By Charlotte Bailey
You know those people who post that life is going SUPER AMAZINGLY FANTASTIC no matter the situation? You ask them about their most-liked posts, and when shit gets real, you realize their so-called #blessed times were actually disasters. They spin their stories into magical evenings so no one can see the reality: Sometimes, life is terrible.
I am not usually one of these people. But for a night, I was, and this is a story about how I spun a potentially deadly incident into a half-assed “The Lord of the Rings” joke. Because, you know. Likes.
I have a life-threatening nut allergy. When I swallow cashews or pistachios, my throat swells, suffocating me. Giving myself my EpiPen isn’t a quick fix — it gives me about 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive with more medicine. Any longer and the adrenaline from the EpiPen wears off, and my throat starts swelling again. I’ve had three full-blown reactions in my adult life, and they’re incredibly scary, uncomfortable and panic-inducing. Unsurprisingly, when you’re pumped full of adrenaline, knowing that the ambulance only has a set time frame to come or you might die is not a calming experience.
I have to be careful, but I love trying new foods. Because my friends feel the same way, we’ve set up a monthly dinner club where we try new restaurants. Last year, we chose a Moroccan place with a homegrown vibe that seemed charming.
Ordering shared food can be an ordeal — I need to ensure nuts are kept away from me. So my friend Sophie (who has a mild almond allergy) and I spoke to the restaurant owner before ordering about keeping some nutty pastry separate. When a different waitress brought our food, we asked what plate had the pistachio and almond pastries on it. With a bored look, she told us that the plate she’d set down was nut-free. Sophie and I quickly put it between us, and I put a pastry on my plate.
“I spun a potentially deadly incident into a half-assed 'The Lord of the Rings' joke. Because, you know. Likes.”
I took a bite of it, and as I saw it move away from my mouth, I saw the filling — bright green. Pistachios.
I spat it out immediately, and my mind started racing. I ran to the bathroom and rinsed my mouth out twice, trying not to be so self-conscious about how my throat felt. I’d gone to the hospital once because I bit (but didn’t swallow) some pistachios. My throat had closed up anyhow.
When I got back to the table, I told Sophie what had happened, and she called over the restaurant owner. As she explained the situation, I was mostly silent, still wondering if I should call an ambulance. My throat wasn’t closing — I knew what that felt like — but what if it started soon?
That’s when things went from bad to worse. The owner called over the waitress, who denied giving us the wrong plate. He took her at her word and turned to us. He told us that we simply had gotten it wrong, and I shouldn’t have eaten the pastry I did. He and Sophie got into it in heated French — the owner not admitting there might have been a mistake on their part, just blatantly denying that they had made any mistake and accusing us repeatedly of taking the wrong food. It felt like being called a liar.
After what seemed like an eternity of speaking to the owner, we realized we weren’t getting anywhere and got the chef involved. He understood the severity of my allergy and assured me my main course had no nuts, bringing it to the table himself.
Whenever I’d felt panicked before, I’d always found a way to calm down. But almost getting poisoned, then called a liar, all the while worrying that dying was still an option made this evening feel different. I tried deep breathing, naming things I’m grateful for, drinking water — all of my usual go-tos for calming down. Nothing was working.
“My throat wasn’t closing — I knew what that felt like — but what if it started soon?”
I’m a self-admitted people-pleaser, but my staying in the restaurant went far beyond that. My anxiety over ruining the night for my friends by leaving and causing a scene had me glued to my seat. I also didn’t know if there was anyone at my house. What if I went home and had a reaction alone? What if I passed out before I could call an ambulance? What if I died? I couldn’t leave my roomies to deal with a dead body. I figured the best choice was to stick with my friends, pick at my main course and wait to feel calmer.
My one saving grace was dinner progressing as usual, without any lingering attention on the nut incident. My friend Tom had noticed how anxious I was and started talking to me about stuff that didn’t matter: comic book movies, his new girlfriend and work. I still felt jumpy, but after almost a half hour it turned into a kind of giddiness — like if I started laughing, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I noticed a bottle of wine called Morador with two mountains on it and grabbed a pen, snapped a pic and put it on Instagram.
And somehow, I felt a bit more relaxed about things. I showed Tom, who gave it a small chuckle. I realized I was OK; I was with friends, doing my regular monthly meal and making my usual nerdy jokes.
I tried to keep that feeling going when the waitress brought the bill, with an extra 20 percent gratuity on top of our costs (a rarity in London, where servers make a living wage). I tried to stay positive-panicky when Sophie looked at me and said, “They can’t be serious, right?,” which led to another dispute with the owner about what had happened.
The night was a disaster, and it’s one I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
But if there’s a lesson to be learned here, I’d like it to be this: If you’re on a bad date, at a lame party or are anywhere else uncomfortable, and there’s no reason that you have to stay (like having a deathly reaction and fearing being left alone), you can leave. If the little voice inside your head says you’ll spoil everyone else’s good time, it’s probably wrong. If your friends really care for you, they’ll understand (and if they don’t, they weren’t real friends to begin with). There’s a big difference between feeling like you can’t leave without it being awkward and actually not having the option to leave safely.
For the rest of my life I’m pretty sure nothing will come close to the discomfort of worrying about death, getting called a liar by a restaurant owner, then being chased down for less than £5 I decided not to tip the waitress. For death, I’ll stay. For everything else, I’m heading home.
Charlotte Bailey lives in London, England and has successfully gone two years without ending up in the emergency room for any food-related travesties.