allergies and acceptance


    If you press me, I’ll tell you my favorite Paul Simon record is one of his least known: Hearts and Bones. I’m in the minority because it’s his least known record, I think, other than the soundtrack from his Broadway show. Nevertheless, it’s one I can listen to over and over. I thought about it today because of the opening track, “Allergies”:

    allergies allergies
    something’s living on my skin
    doctor please doctor please
    open up it’s me again

    You see, today I spent the afternoon at the allergist.

    I have to back up a bit for you to understand the import of that statement. I have been hounded my whole life by allergies. I have tried every antihistamine, delved into most every decongestant, tried as many treatments as I can find and, in Paul Simon’s words, still these allergies remain. In New England, winter meant a respite, but North Carolina offers nothing of the sort; I’m allergic to the state.

    About ten months ago, my throat started seizing up – or, at least, that’s the best way I can describe it. I can still breathe, but I can’t swallow and my throat fills up with mucous that I have to clear rather unceremoniously. The result is I go without good sleep about every third night, which seems to be the pattern of the onslaught. I have not been able to pinpoint a direct cause of the congestion. Instead, it seems rather capricious. So I have lived on a steady diet of Benadryl, among other things, trying to find a way to survive. I talked to my doctor about it last summer and he promised to send me to an allergist, but the promise was not kept before my health insurance ran out, so I had to wait until this January to push him to keep his promise. He sent me instead to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who then sent me on to an allergist, whom I saw today. Though last night was miserable, I was somewhat happy that the “swallowing thing” was happening as I went to see him today. I also went with the expectation that he was going to do a full slate of allergy tests to try and figure out what was going on. He was a nice guy and he dealt with me well, but he said he didn’t have the equipment to look at my throat and he only tested me for dogs (not allergic) and dust mites (allergic) and offered me yet another antihistamine and told me the best thing I could do for my throat was to go see the ENT while it was going on so she could figure out what it was.

    I spent over two hours in his office. At the end of the time he said, “Well, I think we have a good plan.”

    “The only plan I know is for me to go see the other doctor when my throat acts up. That’s a plan?” I asked.

    That was his plan. That and to write me a prescription for another antihistamine and a nasal steroid. And he wants to see me in two months. I’m not sure why. It seems actually treating allergies is not a part of the American medical system to try and figure out how to treat the symptoms of my allergies. At the end of our time, I asked him about the skin irritation I get with some regularity.

    “You’re just a really allergic person,” he said without irony.

    I left feeling just as allergic and a good bit more frustrated than when I arrived. I went by the church to vent to Ginger and then met some friends at Fullsteam to find a way past how pissed off I felt. The friends are folks at the heart of the Wild Goose Festival, which will happen again here in North Carolina this June. (Please come.) As I drove to meet them, I remembered one of the talks that stuck with me from last years festival. A pastor from New York named Gabriel Salguero spoke on “The Allergy to the Other.” I wish I had notes to go back to that would outline the great stuff he had to say, but all I can do is recall feeling compelled by his words about how we allow ourselves to feel “allergic” to people who aren’t like us, responding defensively in the same way our bodies produce histamines to protect us from the unknown.

    I thought about his talk today because I was so taken aback by the way in which the doctor whose declared specialty was allergies had only enough imagination to deal with symptoms. His aim was to make me comfortable, period. He did talk about allergy shots, but what he offered was a five-year commitment that was only about seventy-five percent effective. Beyond that, my best choice was to mask the symptoms and act like things were OK.

    Recently, Durham was recognized as The Most Tolerant City in the United States. I love that I live in a place that is recognized for its welcoming spirit and I want to be more than “tolerant,” which seems to me to be the relational equivalent of taking antihistamines and thinking you’ve dealt with your allergies. When I hear the word tolerant, I think it means learning to put up with something or someone: getting used to someone, but not really making a place for them in your life. Straight people, for example, who learn to tolerate gay and lesbian folks come to some sort of “live and let live” place, but don’t ever intend to actually be friends with them.

    Toleration is not acceptance any more than what the doctor did for me today was actually deal with my allergies.

    I long for another survey that measures the most accepting city. I think Durham still has a shot because we are, in large part, more than tolerant of one another. This is one of the most encouraging places I have ever lived. The task in any community is to learn how to live in such a way that we become essential to one another. That means finding a way to do more than mask our allergies and to push through our fears and prejudices to see the only way we survive is to survive together. To quote another Paul Simon song,

    I’ve reason to believe
    we all will be received in Graceland

    Durham, too.



    1. Sorry about your allergies … Yes, doctors should do more than treat symptoms. And, yes, tolerance should not be the goal – not for allergies or relationships.

    2. I’m sorry about your allergies, too. With this early spring, we’re all suffering at my house.

      Just wanted to say I love “Hearts and Bones,” too. “Rene and George Magritte and their Dog After the War” is a song that comes into my head quite frequently. Have you listened to the most recent PS? It’s awfully good.

      Your Durham neighbor, Frances

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