Food Allergy Therapist Samara Carroll has lived with life-threatening food allergies since she was a toddler. Now that she’s all grown up, Samara helps children with food allergies navigate the ups and downs of life as a food-allergic kid.
AllergyBites: What foods are you allergic to?
Samara Carroll: I have had anaphylactic food allergies to peanuts since I was 2 years old. I was also diagnosed with a tree nut allergy at that time. When I was 18, I grew out of the tree nut allergy, but I’ve since developed a shellfish allergy.
AB: Can you describe the first time you truly understood you had food allergies because they impacted your life in a meaningful way?
SC: When I was 8 years old, I wanted to go to a friend’s sleepover birthday party. The friend lived on our street. My mom explained to me that she didn’t want me to sleep over because of my food allergies. She told me I could go in my PJs and watch a movie but she didn’t feel comfortable with me sleeping there. I could tell it was hard for her not to let me stay over—she had tears in her eyes and she kept saying she was sorry. I saw that my mom felt bad about not allowing me to do this and I was upset I couldn’t sleep over, but I also understood.
AB: How were your parents when it came to letting you participate in everyday activities?
SC: They let me participate in everything eventually, but it was a process. I went to sleepover summer camp when I was 9—just one year after the sleepover incident I mentioned above! I was a camper there until I turned 16 and then I became a counsellor, and ultimately the Director. I spent a total of 17 years at the camp—it was a very special experience. I’ve also lived abroad for university and work. But while they let me take part in normal life as much as possible, I was also raised to be very cautious and to always be aware of my allergies.
AB: In retrospect, is there anything you wish your parents had done differently?
SC: No, I think they did a great job of maintaining the balance between vigilance and giving me the independence and tools to navigate the food allergy world on my own. Part of what I do as a Food Allergy Therapist is work with parents to establish this balance with their children (depending on the stage of development of their children).
AB: Tell us about The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter. How and why did this special little book come to be?
SC: This is one of the ways in which my parents supported my food allergy process and made me feel special. My mom, who is a writer based in Winnipeg, wrote this book in order to teach people that food allergies can be a strength, and are just one way that a kid can be different. For example, the main character, Sam (that’s me) can’t eat peanut butter, but there are other kids in her class with other quirks and differences, so it helped me not to feel alone. I remember as a young girl, reading the book (before there were even pictures in it) and feeling so happy about it. I felt proud that I was the girl featured in the book, and I loved the light-hearted tone (the whole book rhymes). I remember sharing it with my friends and everyone being really excited that I was the girl named Sam.
Buy The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter on Kindle.
AB: Have you ever thought about what your parents’ grieving process looked like? Do you think they ever reached the “acceptance” phase?
SC: My parents still worry about my allergies to this day, but I think it gets easier. As life goes on and I reach different milestones (I’m married and live in Toronto now), they trust that I know how to navigate life with allergies. That said, it’s always on their mind. I’m lucky that my husband has also become a wonderful allergy advocate. I knew he was a keeper when I visited his family in England for the first time, and saw he had put “peanut free” signs on their fridges and cupboards to let his entire family know about the seriousness of my allergy. He was a huge peanut butter fan before we met, and now he eats WOWBUTTER and SunButter regularly instead.
AB: As someone who grew up with food allergies, what’s the #1 tip you’d like to share with other parents trying to keep their little ones safe?
SC: Always advocate for your child, but work with your child so they learn how to advocate for themselves! As someone who has grown up with food allergies and who now works with children and young adults with food allergies, there are different approaches based on the stage of life your child is in. Food allergies are a journey, and many of the strategies are age dependent. However, I do recommend that when children are still quite young (age 2-3) that parents begin to teach them how to recognize their allergens, how to talk about their allergies,and begin to practice advocating for themselves.
AB: Any tips for young adults?
SC: When it comes to dating apps, listing your food allergies as a part of who you are can be a fun, cute and efficient way of getting the message across. Then you know that, even before your first date, your food allergies are on the table.
AB: What were your biggest challenges as a ‘food-allergic kid’? Now that you’re all grown up, have those challenges evolved?
SC: I had some anxiety around food allergies, related to worrying about whether or not I was having an allergic reaction. The psychological symptoms of an anxiety attack can overlap with food allergy symptoms so being clear about these symptoms and ensuring you are always vigilant is really important. At the same time, working through the anxiety to discern what it feels like to have an allergic reaction versus how it feels to be anxious is important. As time goes on, I would say it gets easier. The more you have new experiences—your first sleepover, first time at camp, first time ordering a meal at a restaurant on your own, moving away for college/university, going on a date, travelling with friends, getting your first job—all of these things help build up your resiliency because you have to keep facing things related to your food allergy. When you’ve had a positive experience, then you will be more likely to try new things again and to develop a newfound confidence.
AB: What are your thoughts on eating out?
SC: I think for young adults it is important to work on figuring out how to socialize in such a food-focused world. For example, I know which restaurants I feel comfortable eating at, so when my friends want to go out for dinner, I make sure to suggest the restaurant. I still always call ahead of time to discuss my allergies, and then double and triple check when I order the food and again before I eat the food. While I have a list of “go-to” eating spots, I also think it’s great for young adults with food allergies to learn to cook so that they can host dinner parties and feel safe eating the food that they make. If food allergy vigilance becomes part of social life, it can make things easier and can also raise awareness among social groups.
AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto?
SC: Pizzeria Libretto, Fat Pasha, Three Speed, Banjara
AB: Can you tell me why Pizzeria Libretto makes you feel safe?
SC: Pizzeria Libretto has wonderful communication. The servers know all of the ingredients on the menu, and they will introduce you to the manager if you want to follow up on questions. They also do not have peanuts (my allergen) at the restaurant, and minimal seafood which is prepared separately from other appetizers. They have many locations, so I tend to go to the ones where you can make reservations as I always note my allergy then and again when I get there. I also think a good tip is to not go to restaurants during busy times (Sunday Brunch, Saturday night dinner) but instead when it’s more low key and the communication and service will be better.
AB: You have a really cool job. Tell us what inspired you to become a Food Allergy Therapist.
SC: I felt there was a need for this service for kids and parents who are dealing with food allergy anxiety in Toronto, so I founded Carroll Counselling. I love food and socializing and family and friends and life, but I know that many of the kids I see in my practice are struggling to lead “normal” lives. I want to help kids do all the things they want to do, while also making sure they take their allergy seriously. I know what it’s like first hand, and can provide support to children and the family as a whole.
AB: And… final question: You’re generously providing AllergyBites discount cardholders with 1 FREE 90-minute therapy session. (Buy 2, get the 3rd free). What did you see in the AllergyBites program that made you want to team up with us?
SC: AllergyBites is an amazing resource; one that we need in Toronto. It’s the one-stop shop for families with food allergies, and I foresee it providing them with so many supports, fun things to do, and ways to enjoy life in an allergy safe world.
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
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