Navigating through the early stages of dating can produce its share of awkward and tension-filled moments, but Erika Ladouceur had an added reason to feel a bit anxious.
While some may give little thought to sharing a post-dinner dessert or a peck on the lips at the end of the evening, the 24-year-old simply can't afford the luxury of spontaneity surrounding food. She lives with anaphylactic allergies to peanuts, nuts, soy and legumes, as well as having intolerances to wheat and dairy.
Anaphylaxis is an extreme, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur within seconds or minutes after exposure to an allergen.
"First of all, I didn't even start dating for a while because I was so terrified that I would end up going on a date with someone and I would have a reaction, or them not understanding," recalled Ladouceur, who writes the blog Living with Allergies and is a trainee with the AllerGen NCE network.
"I've always tried to get to know people more doing things that didn't involve food before actually going out to a restaurant," added the Victoria resident, citing potential alternative outings like going for coffee, tea or a walk.
Ladouceur works as a research assistant with the University of Alberta offering online social support for youth and teens living with allergies and asthma. The decision to dine out — even on a periodic basis — requires planning on her part.
Consuming meals served at many fast-food chains is out of the question. If she's out with friends, she'll usually buy a drink while others nosh on their menu choices.
Ladouceur will phone eateries in advance to find out what's on the menu and whether there are a lot of nuts present in the kitchen. If she feels they don't understand her needs, she won't chance the visit.
Some of her initial concerns around dating centred on being with someone who may not realize the severity of her food allergies.
"I knew I could take care of myself, but I didn't really feel comfortable trusting anyone else, because it's basically like trusting someone else with your life," said Ladouceur.
New York-based food allergy coach and advocate Sloane Miller counsels clients on both sides of the border and abroad. Living with anaphylactic allergies to tree nuts and salmon, she has penned several posts on her blog, Please Don't Pass The Nuts, about her past dating experiences.
Miller recalled one memorable makeout session when she kissed a guy hours after he had eaten salmon.
"I felt my face tingling and my lips buzzing," she wrote, also making note of the "saliva trail of hives" on her mouth, neck, jaw, ears and cheeks where she'd been kissed.
Like Ladouceur, Miller likes to make her first date non-food-related. On subsequent outings, she'll try to suggest a restaurant she's visited frequently where perhaps she knows the staff or chef, or will call ahead to inform them of her allergies and that she carries emergency medications.
People at risk for anaphylaxis carry an auto-injector to deliver a dose of epinephrine — or adrenalin — in the event of a severe allergic reaction.
"As you move on in a relationship, then certain amounts of sharing comes in; and that's a different stage of any relationship. That's for anyone. What to share, how to share it... that's just normal dating. And this is just part of that," said Miller, president of Allergic Girl Resources.
"Since I accept myself as someone who has food allergies, allergies, asthma and eczema, it's much easier for others to accept this about me."
Miller said she tries not to overwhelm new acquaintances with information. But she will use situations that arise as a "gentle opportunity" to inform dates of her allergies, like explaining why she can't dine out at a sushi restaurant.
"I fully accept this as a part of who I am and it's not a negotiation," said Miller, author of "Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies."
"It's not like, `Well, I can have a little fish.' I can't have a little fish, and I can't be in a restaurant where all they serve is fish — it's not going to work. I'm very clear about what I can and cannot do, and that kind of clarity definitely helps. And people tend to respond to that, I think, in a positive way."
Ladouceur said adopting the direct approach about discussing her allergies with dates has boosted her confidence. Even when relationships haven't lasted, she's been told "flat out" by exes that allergies weren't a factor in the decision to part ways.
Ladouceur has been with her boyfriend, Mike Kelter, for more than 1 1/2 years, and the pair moved in together last April, a transition that has led to a modification of his eating habits.
"He basically right off the bat said, `I'm not eating anything with nuts in the house or anything you can't eat.' And so he won't," she said. "If it's ice cream, it wouldn't kill me if it was sitting in the freezer or if he had some, but he wouldn't even eat it if I'm around and he feels like I'm missing out on it.
"For him, anyways, it has been definitely a bit of a change. But all of the times he's talked about it, he's basically said `It's something that I would do for someone I cared about and loved.' And I think that's true in most situations."
Strategies on managing allergies while engaging in everyday activities like dining out and dating are in prime focus on Why Risk It. The youth-focused website developed by Anaphylaxis Canada is geared towards teens and young adults living with food allergies and at risk for anaphylaxis.
The organization has also produced a "First Kiss" PSA to raise awareness about food allergies, as well as an educational video featuring a young couple highlighting the importance of communication when a partner has a food allergy.
"I think specifically when it comes to social settings and dating, having food allergies kind of adds an extra layer of — I guess you can call it complexity," said Beatrice Povolo, director of marketing and communications for Anaphylaxis Canada.
"Teens today ... when they're on their first dates or they're meeting people in a social setting, there's that common anxiety I think everybody has. But then to have to disclose to friends or potentially girlfriends, boyfriends, et cetera, that you also have to deal with food allergies, I think there is some anxiety when it comes to that, and being able to talk to people and let them know about your allergies so that they're aware. "
Povolo said she realizes such a disclosure isn't the easiest conversation for teens to have — particularly with people they've just met. But she said it's an important fact they should share.
"It's part of who they are but it doesn't define them," said Povolo. "They can have relationships, they can do it all, but with that extra level of vigilance.
"That's kind of the key messaging we always want to get across, especially for teens and young adults. We really want to empower them, but we want them to stay safe. It's that careful, not fearful mentality."
Allergic Girl Resources: http://allergicgirl.com
Anaphylaxis Canada: http://www.anaphylaxis.org
Anaphylaxis Canada - "The First Kiss" PSA: http://bit.ly/kmgD1m
Anaphylaxis Canada - Food Allergies and Dating Teen Video Series: http://bit.ly/e1PWoH
Living With Allergies: www.livingwithallergies.ca
Please Don't Pass The Nuts: http://allergicgirl.blogspot.com
Why Risk It: http://www.whyriskit.ca