Although I don’t have statistics to back up the claim, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that I am one of very few people in this world who can say that they’ve gotten an EpiPen 2-Pak for Christmas. For some reason it just doesn’t seem to be one of those hot-topic items that jump off the shelves in the days leading up to 25 December each year. It’s not a common stocking stuffer. And what kid in his right mind would climb up onto Santa’s lap in the mall and say, “I’ve been real good this year—can I pretty please get a portable allergy medicine injection device?”
As a matter of fact, I didn’t really ask for it either; it was one of those gifts of necessity. My mission president’s wife told me—in no uncertain terms—that I was not allowed to conceal from my parents the severe reaction I suffered one evening almost a year after I arrived in Ukraine. For twenty-two years I had managed to live with my peanut allergy, toughing-it through the nausea, asphyxia, and hives by sheer grit or through Benadryl, no EpiPen needed, thanking heaven that my allergy was not as severe as some people’s. As the years went by I became more sensitive to the presence of peanuts, and soon I learned to prevent reactions from escalating too far.
But one night in a secluded village in Crimea a dear friend made dinner for me and my mission companion. She knew of my allergy, and swore up and down (even saluting for emphasis) that the cake balls she’d baked were nut-free.
They weren’t. I could tell as soon as the soft treat touched my lips. But I couldn’t bear the thought that poor Lyuba would know she had caused an allergic reaction, so I hid it from her, pretending everything was just fine. We had an hour-long lesson, and I even played the flute when Lyuba insisted on having a concert of hymns. My swelling lips stung as I pressed them into the correct embouchure, and my stomach heaved as I struggled to take breaths deep enough to supply the instrument with sound.
After a ninety-minute bus ride back to the city where we lived, my companion and I went straight home where we noticed the hives for the first time. My face and neck were visibly swollen, and my trachea was starting to close off. I lost control of my stomach. Ultimately, after prayers, a Priesthood blessing, and a phone call to the mission president for advice, I gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep. The next morning my poor companion admitted that throughout the night she had woken herself up just to see whether I was still breathing.
Sister van Bruggen told me that I absolutely had to tell Mom and Dad about the reaction and ask them to send me an EpiPen. Reluctantly, I provided an account of the experience in my weekly email home, and a few weeks later I found a small box wrapped in silver/candy cane paper tucked among the clothing and sweets that filled the Christmas package my family sent. Taped onto the shiny wrapping paper was a poem my parents had written for the occasion:
Not a typical Christmas gift, to say the very least.
To this day, nearly two years later, I’ve still never used an EpiPen. I’ve had nut encounters in that time, but the idea of stabbing myself in the thigh with a needle is less appealing than the thought of just willing my way through the discomfort and hoping for the best. And besides, the recent reactions haven’t been quite as severe as the one out in Nizhnyaya Kutuzova.
But the allergy is always with me, forcing me to pay close attention to the foods that I put in my mouth, insisting that I read menus and ingredients carefully, or requiring me to ask friends to taste a baked good before I become brave enough to give it a try.
One of the side effects of a food allergy is a strong element of distrust. In order to survive, I’ve got to be careful—I’ve got to employ every effort of caution and I’ve got to take matters into my own hands. The safest foods are the tried-and-true ones that I’ve eaten before with no problem, or the ones that I’ve made on my own. Control is also a big issue; the more I can control the production of a food, or the more knowledge I have about it, the more willing I am to trust that it’s safe, that it won’t hurt me, that I’ll be okay if I let it inside.
Which makes me wonder, sometimes, if there aren’t other allergies I’ve struggled with all my life. After all, food isn’t the only thing that gives cause for concern as I contemplate the consequences of letting something in.
I think I’m allergic to boldness. I think I’m allergic to love. I think I’m allergic to hopes, wants, and dreams—to anything that could break down inside of me and spark a crippling, painful reaction called fear or disappointment—and last I checked, there’s no medication to save me from anaphylaxis in these types of allergic attacks.
I tend to treat life much the way I treat food—that is, dolloped with heaps of doubt and distrust. The people and situations that earn my confidence are the ones about which I have the most knowledge, or the circumstances that yield to me the most sway. Place me in tried-and-true social settings and I’m comfortable with chatting and making new friends. Give me detailed descriptions of how things will turn out, and I walk forward boldly, with courage and pluck. Tell me how to best behave in a situation, and I’ll exceed expectations. I thrive in carefully monitored environments in which I can control all the variables. I yearn for clear guidelines. I seek for direction, like reading the ingredients listed on the side of a cereal box before placing it in a shopping cart.
But there just aren’t clearly marked allergy warnings in life. Not for inedible things, anyway.
Consider, for instance, another “allergic reaction” I suffered as a missionary. My companion and I had been teaching Sasha for months, and I loved her so much. She had confessed to us her belief that our acquaintance was not a coincidence, and I agreed. She had opened up to us about her past and her desires for a new start, a clean slate, a rebirth, a baptism. In so many ways, Sasha seemed like an answer to the prayers I had poured out to God, asking Him to lead us to those of His children who were seeking the truth of His Gospel.
