By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
Like most teenagers, I spent the better part of my high school career being annoyed with my parents. My mother, in particular, had a very irritating habit. Each year at about this time, she would start sneezing. And she would sneeze long sequences of sneezes – sometimes 10 in a row, barely coming up for air.
I would “God bless you” on the first sneeze and maybe the second, but by the fifth one I lost patience with her. By the seventh or eighth, I was rolling my eyes in the charming way teenagers do and saying something cranky like “C’mon Mom. Would you quit it already?”
“Allergies,” she would say, wiping her nose and rubbing her eyes. “It’s miserable.”
And I would go on about my teenager business, dismissing all her allergy talk so I could concentrate on important things, like how to wear my hair.
The truth is I thought allergies were a fake problem. Allergies were something people just liked to complain about. I wasn’t altogether convinced they really existed. Allergies were for sissies.
When you don’t have allergies, it’s hard to imagine them. You can’t see an allergy. You can’t smell them, hear them or touch them. You just have to take someone’s word for it that they exist. Even if you believe it, you assume allergies are nothing more than an occasional tickle in the nose and that’s that. Nothing to get all uptight about. Nothing to cause you to sneeze 10 times in a row and embarrass your teenage daughter in public.
And then one day, in my early twenties, it happened. In the middle of a fine fall day, I started feeling terrible for no apparent reason. And then it happened the next day and the next. It went on for more than a week. This was no ordinary cold. I went to the doctor immediately, convinced there was something terribly wrong.
I described my symptoms: sneezing, burning eyes, itching nose, more sneezing and overall fatigue. The doctor looked at me and said, “Allergies. They’re miserable, aren’t they?”
“But I don’t have allergies,” I said. “I’ve never had allergies.”
He chuckled a little and said, “You’ve got them now. You can develop them as an adult, too.”
So with a brown bag full of Claritin samples, I walked out of the doctor’s office and into reality. Allergies were real. Allergies were bad. Allergies were real bad, and I had them.
For the first time, I began to understand that when people say things like “allergy attack,” they aren’t just being overly dramatic. Allergies really do attack, like a swarm of angry bees and an army of itchy ants. One minute you’re a healthy twenty-something basking in the cool September breeze, and the next minute you’re a sniffling, red-eyed mess.
My teenage apathy about my mother’s allergy suffering has come back to haunt me. I sneeze just like my mother did. I sneeze so much I annoy myself. I roll my eyes and reach for a box of Kleenex and complain about how terrible it is. If I could be hooked up to an I.V. of antihistamine throughout the fall, I think I might do it.
Perhaps the worst thing about allergies is that they don’t make you sick enough to be in bed or miss work or not drive carpool, just sick enough to be walking around miserable. You sneeze just enough to annoy your kids and get suspicious stares from strangers who assume you have the flu and shrink away in disgust.
But it’s not the flu. The flu is much kinder. The flu goes away after a week or so. Allergies persist, like a bad rash that just keeps coming back.
They have the power to turn an all-knowing teenager into a thirty-something sissy. Pass the Kleenex.