Let's get this straight right now -- I don't believe in allergies. I was raised by a mother who believed all illnesses resulted from a lack of will power. "You're not really sick," she'd say when we'd lie in bed on a school morning, holding our stomachs or heads and moaning we were just too sick to go. "You could get up and feel fine if you'd just put your mind to it." (Her children have promised her that when she is dead we are all going to gather around her coffin and say, "Oh, Mama, you're not really dead. You could get up and keep going if you'd just put your mind to it.")
I'm not saying that I'm as bad as my mother, mind you; just that I think allergies are a kind of character weakness, of the same variety that causes some people to turn up their noses at artichokes or fail to appreciate the genius of Bartok.
But one day when my face developed a rash and no amount of will power or even drugstore cream would clear it up, I went in desperation to a dermatologist.
I like to arrive at my own diagnoses and go to my doctors only to have them confirmed; so I announced that, despite my age, I must have acquired an adolescent skin disease, since I already had measles. He laughed, looked at my skin and said, "It's probably just an allergy to your makeup."
"It can't be," I assured him. "I don't believe in allergies." Skin tests, however, proved him right. Not only did they reveal I was allergic to the makeup I was wearing, but also that I am allergic to any makeup that has certain ingredients in it.
"It isn't fair," I wailed. "I've gone through my twenties and thirties feeling pretty smug about not needing makeup. Now that I'm (gulp) 40 and need it, how can I be allergic to it?"
"Poetic justice," he laughed. "It's no big deal. A little lipstick, a little blush, apply it lightly, you'll look fine." He jotted down the forbidden ingredients, leaving me to cope with having to face the world with no makeup.
A few months later on our anniversary, my husband and I dined at one of those romantic, expensive seafood restaurants on the Chesapeake Bay. The next day my face was covered in red splotches. Then it began to puff up. In a panic, I rushed to my dermatologist again. "What's the matter?" I asked. "I swear I used only a little lipstick yesterday. Just the tiniest bit."
"This isn't caused by something you put on your face," he assured me. "It's from something you put in you. Eaten any seafood lately?"
"You saw me," I accused him.
"Nope. But when people have this kind of reaction, it's almost always seafood. What did you have?"
"Soft-shell crabs," I admitted. "But I told you before, I don't believe in allergies."
"Well, you have them," he said cheerfully, "so you'd better stay away from the seafood for a while." He gave me a shot, a bottle of pills, and a bill for $40.
That winter I developed a terrible cold, the kind that lingers; and it finally drove me to my family doctor. "It's just a severe cold," he concluded. "I can give you a shot to take care of it. Are you allergic to penicillin?"
I was confident about this one. "Of course not," I said. "My uncle was a country doctor who gave me penicillin like it was penny candy.
"Besides," I added for the record, "I don't believe in allergies." My doctor gave me the shot, and I hurried home to get well.
By this time, even I wasn't very surprised when, the next day, I noticed red spots, the size of saucers, all over me. "Uh huh," my doctor said when I called him. "You're allergic to pencillin."
"How can I be?" I demanded. "I told you about my uncle. Allergies are in your mind, anyway; they're a matter of character and will power."
"These things just develop anytime," he said vaguely. "It's an allergy, that's for certain." My list was getting longer and longer.
The latest indignity occurred last summer, when I began a three-week spell of coughing and wheezing. I went to my doctor again, and he listened to my chest, took my temperature, and checked my eyes and throat.
"It's bronchitis," he pronounced, "the allergic kind. Probably from ragweed. Stay in, keep the windows closed, and pray for an early frost."
"Why can't it be plain old nonallergic bronchitis?" I asked. "I don't even know what ragweed looks like. And I don't believe in allergies."
"Maybe I got a disease from my son's rabbit," I suggested. "He died about the same time I started coughing."
"It isn't likely," he said, "but we can run a blood test to be sure." He was right. After some $50 worth of tests, the results showed nothing that could be credited to a rabbit.
Up to now, I had always been pretty comfortable with my body. But now I have begun to eye myself suspiciously, the way a car owner might look at a car that has just reached 80,000 miles.
We are stuck with each other, my body and I, and I don't trust me anymore. Did I forget to stop at the grocery because I had a lot on my mind or because my brain is giving way? Is that twinge in my elbow because I lifted something heavy or because arthritis is setting in?
But I still don't believe in allergies. Allergies are just a matter of will power. If I put my mind to it, like Mama said, I bet I could wear gobs of makeup, eat a bushel of crabs and breathe concentrated ragweed pollen without a single cough. I'm going to stay away from rabbits, though. You never know.