Last night I took an over-the-counter antihistamine to guard against the effects of an evening spent in the company of two dogs. And then I foolishly had a large glass of wine with dinner. The effect was akin to a prolonged intravenous dose of antihistamines and within a couple of hours, I was slumped against my boyfriend’s shoulder, fast asleep on the couch. The lingering cloudy mind that accompanied me this morning stirred a strange melancholy for past emergency room visits.
I have spent nights in emergency room hospital beds, drugged into a stupor to save my life. Accidentally, I eat something which triggers an anaphylactic reaction. My body thinks we are under attack and begins to shut down in an attempt to defend us. It cannot listen to the mind that we could be ok if we would only please just treat that peanut like a strawberry. I am alerted to the impending lockdown by a tingling sensation on my mouth, or more recently, a horrible pain in the pit of my stomach.
The emotional response envelops me, suspended on the tips of raised hairs on my arms and the back of my neck.
First there is a calm, singular focus. All sound blurs into background noise and my thoughts establish a laser like precision. I must confirm that I am having an allergic reaction. I stride with purpose to whomever prepared or served my food and ask them if there were nuts in the dish. When they respond yes, I make arrangements to locate and travel to the nearest hospital. I try to avoid the drama of an ambulance because I think I have time. Momentarily indifferent to the burden of responsibility I am placing upon them, I have co-opted boyfriends, friends, and cab drivers into the mission of driving me to the hospital.
Shortly into the car ride, the illusion of calm, because it was always an illusion, begins to evaporate and is replaced by panic. As the last shreds of calm dissipate into the ether, I might instruct my driver how to administer an Epi-pen. And then I will become very quiet because I am thinking only about whether or not I am still breathing.
Eventually the rising panic manifests as tears. By the time I reach the front desk of the emergency room, I am nearly hysterical and if I am trying to explain the situation in a foreign country, it is possible that they will have no idea what I am talking about at all.
The emergency room staff will take over now, but I will continue to panic if they do not immediately begin an IV administering antihistamines. But eventually they will do this.
After drugs are administered, a temporary calm is re-established as I fall into the deepest sleep. But it is swiftly erased if hospital staff suggest discharging me after only a few hours. They almost never listen to me when I explain that sometimes I have a relapse reaction several hours later, which has happened twice at ages 15 and 23.
I will not be properly calm again until I have slept through a night and survived.
All of this is frightening and terrible. But I have a strange thing to confess. There’s something about it that I seem to enjoy. Not while it’s happening, but in hindsight.
I’m not sure precisely what it is about this experience that I sometimes find myself appreciating. Is it the adrenaline rush of a so-called near-death experience? Is it being the centre of attention? Is it the validation that in fact I didn’t make up the need to be so cautious all the time about what I eat? Is it a story that I can tell that makes strangers wide-eyed and boyfriends hold me close protectively? Is it the respite from daily anxiety about things I should be doing?
At least one thing is clear. Nearly everything I do to respond to my allergic reaction is wrong. I have never administered a Epi-pen, and I rarely call an ambulance. But I don’t do this because I have a death wish. I do this because I am genuinely uncertain about whether or not I’m having an allergic reaction. My reaction is slow. The mouth tingling phase can last for a couple of hours before it becomes hives all over my body. And I don’t know how long it takes after that for my throat to actually close because I always make it to an emergency room by then. I have experienced situations where I thought I was having an allergic reaction, but after several hours, the mouth tingling disappeared and it turns out there was nothing wrong in the first place. On two occasions I have rushed myself to the emergency room unnecessarily. So my first step is always trying to confirm whether or not I have actually ingested nuts. I do not know whether or not this is the right thing to do. My desire to avoid causing a scene should be inconsequential, and in fact is ironic since by roping others into the role of ambulance driver, I most certainly create unnecessary drama for them.
I can’t promise that I will react any better the next time a nut-shaped alien makes contact. But I can commit to practicing stabbing expired Epi-pens into oranges. I was probably 7 the last time I tried this, and became so hysterical at the thought of having to do that to myself that I fled from both needles and oranges by hiding under the kitchen table, sobbing uncontrollably. My poor mother.
My best friend’s little sister has the same allergy, and has coolly administered her own life-saving injection on more than one occasion. After hearing these stories, she went from being someone’s little sister to attaining god-like status in my mind.
My baby niece recently tested positive for a peanut allergy. They will follow up with a blood test to confirm, but this news spotlights the inadequacy of how I react to these situations. I am especially terrified that my irrational response has normalized that behaviour to my family, and they may think they have time to drive my baby niece to the hospital without the Epi-pen, without the ambulance. I don’t know how fast her anaphylaxis will be in that situation, but that’s the point. None of us will know. The responsibility of setting a better example for her hardens my resolve to be more like VL’s sister.