Can I get a Claritin?

I have allergies. To all kinds of things: fruits, vegetables, animals (my cat!). I’ve learned to live with and work around my allergies. So I take meds. For years, Claritin was my savior. One tiny pill that started to work super quickly. Just that one pill, and I was good for hours and hours. I don’t know if my body changed or if my allergies changed, but Claritin stopped working for me. These days, I bounce between two new meds, making my decision based on whether the pill makes me sleepy or lets me get on with my day. The sleepy-making one works better, but I can only take it when I don’t care if I fall asleep.

I’m stalling.

This isn’t the slice I was going to write. It’s the slice I decided to write because it’s nicer. But never mind nicer. I’ll just dive in with the real slice.

I have allergic reactions to people, too. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does … whew! Don’t I wish I had a Claritin then!

I first noticed this about ten or so years ago. The project I directed meant I had to meet and sometimes work with a very powerful, famous man. Everyone who worked on the project was thrilled to have the chance to interact with this man, to get to say that they could call him by name, that they had shared a meal or a joke with him. Feh.

I could and can still easily acknowledge the incredible work he’s done. It’s extraordinary and beyond impressive. I respect him for that work, for the ways he’s been able to grow and expand it.

But the man himself? No thank you. The moment he entered a room, everything in me soured. He’d make a joke, and I’d have to choke back the bile rising in my throat.

And he knew it, too. I don’t think he would have been able to articulate what was going on with me, but he certainly knew something was off between us. I would catch him sometimes, looking at me with pure confusion. I made no sense to him. And how could I, when I wasn’t making sense to myself?

I fussed with myself, trying to puzzle out what my problem was. I talked to a friend about it, describing my responses in comparison to seemingly every other living being on the planet.

“You’re allergic to him,” she said. “On sight, everything in you — you physical self, your psyche — rejects him. Like if you ate a fig.” (I am super allergic to figs.)

That idea — that I could just have a complete, visceral rejection of another person — had never occurred to me. And, although it sounded exactly right when I heard her say it and I’ve adopted her language and have been saying it ever since, the idea troubled me. What does it mean about me that I can so completely reject a person I don’t even know?

As I said, it doesn’t happen often. I can really count on one hand the people I’ve had this response to. I’m not talking about not liking someone or being disgusted by someone. But truly feeling an instant, full-system revulsion and rejection. When I have to be near/around that person, my physical response is akin to the way magnets repel, a dramatic and natural force driving me away from that person. I’ve never figured out how to counter it, only how to live with it.

And I’m thinking about it now because I’ve just recognized that it’s happening again. I’ve been working with a group that I enjoy supporting. I’ve been working with them since mid-way through 2020, and I’m getting deeper into the work, which means I’m working more closely with a lot of the group members.

And tonight, watching playback of an instructional video several of the group members made, I recognized my response. There’s a woman in the group to whom I’ve been responding from the beginning, and it wasn’t until hearing her voice tonight that I recognized my repelling-magnet response.

And maybe it’s not something that can be helped. Maybe I’m always just going to have allergic responses to people. But I want there to be a way to solve this, to not be repelled. This woman I’m responding to seems to be a genuine, kind, caring person. If I could get over this allergy, I’m sure I’d have a lot to learn from her, that I’d enjoy being in working groups with her, might even socialize with her outside of the group.

I have no idea where to start, what parts of me I need to be investigating to figure out what’s triggering this response. This is a part of myself that I’m not happy to recognize. I want to be hopeful that calling myself out can help me find some answers. I wanted this to be my slice but then shied away from showing this decidedly less appealing side of myself and started writing about my “real” allergies instead.

But the false start works for me. Those OTC meds saved me and continue to save me. I wish there was Claritin for this reaction. And I’m joking, but I mean it, too. I have work to do to figure out what in me causes this response to other people. It would be wonderful to have some magical “Behavior Benadryl” that would let me have a normal interaction while I’m doing that work.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The Smile on the Face of the Tiger

(I mean, most definitely not, but my brain handed up this title, and I couldn’t resist it, even though I never loved that limerick.)

Today starts the Lunar New Year. And it’s a Tiger year. And it’s a Water Tiger year. And I’m a Water Tiger!

I have always been happy to be a Tiger. Before learning a single thing about what being a Tiger might mean, it pleased me because I was so meek and run-over-able. Discovering that there was something wild and powerful about me meant so much.

