Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Allergy Freak Out - Or Maybe Not

Hello Friends:

It's taken me a week to write about this, it freaked me out so badly.  But now, safe in the distance of time and an explanation I can handle, things look differently.  Of course they do.  But at the time, it felt like this ...

Never eat sushi before having an allergy attack.

Because you (who have OCD food contamination issues) will imagine it was the sushi.  Even though you only eat cooked and vegetarian sushi.  Even though you eat it all the time, you will still think it was the sushi.

My sister and I had just entered a bead shop, looking around for fun.  It wasn't ten minutes after leaving the restaurant.  I started sneezing as soon as we entered the shop.  At first I thought it must have been dust, or maybe they were burning incense.  My OCD and GAD radar was up in a flash, of course, but years of training had the messages nicely contained.  "No problem.  Just a sneeze or two."  Then my nose started to run.  Well, I am allergic to dust.  Maybe it was a dusty shop.  I'd been there before and not had any reaction, but, first time for everything.  My cognitive rationalization was going nicely.

And then I started feeling really, really hot.  Celexa can give a person hot flashes, but those are almost always at night.  This was odd.  I assumed it was a physical reaction to my anxiety.  So I tried to talk it away.  Which, these days, always works.  I haven't had a full blown panic attack in years.  I can get them and beat them into submission before they beat me.  I started through my mental toolbox almost without realizing I was doing it.

Thirty seconds later, my skin felt like it was on fire.  This was particularly the skin of my forearms and face, but it felt like my neck and chest were starting up, too.  I couldn't believe it.  It had been a whole minute, maybe two, and I had not beaten down these panic symptoms.  It sort of hurt my pride as the OCD cognitive therapy poster child.

Then.  Then I heard this voice.  It was an inside voice.  It was very calm.  It said, "This is not panic.  This is a real physical reaction to something.  You are not making this up.  You are not making this happen with your anxiety.  This is real."

I didn't doubt the voice.  Which is bizarre in the extreme.  I hear voices all the time telling me things like "that shrimp you just ate was bad" or "that canned food is spoiled" or "that spinach you ate was clearly problem spinach."  And I have almost always been wrong.  Over and over, that voice that says "this is real" is wrong.

This was not that voice.

The OCD voice, it turns out, is something of a high pitched, whiny voice.  Demanding and scared $h!tless.  This other voice, telling me that my arms feeling on fire was real, that voice was clear, cool, matter of fact, and far more concerned with offering data than trying to instill fear.  It got my attention.

I finally actually looked down at my arms, and they were beet red.  Hives were starting to creep up to my upper arms while I watched.  Terror and odd calm were warring inside of me, as I turned to my sister.  She was browsing, and I wanted to get her attention right away.  I said, "I need you."  That worked.  She put down what she had in her hands and turned right to me.  I didn't need to say anything at that point, and don't remember the conversation exactly, but she instantly noticed that I had gotten rather red in the last three or four minutes since she'd last looked at me.

She immediately pulled me into the street, and we both watched as the red blotches continued creeping up my arms, and now apparently on my neck and chest.  Her first reaction was "let's go to the drugstore and get you an antihistamine right away."  That I agreed to this is an indication of how desperate I was.  I have not taken even Advil for pain for over a decade.  I take vitamins under protest, and only take my Celexa because I tell myself it is not a pill.  It is food.  Antihistamine?  Never.  Well, apparently 'never' just came up on the calender.

I can't really describe how I felt, although I am clearly trying.  I was about as anxious as I can get without totally losing it.  And yet there was still this cool, other voice, sort of testing things and reporting in.  "Okay, still breathing fine.  Rash is not spreading beyond current boundaries.  No sign of dizziness.  Suggests allergic reaction.  Not dead yet, so probably not a shock thing.  Probably won't just keel on over.  Something you ate, maybe.  Probably the sushi.  Something you ate."

That should have been the end of my self control.  Something you ate.  I ate.  My greatest, worst fear.  Something I ate.  And yet when my sister, who now had the joyful vision of me completely blotched and red next to her, said, "Maybe the emergency room," I said, "No."  I had a deep conviction, in the middle of all my fear and panic, that I wasn't actually ER worthy.  Not yet.

The drugstore pharmacist seemed to agree.  Since I could breathe, and the rash wasn't spreading further, she suggested the antihistamine, and to keep and eye on things.  As if I could do anything other than keep an eye on things, given my skin felt like it was burning right off of me.  Painful, fiery.  I'd never had a rash like this in my life, even being sensitive to heat, soaps, and fragrances.  This was the absolute worst.

Trying to choke down the liquid child's allergy med was a real thrill.  I had to stand there, tiny plastic cup in hand, eyes closed, and force myself to confront the choice.  Take the risk of taking a med, which I hated, or take the risk of having this attack get worse.  In the end, rational sense won out, and I drank the stuff down.  Unbeknownst to me, my sister had already decided I wasn't likely to get any worse, having been the recipient of many an allergy and hive attack, and mostly wanted me to drink the stuff for the sedative effect.

