In the summer of 2008, I thought I was dying of a brain tumor. I’d suffered from migraines since I was 16, often ending up in the hospital with debilitating pain. But in 2008, the migraines got worse. Instead of once or twice a month, I woke up every morning with an intense throbbing on the right side of my head, nauseated, with my vision slowly constricting, as if around my eyes was a drawstring bag and someone was pulling it shut. I would go to the bathroom and vomit up mucus and lie on the bathroom floor, waiting for the nausea to pass so I could take my migraine medicine, which cost $30 a pill even with insurance. If I wasn’t careful, I’d vomit it into the toilet. Flushing away money.
Sometimes the migraines came on in the middle of the day. I’d be staring at the computer screen at my job as a copywriter for a marketing company and feel the slow ache clawing up from the back of my head, reaching forward, coming for my vision. I had 20 minutes to take my medicine before I’d start vomiting and my vision would retreat. Once, the migraine came on during my lunch break at work and I rushed home to get my migraine medicine. I didn’t get it in time. As I drove back to the office, my vision began to constrict and I accidentally ran a four-way stop. I was pulled over by a police officer in my work parking lot. He looked at me, wincing in pain and holding my head, and he gave me a sobriety test — in front of all my co-workers also on their way back from lunch.
“Allergies,” my doctor told me. I stared at her in disbelief. Could allergies really be this bad?
That June, early spring melt, rain, and the expanses of eroding farmland caused rivers in eastern Iowa to overflow, filling towns with 13 and 12 feet of water in one of the state’s most costly natural disasters. I’d waded through floodwaters, sandbagging doorways and lifting valuables to safety. After the flood receded, I helped muck out homes, carrying endless piles of clothes, curtains, and cushions — swollen and soggy, all covered with black slime — into dumpsters.
Our allergies are a symptom of our relationship to the places where we build our lives.
The offices where I worked were completely destroyed. After two months of working at home, we were ordered back into temporary offices on the second floor of the local theater. Below, we heard construction workers ripping down molding walls and replacing the warped floors. That was when my headaches had gotten worse.
I wasn’t the only one suffering. The doctor told me she’d seen patients develop asthma symptoms and have severe allergic reactions to the black mold. The flood had destroyed our homes and the earth was now destroying our bodies.
So often we talk about how nature can heal and restore our minds and bodies. But often, our relationship to nature can make us chronically ill.
Allergies are a modern affliction. In his book Breathing Space: How Allergies Shaped Our Lives, Gregg Mitman argues that allergies are born of industrialization: the clearing of forests, soil erosion, pollution from traffic — a symptom of the war between humans and their environment.
In his essay “The Summer Catarrh,” E.B. White wrote of his own seasonal allergies and the allergies suffered by Daniel Webster. “Across the long span of the years, I feel an extraordinary kinship with this aging statesman, this massive victim of pollinosis whose declining days sanctioned the sort of compromise that is born of local irritation. There is a fraternity of those who have been tried beyond endurance,” White wrote.
He continues — in my favorite bit from that essay — “I am with him as he pours out a pony of whisky, to ease his nerves. I pour one, too, and together we enjoy the momentary anesthesia of alcohol, an anesthesia we both know from experience is a short-lived blessing, since liquor (particularly grain liquor) finds its way unerringly to the membrane of the nose.”
I often wonder if this is what I am doing on a summer night on my porch with my pre-bed glass of whiskey, which I often use to swallow down my daily Zyrtec. Finding some momentary relief from the illness each breath brings.
White posits that both he and Webster had to modify their dreams and ambitions due to their seasonal allergies. I wonder too how my relationship with my body has been forever altered by the pain of breathing. But vomiting and the loss of vision are mild irritants. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in America.
And they are only getting worse.
In a study published in 2021, researchers at the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences found that global warming was causing pollen counts to increase, making allergy season start 20 days earlier and last 10 days longer. But allergies don’t affect all Americans equally. According to a University of Utah press release, the researchers found that “although nationwide pollen amounts increased by around 21% over the study period, the greatest increases were recorded in Texas and the Midwestern U.S., and more among tree pollen than among other plants,”
And the inequality of allergies is not just regional. A study published last year found that in high-income countries, allergies disproportionately affect members of ethnic minorities. The reasons have yet to be determined, but the study’s authors posit, “it is likely that this involves complex gene-environment interaction, behavioural and cultural elements. Poor clinical outcomes have been related to multiple factors including access to health care, engagement with healthcare professionals and concordance with advice which are affected by deprivation, literacy, cultural norms and health beliefs.”
