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Passion Pit's Xander Singh Discusses Living With A Peanut Allergy

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Xander Singh, the keyboardist for alternative rock band Passion Pit, discusses his peanut allergy and how it has affected him when he's on tour with his band and in daily life.

In Part I, he talks about first getting diagnosed, gives advice to kids being teased for their allergy, and talks about how he's learned to cope with his allergy over time.

How old were you when you first were diagnosed with a peanut allergy?

I was about two years old, and the way that my mom has told me the story is that I was sitting at the table with my sister, who is about three years older than me, and she was eating a peanut butter sandwich and I just kind of grabbed it out of her hands and started chomping down on it.

My parents were just like, “Oh that’s cute!” and then my face blew up like twice the size and I stopped breathing and very quickly it became not so cute, so I think they just loaded me full of Benadryl and drove me straight to the ER. After that it was pretty apparent that me and peanuts don’t mix very well.

How severe is your peanut allergy?

It’s a full-blown anaphylaxis if I eat peanuts. But I’m not sure if it touches my skin - I’d probably break out in hives or something. But I remember in middle school I had to eat lunch in an art classroom with the four other kids in the school who had peanut allergies, and there was one girl in my grade who had severe peanut allergies. She couldn’t even smell it or she would go into anaphylactic shock.

I found at times that just the anxiety of thinking I might have eaten a peanut has triggered physical reactions to it as well. But yeah, I pretty much just have standard anaphylaxis. Luckily most every time I’ve had a reaction, I’ve had an EpiPen on me or been close to a hospital.

Were your parents really concerned when you were a child? What precautions did they take to protect you?

My parents never kept peanut butter in the house, which I always kind of felt bad about that growing up that we couldn’t have peanut butter in the house. I always envisioned when I was at a friend’s house that my sister and my parents would have a big peanut butter party while I was gone, but that never actually happened.

They were also really good about informing my friends’ parents about my allergy, and always made sure I had my EpiPen and that the adults around me knew what to do in the case that I did have a reaction. They took care of the standard precautions.

Did you have any precautions at school?

When I was at elementary school, I had to eat in another classroom for a couple of years, but once I reached middle school and high school, I was on my own. I feel now that, in general, the whole world has become more informed about severe food allergies.

I remember in middle school some kid found out that I had a severe peanut allergy, and kids weren’t really aware of how severe it was. I remember one time this kid threw a Reese’s peanut butter cup at me and thought it was funny. I was like “No! I could die! Like, you could have just killed me!” But now I definitely see that there’s more of a worldwide understanding of how severe peanut allergies and other food allergies are.

Another thing I’ve encountered is that I can’t really go to baseball games because there are peanuts everywhere, and then there are bars that serve peanuts and people throw the shells on the ground, so I can’t really go to those. But I know some baseball teams will have designated peanut-free games, where they won’t serve peanuts. They’ll have 2 or 3 games in the season where they won’t serve peanuts. So it seems like the world is smartening up to it a little.

Also in restaurants a lot of people cook with peanut oil because its cheaper and healthier and a lot of restaurants are starting to put that on the menu. But it still has a long way to go, because you still constantly hear stories about people eating french fries cooked in peanut oil and having reactions.

I remember when I was about 13 there was this big news story about a girl in high school who went to a restaurant and they used peanut butter to thicken their chili and didn’t put it on the menu, and that’s something that I hadn’t ever really heard of and she actually died and there was a big law suit, and I remember that being a big story. I think after that, and more things like, that people are starting to take food allergies a bit more seriously, but we still have a ways to go, especially with airlines.

A lot of people in our community have expressed the fact that their children are getting bullied or teased for having a peanut allergy. Is this something you ever had to deal with?

There are certain incidents that happened when I was growing up. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily bullied for having a food allergy, but some kids might look at it as a weakness, which is generally really stupid. But most 9 and 10-year-old boys are really stupid. When you’re younger you don’t realize the gravity of what you do, because most kids are never in a position to seriously threaten or injure somebody.

