I Have Allergies, or Yet Another Identity Crisis


When I was a kid, my brother had all of the allergies. We found this out, of course, because he would sneeze like crazy — big, loud, interruption-of-everything sneezes that made people stare at us in public. He also had the red, watery eyes and the phlegm, overall it looked pretty terrible and I was incredibly glad that it was him and not me. Upon being tested, it was discovered that he was allergic to fur — at least dogs, cats and guinea pigs, all of which we had around at one time or another — plus birds, pollen, and especially dust and mold. Basically, everything. 

I, on the other hand, had no allergies. Zero. Don’t ask me why I won the genetic lottery there. Could it be partly attributed to being the second child, the one for whom the parents are more prepared and therefore relaxed? I do to some degree believe in the birth order theory of personality, mainly because in my mind, I’ve always been the more laid-back sibling while my brother is more Type A. He’s a joiner, a belief system person, finishing Hebrew School and dating only Jewish women, while I dropped out after one year, never got Bat Mitzvahed and dated only goyim. My brother was pickier about food, hating green peppers and forcing my parents to scrape the onions off of things, and even now seems to like following restrictive diet regimens (for a while it was the Diet for your Blood Type, and now he consumes mainly gigantic salads and claims to be “almost vegan,” except when we’re having a barbecue). As a point of pride, even as a kid I was always willing to order anything off a menu, and while I didn’t always eat it (in fact, I developed a reputation in my family for not eating what I ordered and instead consuming food off the plates of everyone else), I cultivated a palate prone toward very un-childlike things like mushrooms and escargot, and still have a taste for just about everything. It all fed into my overall identity as the lucky, easy second child. Not that I was always easy, exactly, I had my fair share of tantrums, particularly at the supermarket (I hated this one guy in the produce aisle for no apparent reason other than that he was nice to me and had a bad dye job and so I would take a fit whenever my mother wanted to go there), and adolescent angst (I was probably even more tortured by my peers than my brother in junior high) but at some point I developed a self-image of being the cooler kid. And even as I have become less mellow/more of a neurotic control freak as I’ve gotten older, I still have held on to the idea that my brother makes me look like a Zen master.  

Then, in my mid-30s, I started having stomach issues. After some oscopies (endo and colon) and blood tests, my gastroenterologist, who seemed to speed-talk his way through our appointments to make sure he could get in a patient every 8 minutes, finally decided it was all due to my being lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerant?! How could this be? I was someone who had consumed pizza and and milkshakes and whipped cream and any other cow product I wanted throughout all of my years as a human. How could I suddenly not be able to do that? But after an incident where, in full denial, I basically overdosed on the cheese plate at the Central Park Boathouse bar followed by a large helping of gelato and was in agony for days, I was forced to concede that maybe things had changed. So I did largely give up dairy, and it seemed to help (though I’ve fought giving up cheese tooth and nail. Turns out that goat cheese is much lower in lactose, so I can tell myself that anything goat or sheep doesn’t bother me in small doses. Basically, for me anything in small doses is tolerable, though, so it’s kind of hard to tell if that’s true, but I’m going with it anyway because CHEEEEESE). However, quitting dairy certainly didn’t fix things. It seemed that I had not just lactose intolerance but IBS, the catch-all that basically means “having an upset stomach all the time due to any possible number of causes that we can’t diagnose, or won’t bother to because you’re a member of an HMO.” Over the years, I’ve given up or cut back on coffee, wine, beer and liquor, Indian food, Thai food, bread, nuts, tofu, fried food, soda, raw onions, lentils, tomato products and paté. None of it stuck except the coffee, mostly because any time I now have any at all, my stomach goes into immediate and unmistakable revolt. Everything else I can tolerate, again, in small doses, but overall, if I do too much of anything rich, fatty, spicy or alcoholic —  in short, anything that makes life worth living — I will pay the price in acid reflux and general discomfort for an indeterminate period of time of anywhere from a few hours to several days. 

Needless to say, it affects everything. I can’t go for long periods without eating, I have to ask a lot more annoying questions in restaurants, I have to eat dinner three to four hours before going to bed or I don’t sleep well, if I drink or eat anything on that list there’s also a good chance I won’t sleep well — sometimes, I think I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in ten years. I was once an intrepid traveler but I can’t be any more, because there are parts of the world where you can’t count on regular meals and options, where sometimes all you can find to eat are fried fatty spicy things cooked in butter with onions (mmm), and where nobody eats dinner before 10 pm — which compounds the challenges of getting good sleep while traveling, as if coping with jet lag and bedding down on buses and in train stations or on overnight flights or in cheap hotels with thin walls and gushing pipes wasn’t hard enough. In other words, I became difficult, someone with needs and limitations, a whiner. My husband and I went to Paris for a week in 2012, and while I still had a fantastic time, walking everywhere, seeing a lot of art, taking tons of photos, and eating and drinking everything in sight, I paid. My stomach felt like crap the entire time and I was kind of a zombie from crappy sleep functional only because of adrenaline. But how could I hold back? There was wine and foie gras and duck confit and cheeses and creamy desserts — Paris is hell, basically, for someone who can’t consume the things I no longer can. I loved it, but I also suffered.

Then, this April, I started waking up in the mornings with a twitchy nose, which, despite rubbing and sniffing and pinching, would in short order devolve into sneezing. Not your genteel sneezes, but room-rattling, un-hideable sneezes that make everyone on the street say “God bless you!” — especially because it only got worse when I left the house. This continued through the spring and is still going on now — generally not that bad, and not every day, but it shows no sign of being a fluke. Two days ago I woke up with a case of the sneezes so overwhelming, I started canvasing Facebook for the best allergy medication (apparently, it’s Zyrtec). What the hell was going on? And who was I?? This fussy, allergic-to-the-morning, -to-the-outdoors person wasn’t me, this was…my brother.

I’m not the only person to whom this type of thing is happening, I know this. I’ve talked to other people who have developed allergies and conditions of various sorts as they get older, some much worse than mine, like chronic back pain or asthma or migraines or thyroid deficiency, so I know I shouldn’t complain. But this isn’t just about me getting older. I mean, okay, yes, it is, but only because, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, everything these days is about me getting older. But now, once again, it’s about being forced to alter my self-image. Not until I heard me sounding just like my brother every time he gets around a cat or mold spore did I realize how much I was still holding on to this idea of being the mellow younger sib, the one who could deal with anything — someone I haven’t been for a very long time, if I ever truly was. I still cling to the fact that friends described me this way for years: easy, up for anything, game. But it’s hard to hold on to that way of being in the face of a flow changes that seem to be making life just a little bit harder, especially when a few of them put together are enough to make a person downright cranky. And cranky and sneezy just aren’t two of the Seven Dwarfs I ever thought I would be.

But this too, I suppose, since it shall not pass, I shall accept. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that I’ve already pretty much accepted the crankiness, since this blog has become something of a forum for it. Plus, it’s good to give your sense of self a reality check every once in a while, especially when it comes to parts of it that were built upon a mental family portrait that was solidified at age five and is tied to your brother being annoying in a way that he really hasn’t since 9th grade (well, for the most part). 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go take a Zyrtec.

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