Thursday, July 29, 2010

Medical Mysteries

I recently returned from my annual long-weekend vacation to Ely, MN. This has led me to ponder my relationship to wilderness/lake/nature and why I will never be called an “outdoorsy gal.”

First of all, please understand that I do enjoy nature in general. Generally, I do love jumping in the lake on a hot day or the feel of sunshine and a light breeze. Animals and plants are interesting to me. But this love is highly conditional. In my youth, the conditions were simple – as long I was not attacked by a bear or eaten alive by mosquitoes, all was right with the world. Now that I am an adult, I have developed a condition that has upset the balance: seasonal allergies.

I believe that I have been blessed with basically good health for my entire life. Occasionally I suffer from a cold or flu, but nothing worse. I was therefore unprepared for the bizarre onslaught of symptoms that began to appear in the warmer months of MN. In many ways, they mirrored a cold – stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, etc. The symptom that tipped me off to the fact that I might be dealing with a different beast altogether was the unprovoked eye-watering.

The first instance I can remember of non-emotional crying was while I was out for a friend’s birthday to a German bar for polka dancing. It was April, and the MN climate was starting to warm. Please note that at this time (the early 2000’s) MN had yet to enact its total public smoking ban. Also, the dance floor was located in the enclosed basement of the restaurant, making ventilation a slight issue.

At the time, I was in my early 20’s and still suffered under the delusion that I needed to look attractive in order to have a good time. I was dressed up in a cute but somewhat sexy top and the fancy jeans I had purchased on my trip to London. I wore extra make-up and was ready to polka.

About one hour into the festivities, I was standing by the edge of the dance floor chatting with some friends and trying to look cool when my eyes started to itch and burn. I tried blinking and rubbing my eyes to see if I had just caught some random chemical spray, but nothing helped. I looked around me through my bleary vision and noticed that no one else seemed to be suffering as I was. Pretty soon tears started running down my face and my friends started to become concerned. I assured them that I wasn’t becoming emotional over the upcoming performance of the Chicken Dance, but I knew something wasn’t right.

I retreated to the bathroom to assess the damage. It wasn’t too bad, but we didn’t stay too much longer after that. I was fine once we left the building, and I didn’t think too much more about it until the next time it happened later that summer. At first I was perplexed; I had no idea what was happening. I have never worn contact lenses, I do not wear a lot of eye makeup and am not fond of putting things near or into my eyes. It was not until one of my kind coworkers mentioned that she had acquired allergies as an adult that I began to suspect the true culprit.

All of a sudden, it was as if the universe fell into place; all of my mysterious “summer colds” could now be explained! My total nasal congestion that accompanied every visit to my aunt and uncle’s cat-inhabited house could be categorized! I could now join the elite group of people known as “seasonal allergy sufferers!” For a brief shining moment, I felt cool, popular and understood. Then, the disgusting tear and snot filled reality hit me like a hard pollen-filled blast of “fresh” air: I needed to find a cure.

I scanned through my usual source of medical wisdom,, for treatments. Many of my childhood friends were allergy victims, and I could recall their stories of “allergy testing” and “allergy shots” that sent chills down my spine due to my abject fear of needles. Therefore, I did what I usually do in the face of medical conundrums: self-diagnose. After minutes of deliberation, I was able to determine that the cause of my allergies were three main culprits: pollen, cats and cigarettes.

The first cause is pretty generic, but the last two were downright puzzling. First of all, I grew up with cats. I spent a great deal of time at houses with cats, and my family owned a cat for several years in my youth. Yet, whenever I spend more than one day at my aunt and uncle’s house, I find myself completely congested. Perhaps it is breed specific to Siamese cats. The final cause, cigarettes, is also bizarre. I grew up spending a great deal of time around my favorite cigarette smoker, my grandma. I even inherited her tobacco/nicotine-stained 1987 Chevy Celebrity as my first car and never shed a tear. Now, I can hardly spend more than two minutes in the presence of second-hand smoke before my eyes are running like faucets. Growing up is hard to do, indeed.

As for cures, I have found that Claritin (or its generic versions) is very effective for a non-drowsy option. The only downside to this treatment is that it seems to sap every ounce of personality from my body. All I want to do is sit and stare at things. This is OK when I’m at the lake because I can sit in a deck chair and stare at the water while working on my tan (or burn). This is NOT acceptable when I am at work staring at my stapler for 10 minutes.

I have heard that children who grow up with parents who are clean-freaks (i.e. constantly dusting, vacuuming, etc.) are more likely to have allergies. Obviously, my parents did me a favor by allowing me to grow up with dust, pollen, dander and other allergens, but I cannot figure out what has happened since. My world certainly has not become cleaner; housekeeping is not my forte. I can only surmise that it is some kind of cosmic or divine vengeance on me for being too smug towards my allergy-afflicted friends of my childhood. Either that or someone really wants me to know that air conditioning is better than fresh air, dogs are better than cats and drinking is a better vice than smoking. It’s just tough love, I suppose.

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