In our efforts to protect ourselves from allergies, Americans have focused on individual solutions over public policy — air conditioning, clean indoor spaces, summer retreats, and filtered air — which have the effect of widening inequality and preventing our immune systems from adaptation.
Mitman writes, “As different allergens have come into being — the stresses of civilization, pollens, cockroaches, air pollutants, molds, and dust mites, for instance — we have modified the spaces where we live, work, and play, hoping to breathe more easily. But often we have exacerbated the allergic landscape and made worse the very symptoms that we have aimed to relieve.”
He offers the example of the early resorts where wealthy hay fever sufferers would go in the summer to find respite. The popularity of these resorts led to increased development, more rail lines, fewer forests and more ragweed. The solution exacerbated the problem.
It’s not just a problem of the past. Mitman’s book was published in 2007 and is prescient for our era of airborne irritants and disease.
When Los Angeles implemented Covid-19 stay-at-home measures in 2020, people ironically started breathing easier. This was because the measures meant that the busy city wasn’t clogged with traffic and pollutants. L.A. experienced 21-smog free days that spring. But then a heat wave spiked smog levels, followed by smoke from a bad wildfire season — both likely driven in large part by man-made climate change. The dry, brittle landscape combusted, throwing pollutants into the sky that blew all the way across America. A year that began with a breath of hope ended up being the worst year on record for L.A.’s air quality.
Allergies are a problem that are only getting worse as disease and dust swirl through the air and we cough and medicate ourselves through a modern life.
A 2019 interactive graphic shows that my town of Cedar Rapids, with its industrial plants, had particulate pollution that put it in the “unhealthy” range on its worst day for air pollution. The New York Times reports, “Outdoor particulate pollution was responsible for an estimated 4.2 million deaths worldwide in 2015, with a majority concentrated in east and south Asia. Millions more fell ill from breathing dirty air.”
Our allergies are a symptom of our relationship to the places where we build our lives.
Even now, as our relationship with the air around us grows more fraught, even as the world around us grows more poisonous, allergies are still treated on an individual level. They are still a problem for us to neti pot, nasal spray, and Zyrtec our way through and out of. Allergies are not minor inconveniences to be dismissed — they are life-altering and can cause long-term illness. And they need solutions that focus more on sustainable agricultural practices, better urban development, and universal healthcare.
MYAM is a newsletter straight out of red state America and into your inbox. It’s about those places where our personhood and our policy meet.
This struck such a chord with me. I live in Northern New England, I have allergies, my husband has allergies, and asthma, and we have a 3 year old who has been sick for months, can only sleep with an air purifier and humidfier and daily zyrtec... The way ~*the culture*~ presents how we ~*should*~ be in relation to outside - as in, we should be outside all the time, enjoying screen free self-made entertainment and exercise in the fresh air.... it's exhausting and makes us miserable and makes me feel like a moral failure, like literally every weekend. It can feel sometimes like those people whose families go back generations in this area are (ahem) better suited to this place than those of us who are recent arrivals, and that I, and my child, will never truly "belong" here.
Reading that White, and Webster(!) both had debilitating allergies has given me something I didn't know I needed!
My youngest has persistent allergies, which she probably (at least in part) inherited from her dad. But also, unlike her brother (who breastfed exclusively for a year and would probably still be on the boob at 20 if I'd let him), I supplemented with formula when she headed to daycare at 6 mos, and then cut her off entirely at 11 months. And I have spent years blaming myself. Like, if I'd just been more self-sacrificing she wouldn't live with a box of tissues constantly within reach. Her immune system would be PERFECT. (If I were just better she would never suffer. The perennial lament of mothers in patriarchy.)
Maybe that's partly true. Who knows? But it's comforting to know there might be other causes, even if those causes feel equally out of my reach to effect.