Creative Nonfiction Contemporary

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

There’s a broom in the corner of the kitchen with a pile of unbuttered popcorn (1) behind it, swept from where it’s spilling out of the trashcan. I’m making dinner and have already paused to wash my hands five times—they peel and ache.

Every night, the same meal. Steam-in-bag zucchini noodles (2) with half a can of Hunt’s diced tomatoes (3). A few of the six foods that I can still eat.

The microwave door is left propped open as I wash my hands until I can’t feel the handle stuck to my palms. I lift the faucet lever with my grimy fingers, and press it off with my elbow when I’m done.

Carefully, I pour the strips of zucchini into a bowl, ensuring they don’t touch the top of the cut, flimsy steam bag that’s curling back in on itself. But they slide out too fast. It could have touched the outside of the bag. Contaminated.

It’s fine. I didn’t see them touch. They probably didn’t.

And up pops a scene of me eating the contaminated noodles, going into anaphylactic shock, desperately searching for the EpiPen in my bag while trying to call 911 but the operator can’t decipher the words squeaking out of my swollen throat.

The imagined feeling carries back to the kitchen and makes it genuinely difficult to swallow. Throat thick, heart beating too fast. Any risk is too much, I decide. The presence of the threat means that it certainly will happen. I know it, even if I don’t want to believe it. An unshakeable knowing in my gut that my brain can’t argue with.

I trash the noodles. They sink and fizz into the overflowing kernels, releasing the rancid smell of wet, stale popcorn.

Guilt about wasting more food looms. But I can’t eat it. And I can’t offer it to my brother without the shame of admitting that I’m getting worse.

But I need to eat. It’s been too long and my body hurts and my heart has been beating irregularly, with palpitations at least once a day. If I don’t eat, my body will gnaw at my heart, and I don’t know if it’s strong enough to handle that again.

Then the intrusive imagery of me having a heart attack. My body emulates the crushing pain in my chest, tight breath, and sharpness shooting up my left arm. No matter what I do, something will go wrong. I am not safe.


Everything from childhood looks like a sign or symptom in retrospect. Like dumping my button collection on the floor and finding a new way to sort them every night. Like pulling out strands of hair until I’d find a black follicle.

Like the intrusive thoughts that met me in bed before sleep, my hands clasped in the dark—a second internal monologue interrupting my prayer with curses. I begged for it to stop. I begged God not to listen to it. What were the ramifications of telling God to fuck Himself? What kind of person would think something like that? Surely, something evil festered in me. Surely, I would burn in hell.


Food became a source of physical trauma early on too, sending me into fits of screaming until I threw up all over the carpet, landing me in the hospital. I was taught to be careful, to engage in little rituals like checking nutrition labels for peanuts, and making sure I had my EpiPen in my bag. Food was dangerous, and if I took one misstep, I’d die. I already had a fragile body, that I also learned to monitor for symptoms, so I could be put on the nebulizer if my lungs stopped working.

Though introduced to the fight with my own body, to my duty to protect it from threats, I had my mom to stand between me and the outside world. She fought with the insurance company and doctors for years until we finally found a combination of medications that worked for me, that allowed me to lead a relatively normal childhood.


At 16, I developed mystery health problems.

I went to every doctor. Appointment with PCP, sent to a specialist, wait for the appointment, pay for that appointment, do their test, wait for the results, make another appointment to hear the results—they didn’t find anything—go back to PCP and try again. A tedious, lengthy process. My condition worsened until I was in constant pain, unable to think, suffering from simply existing.

Doctors were useless. A few accused me of making myself sick (my mom got accused of this too in the hospital with me as a toddler.) 

I’m the one who connected it to allergies. After reading countless research articles about immunology in bed, elimination diets, and dry fasting for unsafe lengths of time. After breaking down one night (at 52 hours of no food) and having 3 Oreos with a glass of milk and spending the whole night and next morning vomiting and shitting blood.

I went to an allergist to request a full allergy panel, such a large test that when I got it as a kid, they held me down and pricked my entire back into hives. The allergist refused, looking at my raw, cracked, peeling face and bleeding, immobile hands, and told me that my symptoms weren’t caused by allergies.

It pushed me over my threshold for tolerating idiot doctors. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be helped, but that they refused to help me. After enough obsessive research, logging my food, controlling my environment—turning my life into a highly scrutinized and clinical experiment—I was certain.

Instead of defeatedly caving, I demanded he test me. He humored me with a smaller test for only the most common allergens, eight quick scratches on the inside of my forearm. As predicted, peanuts came back as fatal, like they had my whole life. But five new ones came back as severe. And another that I should avoid.

