Pay Heed, Allergy Sufferers, For I Am Your King!

As the summer comes to an end, I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor, desperate souls who’ve suffered through the season in one of two miserable states.

One: sniffling, nose red, chafed, and sore, rubbing their eyes, sneezing more often than not sneezing, spitting out the mucus that never stops running down their throats when no one’s looking, constantly clearing their throats as a way to scratch the itch that said mucus creates, and walking around with one pocket full of fresh Kleenex and another pocket full of spent Kleenex (or, looking around wild-eyed for something to use as a Kleenex: napkin, paper towel, old newspaper, candy wrapper).

Or, two: shuffling around in a Sudafed/Chlor-Trimeton/Benadryl haze, feeling like your head has gained twenty pounds, ever so slightly tingling from head to toe and unable to shake the fantasy of lying down and trying to bond with your comforter at a subatomic level.

I feel this pity for the so afflicted because until a couple of years ago, I was one of you. I may well have been your king! I realize that this sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it literally and truthfully: I have never seen anyone else suffer from allergies as much as me. They handicapped me to the point of near-total paralysis. I once ruined — not tainted, not dampened, RUINED — a Thanksgiving dinner at my wife’s uncle’s house because I was so allergic to their cats my eyes swelled and turned the color of an old tomato and I couldn’t stop sneezing for even ten seconds. Again: not exaggerating.

This problem goes back to when I was a kid. I guess I was about ten or so when it got bad enough that my mother took me to the doctor, who sent us to an allergist, who told us I was allergic to grass and trees. He prescribed some pills that I don’t remember ever making any difference. We laughed, as a family, about the futility of a ten-year-old boy in the suburbs trying to avoid grass and trees. I wasn’t laughing so much a couple of years later when I was deemed old enough to start mowing the lawn.

At first I was excited to mow the lawn. Placed in charge of a piece of dangerous, semi-heavy machinery? It felt like a rite of passage, my first true entry into grown-up responsibility. But that enthusiasm soon waned when I realized that mowing the lawn effectively meant the end of my weekend: the sneezing and the itchy eyes, ears and throat and the runny nose that began the moment I started the job would mean I’d have to spend the rest of the day (at least) hiding in the climate-controlled house — with any luck, the sneezes would slow enough in frequency that the feeling would return to my face sometime after dinner.

I complained to my folks that I’m allergic to grass and trees, pointing to the allergist’s diagnosis to bolster my case, and suggesting it might be better for my health (and maybe everyone would have an easier time hearing the TV later that night) if someone else cut the grass. My mom, ever the nurturer, drew me close and gently suggested that if I wanted, next week I could wear a surgical mask while I cut the grass.

It was around this time that I began to grow familiar with the numb dysphoria that comes with taking antihistamines by the handful. I was never relieved of lawnmowing duty, even though I have a brother who’s a year and a half younger and not allergic to anything. I plan on reminding my parents of this when the time comes to choose between the modestly priced nursing home that smells like formaldehyde and medicated powder, and the more expensive one that smells like lavender. (“You can always wear a surgical mask!” I’ll cheerfully point out.)

Anyway, when I grew into a young adult and moved to San Francisco, my allergy levels, which had already turned me almost completely into an avid indoorsman, began to rise even when I took refuge inside. It took me a while to realize that San Francisco, with its abundant fog and “rainy season,” is, in addition to being stunningly picturesque and easily the world’s best place to spend your twenties, bar none the moldiest city in America, and that in addition to grass and trees, I am deathly allergic to mold.

This harsh reality came into focus when I decided, “Hey! I’ve got a steady salaried job, complete with health insurance, thanks to an Internet tech bubble that will never, ever burst — I should go to a doctor and get to the bottom of these allergies. Maybe advances have been made in allergy medications that can help me!” My wife has since confided that on our first few dates, she found it exceedingly odd that I kept a full-size box of tissues in my car, right in front of the gearshift. 

So I went to the doctor, and he referred me to an allergist, and I told him my respiratory life story. He nodded and wrote a few things down and said, “All right, the nurse is going to come in and give you a test, to see exactly what we’re dealing with here, and then we’ll go from there.” In comes the nurse, an attractive young woman in scrubs, not much older than myself. She explained that she would prick the back of my arm, in the shoulder/tricep area, with a variety of allergens (grass, trees, mold, cat dander, dog dander, etc. etc.), like 24 of them or so, in a grid formation. She would give the pricks a few minutes to react or not react (in the form of swelling around the puncture) — the size of the swelling, which she’d measure by comparing it to a series of small, variously sized holes in a card, would indicate whether, and to what degree, I was allergic to each allergen.

The process was painless, and I waited ten minutes or so while the nurse attended to other patients, maybe administered some other allergy tests. I thought to myself what a strange job it must be, to give 24 pinpricks to multiple people each and every day, and to then evaluate the swelling. I guess it’s like anything else, I thought — you just get used to it until it’s no big deal.

