Nervous Systems: Chapter 2–Allergies and Anaphylaxis

Part 1 can be viewed here. Image descriptions can be found under the read more tag.






Panel 1: Image of a flower.

Text: Until I turned 14, the word “allergy” held a pretty specific meaning. I would get bad hay fever in the spring, but it wasn’t bad enough to really impact my life substantially.


Panel 2: Several people run in terror from a huge, evil anthropomorphic peanut.

Text: I seemed to have escaped the now-common childhood scourge of peanut allergies. (Somewhat ironically, peanut butter was one of my favorite foods as a child.)


Panel 3: A box of “super-costly food item,” with text specifying that it is gluten-free and nut-free.

Text: In the popular imagination, food allergies also seem to conjure up pretty specific class associations.


Panel 4: A blonde “super mom” stands, complete with a cape.

Text: The image of the well-off, overinvolved mom has, in some ways, become shorthand for the “anxious” mother who is hyper-conscious of her kids’ needs and health.


Panel 5: Image of comedian/writer Katie Notopolous.

Text: The stereotype of the wealthy, anxious mom may be an easy one, but actual food allergies exist, and they tend to really suck for those who have them.

Speech bubble, Katie (direct quote): …we all know nut allergies can be serious, but we all secretly suspect that it’s a hypochondriac ‘first-world problem.’

Source note/footnote: Katie Notopolous in the LA Times, 2011. See Netburn 2011.


Panel 6: Image of hipster-y writer/commentator Joel Stein.

Speech bubble, Joel (direct quote): Genes certainly don’t cause 25% of parents to believe that their kids have food allergies. Yuppiedom does.

Text: As a person with food allergies that could kill me, I am skeptical of the pop-psych construction of the “anxious mom” who somehow uses “allergies” to be overprotective of her children.

Parenthetical text: Immune system responses tend to not work by proxy, but try convincing some people of that.

Footnote: See Stein 2009, “Nut Allergies: A Yuppie Invention.”


Panel 7: Anna responds to Katie and Joel, rolling her eyes as she does so.

Text: And, like many other not-immediately-apparent health problems, they [food allergies] are subject to doubts because they are not always visible.

Speech bubble, Anna: Ah, making fun of people with life-threatening health conditions! Sick burns, dudes.

Footnote: Unless the person with the allergy eats that food, of course.



Panel 1: An album of photos labeled “Vacation Photos: Paris”

Text: Paris, France, 2001: At age 14, I went on a family vacation to the city of lights.


Panel 2: Various photos show Anna and her family in and around Paris—at lunch, at the Eiffel Tower, and at tourist destinations.

Text: We spent most of the week doing normal “tourist” things.


Panel 3: Anna and Patrick sit on a boat, looking bored.

Text: Mid-week, we took a “lock tour” of the Seine. It was over three hours long and featured a lot of water and hydraulics.

Speech bubble, Patrick: Let’s go to the main deck.


Panel 4: Anna and Patrick goof around on the main deck. Anna closes her sweatshirt hood with her drawstring so that only the tip of her nose is visible.

Text: My brother and I spent most of the day goofing off.

Speech bubble, Anna: Look

Speech bubble, Patrick: Hahaha. Let me get a picture!


Panel 5: Photo of Anna in the sweatshirt and completely closed hood, giving the thumbs-up.

Speech bubble, Patrick: Perfect!


Panel 6: Anna lies on the couch, sick and groaning in pain, as her mom asks her a question.

Text: On the third-to-last day of our trip, my mom, dad and brother wanted to go a local flea market. I wasn’t feeling up to it.

Speech bubble, mom: You gonna be okay by yourself?

Speech bubble, Anna: UHHHHH…


Panel 7: Anna lies on the couch.

Text: I spent most of the day resting, leaving the couch twice to eat, and once to go to the bathroom. I hoped I didn’t have the flu.


Panel 8: Anna’s mom asks her if she wants anything to eat.

Text: After the others returned around 5:00, my mom suggested that we go out for dinner. I declined; they left, and I laid back down.

Speech bubble, mom: Can we bring anything back for you to eat?

Speech bubble, Anna: No thanks.



Panel 1: Anna, sweating, fans herself.

Text: A few minutes later, I began to feel extremely warm.


Panel 2: Anna walks around the apartment.

Text: I headed to the bathroom to try to cool off.


