It has been exactly five years since my last anaphylactic allergic reaction. This is HUGE for someone who is deathly allergic to egg, seafood, nuts, moldy cheeses, and possibly Vitamin E. Someone who has had around 42 hospitalizations due to anaphylaxis for the first 23 years of life, and seems to have new allergies developing all the time. I keep an ongoing list of my allergies in my phone just so I can remember all of them. So this? This is huge.
Exactly five years ago, Isaac and I were out for my birthday dinner at one of our favorite steakhouses. After learning of my food allergies, the head chef visited our table and made himself at home in our cozy booth, ready to discuss my allergies and how he planned on providing me with a delicious, safe, allergen-free meal. He had separate pans, gloves, and knives to use so no cross contamination would occur. Isaac and I felt good, giddy even. I ordered a fat New York Strip with a loaded baked potato, and a pomegranate martini as an appetizer.
A few sips into my martini, I started to feel…different. It wasn’t a completely conscious thought at first, it was more of a sudden awareness of self, a foreboding feeling. Something in the way back of my mind whispered, “what’s wrong?”, and I didn’t know the answer. Like when you have an unsettling dream and spend all day trying to remember what the dream was about, and why it’s left you feeling agitated.
Isaac, ever in tune to my micro-expressions and the slightest change in behavior grinned and assured me, “You never drink alcohol, it’s probably just making you feel weird because it’s been so long.”
I forced a smile and agreed with him, nervously twisting my straw wrapper between my fingers. I stared at my pomegranate martini and felt saliva starting to accumulate under my tongue and in the back of my throat. Any normal person would have subconsciously swallowed at this point– it’s what we do thousands of times per day without giving it a second thought. But I couldn’t find the courage to do this simple task. This next swallow, I knew, would be telling. Was I feeling unsettled because the alcohol was making my head fuzzy, or because my throat was swelling shut and my blood pressure was dropping?
And there it was. The piece-of-bread-caught-in-my-throat feeling that is unique to my anaphylaxis episodes. I pouted my lip, so deeply disappointed at the unplanned, off road direction our evening was about to take. “I think my throat is closing”, I whimpered. We (anaphylaxis sufferers) say think, but we know. It’s just that saying “think” makes it feel a little less scary, a little more hopeful. It’s not for sure yet, right? This may not actually be happening.
When the waitress reappeared, we asked what in the world could be causing an allergic reaction? Did the pomegranate martini (the only thing I had consumed so far) have egg, seafood, nuts, or blue cheese?! I felt stupid even asking her. She said she didn’t think so, but would go check. 30 seconds later, we saw our previously calm, collected waitress frantically sprinting across the restaurant towards our table.
Suddenly my I think became an I know, and no amount of wishful thinking, finger crossing, or lip pouting would help. I swallowed two benadryls and made my way to the restroom, feeling like I needed to throw up. Staring at my dilated, wild eyes in the mirror, I calculated that I had between 3 and 4 minutes to decide if this was going to become an emergency room visit, or if for some beautiful reason, the Benadryl would be enough to ward off full anaphylaxis.
Ten minutes later Isaac was doing 90 mph down the interstate heading towards the nearest emergency room. My breathing was becoming increasingly labored and my throat tighter with each reluctant swallow. We were both terrified. With white knuckles we held hands as he repeated over and over, “it’s okay baby, we are almost there. Just hang on.”
From there, it was a pretty typical anaphylaxis emergency room visit. Within a few minutes, I was in a gurney with a fancy IV cocktail (Epinephrine, Benadryl, Prednisone, Pepcid) flowing into my veins. We prayed for my body to be okay, for my psyche and broken heart to be okay, for me to be okay. It may sound strange to be “brokenhearted” from an allergic reaction, but I was. I was so tired of this. I went from feeling excited, cared for, and safe in the hands of a kind, competent chef…to falling fast and hard into anaphylaxis. I had a feeling that this emergency room visit would change me. And I was right.
For months after that allergic reaction, I struggled with daily panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. I no longer trusted food, I no longer trusted my body. I knew that I needed professional help when I started having panic attacks after sips of water or homemade food– I knew it wasn’t rational but I feared that everything had the potential to give me anaphylaxis. Everything edible was an enemy.
A few weeks into therapy, I began some deep healing and started trusting food again, but also realized that I still didn’t trust other people handling my food. Which, I learned, was perfectly fine. And probably smart.
So for the past five years, I have perfected the art of saying “no thank you” and “I’m not hungry.” I have become more confident in saying “that looks delicious, but I don’t eat food unless I have personally prepared it.” I have sat through hundreds of family dinners, dates, and social functions watching those around me eat, and quietly (but happily) snacked on my bag of carrots and grapes. I have attended Christmas parties where I ate a bowl of raisins, and birthdays where I brought my own cake. I have eaten at only four restaurants in the past five years: Chipotle, Qdoba, and a local BBQ and pizza joint. Yes, the employees at all establishments know me well.
And it hasn’t been as hard as most people assume. Hard is laying in a gurney holding your husband’s sweaty hand, not knowing if you’re going to be alive tomorrow. Hard is pretending to enjoy a meal while wondering if your food has been cross contaminated with an allergen. Hard is sitting on your bed crying not knowing if you’re having a panic attack or if you’re in the beginning stages of anaphylaixs– because for some ungodly reason the beginning symptoms of both are identical. Hard is a day in the life of Brynn Duncan, an incredibly strong and inspiring survivor. Hard is sitting in a booth on your birthday trying to convince yourself to swallow. Hard is not where I am today– enjoying life, food, and restaurants, just on my own terms.
I am so thankful for the past five years of health and wellness. And not only being alive, but thriving. I am thankful for my complete mental and emotional meltdown following my birthday allergic reaction, because that forced me into therapy which changed me on so many levels, and made me into who I am today. I am thankful for the lack of emergency room visits (except that one norovirus episode) and the bills that follow those emergency room visits. I am thankful for my family and friends who show me compassion and understanding when I decline their food offerings, even when they assure me it is “Courtney safe.”
I am so thankful for this birthday, but more importantly, for this anniversary.