As an adult I’ve experienced two anaphylactic reactions. They both had one thing in common: denial. Today I want to share my thought process during my reactions.
We were having a great day walking around the Dutch city of Leiden. European cities have an age to them that Canadian cities can’t match. With age comes wisdom and somehow walking these cobbled streets helped me feel a sense of serenity and peace.
Earlier that day at lunch I went through a very unique experience ordering food from a waiter who spoke only Dutch, a language I couldn’t understand. It was unnerving to have my normal allergy discussion through a translator. After a few minutes my translator seemed satisfied that this restaurant was safe and we decided to eat. In retrospect, I ignored a few red flags and should have been more careful.
As I walked down the street I began feeling bloated. That’s normal enough when I’m suffering from jet lag and eating new foods in new places. I would have ignored it completely if it hadn’t steadily worsened over the course of an hour or so. Eventually I was so uncomfortable that I felt I might throw up. It crossed my mind that I may be having an anaphylactic reaction to my lunch.
When people with allergies talk about allergies to friends and family we tend to play up our vigilance. “I would never…” is the beginning of many of our bold claims. Here’s a good one that I’ve shared hundreds of times “I would never ignore even the slightest symptom of a reaction, it isn’t worth it.”
Contrary to my claim I wasn’t just ignoring my symptoms but I was actively rationalizing them away. My thought process went like this:
“My stomach hurts, that’s not an allergic reaction!”
A few moments later…
“If this was a reaction you’d already be passed out. This is taking too long, it’s just indigestion”
“Don’t be stupid Jason, you’re making yourself panic. Take a deep breath and enjoy yourself. You’re only in Holland for a short time!”
This ongoing desperate attempt to explain away my symptoms was eventually interrupted by my brother who noticed I was behaving strangely. He offered me a mint to settle my stomach and noticed that I immediately complained that the mint made my tongue itch. With a subtlety that I only understood after the fact he casually remarked that if my tongue was itchy I should pinch my ear. I did. My ear was itchy and sore.
My brother and I locked eyes, he didn’t say anything. That was the moment I realized what was really happening.
Minutes later I was sitting on a Dutch hospital bed as a doctor scolded me for not using my auto-injector. Everything worked out fine but the denial nearly cost me my life.
Three years later I was getting married.
My groomsmen and I rented a cottage for the bachelor party. After an evening of video games, beer, and cigars we were winding down the evening playing cards.
I didn’t feel right. My back and shoulders were itchy and I was generally uncomfortable. I figured I was tired, drunk, or both. Just like my walk through the streets of Leiden at some point it occurred to me that I may be having an allergic reaction.
I may be the king of denial because this time was nearly the same as last time.
My brother, who is also allergic to peanuts, and was present, was not having a reaction. We had been eating the same food all weekend.
“If Dylan’s OK then I am too. It’s impossible for one of us to react and not the other.”
The worst part about the denial during shock is that it makes so much sense at the time. Every thought I had explained away my symptoms in a logical manner. I thought about indigestion, seasonal allergies, reactions to alcohol, fatigue. All of it made sense. It was enough to protect my fragile sense of security from the reality of a dangerous situation.
All good things come to an end. I walked past a mirror and saw a red patch on the back of my arm. This looked alarmingly like hives. Lifting my shirt, I checked my back. I felt a sinking feeling as I saw that my back was covered in hives.
From the outside looking in I know that this is the moment when I should have taken a shot of epinephrine and called an ambulance. I’m embarrassed that my actual response almost turned my anecdote into a tragedy. I looked at the rash and thought:
“This is fine. It’s just a rash, don’t ruin the party.”
For years, I scolded my friends who hid their symptoms to protect the fun that their friends were having. The joke was on me, I’m not so different. There I was in the midst of a full blown anaphylactic reaction convincing myself that I had nothing to worry about.
A few minutes later the hives were getting worse and I fessed up to the gang and showed them my back. While my friends debated what the rash could mean I made eye contact with my brother and immediately knew what he was thinking. This wasn’t a drill.
Denial is one of the most dangerous symptoms of shock. Heart attacks are misunderstood as indigestion, strokes are mistaken for fatigue, and “small infections” are ignored leading to blood poisoning or worse.
We’re taught to treat hives, throat closures, chest tightness, and many other symptoms with urgency to protect ourselves. In an emergency, however, this can all be derailed by a few moments of denial. My first-hand experience was a real eye opener for me. I realize now that there is more to this equation than I had originally thought.
This can happen to any of us. If I had been reacting by myself who knows what would have happened. Luckily I had my brother with me to snap me out of denial twice. When you practice using your auto-injector or educate your friends don’t forget this scenario. Be prepared to face denial.
Always remember to take your symptoms seriously.
– Jason B.