I almost didn’t write this blog post today because I had to take Benadryl and Pepcid in response to the allergic reaction I had earlier (to what, you might ask? Great question, I would love to know too. But sometimes cross contamination is the perpetrator and not knowing exactly which one of my allergies caused it is the unfortunate outcome). As I write this, I can barely keep my eyes open, an all too familiar side effect of Benadryl. But is there a more perfect time to write about how allergies affect my life every day than after an allergic reaction? I think not.
When I was a baby, after being breast-fed for three months, my parents switched me over to formula. Within days, I had horrible eczema all over my face, and low and behold, my parents found out that I was allergic to dairy. When I was six and my sister was three, she ate half of a cashew and had to go to the hospital for anaphylactic shock. After that, we were both diagnosed with severe tree nut, peanut, and sesame seed allergies, in addition to more mild allergies to legumes and avocados.
Over the years, my list of allergies has grown. In order of severity from most severe to least, the list is as follows: Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish (but not shellfish, which I have always found ironic considering that I am Jewish [but I have never kept Kosher, so all good]), Sesame Seeds, Dairy, Legumes (Peas, Soy, Beans, etc.), Avocados, Bananas, Mangos, and Sunflower Seeds. I used to be minorly allergic to eggs as well, but thank goodness I grew out of that allergy. It’s the only allergy I have grown out of, while all of my other allergies have in fact become worse over time.
Let me introduce you to the brain of a severely allergic person (and of course I can only speak for myself on this; everyone has their own experience and mentality about it). When I walk into an unfamiliar room, I immediately (and honestly mostly without even knowing I’m doing it), scan for allergens and people eating them. I make a specific effort to stay away from those people. I often feel bad and hope that people don’t think I am avoiding them because I don’t like them or because I have anything against them; I am just trying to stay away from my allergens. Though I know that my allergies are not my fault and are not a choice, I still often feel like a burden when going out to eat with friends, when they know we have to go to a Sami-friendly restaurant in order for me to come. I feel like a burden asking my boyfriend to not eat nuts or fish when I am around. And don’t get me wrong, my family and friends and boyfriend are INCREDIBLY understanding and accommodating and go way out of their way to make me feel comfortable and safe and included. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t feel like a burden to them sometimes. If a food doesn’t have ingredients on it or I cannot verify with 100% certainty that it doesn’t contain any of my allergens, I cannot eat it. I am fortunate and can eat foods that are processed in the same facility as my allergens, but not every allergic person is so lucky. Sometimes, even when verifying this information, cross contamination happens, like it did tonight. I don’t even know what caused my reaction. But with the familiar itchy lips, itchy and mildly swollen throat, and just overall uncomfortable/uneasy feeling in my body, I know pretty quickly when I am having an allergic reaction. However, the scariest part of a reaction is that you don’t always know immediately how severe the reaction will be.
I am lucky. I have never experienced full-blown anaphylaxis. I have never had to use my Epi-pen (or Auvi-Q, the new Epi-pens). I would like to believe that if I needed it, I would know. But sometimes it is really difficult for me to determine that. If my throat starts feeling swollen, will Benadryl be enough? What if it gets worse later on? Some people have very external reactions with obvious signs like extreme swelling of the eyes or other symptoms, but mine are very internal (such as itchy throat, itchy lips, and stomach issues), so much so that sometimes I wonder if people might miss the symptoms of a really serious reaction in me. So I have to be my own biggest advocate. This is something you learn very early in life when you have life-threatening food allergies.
Aside from the constant potential threat of a severe reaction, or even just a very scary reaction that is painful but not life-threatening, one of the worst parts of allergies is the inconvenience it causes. Tonight I had to take two Benadryls. Though I could in theory drive myself home if I needed to (and luckily I didn’t need to), should I? Is that safe to drive after taking an extremely drowsy medication? If not, I have to wait wherever I am until the Benadryl side effects clear up. When I was in school, I was always nervous about having an allergic reaction on the morning of a final. Would they let me retake it? I would hope so, but honestly I don’t know. Should I go take the test and do badly because I can’t stay awake?
