I am among the many people who suffer from allergies. I’ve been this way my whole life, and it has become automatic for me to avoid the things that I will have the most severe reactions to. What I’ve never quite gotten comfortable with is the reactions I get from people who learn that I have allergies.
“Oh, you have allergies? What are you allergic to?” someone will eventually ask me.
I’m never sure exactly how much to reveal. There is something unnerving about pointing out to a complete stranger all the little things that are perfectly safe for the general population to encounter, which stand a good chance of killing me.
At some point, as I rattle off my long list of potential allergens, I will look up to find that I have frightened the person who asked me the question in the first place. Yes, I am a freak of nature. Thank you so much for reminding me! I can see in the stranger’s eyes the words that are being thought, but not said. Everyone is so happy that they don’t have to live like I do.
While it is generally considered rude to ask a person about their health problems, somehow, society has deemed allergies to be an exception to the rule. This might be due to the fact that it’s pretty difficult to hide when one has a severe allergic reaction. If I’m having trouble breathing, breaking out in hives, or having a coughing and sneezing fit, it’s impossible for the people around me to overlook. I can only keep my allergies a secret for a short time, before they announce themselves to the world.
Once that happens, my allergies become public knowledge. People start yelling questions to me from across the room. What will happen if I eat this? Will that make me sneeze? I’ve become a curiosity. Just like that, I stop being me, and become “that woman with all the allergies”.
People start treating me as if I am fragile. Now, I’m getting warnings about potential allergens, as my coworkers try and protect me. The salad in the break room has pine nuts in it. That hallway smells of the floral perfume that someone just sprayed into the air. I think they mean well, but it becomes a constant reminder of how many ways I am different from all of them.
Usually, this is the time I whip out the Epi-Pen and start teaching people how to use it. I’ve given up trying to pass myself off as “normal”. There is something about instructing people about how they can save my life with a little, pen shaped, device that makes them look at me as if I have spontaneously sprouted a second head. No one wants to be reminded of his or her own mortality, even indirectly. I forget that, because I spend each and every day consciously thinking about how I can avoid death by allergen.
Eventually, my allergies become old news. Perhaps people forget about my allergies because I haven’t died from them yet. Things go back to normal, and I become a person again, instead of a walking example of a chronic illness. Until a new coworker is hired, who asks me what my allergies are. Then, the whole cycle starts over.