Shortly before Sasha was scheduled to be baptized, however, she disappeared. She never answered the phone. She stopped coming to church. My companion and I were baffled, and we tried to reach her a number of times, even stopping by her home to deliver fresh-baked lemon poppy seed muffins.
It took a long time, but one night we finally found her. We had stopped by her house in one last effort to invite her to attend a special conference with us. The street was dark, so we almost didn’t see her standing near the curb. She was drunk, disoriented, she hadn’t eaten for days. She told us that she had planned to take her life that evening, sick of living with an abusive son who beat her and stole from her and starved her.
Feeling uneasy about being alone in such an unstable situation, my companion and I phoned some of the elders for backup. They arrived shortly before Sasha’s son came home—which was really poor timing. The presence of the elders sparked a conflict with Sasha’s son, who called his friends to come “take care of us.” Eventually the police became involved, and we spent hours standing in the cold outside a decrepit Ukrainian police station, ultimately being released on the condition that no missionaries would visit Sasha’s home ever again.
When my companion and I returned to our apartment at nearly 2:00 in the morning we were emotionally drained. We had prevented Sasha’s suicide, but now her son had a restraining order against us. We would never see our friend again.
I was too hurt to cry. My heart ached, my head throbbed, and a lump gathered in my throat. Despite intense exhaustion I found enough strength to pray, begging God to explain why the situation had unfolded in such a terrifying way. Why had Sasha—His daughter—suffered so much? Why had He not warned us earlier? And why, why was Sasha now forced to avoid the one thing that could have given her the comfort and peace that she sought?
In the weeks following our experience with Sasha I found it very difficult to hope for the best with the other people my companion and I taught. After all, I had poured so much faith and love and happiness into the relationship we had painstakingly built with Sasha—and for what? Just to have everything dashed apart in front of our eyes? Was that really worth it? I felt guilty for causing Sasha so much pain (since, after all, one of her son’s complaints against his mother was her involvement with “Mormons”). And I felt too battered and bruised to open my heart readily to anyone else.
My love for Sasha had resulted in a bitter reaction. I wasn’t too keen on the prospects of loving again.
Sometimes it just seems easier to avoid anything that might cause heartbreak rather than to endure the reaction when things don’t go well. If only each situation, relationship, or dream came with ingredients posted in bold on a side panel:
WARNING: Contains uncertainty.
ALLERGY INFORMATION: This product was processed on equipment that also processes disappointment.
MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF DISCOURAGEMENT AND FEAR.
Instead, we’ve got nothing. No warnings. No guidelines. No guarantee that everything will work out all right. – In fact, sometimes it just doesn’t.
But there’s one other lesson living with a nut allergy has forced me to accept: Sometimes survival requires a bit more than simply avoiding the things that could hurt.
If I were to insist on eating only those foods that I’ve tried once before—well, I’d probably only ever eat Ramen and Cheerios, which cuts out of my diet newly-acquired favorite meals, in addition to foods rich in nutrients needed to keep me hiking and running and thriving. If I demanded total control over my own food production, then I’d never have gotten to eat out at the new Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, or order pizza from Little Caesar’s, or enjoy home-cooked meals from Mom on weekend visits. I would have to live in fear every moment. And what kind of a life would that be?
Similarly, if I were to live life avoiding any possible pain, disappointment, or sting, I would give up the relationships that make me who I am. I’d stop loving and caring. I’d stop hoping and praying.
And what kind of a life would that be?
To truly survive, we must learn to trust. It’s hard. It hurts. I’m a bit of a hypocrite for even daring to write it. But I really believe that it’s true.
Every time I put food in my mouth, I’m vulnerable. Every time I reach out in love, my defenses are down. Sometimes these efforts have turned out poorly, launching me into painful, suffocating reactions that put me on guard and make me question whether I can ever open up again, try something new, and expose my weaknesses.
But I believe that God planted in each of us a surprising amount of resilience—enough to pull through heartache or to wrestle with doubts. Enough to keep dreaming after our hopes have been sunk. Enough to convince us to pray yet again after searching in vain for an answer. And although there can never be medication to stifle our spiritual allergic reactions, at least God gave us other vulnerable, susceptible, weak human beings with shoulders to cry on and lean on and grow on as we all feel our way through the pains and discouragement of living a meaningful life.
Somewhere between caution and risk comes trust. It’s what makes new experiences possible. It’s what makes life worth living—not free of fear but coping with it, and bearing uncertainties, sorrows, and pain. I hope to develop the trust I’ve neglected in favor of safety and ease. I hope to lean more on God than on what I can see and control. In the joys, trials, peace, and fear of my life, I hope to rely on the One Whose hand formed the world and the structures that make up my frail, vulnerable body—the One Who inspired life’s breath in me and sustained me through my sickness, sin, and pain.
Like the prophet Alma, “I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; [and] God has delivered me . . . yea, and I do put my trust in Him, and He will still deliver me.” (Alma 36:27)