Every day it lurks in the most mundane places. It haunts me, just waiting for me to let my guard down. Then it will strike, and it will rejoice in my reaction, hitting me where I’m weak and becoming larger and more powerful than ever before. It is my enemy, and its name is Nickel.
Some might call me a hypochondriac. I might respond, “Please don’t use an actual diagnosis as hyperbole.” Then, I might add, “But you’re probably right.” As a kid, I had nightmares about Scarlet Fever (damn you, Little House On The Prairie), and as a teenager I stayed awake at night worrying about Toxic Shock Syndrome. I’ve always been a worrier, and I tend to fixate on whatever germ or catastrophe might befall me. When I got to college, my ex-boyfriend — let’s call him “Exy” — showed me Annie Hall, and it was revelatory. “This is who I am!” I told him. “I was that kid who worried about the universe expanding!” A whole culture opened up to me: the world of the self-doubting, self-loathing, secularly Jewish, semi-intellectual, neurotic New Yorker. I didn’t especially want to be the type who thinks “Oh hypothetical god, it’s an aneurysm!” every time she gets a headache, but that’s who I was.
Fortunately, I was relatively healthy. I’m prone to sinus and ear infections and I’ve always had allergies, though I’ve never been sure what I’m allergic to. I know that pollen makes my eyes water, Irish Spring soap makes me break out in hives, and the cleaning products aisle at K-Mart once triggered a three-day-long sneezing fit, but I had never been officially diagnosed with any particular allergy. After all, Irish Spring soap and Fresh Scent Clorox Wipes aren’t on any allergy tests. Aside from those minor problems, for most of my life, I’ve been lucky to have very few medical problems.
Then my junior year of college happened. Suddenly, the burning in my chest when I drank orange juice was diagnosed as Acid Reflux, and a strange, horribly itchy rash kept appearing on my wrist. The sinus infections came regularly, and my immune system seemed compromised. I knew I was in trouble when my friend Ian showed up to our Realism and Naturalism class with a bad case of pinkeye. Poor Ian wasn’t having a very good semester: a few days earlier, he had told me, rather casually, that he had gotten a Staph infection from his gym rat boyfriend. I was shocked. Did he not understand how serious that was? Wasn’t that the flesh-eating bacteria? I told him “I hope you feel better” but moved my desk away from his. Two days after seeing Ian with pinkeye, I woke up with pinkeye, too. I must have gotten it from him. But he also had a Staph infection, and if I got one thing from him, couldn’t I have gotten something else? Was that was caused the rash on my wrist? I tasted something metallic in my mouth. My gums were bleeding. My anxiety and knowledge of The Oregon Trail took over, and I was beyond rationality. I was convinced that not only did I have Pinkeye and a Staph infection, but also scurvy.
Exy stopped by my apartment for lunch and I asked him immediately to examine my back and limbs for any signs of a staph infection. When he said he didn’t see anything that looked like Staph, I brought up the idea of scurvy. He smirked, but to his credit, he did not laugh.
“Mara, what did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“I had some yogurt and some pineapple and –”
“You had pineapple. Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency. You do not have scurvy.”
I went to the NYU Health Center and they told me that the pinkeye would pass in a few days, and just to put a cold compress in paper towels over my eye. I thought a tea bag would help ease some of the itch, but all it did was turn my dark circles darker. I stayed home from classes that day, but I did go out that evening to hear some guy my friends were all talking about named Barack Obama give a speech in Washington Square Park. He was a pretty good speaker, and I remember clapping enthusiastically at a comment about education reform. A bunch of people turned around to see who was so hot for such an unsexy issue, and saw a tiny raccoon-eyed girl holding a stack of shredded paper towels over her face, jumping up and down about the concept of repealing No Child Left Behind.