I was right.

Rewarded for overanalyzing and obsessing. Though, of course I was obsessed with the thing that took over and destroyed the entirety of myself and my life. And does it count as over-analysis if it’s the right amount of analysis to get you an answer?


I cut the known allergens from my already limited diet. Rather, I didn’t add them back in. The whole last month, I only had eaten apples and oranges, and only drank water and black coffee.

I started an autoimmune biologic, newly released from clinical trials, to manage the severe skin symptoms. It helped significantly. Still constant pain, but duller, not debilitating. How could I complain? Things had appeared hopeless, and I accepted my fate of never recovering—I knew that this mystery illness would either keep getting worse until it killed me, or I killed myself. It felt like a miracle that things were livable, manageable. That I had a chance at life.

But the underlying pain hinted that something was still wrong, a piece of the puzzle still missing.


I was terrified of adding foods back in.

Some bits of allergy research ingrained themselves in me. Like that it’s possible to be allergic to pretty much anything. Absolutely anything can be a life-threatening risk, and I had been treating everything as such for so long.

Since I hadn’t been tested for the full allergy panel, I didn’t know if I had more undiscovered allergies, and I didn’t know which foods were explicitly safe for me to eat. So, I still needed to keep track. To monitor. The behaviors from before pin-stuck in me.

Finally, finally, I achieved safety. I needed to preserve it. I couldn’t go back.

Also, it didn’t feel urgent to add in foods. I savored my newfound health. I had my few safe foods and didn’t need to challenge them. Any remaining issues were inconsequential—I pretended it was fine, tricked myself into believing so, and moved on.


Now, I’ve moved back home from campus. Didn’t last too long there. The kind of trauma I got from it wasn’t unique (the kind a lot of women get at college. It’s fine. I’m fine.) But it was enough to disconnect me from my body again. It was enough to remind me that self-isolation is probably for the best, that the worst-case scenario does come true.

I moved back to a safe space. Except this space isn’t safe anymore either. Growing up, this was a peanut-free household. But my family has grown accustomed to my absence.

My brother uses peanut butter to make protein smoothies, leaving drops of it on the counter beneath the food processor. He holds the jar of peanut butter and scoops with the side of his palm against the rim, coating his hand with oils— he grabs the cabinet door to put it back, pulls the silverware drawer, touches the sink handle. Everything is peanuts.

Why should they have to accommodate me? I shouldn’t even be home. I should be fine.

It’s fine that they don’t, I can accommodate myself. I wear nitrile gloves to take out the trash, I wear a mask to do the dishes in case of splash, I do my own dishes separately in case the leaky, 20-year-old dishwasher doesn’t sanitize thoroughly enough. I assume that every surface is contaminated, and have to wash my hands after touching anything—and let my hands air-dry, because I don’t even trust the towels anymore.

I don’t know how it devolved so drastically, so rapidly. I can run through a list of events leading up to the current moment, but the current moment still feels too bizarre to be explained.

But for now, I have to try again, have to make dinner without ruining it and throwing it out. Have to stop overanalyzing every feeling in my body and convincing myself that I’m dying. Just long enough to be careful, attentive. I can’t lose these few of my last six safe-foods.

July 06, 2023 13:53

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


18:08 Jul 09, 2023

I emphasize with this writer as food allergies are becoming more and more common. Well written.


Show 0 replies
Audrey Dimmel
00:54 Oct 29, 2023

As a survivor of OCD (not cured, but I've made the resolution to survive,) what I wish people knew about this condition is that it is maybe the most trivialized and misrepresented of all conditions. Y'all. This isn't about slightly off-center objects or cleanliness to a fault. OCD is, and I truly mean this, hell. And I didn't claw my way out of hell to hear my pain used as a punchline. A sad, but oh-so-important, story. Thank you.


Show 0 replies
John K Adams
22:49 Jul 13, 2023

This horror show reads like a case study. Only being in the first person, it is personal and the pain your character (hopefully fictional) endures is excruciating. Well written. It feels real. I hope it isn't.


Audrey Dimmel
00:42 Oct 29, 2023

As someone with OCD, I can confirm—it 100% is. And it can absolutely get this bad and worse. Needless to say, every time I hear someone say "oh that really triggers my OCD lol," I have to stop myself from uppercutting their jaw.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
19:32 Jul 09, 2023

Yikes! So sorry anyone has to live like this to survive. Thanks for liking my tacos story but no tacos for you.


Show 0 replies

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.