Illness, Allergies, and Endings

I’ve been avoiding this post for a long time. Given that my last post was all about failure, I wanted to offset it with a post full of good news and stunning accomplishments.

This isn’t that post. The short version is that last year did not go well; once again, illness interrupted my plans. This time, it might be permanent.

In April and May I felt amazing, better than I ever had. By early June, though, I’d had several very unpleasant walks where I developed sudden, terrible symptoms reminiscent of the stomach flu. The first time it happened I was at least a mile away from any public facilities and very nearly didn’t make it back without embarrassing myself (sorry if that’s TMI; you get the idea).

I’d never experienced such a horrible mixture of nausea and panic. As I walked, I was dumbstruck at the sudden lack of restaurants, markets, and office buildings along my path. Where were all the public restrooms? I cursed every crosswalk that slowed my progress and seriously considered running out into traffic to get across the busier streets. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. As I hurried back towards downtown Portland, I remembered that a nearby bank also housed PSU classrooms—and toilets—upstairs.

I attributed the experience to illness, took a few days off from work, and didn’t give it much more thought. I was a little nervous about going out again, but I figured I’d stay close to familiar territory and public facilities for a while, just in case. A few weeks passed before I went out to walk again, and the incident repeated itself. It wasn’t nearly as intense as the first bout, thankfully, but it was bad enough to cut my walk short and reinforce my fears.

Peak allergy season set in, giving me another reason to stay indoors. Then, sometime around August or September, the bouts of spontaneous stomach flu started to occur even when I had walked only a few blocks.  It all came to a nauseous and painful crescendo one day after lunch when (TMI warning) I suffered a sudden, severe bout of vomiting and other gastric symptoms. I felt feverish. My eyes, hands, and the inside of my mouth itched and burned. I had no idea what was happening. I was desperate to make it stop.

The symptoms calmed long enough for me to stagger out of the restroom and into my car. I set off on the nearly hour-long commute home, fully expecting to have to pull over a dozen or more times. I arrived home having made only one forced stop, showered and changed my clothes, and lay down for a nap. After a short while I felt fine; exhausted, yes, but I clearly didn’t have the stomach flu. I didn’t know what to think.

The flu-attacks continued at more or less regular intervals. During the worst of it I had to leave work several times each week. My wife and I started tracking the foods I ate more closely, looking for a clear correlation between my diet and my reactions. At one point I thought mustard was the problem. Another time we suspected turmeric. Every time we thought we’d pinned it down I would get sick again and we’d have a new data point that didn’t fit with the rest.

I finally went to see an immunologist in November. The attacks were clearly related to food, so I figured I might as well get tested for allergies. I didn’t expect any new information. I’ve always had bad hay fever. I underwent the full barrage of scratch tests when I was a teenager and felt I had a good idea of what I should avoid and how best to treat it: Don’t go outside in May and June. Keep myself well-cooled. Air conditioners, ice packs, and refrigerated rooms in grocery stores work wonders for me.

The doctor ran another series of scratch tests, customizing the tests based on our data and observations. Just as I expected, my immune system showed absurd overreactions to nearly everything green: trees, grass, bushes, flowers—the list goes on. If it grows outside, I’m almost certainly allergic to it. The worst scratch-test reaction caused a welt that spread over two inches across my arm. Even so, I wasn’t terribly surprised. I’m allergic to pollen. What else is new?

Not surprisingly, many of the substances I’m allergic to are structurally similar to fruits, vegetables, and nuts. In fact, they’re similar to most vegetables, fruits, and nuts. What was new, apparently, is that my body is no longer content to inflame my sinuses or induce sneezing. Rather, my digestive system joining the fun by pretending to be riotously ill whenever it encounters these things.

The doctor produced a list of foods I should avoid, and it was comically long. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read it. It’s actually easier to list the produce I can eat:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Grapes
  • Onions
  • Most berries (strawberries, blueberries, etc.)

Cooking things helps in some cases. Peas, corn, and green beans can be tamed. Carrots, on the other hand, are invariably evil. The wide world is full of diverse, plant-based food. Until I manage to negotiate a truce with my body, most of it is now off-limits. I’ve experimented here and there, looking for things I can still tolerate, but it hasn’t gone well and I’m leery of angering my immune system any further.

The more I thought about this, the less surprising it seemed. I’ve always reacted poorly to common foods. Oranges and other citrus make my mouth itch and sometimes leave bumps that take hours to recede. Carrots (horrible things that they are) have induced pain and nausea for a decade now.

The truly novel and lovely part of all this is that at some point, in addition to hay fever, I started having gastrointestinal reactions to environmental allergens. Pollen became a veritable poison to me.

Naturally, this puts a damper on my outdoor walking ambitions.

So what do I do now? Where do I go from here?

I’m not sure. I haven’t figured it all out yet. It’s going to take time and patience. My diet is a mess, consisting mostly of meat and dairy (I neglected to mention that I’m also unable to eat eggs, wheat, gluten, and various other grains). Allergy shots might be an option, but they’re expensive, take five years to complete, and there are no guarantees of positive results. I’m interested in helminthic therapy—infecting oneself with a controlled dose of hookworms—, but it’s still very fringe. I’m wary of the real risks and side effects.

The result, though it makes me tearfully sad to admit it, is that my Walk to Fuji is over. Whatever other approach I find to improve my health, it isn’t at all likely to mesh with my vision for the project:

  • Get out, get in shape
  • Learn Japanese, and in so doing learn to reach out and connect with people, both at home and abroad
  • Spend several weeks, several months, or even a year wandering about Japan on foot; find the “real” Japan, not the one you see in travel brochures
  • Ascend to the summit of Mt. Fuji.

I hope I’m wrong. God, I hope I’m wrong. I hope I find a way past, through, or around all this, and that I find myself, whatever my age, reaching Fujisan’s caldera on a cold and misty morning, surrounded by hundreds of fellow travelers, just as the sun rises.

Until then, I’m off to find other mountains to climb.

Thank you for reading.

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1 Comment

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote “my digestive system has decided to get in on the fun by pretending to be riotously ill.”

    I am not a doctor or scientist, but in 2004 I discovered how to stop all my respiratory allergies and even colds as soon as they start. I believe without any doubt that I am not really in danger of pollens, smoke, dust and perfume, but my body just thinks it is. If I stop the histamine reaction with a drop of diluted alcohol, it goes away. If you are interested, my blog is http://howtostopcolds.wordpress.com

    I just read a book by John E. Sarno, M.D, about stopping back pain. He believes that our subconscious mind can use physical conditions to repress any psychological pain, unknown to us– even including irritable bowel, migraines, etc. He explains how we can take control of those subconscious tricks and stop putting up with it. Healing Back Pain–The Mind-Body Connection is a worthwhile read, even for those who don’t have back pain.

    Please keep us posted.

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