Poor Liddle Thing

I don’t know how many friends Rod Liddle could count among the food sensitive community before he unveiled his latest opinion to Spectator readers, but I suspect that figure has declined considerably, if the response that appeared in my Twitter timeline is anything to go by.

He rounds up many – those with dyslexia, ADHD, ME, their parents – but it is his swipe at the free from community I’ll focus on. A response to his scepticism of the existence of food sensitivities is already taken care of – and I’m glad that blogger Becca Biscuit did so, and so well, as she eloquently explains the procedures, forward planning, struggles, pain and much more that those with allergies and intolerances can go through, in a way that someone who can eat anything (eg me) never possibly could.

Liddle’s claimed scepticism of food sensitivities stems from his observation that coeliac and suchlike weren’t around when he was a kid. I’m glad of this schoolboy error, because it demonstrates his breathtaking ignorance so perfectly. That rates of allergies and coeliac have increased, that testing protocols have improved, that we have such improved awareness of these conditions that people are more likely to be seek help … these are some of the reasons food rarely harmed when Liddle was just out of nappies but does now, and a bright twelve-year-old child with an interest in science could have guessed it to be so.

‘All in the Head’ is OK
I’m not especially interested in those who put food sensitivities down to neuroticism, hyperchondria, psychological quirks: it being ‘all in the head’. But I am fascinated that so many who do hold this opinion then use it against the sufferers, as a stick to beat them with.

I’ve said so before, mean to blog on it properly some day, but will say so again in the meantime: whether your food sensitivity is wholly physiological or wholly psychological or somewhere in between, it is still just as valid a problem. Physiological does not ‘trump’ psychological in any moral sense. A perceived problem with food is still a problem with food – even if it’s just a loss of confidence in food – and that deserves the same respect and treatment as any other problem with food.

I think people’s understanding of mental health and psychological issues is improving – and most wouldn’t dream of slamming someone with clinical depression, or taunting them with “It’s all in your head!” – but we’re still behind when it comes to food aversion and other psychologically mediated adverse responses to food.

For this attitude to change it requires everyone in the food sensitivity community to come ‘on board’. Presently – it’s not.

I think this partly because, when I have tentatively suggested to some self-diagnosed symptomatic food sensitives in the past that there could be a psychological dimension to what they’re experiencing, they’ve often become defensive, in a way that nobody has when I’ve put it to them that they may have, say, oral allergy syndrome or coeliac disease.

Why? I presume because physiological is somehow perceived as more valid, less shameful and ‘better’ than psychological. With physiological food sensitivity, your body has ‘failed’ you; with psychological food sensitivity – where you are somatising symptoms – in a sense, it is you who have ‘failed’ it. We don’t want that to be true, or for it to be our ‘fault’.

My point: it’s okay if you’re ‘imagining’ it. You’re no less important; you’re equally deserving of investigation, treatment, help with management – and indeed respect. But you have to – everyone has to – believe that too. Rejecting the possibility or getting upset merely belies how much you want it to be physical, how much you don’t want to have a foot or even a toe in the ‘psychological’ camp.

Self-diagnosis (whether accurate or not) and psychological responses to food are wholly understandable and perhaps inevitable in a world of increased awareness of food sensitivity, obsession with diet and weight loss, and nutritional information (and misinformation) overload. In a sense it’s the price we pay for where we are in terms of treatment, diagnosis, potential future cures and so on.

But distancing yourself from this emotional element of food sensitivity gives power to Liddle and the Mail and the other finger-pointers who target the free from community when the whim takes them.

Because, like bullies, they often pick out the weakest. And those who don’t have a clear answer to their health problems are the ‘weakest’, here. Without an orthodox biopsy-proven diagnosis of coeliac, without an Epipen as evidence of their life-threatening allergy, but still unwell, and still struggling to understand why they’re unwell, they’re told that they’re fantasising and made to feel deluded, and by the rest of us, often subtly, that we are not them, cannot possibly be them, and that we don’t want to be like them – thus keeping them in their position of weakness.

It’s time to stop this. Stopping it would help disarm the attackers. It will help render articles such as Liddle’s senseless and pointless – and, hopefully, prevent them being written or published in the first place.

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