So, a Water Tiger. All Tigers are Wood Tigers because wood is the fixed element for Tigers. But I am also a Water Tiger because of my birth year. And, since your birth year sign only comes around every 60 years, you know what birthday I’m celebrating later this year.

I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of Chinese astrology or any other kind of astrology. Like most people, I find bits that please me and go with them. For example, one page tells me that my Tiger personality traits are: confident, brave, majestic, idealistic, thrill-seeking, arrogant, and selfish. That’s quite the list of descriptors. Do I like some more than others? Umm … yes, yes I do. Meanwhile, another site that focuses on the characteristics of my elements tells me I am exceptionally gifted, idealistic, sympathetic, and a perfectionist. I’m not saying they don’t all fit me, but … whew! Interesting that idealism found its way onto both lists. Maybe I want to do some cherry-picking, but I think if you take one, you’ve got to tak them all, no?

I was maybe in middle school when I learned about the Chinese zodiac. (Where I grew up, there was really not even the faintest idea of a world that didn’t look like our town. I can’t imagine any scenario in which a teacher in my school would have taught me anything about Asian people. The only thing that broke up the sea of whiteness I lived in was me.) Learning about being a Tiger came at a good time. I needed something that would help me see myself as different from the girl people looked over, looked past. I didn’t magically blossom in the face of that new knowledge of who I could be, but I held onto it, let it feed me a little.

I’m not that timid girl anymore. Not by a long shot. Does that mean I no longer need Water Tiger energy? Hardly. We’re about to enter year 28 of the pandemonium, and I need every boost I can get. According to every rabbit hole I peeked into when researching my sign just now, this is supposed to be a year of living my principles, a year of prospering. I’m for it.


It’s Slice of Life Tuesday!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of the slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Do you hear what I hear?

There was a little piece about misophonia on NPR today. I’m glad that there has been an uptick in folks writing and talking about this condition. It means more people who deal with it will have the huge relief of knowing they aren’t nuts and aren’t alone. That was certainly what I felt when I learned that this awful thing that happens to me has a name. While I’m sorry to know that many other people suffer with misophonia, it was such an enormous comfort to know I wasn’t alone.

Misophonia is the hatred of sound — the hatred, to be clear, of specific sounds. Although there are a large number of sounds that can trigger a response, the most common are mouth noises such as yawning, chewing, and breathing. These sounds can trigger panic or rage, and sufferers describe their responses to sounds as being driven mad.

That has definitely been my experience, feeling as if I’m going insane when I hear certain sounds. My response has always been instant rage. And yes, that seems both funny and fitting since I am so often foaming at the mouth about something (case in point: yesterday’s post). But in reality, it’s not so funny. As a kid, I thought I was the most horrible person in the world because I would feel a driving, aggressive hatred for people I loved if I had to listen to them eating. I would be almost blinded by my fury in those moments. I couldn’t understand what kind of monster I must be to begrudge people the right to eat.

I was once prepared to quit a job because of misophonia. Back in the dark times, when I worked as a temp word processor, I had a long term assignment in the corporate office of a bank. My cubicle was across from a man who was the noisiest, sloppiest eater I’ve ever encountered. He was a disgusting eater, but his habits multiplied by my misophonia made him a public menace. I did whatever I had to in order to be away from him when he ate. And I was mostly successful … until a big project required us to work closely and work long hours and work through lunch. It was all I could do not to strike him. I called my temp agency and demanded a new placement. 

I was young and dopey then, didn’t realize that I couldn’t always just say what was true. When asked why I wanted a new placement, I was honest: “This man is a disgusting eater, and I can’t be around him.” I was told that wasn’t a good enough reason to leave a good job, and that if I chose to give up the placement, they probably wouldn’t be able to find me anything for a while. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, it was leave or put my letter opener through his neck. (And, too, I was getting called for jobs from two other agencies, so I wasn’t worried about work.) If only I’d known about misophonia back then, known that I could have asked to be accommodated and that quitting didn’t have to be my only non-violent option.

The agency said that I’d need to tell my onsite supervisor why I was leaving, that they wanted the client to understand the problem was with me and my foolishness. No problem. I went to my supervisor at the bank and told her I’d be leaving immediately. Before I had a chance to say why, she looked at me with sympathy and said, “It’s Ken, isn’t it? Please don’t go. We’ll find you another place to sit, and you can work on a different project.”

Done and done. My paycheck — and Ken’s poor neck — saved.

