I am apologizing to Michelle because I’m crying and I don’t know why. I’m not sad or anything, I’m actually having a good time. This is one of the first times that Michelle and I are hanging out outside of class, and we don’t know each other well yet. But tears keep running down my cheeks and I’m really self-conscious about it. She probably thinks that I’m actually going through something really tough, and just don’t want to talk to her about it, because like I said, we’re not good friends yet.
We just left a literary reading, and I asked Michelle if she wanted to go to a party in South Williamsburg with me. Sure, she said. We decided to grab food first. We walk down 2nd Ave., down from 14th Street, but now I’m crying for some reason. And also, my arms are getting itchy. My stomach too. And my face - I figure maybe it was the salt from my tears that were making it feel funny. But then it felt like swelling, so I asked her if my face was puffy, but she said, no, I look fine, but then again it’s dark and she can’t really tell.
“My stomach is so itchy, oh my god.” My fingers can’t keep up with all the places that I want to scratch. “Also, don’t worry about it, but I’m going to take my inhaler, I think I’m getting asthma.” I’m self-conscious about using my inhaler in public. Michelle was going to think I was so weird, a weird sick sad girl or something. She’s regretting accepting my invite.
I tell her that my face feels really swollen, so the next pharmacy we pass, which can’t be more than a block or two away, I was going to buy some Benadryl. I try calling my brother, a doctor, but he doesn’t pick up. Maybe my parents are over at his place, so I call my mom, and she reminds me that my brother’s out at a dinner party.
“Why?” she wants to know. Because she’s my mom, and moms always want to know why.
“So I think I’m having an allergic reaction because I was at this thing and I just had some strawberries but I guess they were too close to the walnuts, so I just, I wanted to ask him if I should like, just take some Benadryl or if there was something else I should do?” It’s all happening really fast. The inhaler didn’t help at all; I can’t catch a full breath so I try to say as many words as possible in the shortest amount of time.
My mother doesn’t sound phased, or worried, or anything. She knows, and I know, that I’m allergic to some tree nuts. My reaction is usually annoying, but it’s never bad. My lips and my throat get a little itchy right after, but then it’s over in fifteen minutes. If I’ve been biting my lips, which I do a lot, then they swell a little.
I tell her that I’m just gonna go buy some Benadryl and maybe call my brother one more time.
He doesn’t pick up. Michelle and I are in the pharmacy, which, as pharmacies generally are, is really well lit. She can finally see my face and says, “No, I think we need to go to the hospital.” And I’m like, “No, I’ll just get some Benadryl, really, I’m not that allergic. Maybe it’s something else, but I’ll be fine. I’m sorry that this is happening. I’ll be fine.”
My brother calls me back while I’m trying to find the generic. It’s hard for me to read the packages because my vision is getting blurry and my eyes are still constantly filling with tears. I tell him the things that are happening. I can’t breath and I’m really itchy and swollen, every inch of my body is swollen and patchy red, and my eyesight is littered with stars... but now I was just getting really tired. I just wanted to sit down on the tiled floor here. I just wanted to take a nap. Thinking about how much effort it would take to (1) find a hospital (2) get there (3) stand in line with all the people (4) fill out paperwork (5) sit around (6) tell all the nurses and then the doctors what was going on (7) and just deal with all the people in the hospital (8) and then tell everyone at the party that I was in the hospital (9) and they would ask so many questions (10) and I don’t even have the energy to scratch anymore (11) and does my insurance even cover all this (12) do I even have my insurance card? (13) and stop thinking about all of this because it’s making me so tired.
“Go to the hospital right away.”
I realize now that I shouldn’t have needed a doctor to tell me that.
So Michelle Googles the nearest hospital on her phone, and Beth Israel is just two blocks up. Within ten minutes, Michelle is filling out paperwork at the emergency window, and I’m sitting in the waiting room, texting a friend: “In the hospital. Will probably be late to the party.”
I’m rocking myself in my plastic chair, it feels so soothing, but then the waiting room starts fading to black very very slowly, so I yell really loudly, “MICHELLE I’M GOING TO PASS OUT.”
Forty-five minutes ago, I was complaining that there were strawberries at the reading, but where was the wine?
People who say they’re allergic to tree nuts, like me, are usually not allergic to all tree nuts, but generally react to more than one. In my case, I’m allergic to walnuts for sure, pecans probably (I can’t remember ever actually trying one, but have a deep feeling of mistrust towards them), cashews also probably (same parentheses re: pecans), pistachios probably also (I’m not sure if I just didn’t like pistachio ice cream when I tried it once as a kid or actually felt any allergic reaction), and maybe that’s it. Almonds are fine. And people always ask if I’m also allergic to peanuts: I’m not. Peanuts aren’t actually nuts, they’re legumes. Hazelnuts are fine, too, so I’ve been granted the privilege to know what Ferrero Rocher tastes like, and Nutella, and chocolate with hazelnuts and raisins, so like, all the best choco things. Also, my brother made me try a pine nut once as an experiment when he was in medical school because his wife wanted to make a salad with them, and I learned that day that I wasn’t allergic to pine nuts.
Since I remember, I’ve generally just avoided various nuts. But before now, I could accidentally try a cookie and get away with just a frustrating irritation and itch in my mouth and throat and lips. I could experiment by putting crumbs in my mouth and waiting for my tongue to tingle to test it out.
And then I was in college, eating strawberries off a platter, telling a few people around me that my lips were tingling, so if they started to swell, it wasn’t a big deal, it’d go away soon.
“You’re allergic to nuts?!”
“Just tree nuts. But it’s not severe.”
“Are you sure? We shouldn’t, like, call an ambulance?” Nervous laughter.