To quell my obsession with nineteenth century disease, I went to NYU’s allergist/immunologist. The nurse who took my vital signs told me she would have to test my lungs. “Breathe as hard as you can into the tube.” I did. She looked at the levels and said “No, try again. Breathe as hard as you can.” she said. I breathed out until my lungs burned, and the measurement stayed the same. The nurse raised an eyebrow. “You know you’re breathing at fifty percent lung capacity, right?”
I shook my head. “Is that bad?”
“I’m going to try you on an inhaler.” Did she mean I wasn’t supposed to feel like I was wearing an iron band around my lungs all the time? She gave me the inhaler and checked my levels again a few minutes later.
“Eighty percent,” She read. “Well, the bad news is you have asthma.” The good news was it responded well to treatment and that she would be giving me an inhaler of my very own and a prescription for Singulair. She walked off to fetch it and I marveled at her nonchalance. I had gone in for a simple test and was told, even prior to the test, that I had a chronic illness. This didn’t bode well.
The immunologist could have been a minor character in a Woody Allen film: a tall woman with a very Jewish surname and a thick New York dialect, who called me “Mare – uh.” But she was friendly and understanding, pricking my arm with the utmost care. There were no positive results; only the control caused a rash.
“But I’m allergic to something,” I told her. “I’m having a reaction.”
“I know, but it’s none of the most common allergens. You’re not allergic to cats, dogs, cockroaches, nuts, mold, dust mites… You’re going to need a Patch test.”
This, to a neurotic person, is much more frustrating than getting a diagnosis. When you know what the problem is, you can solve it. When you have to wait, your imagination goes wild. And patch tests are not very fun: a patch full of several contact allergens is applied to your back, and you are not allowed to remove it or get it wet for several days. As soon as I got it, my back started to itch. Was it the control that itched, or something else? Though I wasn’t sure which was worse: the constant itch, or not being able to take a shower. Who knew what I was being exposed to that I couldn’t wash off?!
I went back two days later, feeling filthy, and had the doctor gingerly remove the patch.
“Oh, wow,” she said. That couldn’t be good.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’re allergic — really allergic — to Nickel.” Nickel?
“The metal?” I asked. She confirmed that yes, it was possible to be allergic to a metal, and I was.
“It’s in a lot of jewelry and the backs of watches… That’s probably what caused your rash.”
She told me there wasn’t much to do besides avoid jewelry and use topical creams if I had a reaction, then sent me off. But this was not the end for me: I needed to know my enemy. So, like every imaginer of the worst case scenario, I turned to the internet.
What I learned is that Nickel is cheap, Nickel is pliable, and thus, Nickel is everywhere. It was actually named the Allergen of the Year for 2008. I have my own celebrity irritant! (Sorry, Gwyneth Paltrow.)
Nickel sulfate is also green in color and used to dye pool tables. When I read this, my first thought was “Now I’ll never be able to have sex on a pool table.” My second thought was “Wait, why do I care?” I had ever entertained that idea and I don’t think I know anyone who’s done it. I don’t play pool or spend a lot of time with people who do, and frankly it sounded a bit uncomfortable and unsanitary. But it was still sad to think that there was something I couldn’t do. I thought this was America, where I could do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. What if I had wanted to have sex on a pool table? What then?
Though my symptoms were all external, some sites suggested I consider a low-Nickel diet. This seemed like a good idea until I realized that all my favorite foods are full of Nickel. Canned foods have higher rates of Nickel, and since my cooking skills are at the same level of a Sim who has not yet acquired any Cooking points, I eat a lot of them. Pineapples and raspberries have it. Spinach, kale, broccoli, the few vegetables I actually like, have it. Chocolate and hazelnuts are both rich in it: the thought of giving up either was bad enough, but unbearable when I remembered that by their powers combined, they are Nutella. Like most white city-dwelling Americans, I will only give up Nutella in the face of a complete civilizational collapse. A Nickel-free diet is not going to happen.
