ECARF: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
J: My name is Jessi, I am seventeen years old and I struggle with my allergies. I have 74 allergies to food. Whenever I eat something I am allergic to I get a reaction. Sometimes they are different depending on what exactly I have eaten. It’s usually a rash on my skin, like red dots, especially on my arms and legs. Sometimes I get it on my face, which is kind of problematic because you can always cover your legs or arms but you cannot cover your face in any way. So if I get something on my nose or my cheek I find it very annoying.
ECARF: What do you do then? Stay at home?
J: There is nothing that I could really do. There is no such cream which could actually help me to get rid of it within a few days. I just have to wait a week or two and then it will be gone. I use a cream which is against irritations of the skin but it works very slowly. So I have to wait a week or two either way. I usually just go to school. I try to ignore it because I don’t feel unwell. I just know that I have something on my face and cannot cover it. Of course I cannot put on make-up. So I just think of it as a break for my skin to detox.
ECARF: Do your friends make comments?
J: Sometimes they ask me: “What’s that on your skin?” Last time when I got my allergy, it was on my arms. One of my friends looked at it. She was unfamiliar with allergies and asked “Can I get it, if I touch it?”. I said “No, no, no, it’s not contagious”. So sometimes people actually do not know what an allergy reaction looks like. I am kind of self-confident and don’t really care what people think. I mean it’s not anything contagious but some people might be afraid to go to the swimming pool when they see me, for example.
ECARF: Do you remember when you started having allergic reactions?
J: I had allergic reactions to food since the day I started eating, at the age of two or three. When I was seven I started being on a diet and I was on it for one year and a half. It was the strictest diet I had to do because I couldn’t eat any gluten, I couldn’t drink milk, I couldn’t eat eggs and a lot of products which we eat and drink in everyday life. I tried to eat the gluten-free bread but it tasted not even similar to the normal bread. I didn’t like it from the beginning. So it was very hard for me to stick to the diet. Whenever I went to school and I saw people at my age eating their sandwiches with Nutella or just a normal sandwich I was so jealous! And then I looked in my bag and saw the corn bread with ham or something. I wasn’t happy about that but I guess that I got used to it and actually after this one year and a half I was feeling much better. Then we went to the doctor and he said “Let’s try and see where we are with your allergy.” So I stopped being on a diet and started to carefully eat food that I couldn’t before. It actually worked quite well because although I was getting allergic reactions they weren’t that strong anymore. I survived for a couple of years, until last summer. During a vacation in Sri Lanka with my family I had a strong reaction and after we have come back home my allergy was getting stronger again. I was tested and it said that I am allergic to everything that I had been allergic to before. So after ten years of not being on a diet I had to start the diet again.
ECARF: What do you avoid eating now?
J: Same as before: Gluten, wheat, milk, eggs. Because they are main products it is very hard to avoid them. And there are many more. Sometimes there are situations when I would really like to eat something I am not supposed to. It’s those days when you feel like eating pizza or noodles and then I just have to say ‘no’. If I could make myself not allergic to one product it would be gluten. That’s the most annoying allergen, I think.
ECARF: Do you make exceptions from your diet sometimes?
J: Yes, I do. My life would be very sad if I couldn’t eat some of the non-diet food once in a while. I do know how chocolate tastes, I do know how bread tastes and obviously I miss that kind of food. I cannot make exceptions too often but sometimes when I stay in Berlin and I go out with my friends then I actually order spaghetti or pizza. But usually when I am at a restaurant I find it the easiest to just get a salad. Then I can simply take stuff out which I cannot eat. Luckily, I can eat most vegetables. Tomatoes are the only fruit which I usually eat although I am allergic to it. I love tomatoes!
Also during Christmas and Easter time I cheat on my diet. Then I eat everything. So that’s the time when I get my worst allergies because everyday over these holidays I eat something that I am allergic to. I know I’m making a big exception there but it’s Christmas time, it’s Easter time and I want to eat normal food, eat some cake.
ECARF: How does your family support you?
J: Most importantly, they don’t eat things that I am allergic to. Even though my dad and my younger sister do not have a gluten intolerance they started eating the gluten-free bread which my mum bakes for us. My mum, like me, has a gluten intolerance. So does my brother. Overall, he is the most allergic in my family with 76 allergies, two more than I have. So everyone is on a diet regardless of their allergies.
ECARF: How do you feel during classes?
J: Because of my allergy I’m sometimes very exhausted and tired during classes. Maybe it’s because of the fact that I cannot eat a lot of food. But in the end I think it’s because of the allergic reactions. And once I actually did fall asleep during class.
The fact that my school is allergy-friendly is very important because it would be very difficult for me to deal with my allergies otherwise. I’m very happy that there is always a lunch option that I can eat. I have no problems with my diet at school and I see that people here are familiar with allergies and more aware about what it implies. In other schools they just don’t talk about that kind of problem.
ECARF: What would you recommend to someone who is hosting a party and has allergic friends?
It really depends who is inviting me and how well they know my allergies. I went to a birthday party at my friend’s house and she had actually prepared a salad that she knew I could eat. She told me the ingredients and then she explained everything else on the table. “Here’s chicken, here’s pork. I don’t know if you can eat that, I am just telling you.” That was very nice.
In general, it would be great if there was just something to eat for a person with allergies. Or if the party host takes the time to show you the food and tell you the ingredients.
ECARF: Is there anything that people really should know?
J: Allergies are not a real sickness and it’s not anything that people should be worried about. They should just get used to it and take it like let’s say a weakness. It just doesn’t make sense to waste your time on complaining and feeling bad about yourself, because it’s not going to change. And when I am really sad about my allergies I go and eat something that I shouldn’t eat. It’s not good for my allergy but it sure is for my mind.
Interview: Matthias Colli