Sunday, January 22, 2012


“Galaxy Glue, Galaxy Glue,
Life would go to pieces without Galaxy Glue.”
The Incredible Shrinking Woman

The hives popped up on my toe first, a perfect circle of blisters. You’re allergic to tape, my doctor friend told me, which made sense. The toe had a large cut on the bottom of it, making it uncomfortable to walk and more uncomfortable to kickbox. I’d been taping it every day, with athletic tape, with band-aids, with scotch tape wrapped around the band-aids to hold them in place. Now my body was rebelling against the mystery adhesives I’d been casually strapping against my skin as though I had any idea what they were made of and whether it was bad for me.

I was relieved to hear it was an allergy. Easy, just stop taping it, I told myself. But avoiding tape didn’t seem to help. The hives spread, first to my hands, which they covered entirely so that I looked like I’d been burned. Then all over both of my feet. They were creeping up to my knees and elbows by the time I went to the doctor, who beat them back with two rounds of strong steroid pills.

Make a list of things you have been in contact with during the last forty-eight hours, the medical websites told me. Medicines, clothing, pets, foods. I remember Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, the housewife steeped in a cocktail of household chemical products—who could say which had caused her body to shrink away into nothing?

“It’s spreading internally,” the allergist told me. “And once your system is sensitized, anything will set it off. It’s like your body is set on a hair trigger.” And so anything did set it off: detergents, wool, leather, anything scratchy, the friction of a jujitsu gi against my hands. I became one of those allergic people who is scared of everything, who feels like the world is attacking her, though really it’s her own body that is staging the attack.

On good days, the hives lie low, waiting but not acting. They’re like the physical version of panic attacks—always there, threatening to flare up at any moment and ruin everything. Once my skin gets dry, I can feel them hiding on the palms of my hands, agitated little pores looking for a fight. And if I rub them the wrong way, if I touch something they don’t like, they jump to attention, rising up, daring me, just daring me to scratch them.

Scratching them is the worst thing you can do. That’s what allows them to reproduce, sending their little hivey spores through your entire body. Scratching the bumps on my feet will instantly raise the ones on my hands, the chemicals moving through my body at a speed that seems completely disconnected from anything I’ve ever learned about a bloodstream.

Once you start scratching them it’s impossible to stop—or rather, you don’t care if you stop, you don’t want to stop, because the scratching is like heroin and you don’t care who you have to rob or kill to get more. It’s that kind of itch that makes you remember why itch is a euphemism for horniness. Scratching it the best feeling in the world and horrible burning pain all at the same time.

One good thing I’ve learned about hives is that they can kill you, which makes it really easy to get a doctor’s appointment. Every time I told the appointment nurse what was wrong, her first question was, Is your throat swelling shut? Are you having trouble breathing? I learned to cut her off to save time.

“What is this appointment for?”
“I have hives.”
“Okay, ma’am, I need to ask you…”
“My throat isn’t swelling. I’m not having trouble breathing.”
“Great, thanks.”

“Contact dermatitis is serious stuff,” my doctor told me, shaking her head in sympathy over my mangled hands. “You need some pretty aggressive treatment to stop it.”

I wondered what would happen to me if I didn’t have medicine. Would I die of a something as seemingly benign as a skin rash? Or just live the rest of my life looking ever more like Freddy Krueger? What did people do hundreds of years ago, before they had steroids and cortisone? The answer of course, is that they mostly didn’t need them, because they didn’t go around strapping laboratory chemicals against their skin as though they had any idea what they were made from and whether it was bad for them. But when they did need laboratory chemicals, when the chemicals were the only thing that could save them from a deathly allergic reaction, they were out of luck.


parker said...

All of us usually consider skin rashes as a small issue but we must take it seriously and do take care of our skin.If we are not getting rid of skin rashes then we must consult to doctor and take proper medicine.

Karin Spirn said...

Good point! Lesson learned.

Unknown said...

Most scientists believe that the issue today (vs 100 years ago) is not so much that we have too many environmental assaults, but that we actually have too FEW environmental assaults. (Look up "the hygiene hypothesis.") Auto-immune reactions-- ranging from hives and asthma to Crohn's and MS-- are more common among people who live in very clean environments (like most of us do), and very uncommon in places where people get a lot of parasitic infections. The going theory is that the human immune system evolved in concert with parasites, and that parasitic infections (such as hookworm, schisto, etc) secrete chemicals that calm the immune system. Now that most of us richies don't have calming parasitic infections, our immune systems just go haywire and attack whatever they find handy.

If you want to hear a really fascinating story, go listen to the last segment in this "Radiolab": A guy with really debilitating asthma cures himself by infecting himself with hookworm.

Karin Spirn said...

I've heard that radiolab, or I think part of it--it was incredible. I'll have to go listen to the whole thing. Though really, my apartment would seem to indicate against the "clean environments" hypothesis.

Jessica said...

Last time I was there I did not actually bring home any parasitic worms. Has it gone downhill since then?

Karin Spirn said...

Let me check my petri dish and get back to you...

Adam Hunter Caldwell said...

Your drawing of the hive is good! it is very economical in its use of detail and I love the foliage. Re:parasites...interesting, but I think most scientists are agnostic about that theory. Great post as always. DON"T SCRATCH IT DAMMIT!!!!

Karin Spirn said...

Wow, thanks, teacher!

Melinda said...

Poor Karin! I had hives once, no, twice. Both very intense cases. The cause each time was, sadly, stress.

I know you've been overworked. Maybe it's time for a vacation?

Karin Spirn said...

Ooh, I missed this comment, Melinda. Sorry to hear you've had them, too. So crappy! Yeah, I was definitely too stressed when I got them. It was actually kickboxing tournament stress--they started on my foot one week before the tournament and then went totally crazy a week after.