“Ah, you have a cat,” I say, trying for a tone that does not suggest, “You have a machine gun pointed at my chest.” Which is how it feels. When your throat closes of its own accord, shutting off air and voice, you remember. You also remember spending your first year of marriage dozing through fourteen Benadryl a day and sitting upright in a rocking chair at three in the morning because you cannot breathe and you cannot bring yourself to ask your new husband to give up the elderly kitty he rescued from the street.
We eventually gave the cat to my mother-in-law. Now I must only guard against other people’s cats, fluffy dogs, mold and mildew, tree pollen, grasses, ragweed, and house dust, quite a reasonable list compared to the people who could drop dead if a stew contained shrimp or some peanut oil touched their pastry. Living with allergies, as more and more children do, means moving through the world on tiptoe, hoping not to wake a hidden giant eager to attack you. In extreme cases, the effect must be a bit like PTSD, I imagine, with a similar hypervigilance and sense of ever-present danger.
Even limited allergies require navigation skills. Teenagers rehearse how to explain, wait tense and sweaty for the right moment, then finally blurt, “Um … I can’t kiss you if you eat that.” “Party food” blurs into “food that could send you to the hospital.” Travel, camping, anything fun that happens outdoors in spring or fall—means you drug up or stay home. You fast become your own enemy, because the stress of worrying about a reaction just about guarantees your body will overreact, making the response far worse. Allergy is already, by definition, an overreaction: a damaging immune response to something otherwise innocuous, because you have somehow become hypersensitive to it. Whoever engineered the immune system forgot the kill switch, so you flare up at something that does not mean you harm, the way people’s tempers flare when an innocent comment grazes an old wound.
Allergy comes from the Greek allos, meaning “other.” A private xenophobia. The body churns out histamines to fight what it perceives as a foreign body, much the way societies turn on immigrants and refugees when they feel destabilized. Figuratively, the word has long been used to mean something repulses you.
So what does it mean to be repulsed by things you know should not bother you and do not bother others at all? Months ago, I began asking allergists and psychologists about the psychological effect of being allergic. They all agreed, in vague tones, that there might be implications, but the psychologists did not study allergy and vice versa. The most they could offer was a sterile symptom list: “The connection between allergy symptoms and mental health include: fever, stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation.”
Searching the medical literature, though, I found more solid evidence, associations of the chicken-or-egg sort. In a Danish study, “children with eczema, asthma, or hay fever had more emotional, conduct, and hyperactivity problems.” Both mind and body easily inflamed? Other studies zoomed in on asthma, showing associations with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, and ADHD. Breathing lousy air from birth could have something to do with biochemistry, but so could that constant state of inflammation or fear of suffocating. Or maybe the other predispositions make it easier for your lungs to inflame? In a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10.8 percent of those with allergic conditions developed psychiatric disorders, compared to 6.7 percent of those without allergic conditions, and the researchers wondered if inflammation might exacerbate predispositions for anxiety and mood disorders.
When a pediatrician organized a meeting of parents of children with food allergies, Nature reports, she wanted to hear what they knew and believed about allergies. Instead, she heard an outpouring of distress about all the emotional losses and hardships their kids suffered: how they missed big family Thanksgiving celebrations, had their issues mocked by grandparents who thought all these new peanut allergies were nonsense, were blamed at school when the kids could not have cake and ice cream. Parents had to keep constant guard: “Don’t touch that!” “Don’t eat that!” One little girl was so anxious about her allergy, she slept with her fingers closed around an EpiPen.
What does that tell a kid about how to live in the world? This could be one more reason so many kids prefer to stay inside and live through their screens. Because we have never been so allergic.
The ancients had a few sneezing fits and food issues, but nothing like ours. According to a Blue Cross Blue Shield study, urgent hospital visits for food allergies increased by 150 percent between 2010 and 2016 (and the trajectory continues upward). At least a dozen children have died in recent years because schoolfriends or circumstance exposed them to an allergen. Peanut allergies in U.S. infants rose from 1.7 percent in 2001 to 5.2 percent in 2017. Food allergies and intolerances are even rising in dogs. One afternoon at the dog park, somebody mentions his dog’s delicate stomach and five of us perk up like terriers, each with our own story of purgation and messes and kibble trials.
More than one study has shown that the healthiest kids are the ones who grow up on farms, playing in dirt that practically wiggles with bacteria. The developed world, more sterile and more often hermetically sealed indoors, has the most allergies. Is that higher stress or a higher toxin load? Probably an interaction of the two. Even when we are not suspicious of our environment, our bodies are. Concluding that our surroundings are becoming more dangerous, we overclean and seal off the outside air and mud, which removes the strengthening challenge to our immune systems and leaves us even more vulnerable.
In some ways, the paranoia of someone with allergies is an accurate metaphor. The world is full of potential toxins, and anything could sicken us at any point. Some folks can hang on to the illusion of safety; others have bodies less easily fooled.
I close my (itchy) eyes and imagine living in a world where nothing made my body overreact. Sitting cross-legged in a high meadow of wildflowers and not sneezing convulsively. Picnicking in a tall-grass prairie on a golden autumn afternoon without wanting to pluck my eyeballs from their sockets and roll them in icewater. Letting a cat drape herself over my arm without feeling my voice go to helium. Poking around for hours in musty antique shops without wheezing.
And if I stopped overreacting emotionally, too—stopped overthinking and catastrophizing, trying to protect myself from things that are nowhere near as threatening as they seem?
The world would feel a lot more like home.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.