The Day I Learned I Was Allergic to Opiates
Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
For three days, I have been convincing myself that I am still breathing.
Am I itchy? Did I sneeze today? Do I have my inhaler and my EpiPen? Does my head hurt? Am I really here? Am I OK? My anxiety has always been a problem for me, but this is something different. This is a fear of something real, that really happened, and I have been told that it can happen with other things, again, out of nowhere.
All I did was take a pain medication after a bad gallbladder spasm. I only had a bottle of 10 to get me through until surgery. This was the third one I had taken. I had noticed it was making me itchy the other day, but opiates can do that from what I was told. I don’t take opiates often and I’d had the bottle for weeks. I was curled on the bed, near tears. The pain was really awful that morning. I didn’t want to end up at the hospital again for the pain, so I asked my significant other to hand me the bottle. I grabbed my water bottle and took the pill. It all seems so normal, except what happened next.
Fifteen minutes later I was sneezing. I started to itch. Then I felt like I needed to cough, but I couldn’t – no air came out… and the wheezing began.
I burst into the shower with my naked boyfriend, told him to dress and we had to go to the hospital. I popped two antihistamines, and we rushed just 10 minutes away to the ER.
I couldn’t catch my breath. I felt like there was a fist in my throat that kept me from getting a full lung… and I filled with sheer panic. Why couldn’t I breathe? Was I going to die, here, while my boyfriend pulled on his jeans? I took little, tiny breaths so that my lungs didn’t hurt so badly. Was I exaggerating? Was I having an anxiety attack? I couldn’t breathe. I could speak, almost as low as a whisper. But I couldn’t breathe. I was rasping, and I felt my esophagus closing in. Or was it my lungs? Everything felt heavy, heavy.
By the time we got there, I was literally dying. I do not know how to describe how it feels to be dying, but since I am writing about this experience, I will try to tell you what it was like last Saturday morning. I only remember the swift motions and the questions, questions, questions:
“What did you take?”
“What else are you allergic to?”
“Does this hurt?”
“Tell me your name again?”
“Has this happened before?”
“Take a deep breath for me?”
“OK, breathe again.”
My mind wandered. Who would they call? The family I am estranged from? Would my boyfriend post the coma announcement on Facebook? “Take another breath.” I was exaggerating. They were going to tell me it was nothing, that my ER trip was just a hallucination.
When I was a kid and I was sick I was always being told to suck it up, that I was faking it, that I was fine. My head kept telling me this, even as I saw my blood pressure spike to something like 165 over 94. But everything in the room felt independent of me. Were they really talking to me? Disorienting, painful, nonsensical. “Wake up,” I told myself, “Everything’s OK if you wake up now.”
They stabilized me. Hooked me up to a monitor. Six hours later, I left with a body full of epinephrine, steroids, and an inhaler with instructions to take antihistamines alongside it. Thank God. I was going to be fine. I slept. I ate a few things to keep my energy up. I tried to act like it was a normal day again, and forget about the trauma of what had just happened for a little while.
And about four hours later, my breath left me again.
I had to go back to the hospital with a second round of anaphylaxis, this time alongside some sort of adrenal gland malfunction that made it hard for me to sweat and left my mouth bone-dry and my whole body dehydrated. They pushed me in a wheelchair and lifted me onto the bed, telling me they were undressing me as they did it. They hooked up electrodes to me this time and stabilized me again. I was confused. I was mean to a nice nurse at some point.
I didn’t understand why I was left hooked up to all these machines, all alone. I didn’t know if I was going to be OK or not. I stayed there for a long time, but I never slept. My anxiety caused a hyper vigilance that made it nearly impossible to sleep through hospital sounds, screaming sirens, growing pains, and constant beeps and warnings. Around 4 a.m. I asked if I could go home. They took my vitals, had a short conversation about what other allergies could possibly kill me in the future, and they let me leave with my boyfriend.
The medical papers online warn about patients who claim to have an opiate allergy, but really just get nauseous or hot and itchy. They say not to let these people reject opiates but rather educate them on dealing with the side effects.
All these papers on the internet say that less than one percent of people who take opiates have a “true allergy”– and I’m one of those people.
I never knew that until Saturday.
I have several diseases, but an allergy to opiates, a true allergy, was never something I could have anticipated. In the past several years, through several chronic and rare diseases, I’ve found myself with new allergies to old standbys. I’ve maxed out my luck with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and I’ve never found the basics to kill any pain.
My gallbladder surgery is on Tuesday. I have no idea what kind of aftercare pain pill I can possibly take. I’m terrified, but this operation is something I desperately need – my gallbladder is dead, and if I don’t let them take it out, it could possibly kill me. In fact, they will be looking for a stone in my pancreas when they take it out of me.
I have anxiety, I feel lonely, and I can’t sleep.
But every half hour or so, I check to see if I can breathe. That’s right, breathe. Just breathe.
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