Panel 3: Water runs out of a tap.

Text: For some reason, I thought a cold bath would solve my problem; I turned on the tap and began to disrobe.


Panel 4: Anna’s mom knocks on the closed bathroom door.

Text: My mom had forgotten her jacket, and after getting it, decided to come check on me.

Speech bubble, mom: You okay in there?


Panel 5: The bathroom, from a bird’s eye view. Anna is on the floor, groaning.

Text: She found me almost totally stark naked and on the bathroom floor.

Speech bubble, mom: Oh my god.


Panel 6: Anna’s face is completely swollen, obscuring her eyes.

Text: Then she saw my face.

Speech bubble, mom: We NEED to get you to a hospital.

Speech bubble, Anna: UHHHHH


Panel 7: Anna’s dad and brother look alarmed as she appears.

Text: My dad and brother were shocked, too.


Panel 8: Anna’s dad reads a map, attempting to find a hospital.

Text: Off into the Paris streets we went, in search of a hospital

Speech bubble, dad: It looks like there’s an E.R. [emergency room] up the street…



Panel 1: Patrick puts Anna’s sweatshirt hood up, then closes the drawstring so that she cannot see her swollen face.

Text: But not before some precautions.

Speech bubble, Patrick: Wait


Panel 2: Patrick pats Anna’s shoulder.

Speech bubble, Anna: Thanks

Speech bubble, Patrick: Don’t look in any mirrors!


Panel 3: A young man sits at the front desk of a convalescent hospital

Text: The hospital “up the street” turned out to be something quite different.

Speech bubble, young man: This is a…convalescent hospital, madame. The medical center is up the street. Do you need taxi?


Panel 4: Anna sits in the emergency waiting room (E.R.), next to a rough-looking guy with a huge knife wound.

Text: After a quick cab ride, we landed at the E.R. near the city’s center. It was after 6 PM on a Saturday night, to boot.


Panel 5: A concerned-looking E.R. nurse signals her colleagues with a quick gesture.

Text: The admitting nurse took one look at me and wordlessly signaled something to the other staff.


Panel 6: Anna panics as a nurse sticks an intravenous (IV) needle in her arm.

Text: In less than 5 minutes, I was whisked away to the back, where more nurses tried to stick an IV in my arm

Speech bubble, Anna: NONONONONONO

Panel 7: Anna’s swelling becomes less severe; she tells mom that she feels better.

Text: Things improved after that, and the swelling started to go down—my to my and mom’s relief.

Speech bubble, Anna: I feel better!

Speech bubble, mom: Good!


Panel 8: Anna and mom wait for the E.R. doctor.

Text: The nurses phoned the staff’s only English-speaking doctor; it was his day off, and it took a while for him to get to the hospital.




Panel 1: Anna looks concerned as a nurse talks to another patient in the next E.R. cubicle.

Text: There was no shortage of interesting sights, however. The guy in the cubicle next to me kept trying to remove his pants—much to the staff’s annoyance.

Speech bubble, nurse: Monsieur, PLEASE put your pants back on.


Panel 2: Anna’s dad and brother watch a young woman vomit in the waiting room.

Text: My dad and brother also witnessed some interesting things in the lobby.


Panel 3: The doctor talks to Anna’s parents.

Text: Finally, the hospital’s English-speaking doctor came to check on me. After more IV drugs, he spoke with my parents.

Speech bubble, doctor: She has had…how do you say? Allergic reaction.


Panel 4: As Anna sleeps soundly, her brother tries to wake her up.

Text: He [the doctor] also recommended a full round of skin tests back home. Normally, this would have freaked me out, but thanks to all of the IV antihistamines, I was too out of it to care.

Speech bubble, Patrick: Anna, wake up! Hey! [Snort] It’s time to go.


Panel 5: Anna sleeps on the couch while listening to music.

Text: I spent the rest of our trip sleeping on the couch and listening to music.


Panel 6: Anna’s mom looks over the Emergency Room bill.

Text: A few weeks after we came home, the hospital sent us a bill…for $70.

Speech bubble, Anna: Quite a bargain!

Speech bubble, mom: Yeah.


Panel 7: Anna’s best friend, Brigitta, provides her allergist’s business card.

Text: My best friend, Brigitta, recommended the allergist she’d been seeing for her asthma.

