It is 4am, and I am lying on the cool, marble floor of a hotel bathroom in Reno. I am clutching my stomach, thinking that now is the worst possible time to get sick. The pain, just under my ribs, is unbearable. I can’t figure out what’s causing it. If I was vomiting or had the shits, it would be easier. At least I’d know the end result of my stomachache. But this is a different kind of pain – a blunt, gripping stab that hovers right in the center of my body.
My best friend is asleep in the next room, unaware of my situation. My hand is claw-like at my belly. I start breathing hard, Lamaze-style, hoping that it will get me through this mystery contraction.
The pain lingers for about 20 minutes then fades away, and I’m exhausted. I crawl between the cool white hotel sheets and fall asleep.
An hour later I am awake again, my stomach wracked with painful spasms. I get up and go back to the bathroom, where I can make hyperventilating noises without waking up my friend. This totally sucks.
And if that isn’t bad enough, lately I have been suffering from a case of hives that makes poison ivy seem like fun. My flesh, as of late, is a hot, burning mass of itch that will not go away. My body has become a map of every place I’ve been touched in the last 10 minutes, because I have what is called “dermographism”. My doctor tests me for this by lightly dragging a pen in a crisscross pattern over the inside of my arm. A second later, giant, red welts appear where the pen has been.
“Your immune system is very angry right now,” my doctor said. Apparently, I was allergic to something. My immune system wasn’t just angry; it was murderous.
My skin was being invaded by a circus of traveling hives that relocated every 5 minutes to a different part of my body. First, it would be the back of my head. It began with a tingling heat that would explode into a blazing fire and an unrelenting itch that was impossible to ignore. I would scrape my nails over the area again and again, experiencing the illusion of relief, while it got worse with every scratch. Then, just when I thought the episode had passed, it would spread to my ears, and then inside my ears. Then it would migrate to my arms, my ass, the bottoms of my feet, the palms of my hands. And so on. This itch would haunt me all day until I took an antihistamine, which only made the hives calm down a bit.
So there I was, in a nice hotel in Reno, on the bathroom floor. I didn’t want to wake up Gina, who brought me there on a gambling adventure. It was my ambition to win a few extra dollars to get me through my many months of unemployment. Gina, the gambling professional, was to be my blackjack coach.
Despite having grown up in Las Vegas, I never once sat at a blackjack table. When I was a kid, being on the “floor” or anywhere near those half moon, green-felted tables, was strictly prohibited. So the feeling of the table being “forbidden” is permanently ingrained in my mind. When I sat down to play for the first time and picked up the cards, my hands visibly trembled.
Gina preferred to “work” during the small morning hours, and I wasn’t used to being awake at 2am. There I sat for two days, nervous, exhausted and itching, the pain in my stomach coming and going. At one point during this trip, Gina looked at me and said, “When did you get so fragile?” Yeah, when did I?
Despite all that, the trip was a success. With Gina’s help, I won enough money to buy groceries, pay bills and impress my boyfriend. When I finally got home, I took a few extra benadryls and crawled into bed.
Stomach pain. It woke me up like an evil alarm clock. The cramping was worse than ever, and the hives were still raging their hot, angry tour of my body. I sat up, the room warm and bright with the afternoon sun, and clutched my gut. It was at that moment that I made the correlation between my stomach pain and the benadryl. I had taken a lot of them.
Irony of ironies, I am allergic to allergy medicine.
Over the course of the next year, I saw three doctors and took a lot of pills. I sampled every variety of antihistamine until I found one that didn’t hurt my stomach. I spent a lot of days in bed, dopey with medication and scratching myself. The hives took up residence with me for almost a year and a half. That was two years ago.
I had many suspicions about what was causing them – wheat, sugar, my boyfriend – but their origin remained a mystery, until now.
About three weeks ago, I got a bladder infection – the result of dehydration and excessive sexual activity. I went to urgent care, where I was prescribed Macrobid, an antibiotic. A week after finishing my prescription, I had a familiar sensation. And then, oh, hello hives.
That first episode had also followed a prescription for a bladder infection. Newsflash - I am allergic to antibiotics. I don’t know why it took my body more than a year to recover, but there are worse things. Like the plague, or cancer.
For six blissful months I did not itch. The offending eruptions receded into obscurity and vanished, I thought, forever.
But now they are back.
When I was a teenager, I had a movie poster in my room for The Return of the Living Dead, featuring several green and mangled zombie punk rockers. The tagline warned, “They’re back from the grave and ready to party!”
Imagine that, only instead of zombies, picture my flesh – red and welted with a mob of reborn hives that are all too ecstatic to have found their host again.
It’s funny (but not ‘ha, ha’ funny) how you take your health for granted when you’ve known nothing but health. My father always says, when somebody complains about something, “At least you’ve got your health!” I thought this was just a catchy phrase that old people used to make you feel guilty about their arthritis. But now I understand, and I cherish the days when I feel good.
The allergic reaction was worse this time around, as was the accompanying drug-induced stomach spasms. This time, as a last resort, I was given steroids. First, an oral dose that made me ravenous. One dose made me so hungry that my stomach could not even register food. It sent a constant message to my brain that I was starving, and that I would die if not stuffed endlessly with starchy carbohydrates. I gained 5 pounds in two days and threw the rest of the pills out.
Finally, I was given a shot of cortisone. That was 5 days ago, and it has given me a lot of relief. I’m still itchy and dopey (famous as the two dwarfs who also suffered from allergies), but better.
One of the worst things to do when you have any ailment is to go online and read about your ailment. You are guaranteed to find a handful of horror stories from people who had your symptoms exactly, or took the same prescription drugs, and ended up gaining 600 pounds, or losing their hair, or growing another arm.
According to my research on “chronic urticaria” – better known as “itchy welts that won’t go away” – I could potentially be hive-ridden for many more years, possibly the rest of my life. There is no more frustrated group of individuals than the ones who share this condition with me, and I’m a little worried.
But I vowed to myself that this time I would not take it lying down. I will see a healer, get hypnotherapy, or consult a shaman. Yesterday I saw an acupuncturist.
I have two words to describe acupuncture: weird and boring. Weird, because, come on, they stick you with little pins. And boring because then they leave you lying on a table with these little pins for 30 minutes while you stare at the carpet and listen to a CD of birds chirping.
But let me tell you what, if my “urticaria” disappears within the next 24 hours, I will become a crusader for acupuncture.
In the meantime, I will slather myself in cortisone cream and visualize the hives/zombies returning to their graves, done with partying and ready to move on to the next world.