The Best Day of My Life

How a life-changing day triggered an unexpected revelation about happiness

One week ago, I had the best day of my life. Here’s the story behind it.

When I was 3 years old, my parents fed me ice cream that contained nuts and I immediately had an allergic reaction that had to be treated with Benadryl. Desperate to understand that episode more and also knowing our family history of food allergies, they took me to an allergist. After some tests, the doctor concluded I was allergic to all nuts and prescribed me an epi-pen. That epi-pen became an accessory I carried with me everywhere for decades. 

Terrified, my parents now had a new thing to worry about on top of all of the other normal parental concerns. How do you teach a young child that certain foods can kill them? How do you convey to teachers, camp counselors, and babysitters the severity of the condition? Food allergies in the early 2000’s, when I was growing up, were less common and not treated with the same level of care as they are today. The fact that I’m still here relatively scratch-free is a testament to the meticulous work they did. 

As I became a teenager, the responsibility of caring for my nut allergies shifted from my parents to me. Anytime I’d go out to eat, I’d have to confirm menu items didn’t have nuts. At friends’ houses, I’d likewise have to clarify that home-cooked dishes didn’t contain any. Worst of all were all the scenarios where nobody really knew what was in a cake bought from the store and I’d have to quietly choose not to participate repeating to myself “better safe than sorry.” I missed out on tons of experiences. The joys of the flavors of nuts, the spontaneity of trying out foods and not caring whats in them … I could go on. 

However, when someone would say to me “Oh I feel so bad for you that you can’t eat peanut butter,” I’d gently shrug and reply “I don’t really know what I’m missing so it’s really not so bad!” And that was the truth—I didn’t know what I was missing. This was just the way I lived my life–wallet, keys, epi-pen. For the most part, the allergy didn’t affect me or my happiness. 

Then, one winter my mother heard of a specialized allergy center for kids called the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. She got me an appointment there and they welcomed me with open arms despite the fact that I was 21 years old and very much not a child. There, after conducting some skin tests and blood work, they believed it was possible I could tolerate hazelnuts and almonds. They were doing cutting edge research that identified a link between seasonal allergies and food allergies where protein structures are similar and that in some cases, a seasonal allergy could lead to a false positive with a food allergy. They decided they wanted me to do a food challenge where I would come to their offices armed with epi pens and benadryl galore and try small, controlled amounts of hazelnuts and almonds. 

After a few months of waiting, I nervously went and tried the foods. Nutella was our vehicle for the hazelnuts test which I immediately fell in love with. After waiting a few minutes and seeing no reaction, they suggested I try even more. No reaction. Next, we did almond butter and a similar experience followed. I instantly loved it and had no reaction. My mom felt pure joy seeing me enjoy foods we had previously thought were deadly as my dad shed a tear. It was a beautiful day.

Over the next year, I made up for lost time and ate loads of Nutella as almonds became a daily staple in my life. Suddenly those conversations at restaurants became more complicated - “Are there nuts in this? But Hazelnuts and almonds are ok …” I was happy to navigate those awkward situations because I could eat those delicious foods!

Then after some time, I went back to the institute for some follow up testing. They now believed I could tolerate peanuts. Again, I did a test in their office, yet I had a reaction to the peanuts. First of all, I hated them–peanuts have such a distinct smell that my entire childhood symbolized “DEATH - STAY AWAY.” Overcoming that PTSD is something I’m still working on. The reaction I had was similar to a seasonal allergy attack—sneezing, runny nose, and teary eyes. However, my throat did not seize up and I didn’t need an epi-pen so the Doctor concluded I passed the test and could safely eat peanuts. Another nut knocked off the list. I was 22. 

I didn’t go back to the allergist for three more years. Based on our last meeting, she was not seeing data that would justify I had outgrown my allergies to the remaining nuts—cashews, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, and macadamia nuts. I had become bearish on my chances to make anymore progress, but my mom insisted on going back in for a checkup. So I did. The nurses conducted a number of skin tests on my arm for all of the remaining nuts. No reactions at all. The doctor, examining my results, concluded it was time to do the final food challenge. So we set a date to try cashews, walnuts, and macadamia nuts in the office. (Cashews and Pistachios and likewise Walnuts and Pecans are sister nuts meaning tolerance of indicates tolerance of the other in most cases). 

At a crisp 25 and a half years old, I stepped foot once again into the children’s allergy institute. How ridiculous, I thought. One by one, I tried the nuts in controlled amounts. Cashews, no reaction, delicious. Macadamia nuts, no reaction and quite the creamy flavor. Finally, walnut butter with graham crackers, no reaction and yummy. After two hours of monitoring, the doctor came in with a certificate and an official piece of hospital paper indicating what had just happened. “You officially have no more food allergies, Zach!” she said as she handed me my cheesy, kid-friendly certificate saying so. The impact of those words took a few moments to sink in. 

As we started cleaning our area and leaving the hospital for the last time, I felt my eyes start to well up. I kept rereading the certificate over and over as the words started to land. No more food allergies. No more epi-pen… We stepped into the elevator and began the descent. I could barely hold back tears and as luck would have it the elevator stopped on every floor between 11 and Lobby. Finally, we reached the lobby and exited to the street. Yep… here come the waterworks. I started crying like a baby. My mom embraced me and I cried and cried. I couldn’t believe what had just transpired. It was as if a 200lb weight had been lifted off of my neck. Decades … decades of dealing with this condition and it was all over. In my head, I had all the experiences of food allergies flashing through my mind. The lengths to which my parents went to accommodate and make me feel safe. The peanut-free table I sat at in elementary school... The hospital visits from adverse reactions… the birthday cakes I missed out on at parties … the other food experiences I had to avoid. All in one moment, it hit me—it was all over. 

A week later, I’m still unpacking what had happened on that beautiful Thursday. I’ve started incorporating these previously forbidden foods into my diet every day. Snacking on cashews, pistachio ice cream, pecan biscotti, cookie dough ice cream with walnuts, macadamia nuts for fun because why not. But something eery has been surprising me about this new chapter of my life—how normal it now feels. I’ve gotten used to this new reality and the novelty has worn off. As I eat these nuts, I am still feeling immense gratitude for my new reality, but I feel it diminishing. I feel myself getting used to it. 

To summarize, one of my biggest dreams came true. A week later and life feels almost the same as before. What does that mean? It reminds me of those cliche stories you hear from rich people who say “money won’t make you happy.” Think you’ll be happy when you sell your company for $100m? Or when you get that house you’ve always wanted? Or that car you’ve dreamed of? It never does happen because all we have is the present. No future accomplishment or dream or success will make you happy. Not even the absolutely life-changing day I had on Thursday will create lasting happiness because we always acclimate to circumstances. There’s an initial high when we live in the new circumstances while our mindset is still calibrated to our previous circumstances. Happiness comes from within and this experience has reminded me of that. 

I feel silly writing something that is perhaps one of the most trite platitudes you might hear “money (or  most circumstances/wealth or experience of any kind) won’t make you happy” but hopefully my personal anecdote can serve as a reminder that seriously, happiness comes from within and not from external things or circumstances