Thanks to having had a battery of allergy tests, I know that I’ve been diagnosed as allergic to ragweed and feathers. And having done food sensitivity trials, I know that I have sensitivity to gluten and lactose. I’m aware that the same sorts of allergy tests or sensitivity trials don’t exist for our reactions to other people. I’ve often wondered if we can be allergic to others. Can their presence make us itch, cause our skin to crawl?
We can be allergic to other people’s bodily secretions. A woman can be allergic to her partner’s sperm or semen. Somehow the chemical reaction between my father’s and my mother’s sweat was something which caused my mother to itch. Heck, I’m even sensitive to my own sweat and will find myself scratching if I sweat profusely.
Some things we can avoid. Yet how do women avoid reacting to their partner’s semen, especially if they’re trying to conceive? How could my mother avoid my father’s sweat? They shared a bed for all of their married life and our house was not air conditioned. I know that I cannot avoid my own sweat.
Now, when we’re diagnosed with an allergy to pollen or dust or pet dander or the like, we expect that there is some form of medical or homeopathic intervention possible. We’re prescribed shots or pills or some such nostrum to mitigate how we feel. And if there is no such therapeutic remedy available for that which causes us to sneeze and cough and itch or if things do get worse, then we’re advised to avoid it. Don’t cut the grass, don’t own a dog or cat, don’t eat tomatoes, don’t go out much during ragweed season. Usually, we can avoid the irritant if we choose to.
I believe that it’s possible to have a negative body response to other people – something which goes beyond the classic symptomology associated with being allergic. There are people whose voices, when I hear them, cause me to cringe. I react negatively to the resonance. Is that being allergic? I believe it is. And there are people whose breath could gag a dragon not just me. Is that being allergic? I believe it is. There are those whose body odour even though they shower regularly and use deodorant could empty a room. And I find myself holding a hand near my nose and wishing that I was wearing leather gloves. Is that being allergic? I believe it is.
Now if we find ourselves experiencing a negative body response to someone we don’t know, it’s usually possible to avoid them and leave the room or, if nothing else is possible, move away from direct interaction with them. I remember being stuck in a crowded subway car and wondering why we were all huddled at one end of the car while there was so much space at the opposite end of it. So I moved forward and then I found out why we were crammed together. Everyone was reacting to some physical aspect of a tidily dressed man who was sitting isolated from us all. We all tried to put as much distance as possible between him and us even as we were packed together like so many sardines in a can. This seems so ludicrous now. We could have just left the subway car at the next stop and taken the next train. We could have avoided the situation altogether that way.
What about being allergic – having a negative body response to people we know even if only somewhat. Perhaps we’ve had to work with them. Hearing the voice of a particularly potty mouthed person who taught at the same school as I did caused my hackles to rise. Maybe they’ve been our bosses and seem to delight in making our work situation stressful to the point of misery. The sanctimonious presence of one of my principals caused me to clench my teeth. Maybe we’ve belonged to the same organizations. When one of my fraternity sisters would loudly proclaim her opinion on anything, my skin would begin to feel clammy. Perhaps we’re related to them by marriage. When one of my brothers-in-law goes all ‘Cliff Clavin’ and begins to pontificate about something, I feel my shoulders rise and my jaw tighten.
Can you or I avoid our ‘allergic’ response to someone with whom we must engage on some level – at work, in committee, in choir, on a team, in our family? Let’s face it. We believe that we cannot avoid them. And there are times when we will have to be in pretty close proximity to them. Is there a remedy possible for us?
If it was the only option possible, I used to shut down internally and go somewhere else in my mind. I’d make up word games or start singing songs silently or think about my plans for once the event we were at was over. I’d stop listening and engaging – my form of silent running. And there were times when I couldn’t use that strategy. So I’d become stoic and endure and resent and judge and feel like a martyr. Interesting how I’d find myself occupying the moral high ground – look at me; I’m a good person and a strong person. By doing what was expected of me as I thought of it, wasn’t I amazing?
As I write this, I can hear Bob Newhart’s psychiatrist routine. When his patient started to explain and complain and look for sympathy, Newhart’s psychiatrist’s response was, “Stop it!” Why did I not at any time just stop running my strategies for dealing with people to whom I was ‘allergic’ no matter the situation? Why did I believe that I had no other choice but to endure, to put up with, to accept? Why did I abdicate my own autonomy? Why did I believe that I had none?
For me, the answer is cultural inculcation. Over the course of my life and especially my working life, it was impressed on me that I had to attend meetings or other such events and I could not leave them. It was not politic to leave. I had to shelve my own needs and focus on the goal of the gathering. I had to not make waves, wait my turn, focus on the common good. I know that I believed that I had no choice, that I was expected to be there [wherever ‘there’ was], that I was expected to stay until it was over, that I would be harshly judged if I just got up and left.
Now, my advice to me and to everyone who finds themselves in a situation where they are exposed to people to whom they are allergic – to people who are toxic, is ‘Stop it!’ Choose you. Exercise your power by voting with your feet so to speak. I can hear one of the participants in my doctoral study work group say that it’s easier to beg forgiveness rather than wait for permission. Give yourself the permission to do what you know is right for you. You don’t need to wait for someone else’s by your leave to do that. The world will not be kicked off its axis. You will not be shunned. There will not be hell to pay. And what you will gain is being true to yourSelf. What a concept!
I wonder what our world would look like if we all just followed this advice. How things might change.