Like millions of others, I suffer from seasonal allergies. There are a few things that contribute to the issue, but ragweed is my most significant enemy. Each year, from August until about October, I battle a variety of symptoms that begin as a mild nuisance and quickly become very disabling. As I understand it, some people experience light and manageable symptoms, and some, like me, are eventually overcome with a more serious reaction.
It is hardly an obscure condition. Allergy sufferers are a target market for all sorts of pharmaceutical companies and purveyors of manufactured and natural goods. Everyone has something to sell you. Everyone has a way of “making your life just a bit better” and have no shortage of images of people doing things people do when they don’t suffer from these kinds of allergies (thanks to the product they wish to sell you, apparently). It’s romantic and effective. Nobody is going to trust that a drug or product is going to make the problem disappear, but I’d wager most people are willing to place just enough faith in the idea that “tolerable” is a realistic pursuit.
What these advertisements don’t do a good job of is teaching the public what it is to experience the range of symptoms all at once and at full-tilt. Runny nose? Watery eyes? That doesn’t sound so bad. We’ve all experienced a cold or some combination of the symptoms described. They come, we go through a box of tissues and reach for whatever comforts we can find and wait it out until they go. While no illness temporary or not is fun, sometimes the natural reaction to learning someone is having seasonal allergy issues seems to involve reflecting for a couple of seconds on what it’s like to have a cold and then moving on to ask them how they’ve been and if they want to “forget” about their allergies for a few hours and join them for some sort of beach side adventure.
What people don’t typically realize is that for an amount of time much longer than a cold or flu, some allergy sufferers are facing extreme versions of these symptoms (and others) to a degree that they can’t think about anything else, let alone find time to work or enjoy themselves. Unrelentingly itchy nasal cavities, sneezing, sinus congestion, headaches, eyes that are sore, watery and sensitive to light, itchy throat and palate, fatigue, sleeplessness… all things that when severe enough, for several weeks, leave people trying everything in their power to experience a few moments of relief and sometimes forgetting about everything else they care about for large chunks of time. When most of your hobbies and interests involve looking at things and your eyes burn and stream tears every moment you keep them open during the worst moments, there isn’t a whole lot to do without making a choice to experience a degree of physical misery just to keep from doing nothing but sleeping or being mentally bored for hours on end.
“Did you take some allergy medicine?” some will ask. “I heard SnotTex works great,” someone will say after seeing a dandy piece of marketing that I probably bought into at some point already. “You need to use this natural magic syrup from the health store, it worked for me,” say others before another group of friends or colleagues suggest all of my problems are because of my diet.
There are dozens of things that can play a factor in how these symptoms are experienced, and some of those “helpful suggestions” people offer do help but they aren’t a cure. When you’re experiencing a slow torture for 2 months of every year for your entire life that prevents you from doing the things you love to take your mind off of it, you try EVERYTHING. You even get superstitious for awhile. During the worst of it, I sometimes convince myself that even being physically near other people somehow makes me sneeze, as if I’m actually allergic to people. I savour the moments when the symptoms calm down for half an hour so I can watch a TV show without having to stop to have a sneezing fit or close my eyes. The only thing that seems to make an extreme difference is staying in doors with the air conditioning going while everyone else has the last of their summer fun. Every half hour being outside seems to translate into 2 hours of misery. It takes a toll mentally and every decision made is about weighing the pros and cons of actually seeing other human beings and people you care about vs. enduring another night of worsened symptoms. Hilariously, even going to the store to try the latest allergy product sets me off because apart from being outside, I’m forced to walk through all sorts of scents that have a way of disturbing the sensitive balance I’ve reached sinus-wise. Bright lights, cosmetic and cleaning products… all terrible.
Woe is not me, however. Yes, it feels good to complain about something that most people I know can’t really relate to, and it might even have an element of selfishness to it. Probably in part due to my learned seasonal behaviours of dwelling in dim light indoors this time of year, I’ve been able to give this all some thought and sit and write a few things about it without interruption. I’m grateful for this, but more importantly, I’ve come to realize (again) that there is an infinite number of things I will never fully understand about the struggles of others. No matter how mundane or seemingly insignificant, the things people tell me about all the time are cues and clues to puzzles I’ll never be able to fully solve.
It might be that I’m incapable of adequately understanding the significance of what another is going through whether it be an illness, a fear, a social dilemma. There’s also a danger in presuming everything is a terrible emergency or catastrophe, but there is no danger in understanding that I do not understand how it may be affecting someone. We are all so quick to measure every event and situation, make a snap judgment and compare it to other things that we consider significant (or not). We’re good at saying things like “First World Problems!” or “You’ll be fine” or “You’re in my prayers” or “serves them right!”
Are we good at respecting the significance of events in another individual’s story? Is it even possible? A quick glance at the running narrative in any number of popular social or political issues in the media might suggest otherwise, although it’s often a poor representation of what is going on with human beings apart from those circus tents. Sometimes inadvertent ignorance stands in the way or deliberate distortion of the truth. The tale of the woman who sued McDonald’s because she was burned by their coffee was a great example of this, and our strange craving for narratives that explain away suffering so that we’re essentially off the hook in the “caring” department.
I’m not going to ask for sympathy or empathy to be summoned on my behalf. I’m not sure I’m very good at recognizing the needs of others any differently myself most of the time. I just think I’d like to be better at listening to others and respecting the significance of their hurdles, big and small. I don’t want to be the guy that thinks there’s a formula everyone can just tap into when they choose and conquer each barrier in their life. Those are for Lifehacker articles and Timothy Ferriss books and zealots who think an individual’s bad choices are the source of all struggles.
I do find myself hoping that I’ll be listening with an open mind and be in a position to help people in practical ways when it is possible. Sometimes the best I can do is to recognize that someone isn’t having a great time and that being the first person to not have an answer for them or jump to conclusions might be exactly what they need.
Image: “Ambrosia psilostachya kz1” by Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons