“A Major Part of Independence Is Learning From Your Mistakes”

An Independence Day guest post by Teen Advisory Group (TAG) member Zachary Brunet, who considers the meaning of independence in the context of growing up with food allergies. Zachary, age 16, is from Houston, TX. He is a junior in high school at Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science (PRISM) in Princeton, NJ.

What does independence mean to me? That’s a question I’ve been rolling around in my head for the past few weeks. I thought I had a good answer to it. I go to a boarding school. Doesn’t that automatically make me independent? Being able to live on my own? But what is it actually?

To me, being independent has a lot of ties to growing up. As we get older, we are expected to do more and more things on our own. I myself am still growing, and as such becoming more independent. My parents like to prepare me for everything, from sleepovers at friends’ houses to going to boarding school to becoming an adult. They recently introduced me to the idea of adult doctors. Apparently, when I turn 18, I need to go to doctors that treat adults. I can’t go to my pediatricians anymore. I legally need to take care of myself. It’s a little terrifying, entering that stage of life.

One of my major responsibilities in life is handling my allergies. I’m anaphylactic to milk, seafood, shellfish, and soy. It’s not that many food allergies, but they’re pretty major food groups. It’s a struggle to deal with them at boarding school, mostly because I’m the only one with allergies. Sure, there are people with restricted diets – vegans, lactose intolerant, pescetarians – but none as severe as mine.

Before boarding school, I mostly ate from packed lunches. For any meal away from home, I was prepared, whether it was just bringing bread to replace a restaurants burger roll, or bringing homemade pizza and cupcakes to a party, or bringing full meals to a friend’s house. Whenever I went on big trips, I would always have a snack bag. Something you should know about all of that: my parents were the ones that handled everything. They were the ones that were always prepared.

For the past few years my mom has been pushing me to learn directions and how to get from one place to another. Just a few months ago I was in New York City with my mom for my annual checkup and endoscopy for eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). This time, she asked me to lead us from Penn Station to Mount Sinai. Now, you might be thinking, well Zach, that sounds easy! Just follow the map and you’ll get there! The thing was, I needed to use the subway to get there. You can’t even take just one subway, you have to take the N, W, or R train uptown to Lexington Avenue, then the 4 or 6 train to 96th Street, then walk to East 98th Street. It’s an immensely complicated system, one that is very easy to get lost in. I’d like to say I handled it very well, but that would be a lie. I got us lost several times and I was so unsure about which side of the tracks to be on, or when we were supposed to get off.  We barely made it to our appointment, probably because my mom took over and got us there.

My parents, for the first time in my life, allowed me to stay home alone overnight. Now, you may be thinking, ah come on Zach! That’s nothing! I do that all the time! For me though, this was a big step. My parents trusted me to take care of our three dogs, cat, and myself. That meant I had to be responsible for four other living creatures besides the regular one. It’s a lot harder than our parents make it look, if we’re being honest here. Lots of food was going around between the five of us. Like, a LOT. I had to handle the specially made dog food that had to be placed in a certain position for each dog, feed the cat two different kinds of cat food, and then make a meal for myself. This happened twice a day. Another responsibility was to let the dogs out every few hours. These were all responsibilities that my parents usually took care off, but that I now had to do since they were gone. I was nervous heading into those couple of days, unsure if I could handle it on my own. My parents weren’t much help, as their biggest piece of advice was, “Don’t burn the house down!”. As the first day passed, I thought, “This is easy! I kinda like this!”. After the three days passed, I realized that I really did enjoy being on my own. Not just being on my own, like going to the store by myself, but handling the responsibilities as well.

Last school year, during my sophomore year, I had several incidents where I ingested dairy. The first time it happened was my first incident with dairy since I was a baby. I was shocked, and disappointed in myself. “How could I let this happen?” I thought. Thankfully, I didn’t have an anaphylactic reaction, but it was still a nerve-wracking experience. After that, I resolved to improve myself for the future and to not let it happen again. Unfortunately, it did happen again. And again. All because I thought I was safe. I didn’t pay attention to the food in front of me, didn’t ask the questions when I needed to. All in all, I am glad for these experiences. They were terrifying, yes, but I learned a lot from them. I feel that is a major part of independence, learning from your mistakes and moving past them. I know what I need to do to make sure I stay safe at school, and wherever else I might be.