That was a long digression, but I hope it makes clear the hideousness of misophonia. It’s little things. My cats clean themselves, and I want to put my head through a wall. People on conference calls breath heavily into the phone, and I have to bite my tongue on streams of profanity. It’s me putting on headphones whenever my coworker eats lunch at his desk. Little things. All. day. long.

Music helps. White noise helps. Sometimes meditation helps. And learning that misophonia is a thing helped. Not enough is known about misophonia (yet?) for there to be sure-fire tips, but an article I read that said getting more sleep and reducing stress could improve responses to sound triggers, and I’m certainly willing to give that a go — and more sleep and less stress is just bound to make my life better even if I’m still driven into a rage when I hear certain sounds.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Wild Animals, Redux

I often write about the sleepy little upstate New York town where I grew up and my experiences with racial prejudice when I lived there. I focus particularly on two incidents, moments when I used violence in response to the hate that was spit in my face. I’ve been thinking a lot about those incidents lately, thinking about my choice to use violence, about the fact that – as satisfying and effective as my violence was in both cases – I have not become a person who regularly reaches for violence.

I’m not shocked that I haven’t grown up to be a violent person. I’ve never been particularly physical, and I’ve most definitely never been a fighter. More like the opposite of a fighter. I have always been the first to flee, shut down, or capitulate in the face of confrontation. I was mouse-quiet, mouse-meek. I was go-along-to-get-along obedient, kind even to people who weren’t kind to me. That was the “right” way to act, the way I was “supposed to” be.

Except for those two, seemingly aberrant moments. Those two acts of physical violence when I was 12 nudged aside the scrim, gave me brief glimpses at another version of myself. Both came in response to race-based verbal abuse. Clearly racial prejudice was the line silent, docile me wasn’t willing to let others cross with impunity.

The first person to trigger my violence was John. He was older than me by a year or two, and for months he had waited for me outside the door of my history class. Every day, he cycled through a banal but still unacceptable set of insults: ugly black bitch, stupid black bitch, lazy black bitch, nasty black bitch …

At first, I behaved as he must have expected me to: ignored him, reasoned with him, pleaded with him. He found my efforts amusing, and I succeeded only in encouraging him to continue.

Then I changed the script. I approached history class, John’s mouth opened for his daily spew … and I slammed my textbook into his face. It made a deeply satisfying flesh-to-hardcover “SPLAT!!” and John never spoke to me or came near me again. He would, in fact, move to the other side of the hallway when he saw me coming, which was also deeply satisfying and made that smack in the face a gift that kept on giving.

The second recipient of my physical wrath was Michael, a boy in my grade. In science class, I accidentally caught his finger between a desk and chair as we rearranged our seating one day. The surprise of that pain turned Michael into the first person to ever call me a nigger. He spit it at me so fast, had the word handy, so close to the surface, I have no doubt that was how he thought about me all the time.

I had never been called a nigger before, and the surprise of that pain made me grab Michael by the throat and squeeze tight, made me get in his face and invite him to say it again. And I kept inviting him to say it again as my fingers were pried from his bleeding neck.

Choking Michael was almost as satisfying as the book-slap I’d dealt John. And it had the same effect, in that Michael never spoke to me again. (I spoke to him once after that, five years later. I was walking past him and a group of his friends who were hanging out on the Vischer Avenue steps – where my high school’s version of the cool kids hung out – and one of the other boys had something snarky to say about me that made everyone laugh. I paused, then walked up to Michael and ran my finger over the scars I’d dug into his neck. “I see they’re still there,” I said, then turned and kept on walking.)

These were isolated moments – split-second reveals of the me who wasn’t interested in going along to get along, the me who was more than happy to take fools down and keep moving. My actions were so far outside anything that could be considered “normal” for me as to be horrifying … but I wasn’t horrified. Other people were horrified, particularly in the case of my choking Michael, but both moments felt entirely comfortable, necessary, correct. Nothing could have been more natural than introducing John’s face to my history book, than the feel of Michael’s neck in my fist. I have never regretted either action. I don’t regret them today.

As I write this, however, I realize I’m lying. Those two instances of violence weren’t the first. They were the first of that specific, retaliatory type of violence, but not the first signs of my willingness to use physical force. The year before, sixth grade, I tried out a different kind of aggression. In sixth grade, we still had recess, almost entirely unsupervised time on the playground. And there was a brief period during that year when a group of boys faced off against a group of us girls. There was a boy named Guy who was the largest boy – not overly tall, but heavy. I was always lined up to face him because I was the largest girl – tallest and biggest. We’d form opposing lines, armed linked, and we’d advance on each other, chanting: “We don’t stop for noooo-body!” And then we’d smash into each other as hard as we could, trying to break the enemy line.