She had an appointment, which I insisted we keep.  After all, I knew we'd either go to her place and I'd sit around for a hour waiting to die, or we'd keep her appointment and I'd sit around for an hour waiting to die.  Of course, I wouldn't be writing this if all wasn't basically well.

By the time we returned to her home, the rash was much improved, and was now mortally itchy instead of feeling like hot acid.  I was starting to feel a bit drugged, since I react pretty strongly to sedatives.  So overall, this was an improvement.  I sat by my computer, wondering if I should do some search on "strange sushi rashes" when it hit me.

Niacin.  I was on a new kind of niacin.

Before, I was on no-flush niacin to improve my cholesterol.  Except research of just the last few months shows it does not work, so I had switched to the regular niacin.  I mentioned this to my tdoc, weeks ago, and he said he'd be on the stuff himself, but the "niacin flush" was too irritating to put up with.  I almost laughed at this, at the time.  After all the Celexa night sweats a bit of a hot blush "personal summer" was not going to be a problem.

I am, as I have noted, a complete moron.

Niacin flush, in extreme cases, can be exactly what I experienced.  Burn-your-face-off rash like fire over forearms, neck, face, and chest.  Why it waited until I'd been on the stuff for more than three weeks before causing a problem, I have no idea.  But after all the reading I've done, that is clearly what happened to me.  Niacin for cripes sake.

Lessons learned?  Interesting.  I confronted, rather obliquely, one of my greatest fears.  What I found was there is someone inside me who can be rational in the face of panic.  It wasn't a big or loud voice, but I heard it easily.  I found I can act with some semblance of control, even in the middle of panic.  That didn't use to be true.  My sister said she never saw me act in any way that she didn't feel was warranted.  She herself would have been freaked out by such a sudden reaction, unable to explain it.

So I feel stronger, in a way.  A little shaky, too, since the world managed to throw me a real sucker punch, and I practically hit the mat.

And pissed off.  Vitamins.  Hate those things.  The niacin is off the program, for now.

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image credit/info: Red Mask, stefg74, flickr via Creative Commons CC 2.0

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Real Blue Morpho

Hello Friends:

For as long as I can remember I have been a little obsessed with butterflies.  They quickly attract my attention, and if one is floating by I'll stop everything to watch it.  When I was a child they seemed like fairies.  Beautiful, fast moving, colorful things will attract the attention of any child, of course, but I'm still suffering pretty acutely with this ADD behavior around butterflies.

As I became a little older, about high school, I started identifying more with the idea that butterflies represented a glorious end-state.  What starts as a crawling caterpillar bursts forth into a beautiful, winged, angelic creature - a perfect metaphor for growing up and getting an adult life of my own.  I started using butterflies now and then as images to represent myself.

And then, as more years went by and the true extent of my mental illnesses became apparent, the butterfly represented a new dimension of change - changing from something lowly, even ugly, that must crawl, into something gorgeous, heavenly, perfect, that can fly.  This was the change I wanted to make, and I started using butterflies as my icons all the time.  I collect stamps, and I found a few butterfly stamps that I would take out and look at regularly.

In graduate school I visited one of those live butterfly exhibits, this one in Houston.  You can sit in a replicated rain forest, quietly on a bench, and watch scores of butterflies flitter less than a dozen feet away.  I saw a real blue morpho butterfly alive for the first time.  One landed on my arm.  Several butterflies had landed on me that day, but it was the brilliant blue one that had me riveted.  Wow.  Blue has always been my favorite color It became the indelible icon of my hope for greater mental health. 

The symbol of freedom.

A butterfly even flew around under the wedding canopy during my wedding ceremony, and we all couldn't help but consider it a good omen.

The last few years have been a struggle to alter the image into something a little more accepting.  The idea I have been moving towards as a result of my mediation is that I am already the butterfly.  This is me, and this is now.  I might feel like a caterpillar, but the wings are already in place.  As enlightenment is likened to a flower, slowly opening its petals, I now see myself as a butterfly learning to spread her wings.  The idea is to focus on that acceptance, that realization.  We are not ugly.  We are not broken.  We are already gorgeous butterflies who need to open our wings and get some flying lessons.

My sister surprised me with an amazing birthday present this year, a real (sustainably farmed, previously deceased by natural causes) blue morpho butterfly.  While it feels a little strange to my OCDs to bring a dead insect into the house, the basement is already full of them, living and late. :)  Besides, I'm not so literally minded that I equate myself to a dead butterfly preserved in glass - that would be more the princess trapped in an ivory tower thing.  Definitely not my self image.  In any case I thought it was a fabulous gift and put it on the wall over my desk. 

It is beautiful, a wonderful symbol and reminder.  You are beautiful.  You are already what you are supposed to be.  Freedom is right now.  Open your wings and fly.

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image credit/info: My own blue morpho

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