What's the worst case scenario for allergies? Maybe you get the sniffles. Maybe you're the weird kid who has to bring a special gross cake to the birthday party. Me? I have an allergy to lavender. And it's so severe that just smelling it can send me to the hospital. It might not be such a big deal, if it wasn't one of the most popular scents in the world ...
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If you didn't realize lavender is so prevalent, go check your favorite scented product. If the ingredients say "lavandin," "lavendula," "limonene," or "linalool," I'm allergic to you. Even though we've never met, you could potentially kill me just by walking past me -- vomiting, gasping, choking, giant red hives if any lands on my skin. I'm dead as a doornail if I get within 10 feet of a Bath and Body Works.
Most people think of working from home as a luxury, but for me, it's a necessity. There are entire categories of employment that I have to avoid, including retail (I can't touch products that might contain lavender), food service (I can't approach customers who are wearing scents), and many office positions (that lady in your office who wears too much perfume? Biological weapon to me).
I have lost four jobs in the last two years because spring-time fresh is the smell of death to me. At each of those jobs, I had been carried out in an ambulance after someone sprayed perfume, and each time, it was treated like I had simply come down with the vapors. Clearly I was making a big fuss over nothing.
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I was actually notified in writing that I was not allowed to tell the parents at my day care job about my allergy -- even though it could save my life -- because the prospect of me dying offended one of them. This parent refused to stop using lavender diaper cream on her child, because she claimed it was her baby's favorite. For the record, yes that's illegal, because anaphylactic allergies are a legally recognized disability. Not that it helps much, because even after being fired on the basis of having a disability, I've been waiting on the ADA for over a year. People with lavender allergies just aren't a very high priority. Probably because all those highfalutin peanut allergy bastards are sucking up the limelight.
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I have what my doctor terms a "slow" anaphylactic reaction, meaning I have a few minutes between when I first start feeling tightness to when I'm actively not breathing to death. People react one of three ways when someone starts actively dying in front of them: They switch off and don't accept the seriousness of the situation; they compartmentalize (these are the people who are actually useful to have around); or they, bizarrely, will panic and beg you to fix it.
Yes, even when invisible forces are strangling me like I've disappointed Darth Vader, some people truly expect me to say, "I'll be OK; it's fine, don't worry."
It's not fine; it's serious and I need help -- but you really, really have to hold these people's hands through the whole process. If you don't, they'll write you off as "uncooperative," and you don't want that. Because then they might start exposing you out of spite. Yes, that has really happened to me.
When I was a teacher, one student sprayed perfume in class and watched my tongue swell up. As I started to choke and was carted away, she of course apologized tearfully and profusely. Just kidding, she did it again. And again. That's actually a felony assault, but to kids, it's just a wacky prank.
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You see, when you can be murdered by something as stupid as perfume or hand sanitizer, it puts you in an impossible situation. You have to tell people about it so that the decent ones won't accidentally expose you, but you also let psychopaths know exactly how to hurt you in a way that means they'll likely get off scot-free, because there's no police code for "murdered by lotion."
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Your mother probably told you that "dirt don't hurt," because exposure to allergens and diseases will only strengthen your immune system against them. Well, that and she really checked out of the whole child-raising thing after the first few years. While allergists and immunologists can treat allergies by exposure to the allergen, it's given under carefully controlled conditions in minute doses. Out in the everyday world, repeat exposure to severe allergens tends to cause something called "hyperimmune response." That's when the immune system stops being the normal bouncer at the bar of your body, and turns into a Patrick Swayze-style throat-ripping maniac.
I'm currently in hyperimmune response after deliberate repeat exposures by students. When I'm in hyperimmune response, I can have an allergic reaction to the perfume worn by a person walking past a closed door. I've had an allergic reaction in the very back of a lecture in a hotel ballroom because someone in that room was wearing a scent that I couldn't even properly smell. I had to drink an entire shot glass of Benadryl because my roommate went to a bar and walked past a guy who was applying cologne. For the record, I take my Benadryl shaken, not stirred.
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In 2015 alone, I have had allergic reactions in class, while student teaching, in the ER, in two doctor's offices, at several grocery stores, at a science fiction convention, at a book fair, at a game store, in a comic book shop, and in restaurants. Remember that game where the floor is made of lava? Imagine about a quarter of the people on the planet are made of poison. Now never, ever stop playing that game. It gets substantially less fun after about the second decade.
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The solution to living in the world's worst video game is to carry an allergy arsenal in my purse, consisting of two EpiPens, liquid Benadryl, allergy melts, an inhaler, mild sedatives (in case my impending death causes me to panic), a neatly typed list of my nine major allergies, all my medications, emergency contacts for every possible region I could be in, and an explanation of what's likely happening. I also need to carry a person. Like, a whole person. EpiPens are $100 a pop and generally not covered by insurance (plus, if the person stabbing you stabs you in a slightly incorrect way, they can lose a digit). Emergency services only charges $25 to inject you, so you might as well let the professionals do it. That's why I need my friends with me at all times. They know that I prefer to just pour liquid Benadryl down my throat rather than drop a quarter of my rent into my leg.
Of course, Benadryl only really guarantees you about five minutes of open airways, while epinephrine guarantees you about 20 minutes, but sometimes you have to choose between this month's ramen and oxygen. Hey, you can't always choose oxygen.
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There's no way to reliably avoid the thing that tries to kill me. It's not just perfumes, cleaning products, and lotions. The actual plant is a huge danger. Seriously, lavender is everywhere -- here's a website encouraging people in my area to grow it by the side of the road for fun and profit. I've gotten emails from LivingSocial, suggesting that I buy a membership to a local 50-acre lavender farm and get a free monthly supply of dried lavender, plus my very own jar of lavender jelly! That's like getting an invitation to hand-feed bears in an arsenic distillery.
As a child, I never envisioned a future where I would seriously be comparison shopping for gas masks (did you know they now make them in plaid?) for the occasions where I am forced to leave my house. It does get to you. Knowing that the perfume sample lady at Macy's can kill you makes you feel a bit helpless. And having people actually assault you as a joke can cause some paranoia. I have mountains of hospital bills from people who deliberately tried to make me sick because they thought it was funny, or wanted to punish me for something -- not even mentioning the times I was sent there by people who had no idea I existed.
For a little bit of irony icing on the ol' paranoia cake, the last time I was in the ER, the tech was wearing lavender lotion. Then it also turned out that I'm allergic to Prednisone, the medicine they give you to treat serious allergies. For the record: That's what it feels like when the universe gives you a wedgie.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Weird Realities of My Life With an Awful Superpower and 6 Ways You See the World Differently When You Can Hear Color.
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