What I used to do is just make sure that everyone was really informed. I used to be embarrassed by my peanut allergy to some extent, and in some situations I still am. A lot of times I’m at a restaurant or a bakery, and I always ask if they use peanut products or if anything is cooked in peanut oil, and the majority of the time waiters will say “Let me go check!” and then they’ll go check with the chef and come back with an answer. But there are other times, especially in fast-paced restaurants or bakeries, when people will seem kind of annoyed that you’re asking that. And, when you think about it, it’s the stupidest thing in the world. Just take 10 seconds out of your day to make sure that you’re not about to accidentally kill someone just by being lazy.

What advice do you have for kids?

The best advice I can give to kids is just, no matter if you’re embarrassed by a food allergy or whatever, just realize that there’s nothing more important than keeping yourself alive through your daily life, whether you’re just trying to enjoy a cookie or eat lunch. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and if people give you a dirty look for having to go check what kind of oil they use then just realize that that’s incredibly stupid and ignorant and you just have to disregard those people and look out for yourself.

It’s also good to make sure people are informed about the severity of your allergy, because there are still a lot of people that don’t quite get it. When you look at it, it does seem a little weird that a tiny peanut could kill you in 15 to 20 minutes. It’s weird that that’s a serious, life-threatening danger in some people’s lives, but it’s very real and you have to look out for yourself.

Something I learned growing up is just that the best defense is really yourself and always constantly being cautious. There are certain times when I’ve ordered food at restaurant and forgot to ask if there were nuts in it.

A few years ago I was at a restaurant in Austin and I ordered a veggie burger and took a bite and immediately realized that there was peanut butter in it, and it was one of those things that I wouldn’t have ever thought a veggie burger would have peanut butter in it. That was a moment when, because I wasn’t cautious, it nearly cost me my life.

That was a big turning point for me. I lucked out in that instance and decided I was never going to make that mistake again. The best advice I could give is that you always have to be on guard and your best defense is yourself.

Has it gotten easier to cope with your allergy over time?

In a sense it’s gotten both easier, in some respects, and harder. It’s gotten easier because I’ve grown up and learned to take care of myself and not put myself in positions where I’d be at risk. But then, with restaurants becoming more health conscious and starting to use a lot of nut products, it’s taken a while for me to recognize that that’s becoming a more common practice.

Also, you start to take things more seriously like cross-contamination of utensils. For instance, there’s a gelato shop down the street and I noticed there were some flavors in the display case with peanuts in it and without thinking I got a chocolate ice cream, and came in and started eating it. I don’t think it had nuts in it or anything, but I started to get an uneasy feeling and immediately stopped eating it and threw it out.

The hardest thing about having a nut allergy is constantly having to be on guard and to recognize particular things. Like maybe a place doesn’t clean their ice cream scoops well enough.

Another difficult thing is that, growing up, I feel like your parents just look out for you and take care of you, to the point where you don’t need to think about it. I remember when we went out to eat my mom would just take care of it, and she used to order me special chocolate from a special company called Vermont Nut-Free Chocolate, which didn’t use any nut products in their whole factory.

For me, it was tough when I graduated high school and I didn’t have my parents looking after me. I had to learn all the prevention strategies that had to become second nature. Now, for example, I don’t eat Twix or any chocolates that may contain peanuts. I stay away. But it took me a long time to develop that habit.

Then, in certain respects, it has gotten easier. More and more you encounter things that have been labeled. You come across labels that say this product has been processed in a factory containing peanuts.

It’s cool that people are putting that out there, so that they give you reassurance. Its important because one of the hardest things about having a peanut allergy is the general anxiety and uneasiness of not knowing where the food has been and that at any moment someone could have dropped a nut in something, so that’s one of the more difficult things.

But it’s good to see that the world is becoming more aware of the severity of food allergies. Luckily some companies and people are taking measures to not only warn people but also to set their mind at ease.

Click here to read Part II.

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