Sulphites Don’t Like Me–Allergies and Anxiety

After thirty years of teaching teenagers, my health was in jeopardy. I investigated early retirement. The pension plan administrators informed me that I could work just one more semester and retire with only a small financial penalty. Without hesitation, I embraced the option.

On January 31, 2003, I officially left the pedagogical profession. Five days later, I fell down a flight of icy stairs.

I landed hard on the concrete pad at the bottom. A corner of the house hid my body from the street. A row of evergreens hid it from the neighbours. My husband would not return for hours. I had no cell phone. Colder and colder I grew. I recalled Robert Frost’s poem about the world ending in fire or ice. Decided that neither was preferable. Dragged myself up the slippery steps. Managed to push open the back door and slide into the warm kitchen. I checked for injuries. No blood. Just pain.

The medical verdict: significant bruising and a few misplaced ribs. Nothing broken. When the underlying tissues had healed sufficiently, a talented osteopath put my ribs back where they belonged. What remained after her work was a left arm that refused to reach behind my back. An inconvenient restriction. I invested in a few front-closure bras.

Months elapsed without improvement. I consulted Phil, a physiotherapist. He tried a number of techniques, including acupuncture, to increase my range of motion. After a few unproductive sessions, he referred me to Joe, a new hiree who used a technique called Trigenics—a nerve-based treatment system. In my case, Joe used it to lengthen the muscles that had been compromised by my fall. He instructed me to visualize the tissues in my shoulder softening as he pushed his thumb into particular places. I was good at visualization. I enjoyed being part of the cure. After six weeks of therapy I had regained eighty per cent of the movement in my arm.

Joe was much more than a good physiotherapist. He was a spiritual soul-mate. During my sessions we discussed alternative healing modalities, near-death experiences and how emotions affect our health. He loaned me his copy of Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion. Although science was never my forte—I earned a D+ in first year biology at university—Pert made the bio-molecular basis for our emotions comprehensible. I was excited to find scientific proof of the interconnectedness of body and mind. A year later, when I had a full-blown panic attack, the information I had gleaned from the book helped me to untangle the complex relationship between food allergies, negative thoughts and acute anxiety.

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In my twenties, I experienced a panic attack. I didn’t know what it was. Heart raced. Breath stopped. Extremities froze. Thoughts plummeted—fatal illness, unbearable pain, death. Two decades of therapy and a mulish obstinacy to heal, worked to dislodge the disorder.

For several years I was panic free. I suffered from anxiety now and then, but was able to calm the symptoms without drugs. I no longer kept a supply of Xanax on hand. Then, one evening in early 2004, the familiar fear rose up and swallowed me.

My daughter had asked me to help her host a special dinner for a few friends. I wanted to be the perfect mom, create the perfect atmosphere, prepare the perfect food. Instead, my husband delivered me to the hospital emergency room.

Gilles had never witnessed an anxiety attack. He was sure I was going to die. I was sure I was going to die. I heard myself saying so. But, there were two “me’s”—the frantic woman trembling wide-eyed on the gurney and the calm woman watching her and wondering why she was behaving that way.

What had happened?

When I was thirty years old Carl, my first husband, and I vacationed in Vermont. We shared a roadhouse supper: Heineken beer, corned beef sandwiches and potato chips. Upon our return to the hotel I felt unwell. I lay down in our room and Carl joined the small group at the piano bar. Later Carl found me unconscious on the bathroom floor.

At the hospital, I had my stomach pumped. For hours I watched as cloudy fluid and partially digested chunks of food emerged through a clear plastic tube that had been inserted through my nose and down into my belly. After the evacuation, the congestion, abdominal pain, nausea, and dizziness disappeared. The medical team could not explain my reaction. Carl, who had eaten the identical food, was unaffected.

After numerous similar incidents, usually initiated in restaurants and other people’s houses, I grew afraid to eat anywhere except at home. A visit to a sixth allergist finally solved the problem. I was allergic to sulphites, chiefly metabisulphite. That wonder chemical is a preservative used in certain beers, corned beef, and potato chips. It also resides in some dried fruits, baby cookies, maraschino cherries, shredded coconut, balsamic vinegar, wine, and hundreds of other products. In spray form it was used extensively in salad bars. Lettuce put out at noon sat up plump and turgid until ten that night. My body interpreted the chemical as poison and did its best to eliminate it.

Over the years I learned to scrutinize labels, to avoid all foods prepared with a crust or a sauce and to drink alcohol in puritanical moderation.

On the day of Rowan’s party I had snacked distractedly on bits and pieces of whatever lay about. I had drunk a glass of wine supplied by one of Rowan’s guests. I had not paid attention. In retrospect, the wine in the unexamined bottle, likely full of sulphites, probably triggered an allergic reaction. The allergic reaction triggered the panic attack.

Had I been mindful, I could have treated the allergy with Benedryl. It might have prevented the panic. Instead, irrational, catastrophic thoughts took over. My emotions went haywire. Gilles drove me to the hospital.

On a positive note, that 2004 panic attack was my last. For the ensuing sixteen years, I have kept both Benedryl and alprazolam, generic Xanax, on hand at all times. They are my security blankets. If I am certain that I am experiencing an allergy, such as the recent one that dry roasted pistachios produced—who knew that sulphites hid in nuts—I take Benedryl. I also remind myself that I am not going to die and vigilantly monitor my thoughts. I no longer confuse allergies and anxiety. Not usually anyway. They can express themselves in similar ways. When I’m feeling anxious, I have lots of tools to calm me—conscious breathing, mantras, happy memories, self-Reiki, and grounding exercises. Only if these strategies fail to work and it is essential that I be somewhere to fulfill an important obligation do I dissolve the smallest possible dose of alprazolam under my tongue. I do not upbraid myself for being weak. I express gratitude for the drug and for the wisdom to know when to take it.

Meditating with my dog…not sure Pitou is quite into it.