I’ve written extensively about how fibromyalgia has isolated me from others but I’ve never really written about how my allergies do that.
Growing up, my allergies were pretty awful but my mother would take me to the allergist only intermittently and often only so she could get prescriptions for my allergy medications that she would then sell for money. Most of my childhood, I had a tissue permanently attached to my nose and a chronic sinus infection to boot. I was really allergic to a lot of things but at home, it was the cockroaches and the dust that kept me sick. I wasn’t even allowed to dust really because I would break out in hives when I tried. I also developed hives one day at police day camp when I warned the police officer I couldn’t do push-ups in the grass and he made fun of me, ignored me and then made me do it anyway.
Still, as an adult, my allergies mostly “mellowed” out, especially when I got away from cockroaches…or so I thought. Despite not believing anything else my mother said, I believed her when she said (or was it the witch doctor who said it?) that I would “outgrow” my allergies. That’s how I found myself taking in not one, but two and then three kittens.
The first kitten made my eyes itch so I tried to keep it out of my bedroom. The second kitten was supposed to be a playmate for the first and everything was fine (okay, I needed a lot of tissues again) until finally, the third kitten moved in.
When the third kitten moved in, I developed allergic asthma and no air purifier (especially not those sad ones from Radio Shack that aren’t HEPA) was powerful enough to keep it at bay for long. I had exceeded my allergy threshold, without even ever having heard of the term, and fried my immune system (my fibromyalgia got much worse when my allergies did).
I finally had to give the kittens away. I even moved to a new place (it can take dander up to and beyond 6-8 months to die even after the pets have been removed) but the new place was infested with cockroaches so I had a hard time breathing at home AGAIN.
The next place I moved to didn’t have cockroaches but it collected an inordinate amount of dust so I had super powerful air purifiers the size of two four-year-olds running at all times. And I still had to move everything that could collect dust (the dresser, the night tables, the curtains, everything) out of the bedroom.
Somewhere along the line, I started getting allergy shots again, taking medication regularly, carrying an inhaler and more. What fun! All those sexy handouts on making your home “nearly allergy-free” that the allergist had handed my mother when I was a child but which she had ritually discarded, I read like an instructional manual on how to keep myself breathing in the face of allergens.
(Now, dear reader, resist the urge to comment with a list of crazy-ass things you think would help my allergies. I’ve heard them all. I’m not asking for your advice about how to deal with my allergies, I’m telling you how they affect my life so you can sympathize with me and other allergy sufferers. I promise, you will be sorry if you try to post “suggestions” for things I should try.)
I really tried not to let my allergies “get in the way.” Like early on with my fibromyalgia, I didn’t want to tell people about it and I certainly didn’t want to inconvenience them (yeah, check out my self-preservation) with my allergies. So I stayed inside my husband’s family home even though they had a little dog. And I lost my voice, my eyes got swollen and my chest almost caved in before I put my foot down and said I wouldn’t set foot in the house again.
Whereas before I had only worried about there being food I could eat on Shabbat when we went away for it because of my IBS (and then high cholesterol), now I had to worry about my allergies…but not before falling on my face a couple of times first.
I got a major sinus infection when I stayed at my husband’s cousin’s house because a bird lived in the bedroom I was staying in. Of course, I didn’t find out I would be staying in this room until I arrived at their house right before Shabbat. I explained my allergies but all anyone did was take the bird out of my room, which did absolutely nothing for my allergies because, of course, the problematic dander was everywhere already.
Another time, I broke out in hives when I stayed at another cousin’s home (they had a cat) and they gave me a bed that obviously had cat hair all over it. And yet, another time, I discovered that our hosts were putting us in the basement, with all that horrid deep, sunken-in old carpeting, and even though we drove to Best Buy and bought an air purifier just minutes before candle lighting, I still got a sinus infection and spent most of the Shabbat laid up on my back, trying to decide if my allergies or my fibromyalgia, woe is me, would kill me first. I didn’t make the best impression as a Shabbos guest as you can imagine.
