A Friendly Probiotic
“No Soy, no gluten, no fish…” the label read. She breathed an inward sigh of relief in reading those magic words on the pill bottle. No fish. It was a little thing that most people wouldn’t understand, but in her haste to shake the side-effects of the nasty antibiotics, she had neglected to check the pill bottle for allergens before purchasing.
Opening the bottle, she took one more than the recommended dose and relaxed a bit. Those damned antibiotics were going in the garbage. Nobody needs to be made sicker to repair a minor problem. The body aches and the heartburn were tolerable, but at the point her tongue started cracking, well, that was enough for this foray into the world of standard medical treatments.
She was thankful for those words on the bottle of probiotics, “no fish,” such a small thing to anyone else. Originally, the thing that had captured her attention was the description, “a friendly probiotic…” it proclaimed. As if a probiotic could come running up to her and rub against her leg like a kitten wanting attention.
At first, nobody had believed she could possibly be allergic to fish. Peanuts, maybe, but fish? Fish is good for you, full of Omega oils and healthy fat. How could fish make a person sick?
She remembered the heavenly smell as her dad smoked salmon, back in the old days when everything was right with the world, before the divorce. The fishing trips, where somehow she always caught the biggest fish even though she was a little wisp of six years old and had no idea of strategy in sport fishing.
She remembered the taste as well, which was savory and satisfying. Soon, though, she learned that the flavor came at too great a cost for her.
Lying on the floor, with what felt like the worst flu ever, combined with heartburn, her face red and feverish, her motions weak and sluggish. “What’s wrong?” mom would ask, “Did you swallow a bone? I told you to be careful.”
Nobody realized what they were seeing. It passed as always, and life went on, a little brush with death left ignored and unrecognized.
There was a salmon bake coming up at the school. “Are you sure you want the fish?” her mom asked, “You don’t like fish.” And surely, by that time, she had learned that she didn’t like fish. She liked fishing, gutting and cleaning her catch; she loved the smell of it cooking and the look of the beautiful pink meat on her plate. It was the agony that came afterwards that made her suspect the healthy meal as having something in for her.
It felt as if something was sitting on her chest, she wheezed for breath yet tried to stay as still as possible to make the pain go away. Yet her family remained unaware that her problem was more severe than a minor stomach upset. “She has a sensitive stomach,” they would say. At times, there would be visual and auditory distortions to go along with the general feeling of “I’m dying.” The colors flashed and ringed her vision and words came to her slowly, out of the ether, like a contact attempt from the afterlife.
Yet, she still fished with her dad on the weekends, asking to keep the catch to barbeque over the campfire. Her time with her father was limited and fishing was a shared bond. He didn’t understand her as she came into her teen years, and to her, he looked like a foolish old man who didn’t know a thing. So they fished, luckily never catching anything on most of their forays.
She wondered in retrospect if she had let those many fish get away for her own good.
The last occasion, they camped near the river, near her older sister’s house. They had hiked up and down the river for hours before they settled on the little pool to drop their lines in. And the bites came. The fish were small, but assuredly legal, according to dad. Of course, dad had no use for rules and she held no fishing license.
They cleaned their small meal on the rocks and grilled them over the campfire. It was good.
Minutes after eating, she was seized by the horrible pain, the burning pressure in her chest. She lay in the camper, in the upper bunk, the horrendously dated green and gold upholstery mocking her foolishness. “You can’t eat that, dummy, you’ll die!” it seemed to scream at her. Her senses were overloaded and all she could do was lay still and wait it out.
“Are you okay?” her dad hollered in the door. He was outside with the campfire and his flask, like any other camping trip. “I think I swallowed a bone,” she choked, trying not to panic the old man. He accepted her assurance that she would be alright and returned to the fire.
It may have been hours, but probably minutes in the grand scheme of things. Nothing stretches time better than feeling like you’re dying. Finally, her body forgave her sinful indulgence and allowed her to sleep.
She never knowingly ate fish again. Her family never accepted that she was allergic and she was never officially diagnosed. If she was offered the finned death, she would smile and say she was allergic, though nobody believed it. People aren’t allergic to fish. People are allergic to cats and peanuts, not fish.
It further confounded people that she could eat other seafood. Shellfish allergies were real, after all.
She remembered her brush with death in the form of a Caesar salad. She had become careful and suspicious of food over the years and asked many questions before accepting food from others. “What kind of dressing is on the salad?” she asked at the potluck with schoolmates. “Caesar. It’s a Caesar salad.” Her friend replied. With her fear of food, she mistakenly judged the salad to be a safe bet and consumed a decent portion. She missed three days of school.
Later, casually picking up a bottle of Caesar salad dressing at the grocery, she saw the awful truth: “anchovy paste.”
Her paranoia still hadn’t reached its peak. After high school, she had taken a job at a fish restaurant, presumably until something better came along. There, she was faced with the evil prospect of employee meals. Training was such that the oil that cooked chicken and fries could never cross with oil that cooked seafood. It was to protect those with shellfish allergies. There were allergy warnings next to the menu. None of them covered her affliction.
The employees weren’t allowed to cook their own meals to avoid people taking larger than acceptable portions. She ate a lot of salads in those days because they touched nothing.
Then the rashes began. She cut and breaded the evil fish daily for the masses of customers who rushed through the door for all-you-can-eat. At the end of the night, her arms were covered in angry welts. Long sleeves and longer gloves helped her deal with her problem for years, but even her face began to show the effects, blemished from the splash-back of the evil fryers.
And yet, her problem went undiagnosed. People thought she was crazy. She lost a lot of weight at that job from never eating anything unless she had personally changed the grease that day.
Her allergy wasn’t forgotten, but it became routine. She never ate fish and it never crossed her mind that others did. And never did she meet another with the same affliction.
Of course, as to be expected, she married a fisherman. He suffered endless frustration that while she took part in his hobby, she’d never consume the bounty of their trips. At family gatherings he’d say, “She doesn’t eat fish…” as if it was a common choice, flummoxing the hosts. And when she’d refuse anything off the barbeque because someone had also cooked fish there, he’d just shrug. Her husband wasn’t a very good advocate; in fact, she suspected he didn’t believe in her allergy either.
Clam chowder, crab cakes, scallops, they were all off the menu. She had learned from the seafood restaurant that the cheap and imitation versions of these foods were really made with scab fish. Cheap cod that wasn’t good enough to be sold as fish. Scallops were mostly made with the scraps of halibut left over after cutting to send to stores.
It just wasn’t worth the risk. As such, she hadn’t had a reaction in a long time. Then she found that a lot of pills contained fish products, that most fertilizers contained fish products, some body washes and deodorants were also suspect.
Finally, she met one other person with her condition. They related well on many levels and became fast friends. Yet it flummoxed her when her friend told her of the great Caesar salad at a local restaurant.
“You can’t eat that, you’ll die,” she said, shocked.
“I just eat it until my lips go numb,” her friend responded, a wicked look in her eye. “I stop when my lips go numb so I don’t die.”