After years of feeling certain I suffered from major mold allergies, I recently decided to put my potential hypochondria to the test. Yesterday morning I visited an allergy clinic and learned my symptoms were more than imaginary, as the test kit’s puncture spots spelled out the diagnosis in little braille-like welts on my arm. Multiple mold varieties, along with dust mites and dog dander appear to, well, get my dander up. After next week’s second-round testing, I’ll start in on a series of immunotherapy. It all seems a bit eye-of-newt, tail-of-frog to me, but getting shots of progressively larger doses of these allergens should help my immune system become a tad more friendly to those substances when I breathe them in naturally.
Driving home from the clinic, I began drawing humorous ties between allergies and caregiving (“How are mold allergies and elderly fathers alike?” – “They both grow on you, over time – ba-dum-dum”). And checking in with Facebook friends once I got home, I joked that in next week’s appointment I was going to ask the nurse if they had a test for 88-year-old-father allergies. I got some “like”s and smiley faces in return, and let the thought pass. But then, while stripping my bed down to the mattress in my newly launched crusade against dust mites, I began thinking the metaphor actually made some sense.
In my limited consults with Dr. Internet, I’ve learned that it’s not that unusual for allergies to hit us as adults (and, if any of you readers are immunologists – your correction of this explanation is welcome only to the point that it doesn’t muck up my metaphor). You can be tripping along through life, smelling the roses willy-nilly, until one day you sneeze so hard you blow all the petals off. Irritants like pollen and mold are all around us, and, in low doses, our system might pay them no mind. But if, at some point, you breathe in a large enough quantity, you can put your immune system on alert, as it seeks to rid your body of these no-longer-ignorable substances. From that point forward, even limited exposure can force those hearty histamines to muster themselves to your supposed defense.
In addition to the scratchy eyes and swollen sinuses, Dr. Internet told me, such exposure also can result in something called “allergic irritability syndrome.” I identified with this information immediately. I’ve come to recognize that free-floating irritability – the kind that makes me bang on the computer’s reload key repeatedly when a web page is slow to load or yell at the cat for not moving out of the way quickly enough – is often a precursor to a full-blown allergy attack. If I’m savvy enough to pay attention, I can start dosing myself with my over-the-counter meds and avoid more symptoms.
With this new knowledge, I began thinking that maybe we really can have emotional allergies and that I was, quite possibly, allergic to my father. For years – decades, even – I got along just fine with Dad in low doses. A weekend visit, a short family reunion, a special Thanksgiving dinner all could go by with smiles and wishes of good cheer. But then came the exposure that provoked my first emotional immune response, which occurred in the Columbus, Ohio, hotel room Dad & I shared during the road trip in which I moved him from St. Louis to Cape Cod. The previous eight hours in the car, preceded by a packing effort that had taken longer than scheduled and three or four days of apartment cleaning and arrangement-making with my stepsister, provided the fodder. I was taking advantage of the hotel’s wireless connection to check my own email when Dad snapped at me for not jumping fast enough to find out something online for him. If you have physical allergies, you’ve probably had the slow-motion experience of becoming aware of mustering histamines; similarly, in that Columbus hotel room I realized my blood pressure was rising, my chest was tightening, and, somewhere inside me, my bitchiness switch was flipped. Allergic irritability syndrome was in full bloom.
In the time since, the constant exposure of Dad’s 24/7 life with me often has seemed to create a drone in my head, like that quiet buzziness you can get here during the third week of pine-pollen season in the spring. During those times, even the slightest exposure to him can force my emotional histamines to action for yet another bout of irritability. I have the unnerving sensation of recognizing that my bitchy behavior is unjustified, yet, at the same time, feel almost powerless to act differently. This through-the-looking-glass experience can be followed by a cycle of guilt and self-recrimination that only lowers the threshold required to provoke the next allergic response.
So, what does immunotherapy look like for an emotional allergy? For one thing, I’ve been attempting to limit exposure to Dad, or, at least, increase exposure to emotional antigens, by joining the church choir and an area hiking group. And I’m discovering there may be an emotional equivalent to Zyrtec. For lack of a better word, I’m labeling it “kindness.” Don’t take this to mean that I have made a saintly rise above my situation. I still often walk the house as brittle as a frozen twig and as allergically reactive, emotionally speaking, as the Boy in the Bubble, but I’m learning to recognize the onset of my emotional allergic irritability syndrome a beat or two before I open my mouth. If I am then able to take a breath instead of responding immediately to whatever the provocative stimulus might be, I often can respond with kindness (or, at least, humor), and the allergic cycle can be broken. Since I can’t wash Dad away like the dust mites on my pillow cases, this seems my best hope for keeping my emotional allergies at bay.