I’m sorry for telling you that your allergies were psychosomatic.
We were visiting San Francisco in 1997, staying with my old college roommates Drew, Pete and Scott. We’d slept at our friend Becca’s place the night before, but left because you were allergic to her cat. You hadn’t slept well and you were cranky. We both were. It had been a long day, and we’d been arguing all through it. We were often arguing back then. We are still often arguing, actually. This has always been the nature of our relationship: we are close, arguing friends. “It’s too hot out,” I’ll say. “Oh, I like this weather,” you’ll say.
I was spreading a futon mattress on the living room floor when your sneezing started up again. And coughing and sniffling and wheezing. “Ughh,” you said, your nose all red. “The dust. I’m allergic to this whole city.”
“You know it’s all in your mind,” I said.
You dropped the pillow you were holding and looked at me like I’d slapped you.
“I think allergies are largely psychosomatic. Like, a manifestation of stress or something.”
“No,” you said, patiently, as if you were talking to a five-year-old. “There are tiny particles in the air that I am actually allergic to. And when I breathe them in, they trigger a physical reaction.”
I said something that included the phrase “mind over matter.”
“Fuck you!” you said, straining to keep your voice low. It was late, we guests. “Here I am suffering and miserable and you’re going to tell me it’s my fault?!”
You were right to be angry. I was being a dick. Though to a certain extant, I honestly thought I was trying to help. My father was a psychologist who specialized in pain management through hypnosis. He’d taught me some visualization techniques that were pretty effective at getting rid of headaches and stuff. This, combined with the part I always remembered from Stephen King’s It (that important medical manual) where one of the kids realizes that his asthma is a symptom of anxiety and cures himself by throwing away his inhaler; and also a general and unfortunate mistrust of science I developed through an overzealous critique of Descartes in a modern philosophy course; and also finding more meaning than there actually is in a line from a Van Morrison song called “Enlightenment” about how we create our own reality-all of this informed what I now believe was an excessive adherence to the notion of mind over matter. And skepticism about allergies.
But regardless, it’s just not very nice to blame someone for their own suffering while that suffering is going on. I should have offered you nothing by sympathy that night and brought up my stupid ideas about the power of positive thinking or whatever the next day.
I’ve been reminded of this a lot this spring, whenever I’ve walked past the corner of Clinton and Rivington Streets on the way back from picking my kid up at school and been seized by a mysterious coughing fit. I have apparently developed an allergic reaction to the trees growing around there. (Highly allergenic Mulberries, maybe, or Box Elders, and probably a preponderance of males.) I swear I can actually feel the tiny particles of pollen in the air, going down my throat, catching to the soft tissue there, forcing the involuntary response. It’s miserable.