How My Son's Life-Threatening Food Allergy Positively Affected My Eating Disorder
I love peanut butter. Like, sexy love it. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, even though I was only served the naturally separated kind that tasted nothing like what the kids on television ate (I'm assuming). My go-to nosh in college was chocolate peanut butter cups, which probably wasn't the best way to spend my teacher’s assistant stipend. I loved it so much my eating habits turned unhealthy, and I would binge-eat peanut butter whenever life became too overwhelming. Which is why, years later and after I had a baby, my son's serious peanut allergy required a drastic life change. Surprisingly, however, is was my son's life-threatening food allergy that positively affected my eating disorder, so that change wasn't bad. In fact, it was necessary.
Prior to having my son, after college and when I finally got a grown-up job with a more robust salary and could buy my own peanut butter, I coveted the sugary, creamy unnatural stuff. I kept a jar in my desk at work and would just spoon-feed myself little pick-me-ups throughout the day. If only I could have stuck to the serving size. Two tablespoons? Sure, just as long as you multiply that by, like, twenty. I was a binge eater and peanut butter was my gateway food.
Binge eating was my way of pressing pause on my entire world. I binged when I needed a break; when getting a haircut or starting a savings account was too much to even think about; when I couldn’t get myself to start a project or respond to an email. Whenever I needed to quiet my brain, I focused on food and checked out by chowing down. I never binged when I was hungry. In fact, when I was hungry I ate sensibly. I'd enjoy a reasonably sized meal in public, then I binged by myself in private. I'd eat until I felt like I'd burst, my stomach distended from the mounds of peanut butter and the ocean of water needed to quench the consequential thirst.
I hated myself for this behavior, and set the punishment accordingly. Throwing up wasn’t for me, though, so I ran, I did kickboxing and I cross-trained for hours. My downstairs neighbor slipped poorly written threats under my door, aggravated by my illicit aerobic activity. Finally I joined a gym, across the street from a purveyor of gourmet peanut butter.
This cycle of binge eating and binge exercising continued, even into my first pregnancy. There were conflicting reports about consuming peanut butter during pregnancy, so I went with my gut. I didn’t touch alcohol and resisted sushi, but I couldn’t give up the peanut butter or its taste or the way it felt in my mouth. It fed me in those anxious months when I didn’t know where to begin with baby gear, or baby names, and made me feel so much worse after the common half-jar binge. I’d eat and eat until I felt queasy, quit for a few weeks mirroring my relationship with vodka in my early 20s), then I’d spot those jars on sale and the cycle would resume.
When my first baby was born, there was no time for exercise. There was no time to even register the thoughts that typically brought on binges. The compulsion started to taper off during my maternity leave and a jar of usually quickly consumed peanut butter would last close to a month. Then I returned to full-time work 12 weeks after giving birth and, well, soon lunch at my desk consisted of heaping spoonfuls of Super Chunk.
At our pediatrician’s recommendation, I had waited to introduce my daughter to peanuts until she was about three. No one in our family has any food allergies, and she started to enjoy peanut products without issue. We kept peanut butter in the house and as I figured out what it meant to be a working parent, I hit the jar regularly. It was my comfort food that never delivered on real, actual comfort.
My second pregnancy was a lot like my first, and my eating habits were the same. Typical of second-time parents, we were a lot less strict in our adherence to all the “rules” we had followed with the first kid. We learned what was absolutely necessary and tried to preserve energy by not stressing over the stuff that truly didn’t matter, like disinfecting every single surface. It also meant that when I reached into my bag for a snack for my then 20-month-old son, only to find a peanut butter granola bar meant for his older sister, I didn’t think it would be an issue if I gave it to him instead.
It was more than an issue. It was lethal.
After a few bites, he started rubbing his eyes, his hands began breaking out in red dots and his face started to swell. He grew fussy, so I nursed him. He calmed down, but I knew something wasn’t right. We ran him to the nearest medical center, which didn’t take our insurance. After going back and forth with the powers that be for fifteen minutes, they dosed him with an antihistamine and kept him under surveillance for an hour. His symptoms dissipated and, other than a bout of crankiness brought on my a missed nap and some skipped snacks, he seemed fine. We followed up with our pediatrician who prescribed an EpiPen, and had him tested for allergens. Peanuts, it turned out, were the culprit.
If you are a label-reader, you probably know that almost every snack available to consumers is made in a factory that also handles peanuts or peanut-products.
If you are a parent, you know that one of the great toddler pastimes is soliciting snack food from other parents.
If you are a lover or even a hate-lover of peanut butter, you know a peanut allergy means the end to the food that has been your lifelong drug of choice.
Obviously, we followed our doctor’s orders and cleared our cupboards of anything with nuts of any kind. My son has EpiPens everywhere — home, school, backpack, his grandparents’ houses. We researched nut butter alternatives (sunflower seed butter) and let everyone in shouting distance at a restaurant know he cannot touch peanuts. His school is not nut-free but they have the allergens of the kids’ prominently posted in the classroom. There are no edible treats allowed at school celebrations, to keep kids like him safe. We don’t go anywhere without his EpiPen and, thankfully, we haven’t had a reason to use it. Yet.
None of these precautions should be surprising, but I’ve gone the extra mile. I cut out nuts for myself entirely, even when I’m at the office, out of my home, or across the country when I travel for work. In other words, I have given up my precious peanut butter. What if I came home with a smudge of it on my clothes after eating it in secret? Do I need it so badly that I’m willing to risk my son's continued health?
It turns out, keeping my children safe has forced me to confront my binge eating. I can’t turn to peanut butter, or any food, to escape when the sh*t hits the fan. There is no time to press pause and disconnect by shoving food in my face and on auto-pilot, because my children need me in so many, continued ways. How could I possibly give them all my love when I direct so much hate towards myself?
My son is six now, and it has taken the duration of his life thus far to arrive at this place of acute awareness of how my self-care informs my parenting. I am not “cured," but I can recognize those times when I am overwhelmed or paralyzed by indecision and have learned to ask for help or say “no.” Without the over-eating, I have reigned in the over-exercising, too. I work out for no more than 30 minutes most days. I go hard, but I don’t go long, and it’s the right amount of time because it’s time spent for the right reason: to stay healthy, not to atone for bad behavior.
It took my child’s life-threatening allergy to get my eating disorder in check. I still love peanut butter, though it’s been years since I’ve had it. There are times when it's the only thing I crave, in tremendous volumes, but I refrain. I am not grateful for son’s condition, but I am thankful for the opportunity it has afforded me to be better to myself.