On Valentine’s Day this year, instead of going to pick my boyfriend up from the airport like I was supposed to, I spent three hours in the hospital for the worst allergic reaction I have ever had. While waiting for his plane to land, I had gone to dinner with my parents and a few of their friends at a restaurant I frequent often. We are friends with the manager and I order the same thing every time I go there. They used to mess up our order a lot, but they finally got it down and we finally trusted them. So when my dish came out and I verified with the waiter that my dish had no dairy in it, they assured me it was safe. They were correct: there was no dairy. Instead, for some bizarre reason, they decided on that night only to add almonds to the sauce of the dish. I was starving and because they assured me it was safe for me and I had eaten it plenty of times before, I scarfed up half the dish in 5 minutes. Within a few minutes of taking my first bite, the itchy lips began, but this time they felt even more extreme than most of my normal reactions. I took two Benadryls and a Pepcid immediately and downed three glasses of water. We were a mere 10 feet away from the bathroom, but when I felt like I had to throw up, I couldn’t even hold it until we made it into the bathroom. I threw up all over the floor of the restaurant and all over the floor of the bathroom. Now on top of being incredibly sick, I was incredibly embarrassed. And on top of all of that, I was worried about now not being able to pick my boyfriend up from the airport. Fortunately his family was able to, but this one huge (though unintentional) error on the part of the chefs led to a chain of events that simultaneously frightened, annoyed, and ashamed me. Despite knowing that this was not my fault and that accidents do unfortunately occasionally happen despite how careful I always am, I was no more comforted by knowing it was an accident. It still happened and it still SUCKED.
After throwing up, my parents drove me to the nearest hospital (again, thankfully I didn’t need to drive myself, or call an ambulance because they are SO expensive, but of course necessary when necessary). Once we arrived at the hospital, because this was a severe allergic reaction, I was able to get medical attention right away. They gave me an IV of a cocktail of drugs, including more Benadryl, more Pepcid, Ondansetron (for my nausea), Reglan (because the Ondansetron was not enough), and an IV saline bag to rehydrate me. The nausea I felt then was like nothing I have ever felt in my life (and I have gotten motion sick all my life, so trust me when I say this was the worst nausea I have ever experienced). When I was FINALLY able to stop throwing up and the nausea subsided, it transformed into EXTREME cramping and pain. For two hours. And I do realize that there are worse things that can happen in a two hour period of time. But believe me, this pain should have won an award for being so awful.
Three hours later, when the cramping finally stopped, the reaction spread to my skin. It started on my neck and chin and wrists. At first I didn’t even realize it was still part of the reaction because the rest of the reaction seemed to be subsiding. But soon, it made its way down my body to my feet. Wow, I have never been so itchy in my life. My WHOLE body was covered in a red, itchy, inflamed rash with many hives. I was so scared that since the reaction kept progressing that it could become anaphylaxis later on (this can happen, but is pretty rare). However, the doctors and nurses felt that this was most likely the last stage of the reaction, working its way out of my system from the most internal organs to the least, so they recommended that I try to leave the ER, as it was the middle of flu season. We started to leave, but I needed to use the restroom. I stood up and walked over to it, but the second I got inside, I felt like I was going to pass out. After so much medication, especially Benadryl, and after being dehydrated and laying down for three hours, I almost did pass out. But I was able to catch myself, walk out, and find a chair to sit in. We stayed a bit longer in the waiting room, just so I could work up the strength to get to the car. We finally made it home and I was still able to see my boyfriend (who I hadn’t seen for a month), so Valentine’s Day wasn’t entirely ruined. But I was still scared that a second reaction could happen. The ER was definitely not where I wanted to spend that night, or really any night ever, but fortunately I made it through just fine.
As I recently wrote on Instagram, allergies are a lot of things. They are a lot to handle. Sometimes they feel like too much to handle, like that day at the hospital. But most of the time, I remind myself that I handle them all day, every day. I will not let them control my life. Allergies are challenging, but they are a part of who I am. They have helped shape me into who I am. They have made me extremely conscientious. They help me eat healthy. They make me aware of what I am putting into my body. They are frustrating, infuriating, and completely unfair. They are a lot to handle. But they exist and they are part of my life.
I remind myself often to maintain perspective: there are far worse things that could affect me and how lucky I am that I have the resources and support to cope with allergies. While they do affect many parts of my life, in the grand scheme of things, they are just one small piece in the puzzle that is life. This is only a fraction of the feelings I have felt about allergies and how they affect my life. But I’ve learned (and am still learning every day) how to cope with them.