The doctor has just injected into my lower back a syringe full of what he calls “super Benadryl,” a treatment which will guarantee a swift reduction in the size of my welts and several hours of deep sleep. This is the third time in a month I’ve had to visit him. He remains uncertain about the source of my hives and simply refers to my case as fascinating. He even brings in a medical student to show him how fascinating I am.
There has been no consistent factor in the dozens of outbreaks—not the food, not the laundry detergent, not the hand soap, not the lotion, not the time of day. Sometimes I awake in the middle of the night, itchy and sweaty and red, with welts covering every part of my body. Other times I am eating lunch or watching television when I feel a prickly sensation at the top of my scalp, signaling hours of tender misery. Sometimes I also feel nauseated. Sometimes I get abdominal cramps that buckle my knees.
The gastrointestinal symptoms lead me to a gastroenterologist who is also uncertain about the source of my illness but finds my case fascinating. He recommends they slide a camera attached to a tiny tube down my throat to see if anything appears out of order. For good measure, a camera attached to a tiny tube should also be inserted through the rectum to see if anything appears out of order on the other end. To prepare for these procedures I should refrain from eating anything the day before. I should also take laxatives and try not to spend the night thinking about my terrible, inexplicable, defective seventeen-year-old body.
The morning of the procedures I am trembling as I undress and change into my thin cloth gown. No news about the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics or its perfect-bodied participants can take my mind off of the large, growing, pulsating, cancerous tumor I am convinced resides within my bowels. In the procedure room, the anesthesiologist pricks my arm, the nurse explains I will have a strange banana-like taste in my mouth, and I say goodbye to precancerous life.
Then I am in Mom’s car in the parking lot of the grocery store. I am livid. I want fresh waffle fries and I want them now, never mind that it’s ten o’clock in the morning. Also, what were the results? Do I have a tumor? She locks the doors to prevent me from escaping and getting run down in the streets by a car.
Then I awake on my futon in the twilight to the smell of steamed vegetables, the sounds of the opening ceremony, the sight of Mom preparing my first meal in over 24 hours. I learn that my young organs are healthy, just as they should be. I also learn that I tried to read baseball scores off of the blank wall of the recovery room and continually shed my clothes to an audience of nurses. My dad, accompanying his son and ex-wife to the outpatient clinic, steadied and assisted me as I changed from gown to clothes, but every time my boxers were pulled up, I pulled them down. Whatever my motivation was for such exhibitionism, I have forgotten it by evening.
When tiny tubes yield no insight, the search for the source continues. In the office of an allergist an hour away, I pump out vial after vial of hot red blood so it can be examined for abnormal levels of things I can’t understand or pronounce. For good measure, I also urinate into a semi-opaque plastic container and place it directly into the hands of an assistant. Under the watchful eyes of a specialist I feel certain a cause and a cure are within reach. But a week later the call comes: all levels look relatively normal and might I add what a fascinating case! Another visit to the allergist brings mention of a possible neuroendocrine tumor (whether it could be large, growing, pulsating, and cancerous is never mentioned) and the recommendation for an abdominal CT scan. To prepare for the procedure I should drink a large white bottle of barium sulfate shake (flavor: blueberry and chalk). I should also refrain from eating and try not to spend the night thinking about my terrible, inexplicable, defective eighteen-year-old body.
The morning of the CT scan I am even more nervous than the morning of the endoscopy and colonoscopy. The hypothesizing of the allergist has me thoroughly convinced that something is horribly wrong with me, that there is an abnormal mass of cells affixed to my pancreas leaking hormones. As I am led by the radiologic technologist through white corridor after white corridor into the heart of the hospital, my legs begin to lose their strength. I don’t want to go into that room. I don’t want to say goodbye to pre-cancerous life.
When the contrast dye is injected through the catheter in my groin, an uncomfortable warm feeling spreads throughout my abdomen. Why do I feel so hot? Why am I having trouble breathing? The radiologic technologist asks me to lie still, but I am shaking and more scared and more uncomfortable than I have ever been. The white plastic donut encircling me begins to emit rapid mechanical clicking noises as it takes its images. As if that isn’t unnerving enough, the warmth and pressure of the dye entering through my crotch makes me feel like I am going to wet myself.
The waiting room is full of people with diseased, rotten insides, just like me. Mom and I make plans to eat at the diner afterward because even people with diseased, rotten insides need to eat and the only thing I’ve ingested since the night before is the one large white bottle of barium sulfate clinging to my digestive organs. I try to watch cable news on the tiny television in the corner. I try to read through a grungy copy of National Geographic. But nothing can hold my attention. After my fiftieth upward glance, the radiologist finally emerges from the doors and calls my name. As I walk toward him, I replay him saying it a few times. Was his voice sad? It was sad and serious, wasn’t it? He is dreading breaking the news to me. When I reach him, he tells me everything looks fine and walks away.
A few weeks later I am vacationing on the Oregon coast with Dad. I vacation with a diagnosis: chronic idiopathic urticaria. Urticaria, I learn, is the medical term for hives. Idiopathic is the medical term for unknown. Chronic unknown hives. The closest I get to an explanation is from the allergist: for some reason, my body seems to be allergic to itself. At everyone’s suggestion, I try to have fun. I try not to think about all of the treacherous little antibodies, mast cells, and basophils floating around inside of me.
In the midst of the fun I undergo my transformation again. It takes courage to look in the bathroom mirror. The distinct welts on my face, arms, chest, abdomen, and legs are combining into a single puffy mega-welt—I want to scratch my skin off. The abdominal cramps are doubling me over, are more intense than they have ever been—I want to shit out my insides. My eyes are stinging, my scalp feels like it’s infested with lice, my panic is making breathing difficult—I want to go to the hospital.
In the emergency room I am pumped full of saline, epinephrine, and corticosteroids. I am so unsteadied by the administered medical cocktail that I need to be accompanied by either a nurse or my dad to the restroom and I can’t lie on the bed for more than a couple of minutes before my bladder is filled by the saline drip. In the moments between treks the emergency room doctors probe for information. What did you eat? What kind of laundry detergent do you use? What kind of soap? What kind of lotion? I am not allergic to those things, I tell them. I am allergic to myself.
After the emergency room visit, my hives become less frequent. Rather than welts surfacing and radiating multiple times per week, they show themselves every other week. Then every six months. Then they stop altogether. It will take my family years to pay off the occupied beds, tomographic images, blood vials, urine tests, and hypotheses. Having never discovered the source or the solution, I never overcome my fear that I will awake in the middle of the night itchy and sweaty and red.
Logan Lazalde is a graduate of The Evergreen State College and lives in Pittsburgh, PA.