Allergies can be deadly

My husband keeps poisoning our son ... and then he says, Whoops, I forgot!

By Cary Tennis
Published August 24, 2004 11:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am very happily married, with three wonderful children my husband and I are both besotted with. My husband and I treat each other with genuine respect and love, and we rarely fight. Except ...

My oldest child, N, has a severe allergy to nuts and peanuts. This didn't come as a big surprise to me, since my sister has a life-threatening peanut allergy, and I'm allergic to cashews and shellfish and lots of other stuff. It doesn't cramp my style all that much, but it does mean I've grown up understanding what food allergies feel like, and why it's important to take them seriously.

The way we learned about N's problem was when the two of them went camping when N was about 18 months old. I was home, too pregnant to sleep in a tent, but it was the first time I'd been away from him that long. I had not yet let him eat nuts. We had agreed, I thought, to wait until he was at least 2, and then introduce them at home where I could monitor him. (We knew at that point he was allergic to dairy and eggs.) Well, my husband gave him a peanut butter sandwich which he almost immediately threw up in the tent.

When he told me what had happened, I got Epi-pens in case of another exposure, and had my husband read some material about how a first reaction that severe was really bad news. I thought he understood.

Now N is almost 8. Two or three times a year since that first time, my husband has slipped up and let him eat nuts. It's always when I'm not there, since I am always on the alert. It's always dessert, because for my husband eating sweets is like a religious experience, or at snack time after church, which, ditto. Last night it happened while I was taking the baby for a walk while the three of them finished up at a restaurant. There were nuts in a chocolate chip cookie. What a concept! N instantly knew from a feeling he gets in his throat and intense nausea. These are symptoms of impending anaphylactic shock, but this time, again, it didn't cascade. Next time -- who knows?

I was and am infuriated. I let him have it, and he told me I am never to speak to him that way. So now, and every other time, in his eyes this is less a life and death issue, and more a matter of my dissing him.

Any sensible person would tell me to wait until the air had cleared, be grateful that N had dodged another bullet, and later discuss the matter with my husband dispassionately, since he's obviously feeling ashamed and attacked. And I do bring it up later -- it never stays dispassionate for long, but it always ends with my being persuaded that, this time, I've gotten through to him. Then it all happens again three or four months later.

I know that if the worst should happen, and from my research I have to say it's really not all that remote a possibility, it would ruin our lives forever.

So how do I handle this?

Going Nuts in a Life-or-Death Way

Dear Going Nuts,

So let me get this straight. Every now and then your husband poisons your son and then he says, whoops, sorry, I forgot not to poison my son. And then you yell at him and he tells you not to get so angry about it.

So, if you're Medea in the bath, mourning her children, what are you supposed to do, just calmly call the morgue? Whatever tone of voice you talked to him in was probably understandable. He's endangering your kid. Does he not understand that?

I think this is really serious. This isn't like your husband tossing the child up in the air or letting him sit on his lap and take the wheel of the car, which are seemingly dangerous things fathers like to do with their sons that drive mothers crazy but don't necessarily endanger their sons' lives. This borders on abuse, it seems to me. This could kill your son.

You have to stop your husband from ever giving the child anything with peanuts in it. The question is: How? I would say you're going to need a combination of strict new rules and behavioral insight. I would lay down some strict, unequivocal rules right away, and also consult a behavioral psychologist to get at the long-term issues involved. The rules: No store-bought cookies at all, ever, not even one. No cookies in restaurants ever, not even a bite. Only cookies you bake yourself. No peanut butter in the house, ever. Eliminate all chances for error. Be unrelenting and thorough.

Then, for the long term, get some help from a behavioral psychologist or the equivalent. Clearly, your husband does not consciously want to endanger your son. Yet I find it hard to imagine that these omissions are simply random. He's probably doing it for reasons he doesn't see or can't admit. By working with a psychologist, you and he could gain some insight into why this is happening.

Perhaps he's doing it to get back at you for shaming him. Or perhaps he's trying to prove to himself that his son does not really have a life-threatening peanut allergy at all. See, he doesn't really have a life-threatening peanut allergy! See, he's still breathing!


My wife and I were talking yesterday about how every now and then someone locks a baby in a car with the windows rolled up and the baby dies from the heat. If you were a father who did that, she said, how would you go on living with yourself? And I said, grimly, only half-joking, that you'd pretty much have to kill yourself. Perhaps your husband would see the situation in a fresh light if he were to compare the infinitesimal pleasure he derives from ignoring his son's allergy against the lifelong horror of being responsible for his death.

Cary Tennis

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