Chocolate or vanilla?

Most people know their answer to that question right away, and most people celebrated Valentine’s Day with the sweets of their preferred kind. For me, however, it was a frustrating experience that shed light on something I usually try to avoid.

As someone whose primary obsessive phobia is vomiting, I grew up as an extreme picky eater. Only in the past several months have I truly been able to eat in a more conventional way, even though I am still unwilling to try meat or fish. I’ve been mixing foods together, something that was always hard for me as a kid, and I’m also trying lots of new foods, including cuisine from around the world.

The one thing I never had a problem with was dessert, at least until I was diagnosed with a severe allergy to nuts. As a kid, I knew I had the allergy and avoided nuts, but because of how I expressed this knowledge, it was hard for the people around me to believe it until I experienced anaphylactic shock. Now that I know what that feels like, I’ve gotten more paranoid about the foods I eat, which makes a previously uncomplicated area of my eating life quite the burden.

On Valentine’s Day, many people eat sweets. I’m a chocoholic, and I love just about every kind of chocolate. Other flavors, however, can sometimes come off really strong. I have a strong sense of taste, and it can be hard for me to overlook a different flavor when I’m the kind of person who can tell the colors of peppers and Goldfish crackers apart by taste alone.

My new workplace is the kind of place where people really, truly care, and they try their hardest to provide an option for me to eat even though I’m the only nut-free person there. On Valentine’s Day, I got an email that there were going to be nut-free desserts at the office party. I went and checked it out, picked up some different flavors and thanked my coworker profusely.

I appreciated it with all my heart. But at the same time, I wished there was some way for me to say that there are some foods that I just don’t like.

The same thing happened to me for my birthday not long ago. It was so considerate for people to think of me, and to accommodate the allergy they know about and the OCD they don’t. But it was still hard for me to pick at the food and smile and squeal over it when really I was thinking about the chocolate cupcakes that had a risk of nut contamination, the ones everyone else but me could eat.

I ended up leaving the room after a long period of awkwardness, internally chiding myself for having preferences. After all, how can I say that I just don’t like something, if it fits the requirements of both my OCD and my food allergy?

I feel like I don’t have the right to express a preference in food in these situations for many reasons. Saying I don’t like something makes me feel selfish, or like I’m hurting others on purpose. As a kid, I wouldn’t even put the food on my plate, and I had a lot of excuses for it - if I was with non-Jewish friends, for example, I’d simply say that the food wasn’t kosher, and that was enough to confuse most kids into just letting me do what I wanted. As an adult, I tend to find some way to flee, all the while beating myself up on the inside.

Why can’t I just eat these things, and pretend to like them? I wondered as I sat at my desk picking at a vanilla cupcake with overly sweet frosting, a kind gift yet one that I was having trouble actually swallowing. Of course I thanked my co-worker immensely for thinking of me and getting me something nut-free, but there was some horrible part of me that almost wished she hadn’t, if only to avoid this feeling.

I find that adults can be very skeptical and un-accepting of the times I don’t eat something not because I can’t, but because I don’t want to. At my old job, a coworker once started reading me all the ingredients of things off of the menu and asking me about each individual one until I bolted for the bathroom, staying there until I knew the conversation would change focus. I’ve been asked all kinds of questions, everything from what kind of diet I’m on to why I’m being difficult, and people often don’t stop until I repeat several times that I’m happy with what I ordered, even if it’s just a side dish.

Until recently, I would declare I didn’t like a food before I even tried it. Now, I have a rule that I give myself three tries. There are several foods that have failed my test: pasta salad, quinoa, mushrooms, mixed greens, farro, and more. It’s not that I obsess about these foods, and I can even eat foods that have been around them. And it’s not that they could hurt me because of my allergy. It’s just that I honestly don’t like them, and I find myself at a loss for words whenever anyone asks me why I’m not eating.

I’m still trying to work my way through this problem. I don’t know if it’s a lack of confidence to express my preferences, a sense of shame for not being able to fully accept the kindness of others around me in the times when I do receive it, or some combination of both. It might be a fear that others will think of me as difficult or, like a waitress told me in front of my coworkers last year, that I’d be judged as a “picky little kid.”

For now, I’ve got a makeshift solution: politely accept the food, smile as much as I can, pick around it to make it look like I ate, and dispose of it in a place where no one will see or know. But I can’t fake the enthusiasm I have when there are chocolate nut-free cupcakes or some other food I really, truly love. It’s something I have to work with every day, and something I hope I can either overcome or learn to live with in a better way. But for now, I’ll head to my drawer and enjoy a treat of my own that I brought for the occasion, and I’ll try to treat myself with the kindness of my coworkers this Valentine’s Day.


Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.