For as long as I can remember, I have carried a Kleenex at the ready. A hunter could easily track me by my trail of wadded tissues—stuffed under my pillow, down among the bedclothes, in every available pocket, tucked under skirt belts and up blouse sleeves, making little white mounds in my purse, on my desk, under the cushion of my favorite reading chair, inevitably drifting down to the floor of whatever room I visit, even briefly.
My nose is usually slightly red. Sometimes my face itches, my eyelids puff and water, and the whites of my eyes turn pink. My ears ring and the roof of my mouth itches. I occasionally suffer from mild nausea or diarrhea. Sometimes my sinuses feel like they’re made out of cement, and sometimes I have trouble breathing. I have a whole repertoire of headaches from the one that feels like eyestrain to the big mamou that settles over my head, neck, and shoulders like a sick, dense smog of pain. Often I am sleepy, achy, and lethargic.
Still, in terms of heavy allergy suffering, I am a mere piker. Once while my sister was cooking dinner she got the allergy dizzies and dropped a 29-ounce can of tomatoes on her food. She was in a cast for weeks. I know a state bureaucrat who insists that wearing wool makes the insides of his lungs feel raw, an officer with the ACLU whose hands swell when she eats fish, and a musician who sneezes when he goes into bright sunlight. All perfectly legitimate complaints. That’s not to mention the filmmaker who is constantly sneezing and tearing with hayfever (a general term for pollen allergies) and wheezing with asthma. Riding a horse gives him rashes on his thighs and elbows, and eating peaches makes his chin itch (from the inside where he can’t get at it, he insists). One of the most pathetic cases I ever encountered was a fellow who was allergic to alcohol. He’d drink himself into a stupor and then scratch himself raw.
I used to think that I was sensitive only to outdoor pollens, but when I quit my editing job and started writing at home, my allergies seemed to worsen. There were days when I could hardly drag myself out of bed. Chronic headaches. Was it psychological? Writer’s procrastination?
I decided to see an allergist. It seemed more reasonable than moping around the house hoping that my ailments would voluntarily vanish. An acquaintance recommended a group of allergy specialists in Austin. I have since learned that not all the doctors who bill themselves as allergists have specialized training. It’s easy to check with the local medical board, however, to see if a doctor has been certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. Specialists in this field also usually belong to two national allergy societies—the American College of Allergists and the American Academy of Allergy. My allergist turned out to have all the proper credentials.
I called for an appointment, and a receptionist informed me that the initial consultation would cost somewhere between $150 and $190, depending on how many tests the doctor decided were necessary—this seems to be a representative fee for the service. I arrived groggy at 8:45 in the morning, whereupon a nurse had me fill out a questionnaire about my health history, took my temperature, blood pressure, and weight, snapped a Polaroid portrait, and handed me over to a cheerful young doctor with a beard.
I auditioned my repertoire of symptoms for him, and he pronounced my sinuses to be “slightly swollen.” Then he started extracting information about my personal habits. I seldom drink and have never smoked. Yes, smoke irritates my eyes. Yes, I have a pet, a cat who has the run of the house and loves to nap on my bed. But he doesn’t make me sneezy or anything. Yes, I use a feather pillow, even take it with me on trips. I could tell he was suspicious of the cat and the pillow, and his eyes fairly gleamed when I admitted that I clean with a broom because of a Luddite antipathy for household appliances. I didn’t even mention the decrepit goat-hair rug I shake by hand.
Then he sent me in for testing. The nurse swabbed my arm with alcohol and pulled out a tray of vials containing such exotic extracts as Common Mugwort, Wheat Smut, and Mold Mix No. 2. She dropped a drip of Black Willow on my arm and then scratched it with a sterile toothpick. Black Willow was followed by 29 other extracts. I was instructed to wait fifteen minutes to see which of the scratches on my arm would swell up like mosquito bites.
In the meantime there was some required reading in a booklet on allergies. It explained that an allergy is an abnormal reaction to a substance that is harmless to most people—your own personal poison, so to speak. The substance—an allergen—may be taken into the body by being inhaled or swallowed or by contact with the skin. The most common allergens are pollens, molds, and household dust. Some of the more unusual are heat, cold, and ultraviolet light. There is always a physical basis for allergies, but attacks, particularly asthma attacks, can be precipitated or aggravated by anxiety, fear, anger, excitement, or other strong emotions.
The propensity to become allergic to anything is carried in your genes. Thus in addition to antibodies called Immunoglobulin G, which everyone has, the allergic person has extra antibodies called Immunoglobin E (IGE). Oddly enough, these special antibodies are what cause your allergic reaction. In an attempt to put up a defense against the allergen, your body dispatches an army of IGE antibodies in a futile search-and-destroy mission. Instead of destroying the allergen, however, the IGE antibodies link up with it, forming complexes. These in turn surround and stimulate certain cells that react by releasing a pesky compound called histamine. Histamine’s role is not yet completely understood,