Why did we do this? Who knows. I can’t imagine why we would have started, what we got out of it, how we chose to stop. Was this the only way we could think of to release the tensions that built up between us?

Those violent clashes – how did none of us get seriously hurt? – were different from what happened the following year, but maybe it was the experience of not stopping for “noooo-body” that made me know I had the strength to lash out when faced with John, with Michael. I may have chosen to slip behind the scrim of meek docility, but maybe that retreat was a tactical choice because slamming into Guy over and over again had given me an idea of what I could take, what I could dish out. Maybe I understood that part of the power of my violence was in doling it out sparingly.

My violent outbursts produced zero consequences for me. In the case of me planting my textbook in John’s face, no teacher or other school authority figure saw me do that, and John, apparently, never reported me. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk me explaining why I bashed him with my book. I was in class for the second incident, however. It was my teacher who pried my hand from Michael’s throat. There should have been some effort at a formal response, some kind of reckoning. But … no. The dramatic fact of my choking Michael blew over almost immediately. I appreciate that this surely wouldn’t be true for a seventh-grade girl today – and specifically not for a Black girl. And I appreciate that it really shouldn’t have been true back then. I physically attacked another student, broke skin and drew blood. As much as I don’t regret my actions, more should have been done than sending me to the nurse’s office.

No one spoke to Michael, no one suggested that he might want or need to apologize to me, or at least remember not to call Black folks niggers (although, I suppose my actions might have gotten that point across). The school nurse, Mrs. Workman, did talk to me, but only so far as to wonder what was wrong with me and if I thought I was a wild animal. She never thought to talk to me about better ways to deal with my anger, and it certainly didn’t occur to her to wonder how I was feeling.

The incidents receded. Other students might have talked about them, but I released them and moved on. None of my friends said a word. No one came to John or Michael’s defense. I’d like to think I put the fear of God in them, that they didn’t want to upset me further, didn’t want to risk getting these hands! I love the idea of that, but I doubt this was the case. The less pleasant truth was likely more along the lines that all of us lived with violence on a regular enough basis that it was just the norm to let flare-ups fade away.

I focus on the incidents with John and Michael because of the racism at the heart of each. And because it’s so interesting to me that it was race-based abuse that drove me to a volatility no one would have dreamed possible from me. But I was a kid raised on “Negro American History” comics, flashcards of famous Black folks, the Afro-American History Calendar, The Negro Almanac. I had strong and clear feelings and opinions about race and prejudice. Had either John or Michael mocked or attacked me because of my gender, my body, my looks, I don’t imagine I would have stood up for myself, and I would definitely not have turned violent. But attack me because I’m Black? Not today, Satan. I knew exactly how I felt about that and exactly what crap I was not going to take. Come at me with racist bullshit, and it’s on.

In the many years since seventh grade, I’ve chosen non-physical ways to fight back, which is 100 percent more my style. Unsurprisingly, the weapon I’ve wielded most often has been my voice. Who could be shocked to know this? Words were the tool I used in my earliest responses to bullies. When faced with racist nonsense in kindergarten, I wrote my way out. When faced with a bully in the fourth grade, I talked my way out. My words, my voice, have always been my friend, have always come to my aid.

I say that the incidents with John and Michel pulled back the scrim, gave me a glimpse of another version of myself. And that’s true. That stand-and-fight version of me disappeared after I attacked Michael. It resurfaced briefly years later in Europe when a man tried to rape me. I fought him briefly, but then immediately began to use my words – once again, I talked my way out. It surfaced again on the 4 train one morning when I delivered a vicious kick to the shin of a man who had followed me through a crowded train car, defiantly positioning himself behind me and putting his hand between my legs. Clearly, what was true in high school – that I wouldn’t have defended myself if John or Michael had attacked my body – has stopped being true. That sounds like progress.

I think about how completely I put myself behind that scrim of docility after choking Michael. As much as I didn’t regret my actions, perhaps my violence seemed extreme to me, felt out of control or unmanageable. I didn’t know that part of myself, didn’t know what to do with a me who was a fighter.

Did I frighten myself? Perhaps just a little? Did I make myself wonder what else was hiding beneath my surface, what else I was capable of? Could that be where I learned to fear my anger, to swallow it rather than express it? Maybe. If this is the case, I’m sad to know it, sad to think that seeing myself express my anger so purely and effectively might be the thing that cut me off from my anger for so many years.