Oh, and did I mention that the time I tried to pay my first shiva call, I got there and discovered that they had, not only that deep, sunken-in carpeting, but TWO dogs. “Oh, but they’re hypoallergenic,” I was told. I learned the hard way, I double-checked with the allergist later, that no dog is hypoallergenic, they’re just LESS allergenic and for a person like me, that just doesn’t cut it. Fifteen minutes into the shiva call, I was wheezing and generally, fighting to breathe.
So when our good friends decided they were going to get a cat, we (because both my husband and I are both highly allergic) explained we wouldn’t be coming over anymore. But they thought we were “kidding” even after I explained that my sister who lived with a cat for a while had to change out of her clothes (down to even her socks) before entering our home. I am, after all, so allergic that I can have asthma attacks just by sitting with people who have dander clinging to their clothes even if no animals are around. I learned this, too, the hard way.
Our good friends went ahead and got their kitten and they were dismayed by what seemed like an over-reaction to them. Not only wouldn’t we come over, we wouldn’t let them into our home (unless they were willing to wear the equivalent of a Hazmat suit). For weeks, months, years, they explained that they were really clean, that they could put the cat in the other room, etc. I didn’t have the heart to tell them (or rather I knew they wouldn’t listen if I did) that sometimes just sitting next to them at shul, with that little bit of dander on their clothes, had forced me to use my inhaler.
Now, whenever we get invited out for Shabbat, I always ask if the host has pets. If they do, we don’t go. When we go away for Shabbat, I always bring my own portable air purifiers but I still pack a couple of Benadryls to be able to breathe in a dusty and/or carpeted home. (I also bring snacks in case there isn’t any food I can eat even after I’ve told them about my food “problems.”) But I still can’t control whether or not they invite guests who have pets. One time when I started having an allergic asthma attack at someone’s home on Shabbat, I didn’t understand why (especially since I was already doped up on Benadryl because of the carpeting) until the five other guests started talking about their beloved cats.
Sadly, this past weekend, I left the Limmud NY conference early, not just because I had (of course) over-taxed myself and pushed my fibromyalgia to its limits, but because my husband and I were both really allergic to the hotel, especially our hotel room. The longer we were there, the worse our allergies got even with our air purifiers going at full blast.
Late Saturday night when the sinus headache set in, I decided we had to leave the next morning. Evil sunken-in carpeting that was probably older than both of us? Check. I was fine as long as I stayed out of the room and roamed the rest of the hotel but my husband was downing Benadryl left and right even in the (also, heavily carpeted) hotel lobby.
Recently, I made plans to go out to the “middle of nowhere” (a two-hour ride that would have exacerbated my fibromyalgia) for an event I was really excited about, only to discover last minute that the event was being held in someone’s home and that they, of course, had a cat. I was lucky, I had remembered to ask before we made the drive out. You would think I would have this downpact after this many years but I forget that many, many people have pets.
When I explained why I couldn’t attend, the people on the other end went through the usual routine:
“Oh, I have allergies, too, and the cat doesn’t bother me.”
“Oh, we’ll put the cat in the other room.”
And on and on and on until I broke out the usual “my allergies are REALLY severe” spiel and used some helpful anecdotes to get the point across. (In the future, I’ll just be forwarding them this post.) Even though I understood that when people say these things they are just trying to be “helpful,” I hate that I have to go through this spiel every single (damn) time.
Why do I always get pushed into having to explain or apologize for my health problems? Why don’t people ever take them (whether it’s my cholesterol, IBS, fibromyalgia or allergies) seriously? What is wrong with healthy people that they are so often and so infrequently insensitive to those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be healthy, too?
Sometimes, I imagine that people with food allergies (not pet, dust, cockroach, trees, grass and everything else allergies) have it easier. When you tell someone you’re allergic to peanuts (or in my case, Brazilian nuts and hazel nuts) these days, people usually take you seriously, right? Well, not always. I’ve heard many horror stories about grandparents “secretly” trying to build their grandchildren’s immunity to nuts by force-feeding them…right up until the kids end up in the emergency room fighting for their life. So maybe, it’s just one of those “the grass is always greener” things.
So, honestly, when I tell you I’m REALLY, REALLY, highly and severely allergic, please resist the urge to roll your eyes and try to pretend like you know more about allergies, especially mine. Please, just listen. And if I seem a little defensive, it’s because I’ve had to have this conversation over and over and over again, more often than you can imagine.