Crazy Acorn Lady – Making Life Difficult for the Rest of Us

It read like an April Fool’s Day joke. Yesterday, the Toronto Star ran a story about a Woodbridge woman who wanted oak trees near her sons’ school cut down because her two boys are allergic to tree nuts.

The obvious rebuttals come to mind:

– acorns are not food, there’s no plausible reason for teenaged boys to be eating them
– they’re teenagers, not toddlers, and if allergic, should know enough to avoid oak trees during acorn season
– um… don’t roll around under oak trees?

On one hand, you’ve gotta feel really sorry for her kids who have enough stress dealing with real allergens (the article says they’re allergic to peanuts and their school – indoors – is nut-free), and now have to deal with being the spawn of crazy acorn lady.

But there’s also the risk now that the very real concerns regarding allergies – both of her kids and the rest of us – won’t be taken seriously because of the over-reaction and helicopter parenting of one woman who made the news.

Living with allergies, especially when it’s to things that other people enjoy and even take for granted, is really difficult and is the epitome of “not fun”. Being the kid who not only can’t eat peanut butter but who also forces the other kids to not eat peanut butter just by existing is like putting a big red target on yourself when it comes to being misunderstood.

And while schools are taking the peanut issue seriously, other allergens and allergic reactions are still the butt of jokes, ignorance and insensitivity.

Me, I’m allergic to perfume. I wasn’t always, I used to wear various fragrances, but around 2002 or so, I developed multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and now have reactions to perfume, cleaning products, new carpeting, chlorine and cigarette smoke.

My body reacts in the form of a migraine. Commonly known as an ice-pick migraine, it comes on fast (within 45 – 60 seconds of initial exposure), these headaches are pinpoint in size, and feel like, well, what I’m guessing is like an icepick being driven into the forehead. Extra fun is that these perfume-induced headaches come with other surprises, such as loss of verbal function.

Remember Serene Branson, the CBS news reporter who started speaking gibberish during a live clip in 2011? She didn’t have a stroke, like everyone thought – it was a migraine. And I’ve had the same thing happen to me after just a few seconds of exposure to a strong perfume. Greg sat by horrified one day as I tried to say “Let’s move, that’s guy’s cologne is giving me a headache,” but could only say gibberish and make weird gurgled noises until we got away from the cologne. It was damned scary.

But for people who wear fragrance, and who don’t suffer stroke-like symptoms when they come into contact with perfume, they think I’m being a princess or over-reacting.

We live in an older apartment building and have the unfortunate luck of being near the exhaust vent for the building’s shared laundry room (as in, it’s about 10 feet from the bedroom window). We wouldn’t have taken the apartment if we had known this to be the case, but we deal with it by mostly keeping the windows closed during the day. The laundry room closes at 10pm, so we open our windows at night. It’s an inconvenience, but one we have managed to work around without too much fuss. Earlier this year, building management decided to make the laundry room 24-hours and after a night of the worst migraines ever (it was May and stinking hot, no AC yet; closing the windows just wasn’t an option), I had to lobby to get the old hours reinstated.

I wasn’t asking for special consideration, just a reversion to the old hours we had had for 20 years. The fight that I got from building management eventually forced me to contact the Landlord Tenant Board to help enforce my rights. (It’s called “reasonable enjoyment of premises”, and includes being able to open a window without being poisoned.) But even when I offered contact info for my allergist, my neurologist, and a stack of information about perfume/chemical allergies, I was still treated like a shrill wingnut.(They eventually agree to revert to the old hours, but it took a lot of threats and insistence on my part.)

Even as recently as last week, the building manager cornered me in the lobby and tried to bully me into agreeing to the laundry room to be open overnight on the weekends, and rolled her eyes at me condescendingly when I (AGAIN!!!) listed off all the reasons why that couldn’t happen and offered contact info for my various doctors.

If you don’t live with allergies, it’s obviously not something that you think about much. And having to accommodate the allergies of others by not doing something you like (eating peanut butter, doing laundry at certain times, wearing perfume) can seem like a real pain and inconvenience. But in many cases, it really is all about life and death, or at least medical conditions that take priority. Do my neighbours need to do laundry at 3am more than I need to not have my apartment filled with toxic chemicals? I don’t think so.

But me asking and expecting other people to respect my health makes me the demanding crank. Which is why I get kind of upset when people who are actual demanding cranks make up extra reasons to do so. I am not, after all, asking that my building’s laundry room be shut down completely. I am not trying to enforce a ban on scented products (although that would be lovely… I still don’t get why people want to smell like mango), I’m simply asking for (and expecting) fair consideration.

Acorn lady is pushing the envelope beyond what her kids actually need to be safe and healthy. And in the process, she makes all of us, every person with an allergy who has asked for accommodation or some form of special treatment (even if our lives depend on it) also look like demanding cranks.

I’m certainly not saying that people with allergies shouldn’t be accommodated. No body NEEDS peanut butter sandwiches. Nobody NEEDS scented laundry detergent or body spray. And the allergic do NEED to stay alive. But I do think that asking for things that are unreasonable or unrealistic, particularly when there is no real risk, makes it that much more difficult for anyone needing special consideration for their allergies to be taken seriously.

So many people make up allergies as well (ask any chef about making menu changes to accommodate an “allergy” that was really just a dislike of an certain ingredient), that it becomes hard for those with genuine life-threatening allergies to get a break.

I’m sure the woman asking for those oak trees to be cut down thinks she is doing what is best for her allergic kids, but she does them no favours by over-reacting. She needs to save her efforts for the many, many hurdles her kids face in the rest of their lives and ensure that they are safe from the genuinely dangerous allergens they might encounter. And she needs to remember what a hard fight it is for the allergic to be accommodated and taken seriously by people who do not understand what we go through.