can laugh at herself quite freely but I feel it’s got to the point where too many times I have been made to feel a nuisance, fussy (Oop, there’s that word again), difficult or over-sensitive about an illness I have that makes me, ME.
Ahh… Sigh of relief… That feels a heck of a lot better to have off my chest.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this ramble. Please do reach out to me if anything from the above has resonated with you.
x Abbie x