Speech bubble, Brigitta: You may have to wait a while to see him.

Speech bubble, Anna: No prob.

Bottom text: The allergist’s wait list was rather long.


Panel 8: Anna and her mom wait in another emergency room; Anna’s face is fully swollen, and she is upset.

Text: In that period of time, I went to the E.R. Again.



Panel 1: Anna lies on an E.R. bed, face swollen, as an IV drips into her arm vein.

Text: And again.

Speech bubble, Anna: THIS IS BULLSHIT.


Panel 2: Anna and her dad wait in the emergency room again.

Text: And again. It never stopped being scary.

Speech bubble, Anna: AHHHHH


Panel 3: A nurse at the allergist’s office does the “scratch tests” on Anna’s back.

Text: My full “scratch tests” a few months later revealed many sensitivities—including a severe peanut and tree nut allergy that seemed to be the culprits of my E.R. visits.

Speech bubble, Anna: Ow ow ow ow


Panel 4: An assortment of allergy meds, including an epi-pen and several types of antihistamine pills.

Text: I was put on new allergy meds, given a prescription for an Epi-Pen (a self-contained needle to be used in case I stopped breathing), and instructed to take Benadryl with me everywhere I went.


Panel 5: Anna looks sadly at a plate of cookies. The cookies have a sign near them that reads “Cookies! Sugar or peanut butter.”

Text: I studiously avoided peanuts and tree nuts; anything on the same plate as those items became a no for me.


Panel 6: The carpet is removed from Anna’s room.

Text: When I kept having attacks, my parents suspected a dust problem; I moved to another room in our house. We also got rid of my new room’s carpeting.


Panel 7: Anna is frustrated during yet another allergy attack.

Text: The attacks still happened, but a bit less frequently.

Speech bubble, Anna: DAMMIT


Panel 8: Anna looks forlornly at a B-minus grade on an essay.

Text: I began to feel even worse when I could no longer pull off a 4-point-0 GPA [grade point average], thanks in no small part to my time spent in the E.R.

Speech bubbles, Anna: NO! A B-minus?



Panel 1: Image of a two-headed Anna, with one head representing depression and one representing anxiety.

Text: I was also depressed, which did not help. My anxiety got to the point where my school counselor suggested that independent study might be a better fit for me.

Thought bubble, depressed head: What’s the point?

Thought bubble, anxious head: I HAVE TO BE PERFECT.


Panel 2: A shocked-looking Anna screams NOOOOOOOOO in response to an unknown stressor.

Text: I don’t mean to imply that my attacks caused my depression or anxiety—or vice versa—but having these health problems did not help my stress level.


Panel 3: Anna meets with her school counselor.

Text: In my junior year of high school, I ended up transferring from “regular” 8 to 3 public school to our district’s independent study program.

Speech bubble, counselor: I think independent study will be a good fit for you!

Speech bubble, Anna: Great!


Panel 4: Anna is in the early stages of another allergic reaction.

Text: I still had attacks out of nowhere, but I found that, with my new schedule, I was able to stay a little calmer when I did have a medical problem.

Thought bubble, Anna: Am I having another one? At least I don’t have class tomorrow.


Panel 5: Anna and her mom wait in the Emergency Room. Anna’s face is extremely swollen.

Text: Feeling less anxious on the school front helped, but at times I also felt the need to be stoic for the benefit of others.

Speech bubble, Anna: I’m scared!

Speech bubble, mom: You’re gonna be okay, sweetie.


Panel 6: Anna reminds herself to breathe as her face swells up yet again.

Text: Sometimes, I was able to remain fairly calm and detach from my symptoms a bit, which included:


Panel 7: A closed restroom door.

Text: Gastrointestinal trouble (this was often the first sign of an attack)

Speech bubble, Anna: FUCK


Panel 8: A pair of hands clasps around a heart, in front of a background of high flames.

Text: Breathing problems, during which my lungs would begin to itch—creating a sort of “on fire” feeling…




Panel 1: Anna looks frightened as she begins to break out in hives.

Text: Swelling of the eyes and throat—and hives on my arms, neck, and chest (which often turn my skin a lovely shade of salmon pink).


Panel 2: Anna waits in the ER, accompanied by her friend Lindsey.

Text: Even now, many of my friends express surprise at how calm I remain during an attack. [My friend Lindsey, for example, has taken me to the ER several times.]