But perhaps, then, it makes perfect, full-circle sense that it was race-based violence – the murders of unarmed Black people by police and vigilantes and white domestic terrorists – that has drawn my anger to the surface once and for all? Racism remains the sure-fire trigger, the line I cannot allow others to cross.


I wrote about John and Michael early in the life of this blog. The title of that post was, “Only wild animals act like that.” And I chose to echo that title for this post.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Expiration Dates

Years ago, a Ouija board told me I would die at 17. I was able to use the board alone, so no one had seen that answer spell itself out, and I told no one. I was 15, in the 10th grade. The idea of dying at 17 seemed both crazy and entirely possible and believable. What purpose could the spirit on that board have for lying about such a thing? So, I believed it. Two years to live.

Believing I knew I was dying didn’t change anything in the way I went through my life. I thought about it, but I didn’t do anything about it or do anything because of knowing it. The board had said I’d die of leukemia, which should have given me the idea of seeing my doctor. But I didn’t, and I didn’t spend any time in the reference section of the library reading up on the disease I was supposed to be dying from. I did nothing.

Except tell a friend, maybe two. Whoever I told didn’t hold onto my secret, and soon a lot of people knew – more of my friends, other kids at school, their parents, my mother.

My mother came home from some parent meeting asking questions. The next day in social studies, a girl sneered as she passed my desk and said, “That was some leukemia you had, huh?”

The scandal of being revealed as a liar blew over ridiculously quickly. My nonsense was news for perhaps the span of a class period. At home, I told my mother where my diagnosis had come from, and she promptly revoked my Ouija board privileges. End of story.

But I never actually stopped believing I was dying. My mother telling the moms at the PTA meeting that I didn’t have leukemia didn’t mean I wasn’t about to be stricken with the disease and go into rapid decline. I stopped talking about my soon-coming death but held onto the certainty of it.

Until I forgot about it. I finished high school. I went to college. During the summer of my junior year, on a train through the Pyrenees, it dawned on me that I was twenty years old, three years past the age I was supposed to have died.

 

Why was it so easy for me to believe some random hocus pocus about having a disease I would surely have been aware of having? Leukemia is no silent killer, sneaking up on its victims and snatching them in an instant. How could I convince myself I was sick when there was nothing abnormal happening in my body? I must have wanted to believe it, or it wouldn’t have been such an easy sell. What made me want to believe such a thing?

And how did I then just forget, move on as if nothing had happened and only years later realize I’d lived past my deadline?

 

In my late 30s, I needed fibroid surgery. Nine years earlier, I’d had a batch of tumors excised from my abdomen. My experience with that first surgery had been difficult, but I’d come through swimmingly. The closer I got to the second surgery, however, the more convinced I became that I wouldn’t survive. There was no reason for my certainty, but I was frozen by it. I could barely function for thinking about my soon-coming death. I never knew I had such a terror of dying until that summer.

When I was at the point of canceling the surgery, I told my sister. I told her because I wanted her to help me prepare for death, for what would happen after I was gone. I wanted her to promise to go through my apartment and clear out things I didn’t want my mother to have to see or deal with in her grief – my journals, my sex toys, etc.

My sister agreed to do a pre-parent sweep of my house. She suggested a handy system for me to use for organizing her sweep: put a sticky note on anything I wanted thrown out, and she’d take care of it. She didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince me I was going to be fine. She assured me that the sticky-note plan wouldn’t be necessary, but she also immediately agreed to help me. Together, we would spare my mother learning things about me it would hurt or sadden her to know.

I started tacking notes to things around the house, but I didn’t get far. Somehow, as improbable as it still seems to me, my sister’s participation in my planning was exactly what I needed. I started labeling my belongings and then, almost immediately, I forgot about it, and forgot about my impending demise.

I had my surgery. It went perfectly well. I recuperated.  I went back to my day-to-day. About a year later I was hunting through an old journal hunting up a story-start I wanted to flesh out, and I found the plan I’d written out for my funeral – what songs to play, who I hoped would speak, what I didn’t want folks to do. I didn’t remember having sketched it out, had entirely forgotten my certainty that the surgery would be the end of me.

 

Twice in my life, I have been entirely convinced that I was soon to die … and just as quickly, I have completely forgotten about my impending death and blithely moved on to some other thing. How is that possible? What is that?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.