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.


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.

Perfect Meatballs

I am Prairie. I wasn’t always Prairie. The name derived from a dream. A quarter century ago I made it my legal name. But, that story comes later.

In grade six I kept a tiny black notebook hidden in my “fort” under the basement stairs. To it I entrusted every aspect of my young life. A septuagenarian now, I still keep a journal but I also write stories–true stories. Creating fiction is beyond my grasp. I cannot describe a flower, or a feeling or a situation I have not experienced. However, I do change some names to protect the privacy of certain individuals.

Perfect Meatballs is my first blogged story.

Perfect Meatballs

When I entered the first grade, my mother entered the working world–the working world outside the home. It was a rare thing for a woman to do in 1954. I suspect that the choice was based more on Mom’s wanting her own income than on wanting more work. At home she scrubbed, laundered, ironed–does anyone still iron?–gardened, harvested, preserved, mended, baked, cooked and cleaned. After she went out to work, she still did all those at-home things. No wonder she never read a novel or watched a western. Those were Dad’s diversions. If Mom sat down she invariably fell asleep.

My dad objected to Mom’s decision solely on the grounds that she would not be home to make him lunch. Dad worked as a cost accountant in a nearby town and had exactly one hour for his mid-day meal. The drive took twenty minutes each way. His meal needed to be set before him with utmost precision. Dad’s problem was resolved by allocating one of my older siblings to look after his noon repast. When my last brother graduated into high school, it was my turn to take on lunch duties.

I too had exactly one free middle-of-the-day hour. If I ran, I could make it from my public school to my home in eight minutes and get the meal ready for the exact moment when Dad walked through the door. Frequently, Father complained that the soup was not hot enough. Well, it was hot enough for me and I had to eat it too. Dad never did grasp the impossibility of winning an argument with a thirteen-year-old. Well, not an obstreperous one anyway. Obstreperous was an adjective Dad sometimes applied to me. He did a lot of challenging crossword puzzles. I suspect that’s where he gleaned his polysyllabic vocabulary.

One glorious afternoon I ran and skipped and pirouetted my way home. Our grade eight teacher had returned papers that morning. A major test. American geography–all fifty states, their capitals, climate, agriculture and industries. I had earned ninety-nine out of one hundred available marks. I forgot one “s” in Mississippi. Pride threatened to burst every button on my striped red and purple cardigan. I surged into the kitchen, prepared the meal–made sure the soup was piping hot–and perched at one end of the long narrow table–directly opposite my father’s chair.

Dad entered. Sat. Began to eat. After a suitable time, enough for him to almost finish, I slid my trophy toward him. He reached for the paper. Looked at the grade. Set down the prize. Paused. Then asked, “What happened to the other mark?” He was not being funny.

This was not an isolated instance of my not living up to my parents’ expectations of perfection.

On my first attendance at summer camp–I was nine or ten years old–I wrote an enthusiastic letter home describing the magical experience. When I returned, after one whole week away, my letter was waiting for me on that bright orange laminate table top. Every spelling and grammar mistake had been circled in red.

Mom was less demanding in terms of my being perfect. Even so, she did sneak into my bedroom after I had made my bed and smoothed out the wrinkles.

I imagine most parents in the 1950’s subscribed to the same child-rearing philosophies: spare the rod and spoil the child; father knows best; practice makes perfect. One of the lessons I learned from those precepts was that I could never be good enough. It took a couple of decades of therapy to repair my self-esteem. On the plus side, I resolved that when the time came, I would be a different kind of parent. By the mid-seventies when I had my first son, a lot about parenting had changed. I read widely and tried to practise a gentler, more loving style of child-rearing.

Louise Hay wrote, “We need to realize we can go beyond our family’s limitations”. I did go beyond them. I grew beyond them. One proof came on a sunny Saturday when my six-year-old daughter was helping me prepare meatballs.

Rowan loved to assist in the kitchen. She also loved to iron. Ten cents for each large linen napkin. But, food preparation she would do free of charge. She tied her bibbed apron, just like Mommy’s, around her diminutive waist, pulled the armless Windsor chair to the opposite side of the kitchen peninsula and climbed up. Facing each other, we solemnly began our task.

First, we dumped the hamburg meat, broken into small clumps, into the big flax-coloured ceramic bowl. Next came the chopped onion, garlic, egg and seasonings. No breadcrumb fillers for us. Sometimes we tossed in raisins. Weird but tasty. Soon we discarded the large wooden spoons in favour of hands which were more effective mixers and much more fun.

At last came the time to form dozens of tiny meatballs. We would pick up a lump of the gooey concoction, roll it in our sticky palms then deposit the result onto the waiting sheet of waxed paper. I smiled as I watched Rowan work. Tiny wrinkles formed between her brows. Utter concentration. No time for chit- chat. Each miniature orb had to be perfect. And perfect each one was. Fat, skinny, small and not-so-small, lop-sided and sausage shaped. Never would I suggest that meatballs were supposed to be round. When every specimen was complete, Rowan regarded her work. Pride threatened to burst her apron strings. I said nothing. Just smiled into her eyes. And Rowan’s eyes smiled back.