Speech bubble, Lindsey: How are you this calm?

Bottom text: I still don’t know the answer to that.




Panel 3: A landline phone rings.

Text: When I was 16, a good friend of my mom’s called her one day.


Panel 4: The family friend tries to massage Anna’s shoulders; Anna squirms in discomfort.

Text: Interestingly, this woman and I had something of a mildly adversarial relationship.

Speech bubble, family friend: I’m trying to give you a massage! Just RELAX.

Speech bubble, Anna: That HURTS.

Bottom text: She was really into New Age, and also seemed to have a singular talent for making me very physically uncomfortable.


Panel 5: The friend, looking fretful, speaks to Anna’s mom over the phone.

Text: What she told my mom during the phone call was, for all intents and purposes, consistent with New Age b.s.

Speech bubble, friend: Robin! I had a vision last night that Anna was FAKING her allergy attacks to MANIPULATE you!

Footnote: See Ehrenreich 2010; Salerno 2008.


Panel 6: Robin fires back over the phone.

Text: My mom was not impressed.

Speech bubble, Robin: How DARE you? I mean, what the fuck? We are NOT having this conversation.


Panel 7: Anna asks Robin if anything is wrong.

Speech bubble, Anna: Are you okay? I heard yelling.

Speech bubble, Robin: Yeah…


Panel 8: Anna looks shocked as her mom recounts the phone conversation.

Text: Shortly thereafter, she told me what had happened.

Speech bubble, Robin: You don’t have to talk to her if she calls back.



Panel 1: Anna stares at the phone angrily.

Text: I spent the next half-hour staring daggers at the phone.

Speech bubble, Anna: BITCH. If she calls back, she’ll be sorry.

Bottom text: She didn’t call back. I sat with my rage, rehearsing snappy comebacks.


Panel 2: Anna responds, frustrated, to a random person’s invasive questions about her allergies.

Text: This rage would, in time, find its way into my interactions with “skeptical” healthy people who would give me the third degree about my allergies.

Speech bubble with asterisk, random dude bro: But how do you KNOW that you have allergies? Do they, like, test for that stuff? I have never heard of that, so it might not even exist…you could be lying, right?

Speech bubble, Anna: SHUT UP! You know nothing, so STOP TALKING.

Asterisk: Based on an actual interaction. Really. If only I said this all of the time.


Panel 3: Random dude bro gives Anna grief about her response.

Text: Predictably, some of them get pissed of f when I fail to respond to their questions in a “nice” way.

Speech bubble, dude bro: But I was just curious! God.

Speech bubble, Anna: WE. ARE. DONE.


Panel 4: A drawing of Anna is divided in half; one half looks swollen and miserable from an allergic reaction, and one looks “normal.” The words NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T surround the image.

Text: I am hesitant to call allergies and near-fatal allergic reactions 100% “feminist” issues, but the ways people respond to these invisible or not-always-visible health conditions also has much to do with gender.


Panel 5: Several pairs of eyes stare at Anna, who responds “Oh, for fuck’s sake, not again.”

Text: As mentioned earlier, the bodies of people who are “abnormal” in some way—or who are marked as such—are often treated like curiosities, or public property.


Panel 6: Individual speech bubbles with invasive questions take up all of the space in the panel.

Text: Members of minority groups, too, are usually expected to comply when questions—no matter how personal—are wielded at them by members of majority groups.

Speech bubble questions: What’s wrong with your foot?

Where are you from?

Why would you be proud of being [in x group]?

Why would you use that pronoun? Can’t you just pick male or female instead of making up words?


Panel 7: Speech bubbles with invasive questions and comments—this time having to do with severe allergies–take up all of the space in the panel.

Text: I have never been able to just say “I have severe food allergies” and leave it at that. People always want to comment. Everybody seems to have something to say!

Speech bubble questions and comments: If I had to not eat peanut butter, I would just DIE!

Food “allergies” are SO over-diagnosed these days!

But how do you know FOR SURE that you’re allergic?

Aren’t “allergies” just code for “picky” eaters?

How much could you eat before you’d swell up?



Panel 1: Anna looks annoyed at yet another random person’s commentary on her allergies.

Text: I try to be polite; I usually am, but just barely.



