lenten journal: allergic reactions


I go to a famous physician I sleep in the local hotel
From what I can see of the people like me
We get better but we never get well
Paul Simon, “Allergies

My week has been marked by my allergies, and in particular preparing to go to see a new allergist on Monday. In anticipation of the appointment, I have had to do without my allergy medication. Monday saw the end of the Allegra and my nasal spray, yesterday I had to stop the Benadryl, and tomorrow I must do without the Singular. All of them are things I take regularly to try and keep myself moving and breathing and not feeling too itchy. Needless to say, this has been a stuffy and itchy week. Though the doctor didn’t give me any rationale for my medicine fast, I assume she wanted to unmask my symptoms so she could get a clear picture of what is going on. The frustrating part for me — or at least the part that leads me to go into Monday with fairly low expectations — is I’ve seen lots of allergists over the years and gone through lots of testing and I think, after all the unmasking, she will probably just give me new masks because Paul Simon is right: “we get better but we never get well.”

In the fall of 2000, I went to the doctor because I was having trouble staying awake. Every time I sat down I fell asleep. After we talked for a bit, she said, “I think you’re suffering from sleep deprivation.” The statement was funny to me because I had spent my life to that point getting by on five maybe six hours of sleep. I had always been the guy who went to be late and got up early. She sent me to what Ginger and I affectionately called Sleep Camp to see if I was suffering from sleep apnea. The testing was supposed to take place over two nights. The first night was for them to see my sleeping patterns and determine if I had the condition. The second night was to fit me for the CPAP, which is the machine that blows air up your nose while you sleep and, well, let’s you actually sleep.

I arrived at Sleep Camp about 10:30 one night, as instructed, and the nurse spent about thirty minutes hooking up all the wires and then he told me to go to sleep, which I did. About 1:30 he came in and woke me up. “There’s no need for you to come back a second night. There’s no question about your apnea. No wonder you’re so tired. You’re sleeping in ninety second increments.” He fitted me with the sleeping apparatus and sent me home with a CPAP and, for the first time I could remember, I woke up feeling rested. What I didn’t see coming was once the mask of the apnea was taken away, I found a deep depression underneath it. I thought I was tired, but I was actually depressed. It took a little longer to learn to live with and through my depression.

One of the keys for coming to terms with it, for me, was in finding metaphors to help explain what was happening to me. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to Paul Simon’s song when my allergies get bad: he helps me turn them into metaphor. I don’t mean I think the allergies themselves stand for something larger as much as they help me to think about how we decide what it is in life that we have to learn to live with, what we feel we can change, and what we choose to mask over by dealing with the symptoms. My take on the medical approach, as far as I can see, is that the energy is all in the masking of symptoms, not in finding a way to do away with them. Some Eastern medical practitioners both think about and treat allergies differently, as though the body is trying to say something, or that they are not something one has to get used to. When Shea, my acupuncturist, talks about them, she talks in more holistic terms about not only my whole body but also my whole being. She doesn’t have easy answers, but it does feel like she is asking better questions.

I am working to challenge myself to do something other than despair on there being any real answers. I have yet to meet my allergist; no need to decide she has already failed. Part of my task is to not settle for dealing with symptoms. Another is to work to find more than one way to look at the problem. I have spent my first fifty-six years dealing with significant allergies on one way or another. My guess is they are going to play some sort of role in most of the rest of my days. Whatever happens physically, I will give thanks tonight for the reminder to look for the masks I allow to settle in my life and to find ways to mix things up from time to time to see what needs to get out from underneath and what needs to be left behind.



  1. Thought I knew all of Simon’s repertoire, but this one is new to me. Sorry, Milton. Allergies are not fun. But I think you’re onto something with this whole masking idea. . .

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