I laugh, too, “No, this happens a lot. The nuts must have been near the strawberries. It’s fine.”
Within fifteen minutes, the itch and the swelling in my mouth were gone. Michelle and I headed out, but half an hour later, I was in the hospital.»
Photo by Chotda
A return to eighth grade biology reminds us that our immune system protects our bodies from foreign, usually harmful, substances. Bacteria, viruses, venom, whatever - these are called antigens. When something weird - an antigen - enters the body, the body's immune system does a whole variety of things in an attempt to protect it. For example, white blood cells start making antibodies which are specific to the alien, usually harmful, substance. So if it’s a certain bacteria, there’s a certain antibody that white blood cells starts producing. If it’s a venom, it’s a totally different antibody.
For some reason, though, some peoples’ bodies think that random, actually harmless things, are super dangerous. That’s what an allergy is - your body is convinced that something harmless is out to get you. In my case, it’s tree nuts, dust, cat hair, and birds. So when I come close to any of those things, my body overreacts, trying to fix what isn’t actually a problem. And in the case of tree nuts, my body tries so hard to save me that my body itself almost kills me. It’s not actually the nuts that are harming me, it’s my body over-attacking itself.
Yelling that you’re going to pass out in the emergency room lets you skip a bunch of the paperwork stuff and the waiting. I don’t really remember how I got there, but all of a sudden I was in a hospital bed getting a bunch of shots and an IV and a doctor yelling things he needed to nurses.
I was in and out of sleep. I also felt terrible because I’d look up and see Michelle just sitting at the foot of the bed, looking around, checking her phone, texting sometimes. I apologize to her each time I wake up, and tell her she can leave if she wants, but she doesn’t.
One time I wake up and I apologize to Michelle but I really need to throw up, so if she could just ask for a basin or something? And like, really fast because I’m going to vomit like right now.
Two or three hours pass before I remember that I should probably check my phone. Of course, it’s brimming with voicemails and texts, my half-drunk friends asking what hospital I was in, and whether I was okay. I call one of them and say I’m okay now, I think I can leave in an hour, but I’m not going to stop by, I’ll just go straight home.
The next day after the hospital, I remembered what my mother always said. If I had a sore throat or something, and didn’t want to go to school, I’d melodramatically announce that I was dying. My mother would say, “People don’t die that easily.” But now, now it felt really easy. Too easy.
Matt is also allergic to tree nuts. He’s a friend, and we’re watching Mad Men in a bar over a year after my hospital incident. Don Draper is trying to sell Jaguars and Peggy is trying to sell ketchup. Matt tells me how last night he had some pecan pie, which he hadn’t tried in five years. Mostly the crust. Luckily, Benadryl helped him in half an hour, though he’s been in the hospital twice before. His allergy to almonds had been fading, so he hoped the same for pecans.
As an adolescent, going to an allergist, the doctor said maybe I’d grow out of it, all hope isn’t lost! I thought maybe I’d be grown when I turned eighteen. About only 9% of kids eventually grow out of their nut allergy, so people with allergies keep hoping they’re just not grown yet. So maybe I’ll be grown when I’m thirty.
But more probably, all hope is lost.
Matt says the thing is, “you try this dessert, because you’ve made it the past ten times, so you’ll probably make it this time.” I can’t figure out if we, as humans, are weak (this cookie might make me feel like shit for a while, but hopefully it’s just delicious) or if we’re just curious (have I grown up and out yet?). Maybe we hope that we’re above our limitations, or that we can control them.
But the thing also is, with nut allergies, that the reaction for most people gets worse each and every time. So for most of my life, I’d feel variations on itch and swelling. I didn’t pay too much attention whether it was getting worse or not. But now that I (barely) ended up in the hospital within an hour, it’s just going to be worse, and faster, each time after that.
I was lucky enough to be with someone while it was happening. I was lucky that I wasn’t alone in the subway, heading towards the party. I was lucky to be close enough to a hospital. (Whenever I see ambulances attempting to shift their way through Manhattan traffic, I always think how terrible it would be to need one here.)
I have an Epi-Pen now (which I should carry everywhere - and I did, for a few months). If I ever feel the slight of an allergy coming on, I should stab it into my thigh and call an ambulance immediately. The Epi-Pen won’t save me, but it should hopefully keep me alive until the ambulance, stocked with all those drugs and IVs that I need, arrives.
The few months after I was in the hospital, I wouldn’t touch food at catered events, I’d be adamant about asking about ingredients, avoided restaurants and cafes and bakeries. I’d carry the Epi-Pen and a bottle of Benadryl. And then I got lazy. If I was hungry, I’d grab some cheese and crackers from a platter in an art gallery. I stopped moving my Epi-Pen from bag to bag that I changed day to day. Drunk with friends, they would offer muffins their roommate baked that day. I’d ask if there were nuts, but my friend wouldn’t know, so I’d try a crumb first, then spend the next half an hour trying to figure out if I was starting to feel a reaction or if I was just over-sensing my body, already feeling kind of weird from all the mixed drinks. It’s amazing to me how nonchalant I’ve become, so quickly. Contrary to what my mother always told me, I can die so easily, and so many people with severe nut allergies do.
I was hospitalized on a Friday, and on Sunday, I went to church for the first time in months. Just in case there was a God after all. I thanked Him for the fact that, given the circumstances, I was in the right place at the right time. For my friends and for my family. I’d be careful from now on, I said, because I knew he couldn’t always keep an eye on me. I didn’t go back the next week.
My mother says that people don’t die that easily. I thought that I proved her wrong. But maybe she’s right, because I’m still here after all.
Marta is a reader, writer, and Oxford Comma proponent. She lives in Brooklyn and filled a prescription for a new Epi-Pen just last week.