Panel 2: Anna thinks about the “super mom” and her kid from earlier in the chapter. The mom looks concerned as the kid’s face swells up from an allergic reaction.

Text: The Anxious Mother as making her kids allergic by proxy trope also interests me from a feminist perspective.

Speech bubble, concerned mom: It must be PEANUTS!

Speech bubble, swollen kid: Must be peanuts.


Panel 3: The super/anxious mom looks askance.

Text: Western culture seems particularly adept at blaming mothers for everything that might—or does—go “wrong” with their kids.



Panel 4: The mom tries to surmount giant boulders, each labeled with an expectation that culture foists upon “good enough” moms. The boulders read: Kid needs to be perfect. Push kid to do well, but not too much! Good behavior. Knowing what child needs at all times. Keeping kid engaged at all times. Self-esteem. “Head starts” on math, reading, etc. Preparation for school and learning. Parental encouragement. Staying at home with kids. Love. Enrichment programs. “Proper” diet; health. After-school activities.

Text: Simultaneously, heaps upon heaps of expectations are piled upon [sic] moms; these expectations are often rooted in white and middle-class values surrounding the family.

Footnote: See Quart 2007.



Panel 5: Image of a fainting couch, with an arrow and text denoting a “fainting couch for the 21st century!”

Text: The over-attached, “hysterical” mom trope also connects to an older stereotype: the “hysterical” woman, who is so focused on herself and her problems that she is immobilized.


Panel 6: A dual image of the “hysterical woman,” labeled Victorian Hysteric, who sighs “OH MY!” and the anxious mom, labeled 21st Century “Supermom,” who cries, “MY KIDS!”

Text: Both of these tropes figure women as self-involved and self-obsessed—and as driven by emotion when it comes to health risks (both “real” and “imagined”).


Panel 7: An angry-looking Anna stares directly at the viewer.

Text: Some in the medical community have even called food allergies “a form of hysteria.”

Speech bubble, Anna: UH-HUH.

Footnote: See Parker-Pope 2008.


Panel 8: Anna and the Supermom face the viewer.

Text: The major implication is that women—and mothers, perhaps most of all—are making “too big a deal” out of this allergy thing.

Speech bubble, Anna: I think we can agree that “big deals” are subjective!



Panel 1: Anna faces the viewer.

Text: I’m not a mother, so while I can’t speak to that with personal anecdotes…

Speech bubble, Anna: Not to mention that many kids with food allergies become adults with food allergies…


Panel 2: Anna starts getting hives on her arms.

Text: I can speak to the realities of having possibly-fatal food allergies myself.

Speech bubble, Anna: Well, CRAP.


Panel 3: Anna’s face begins to swell with hives. She looks slightly concerned.

Text: I wish, sometimes, that I could join the ranks of “skeptical” doctors, hipster news columnists and comedians in just laughing it off, of painting anaphylaxis as the invention of hysterical helicopter moms with nothing better to do than monitor their children’s diets in intense detail.

Speech bubble, Anna: OR DO I?


Panel 4: Anna faces the fainting couch from earlier in the chapter.

Text: But—and at the risk of being viewed as “hysterical”—I can say with certainty…

Speech bubble, Anna: Good one, social programming—a fainting couch!


Panel 5: Anna’s face begins to swell up as she wheezes.

Text: As someone who has been to the Emergency Room countless times for allergic reactions (some of which seem to come out of thin air)…

Footnote: Seriously, I have lost count.

Thought bubble, Anna: Cross-contamination…could have eaten something I should not have…HOW did this happen?


Panel 6: Anna gets extremely upset as she realizes that she is having another severe allergic reaction.

Text: …And as someone who has doubted the severity of my own health problems because I am a woman, and have internalized the cultural messages that figure “woman” as “hysterical” and “overreacting” about her own body

Speech bubble, Anna: NOT AGAIN!

Thought bubble, Anna: Am I making this into too big of a deal?


Panel 7: A “dramatization” image of Anna lying on the floor, presumably dead, as her pissed-off ghost form floats up and looks down at her body.

Text: …And who often gets tired of putting on a “brave” and/or stoic face when I am in a situation that might actually kill me…

Speech bubble, ghost Anna: HEY! I can’t be a ghost…I’m an atheist! FUCK

Panel 8: Anna’s face is so swollen that she cannot see.

Text: Allergic reactions are, in fact, a big fucking deal.







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