The Cookies Were Trying to Kill Me

Two years ago, I underwent a battery of ” I have given up on western medicine tests,” one of which was allergy testing. I’m no stranger to allergies. I remember my throat swelling up in Sunday Bible school when I ate ants on a log, the fun childhood snack in which raisins lined up on peanut butter trail atop a celery stick. I recall frequent bloody noses and swelling lumps on my arms after eating chop suey at Miss Margaret’s house. The morning after sleepovers, I would cry when my best friend’s mother insisted that I needed to add milk to my cereal to grow strong. By the time I entered elementary school in 1992, fifty swollen circles on my back confirmed that I was allergic to pretty much everything.

I’m not sure if my parents ever communicated to me that I had allergies. Or perhaps, they didn’t feel the need to do anything beyond limit our fridge and pantry to those few things I could actually eat. In first grade, I mistook a peanut M&M for a crispy M&M and, after a brief struggle to breath, declared that I hate peanuts, knowing full well that hate was a strong word. All other reactions were more subtle in their presentation. Bellyache after pizza? Picky eater. Refusal to eat scrambled eggs? Picky eater. Family, friends, and strangers labeled me a spoiled brat, despite my eagerness to scoop of seconds of all of the vegetables and try everything at least once.

My perceived pickiness revolved entirely around the foods that my body did not tolerate. And I kept being forced to defend my diet choices until my mid-twenties when food allergies became more widely-recognized and, dare I say, trendy. Let me tell you, the gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free options of the early 90s we not as glamorous as they are today. If I wanted something other than chicken and vegetables, it was cardboard cereal in a bowl of watery Rice Dream. If you want your child to eat salad, offer them some old-school allergy-free options as an alternative and you’ll have a little rabbit in no time.

After a severe case of valley fever in 2015, my health fell apart. Over the next several years, I would see specialist after specialist to assess the dysfunctions of my lungs, brain, heart, liver, ovaries, intestines, nervous system, and immune system. I was left wondering how a small fungal infection that leaves most young, healthy people unscathed had destroyed my body. I didn’t make sense.

In early 2019, I paid an exorbitant amount of money to work with a functional medicine doctor–a professional who has earned her medical degree and then gone on to study proven-effective alternative tests and therapies. After a round of costly testing, she brought my allergies back to the forefront. Most people have one or two moderate allergies. I presented two dozen off-the-chart, these-could-probably-kill-ya results: casein, cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, cow’s milk, mozzarella cheese, whey, beef, buffalo, lamb, egg white, egg yolk, gliadin, gluten, hemp, wheat, clam, oyster, shrimp, almond, peanut, sunflower seed, green bean, lima bean, brewer’s yeast, and mushroom. These are foods that my body viewed to be as threatening as fungi, viruses, and bacterial pathogens. Though I was actively avoiding most of the items, the newly-discovered allergens were poisoning me with every bite.

After two years of eating little more than chicken and vegetables, I started to feel a little better in mid-2020. The symptoms I had become so accustomed to–chronic fatigue, itchy feet, and sneezes so violent that I was accused of faking–slowly diminished. I regained some mental clarity and my body felt like it was stitching itself back together.

And then, in late-2020, the violent sneezing returned, accompanied by sinus drainage, coughing fits, and hives. I first worried it was Covid. After two negative test results and six week having not left the house, I suspected coccidiomycosis reinfection. When my valley fever titers came back at the disturbingly high level that is normal for me, I blamed the black mold living under the bathroom sink. When I was still symptomatic after my boyfriend cleaned the space, I wondered if it was the pesticides sprayed on the nearby alfalfa fields. Or perhaps it is pollution, with the hundreds of thousands new Phoenicians paired with eleven months without precipitation. I was grasping desperately at straws, praying that there wouldn’t be a shortage of Kleenex.

I never considered food allergies, that is until we sat down to account for what had changed recently. We had picked up green beans and shiitake mushrooms at the farmer’s market, I ate a shrimp toast appetizer when visiting my in-laws, and I began baking with almond flour and almond milk. Each was a small exposure, but could it be the reason behind all of my respiratory symptoms?

Yep, I’m pretty sure I screwed up. After two years of extremely strict eating habits, my boyfriend lost 25 pounds while sick with Covid and I shed about 15 due to stress, so we decided the best way to gain back some weight was baked goods. For three consecutive weekends, we consumed delicious baked morsels containing almond flour and almond butter. And that’s about when I started coughing, sneezing, and developing hives. Those damn cookies were trying to kill me.

After just one week of having re-eliminated almond products, green beans, and mushrooms, my symptoms have cleared almost entirely. Yesterday, I went to back to the doctor to retest my allergies and start a new round of immunotherapy. Though I don’t yet have the results, I suspect that–twenty-nine years later–the test will once more reveal that I am allergic to pretty much everything.

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