I woke up one morning back in 1978 to find out I was allergic to ragweed. Up to that point in my life I had been allergic to nothing. Outside the window of our apartment on Jalna Avenue where we lived following our marriage there was an empty field full of the stuff. We had left the window open to catch the fall breeze and I spent the entire night sneezing my fool head off. By the morning I knew it was something more than the sniffles. Like any sensible fellow I got some antihistamines and went about my day.

Ragweed season lasts about two months in south-western Ontario, and it seemed no particular heartache. But ragweed, I found, was just the beginning. Over the next thirty years the list of things I was allergic to grew; first to airborne allergens, like pollen, then to foods. Some of those foods are pretty central to a western diet: wheat, corn, milk and tomatoes. When you start to look at all the foods that are dependent on just these four things, you get an idea of what I had to give up; not just bread and donuts, but pasta and pizza, cheese and sauces, most of which are tomato based.

Then there all those foods that use maltodextrin and starch, both of which are made from corn. In fact of all the dozens of breakfast cereals out there, only one – Rice Krispies – has neither wheat nor corn in some form. Even potatoes, which I can eat, I can’t eat fried, because they will be cooked in corn oil, which is often simply called vegetable oil. At least here in Asia where the staple food is rice I am better off, but I still have to avoid fried food, as I found that I am also allergic to palm oil and its related products like coconut, which is often cooked into the rice. Most of the time I manage quite well, thank you, and in fact lately I have begun to put on a little weight.

But everyone once in a while I step over the boundaries of my restrictions, as I did two weeks ago. Good friends of ours, Gary and Kveta, took us out for brunch at the Traders Hotel. They wanted to say goodbye to Pam, and treating us to the finest brunch in town seemed like a good idea. Well, the brunch was so spectacular, and the occasion so bright and friendly, that I forgot myself, and ate some things I shouldn’t. The following day our good friend Shelley treated Pam and I to lunch, and once again I was in a situation where to forbear meant giving offense. By Monday I knew I was in desperate trouble.

People who do not suffer from allergies think that it has something to do with what they see on television commercials: you sneeze and your sinuses get clogged. It is nothing like. I would describe it more like getting injected with fire ants into your bloodstream. You become unbearably irritated, anxious, distracted; you feel like your muscles are permanently clenched. I get a headache that starts in my sinuses and goes clear down my nervous system to the base of my spinal cord. Your throat is so raw that to breathe is painful. You feel like you have a horse sitting on your chest.

This time the problem was exacerbated by the air. It is planting season in Indonesia, which means slash and burn agriculture in this part of the world. The smoke billows over the Straits of Malacca and settles over KL for months. People who do not have allergies wear masks. Those of us who do, find their allergies going into hyperdrive. Just to clarify, smoke is not an allergen. An allergen must contain protein; smoke has none. Smoke is an irritant which triggers the allergens in your body. In a similar way it is not the dust I am allergic to, but the dust mites in the dust.

To cut what has been a lengthy story short, the last two weeks have been miserable, and not just because Pam is not here. In fact for her sake I am glad she wasn’t. But yesterday I woke up and the storm was over. The headache and the nervous anxiety were gone. The horse had gone for a walk and I could breathe without pain. However, the past two weeks have not been without redeeming activity. My nervous energy has been translated into a tremendous amount of work, and my classes have benefitted from some excellent lessons. I have also learned some interesting things about my own diet from having to be so very careful. But that is another post. For now I am just happy to feel like myself again.

In researching this post I came across an interesting documentary from BBC on the subject. Catch it at http://documentarystorm.com/health/allergy-planet/