The internet and experience have taught me that there’s almost no (inexpensive) jewelry that doesn’t contain a small amount of Nickel. Still, that was not much of a loss: my mother never cared for jewelry, and it appears the Immunity To Shiny Rocks gene is Dominant. However, some people love to give gifts (I know, I’m one of them) and one of the easiest gifts to give a woman is jewelry. There are thousands of tiny stores selling jewelry for under thirty dollars, and that jewelry is always loaded with Nickel. It will be brushed over with gold or silver, but that layer will erode away after time, causing me to itch my neck or wrist every few minutes. Family members and friends (who I thought knew me better) will hand me a box from H&M or some “cute little boutique [they] always walked by, but never went into before,” and inside the box will be some cute but insidious piece of Nickel-tainted jewelry. I will smile and thank them, knowing that I will never be able to wear it.
The biggest problems are belts and jeans. Not a lot of jeans fit me, so I always wear belts, and every belt contains nickel. Before I discovered that there are nickel-free belts, I had a chronic itchy rash on my lower belly. The worst, though, are the back of the jeans buttons. Some fellow Nickel-fighters swear by nail polish. I believed in nail polish once, too, especially since I always had a bottle lying around. But I learned the hard (and itchy) way that nail polish chips off. I switched to using band-aids, but while band-aids stick to skin, they don’t stick very well to metal and cloth. My solution, until jeans companies start making nickel-free buttons and studs, is duct tape. It comes off after a few washes, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve realized that my dependency on duct tape is probably starting to make the people at CVS a little uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one who sees it, if you’re five feet tall and probably couldn’t be a serial killer even if you wanted to, having a roll of duct tape on your bedside table is creepy.
I know I’m fortunate: Nickel allergies usually aren’t as serious as food allergies or medication allergies, they’re mostly just uncomfortable. Additionally, New Yorkers love to discuss their maladies, so it’s become something of a talking point.
“Why don’t you ever wear jewelry?”
“I’m allergic to Nickel.”
“Whoa. Isn’t it in food? So would you, like, die, if you eat something with Nickel?”
“No, it’s just contact dermatitis.”
“So it’s just a problem if it comes into contact with your skin?”
“Yes. Well, actually, the problem is when it comes into contact with the sweat on your skin. The salts combine with the Nickel to create an irritant.”
“So how do you handle Nickels?”
“Nickels are mostly copper.” I have become a sentient Wikipedia article.
And despite the three new diagnoses, I did get through my junior year of college,. Though, a few months after the patch test, I was back at the NYU Health Center for one of my regularly scheduled sinus infections. I went on a Saturday, because I had classes during the week and am a terrible Jew. NYU allowed us to flash our IDs during the week but required us to sign in on Saturdays. I signed my name, then asked the elderly gentleman working as a security guard what time it was. “Twelve thirty-nine,” he said, and scowled. I thanked him and started to walk away, but he wasn’t done talking.
“None of you kids know what time it is. You all have cell phones now, so nobody wears a watch. I tell you, Miss, I went to college, and it was a good college, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” I nodded, because that is indeed a good college. “I learned a lot there, but do you know the most important thing I learned came from my fifth grade teacher, Miss Jackson. She told me always to wear a watch, and I do.” He held out his arm to show me. “Why don’t you wear a watch?”
“Oh. Well, I’m actually allergic to the metal they use in watches. The metal backing of the watches gives me a rash.” He shook his head.
“Miss, I served in two wars, Vietnam and Korea. What’s a rash?”
That was four years ago, but I still think about that man. I have many questions (How could he serve in two wars? Is that even allowed? I suppose it is if it’s voluntary, but he didn’t seem too happy about serving, so could he have been forced?) That man obviously has been through a lot, and I feel grateful not to have his problems. I cannot imagine fighting in a war. In fact, there are people I don’t trust or don’t particularly enjoy spending time with, but I cannot think of anyone I have met that I hate. And I’m lucky. Questions of morality are interesting in Ethics courses and Batman movies, but troubling in real life. If I have to have an enemy, I should be glad it’s a chemical compound, not a person.
Now excuse me while I rage against the jeans-button machine.