Then I heard the door open, and the nurse’s clipboard clatter to the ground, as she gasped in unfeigned shock: “OH MY GOD.” My condition was apparently the worst she’d ever seen — and this was her job. All 24 punctures had swelled up bigger than her little card could measure. They’d swelled up the way Toll House cookies spread out when you cook them: they’d started out small and totally separate, but were now more like a 24-part Venn diagram.

It was soon explained that I was allergic to everything they’d tested me for. If allergy-test pinpricks were basketball players, my set of samples was the ’96 Bulls, with grass, trees, and mold the Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman. The fact that my then-girlfriend now-wife and I had just moved in together in a half-basement apartment (it was the basement of a house, but the house was set into a steep hill so the back half of the basement was above ground) indicated that I would not be escaping mold anytime soon. (It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I’d moved to Brooklyn and my condition once again restricted itself to when I was outdoors, that I understood that San Francisco is, in addition to its many more charming qualities, just seven square miles of mold from which there is no escape.)

So, the doctor, who entered chuckling, “Well, Alexander! You are a very! Allergic! Young man!” recommended that I begin immunotherapy at once, and I agreed before the details were even explained to me.

Immunotherapy would ostensibly build my tolerance to all these allergens over a period of several years, and ultimately cure me of the allergies once and for all, if I followed the course of treatment: I would be issued a set of syringes and a set of vials full of allergen cocktail, and I would have to self-administer an injection to a roll of my belly fat, pinched between my fingers, twice a week. (I swear I’m not making this up.) The doctor acknowledged that sticking a needle in my own belly might make me squeamish, and that if this was the case I could bring my girlfriend (or whoever) and they’d teach her (or whoever) how to give me the injections. My then-girlfriend now-wife agreed to take on this duty, but when she got a look at what it actually entailed, she blanched and pulled the ripcord immediately. I was on my own, and so I embarked on the very strange ritual of sticking myself in the belly with a syringe twice a week. (The weirdest part wasn’t the sticking in of the needle, but that a little of the medicine or whatever you’d call it always oozed out the puncture hole when I took the needle out.)

Did it work? It might have, but we’ll never know because about six months later I, along with everyone else in San Francisco, lost my job when the tech bubble burst and tertiary, non-essential personnel such as the editorial staffs of money-losing websites were turned out into the street, marking the end of both my Ecstasy subsidy (that’s a ’90s San Francisco joke) and my health insurance, and with it, the immunotherapy.

But this story, a story of crusty shirt cuffs and ruined pillowcases and half-heard movie dialogue and very awkward (they would probably say disgusting) close encounters with the opposite sex has a happy ending, because I discovered a wonder drug that has changed my life. I want to tell you about this wonder drug because when I see other people suffering the way I used to suffer and I mention it to them, they seem not to understand that I am whispering the answer to their prayers. I am shining a light in the black wilderness.

That light is called Claritin, my friends, and I came *this close* to naming my son after it. (He was spared this fate because what I actually buy is the generic Rite-Aid version, which goes by the name of the active ingredient, Loratadine, which is obviously a girl’s name.) Whereas I used to spend April through October with my sinuses tingling, clawing at my insanely itchy eyes, and teetering on the verge of 19 consecutive sneezes, while innocent bystanders went from  a patient “Bless you” to “Bless you again!” to silently staring with pity to staring with barely veiled contempt, I am now (respirationally) a normal person, suffering from neither crippling allergies nor differently-crippling allergy-medication side effects, and I have Claritin (Loratadine) to thank.

Whenever I encounter a fellow allergy sufferer, I try to tell them about the wonder drug, how it’s changed my life, that they really ought to get on it. Most of the time, they just shrug and say they tried it and it didn’t do anything. That’s because they’re doing it wrong!

Claritin (Loratadine) is not like Sudafed or Benadryl or Chlor-Trimeton. You don’t take one and then see immediate, 6- or 12-hour relief (or the accompanying 6- or 12- hour low-level too-much-coffee-ish buzz that comes with it). It’s more like birth control pills, or SSRIs: you take one every day, and after about two weeks, your allergy symptoms just gradually start to vanish. (I chose that word, VANISH, very carefully.)  There are no side effects that I’ve noticed, just an absence of misery. I don’t know why this is not explained on the box, but that’s the way the stuff works — if you just take one when your nose starts running, it’s not going to help.

The only trick is that you eventually start to forget you suffer from crippling allergies, much the way people on SSRIs eventually forget they’re crazy, so after a while it’s easy to forget to take the pill every day, and if you go more than a couple of days without one, you start to get that familiar tingle in the nose again. I’ve taken to keeping my pills next to my toothbrush on the sink, where I won’t fail to see them. This has become a point of contention with my wife, who feels (not unjustifiably) that a bottle of generic Rite-Aid pills at the focal point of our bathroom is an eyesore, and would prefer that I keep them in the medicine cabinet. I can usually make her back down by reminding her of the time I ruined (RUINED) Thanksgiving dinner at her uncle’s.

And by the way, now that I have a back yard of my own, I made sure I never have to mow it: I filled it in with multicolored gravel.

Try Claritin!

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