There I stood in the familiar parking lot of my childhood apartment building, choking. I was six. My eyes opened wide, even wider than the disproportionate size they were at the time, as I felt the hard candy lodge itself into my throat. It was stuck. I swallowed harder, but nothing moved. I felt completely paralyzed. Finally, my sister took notice, and the terrified look on her face became clear, which only increased my worry. She was eight, watching the little sister who she had viewed with a maternal eye since birth, choking.
The flavor of the Jolly Rancher was green apple, my favorite at the time.
The rest of the 15-minute frenzy is still a blur to me. Clearly, some oxygen was getting to my brain because my wheezing went on for a long time. However, there was no denying that the longer this went on, the more dangerous it got; I turned sheet white, then purple. Writing this now, I can almost feel the phantom pressure of the candy in the back of my throat. After what, to me and probably those around me, felt like an eternity, the Jolly Rancher was out with the hard slap of my back, and the labored bite of banana that finally let me breathe.
Reasonably, I stayed away from hard candy for a while, not trusting myself, nor the demon candy. As often happens when we are young, I forgot about the incident after a couple of months.
Eight years later, at a family reunion, I bit into a green apple. I did so with reckless abandon, and without a second thought. Slowly, I felt hot, red hives spread throughout my chest. A knot developed inside my throat, making breathing difficult. I remember staring into the mirror at least seven times in four minutes. Next, I stumbled into the kids room where all of my cousins and I were staying. The room was empty. Thankfully, a deep and dependable neuroses runs through my family, so naturally each of our dopp-kits are always stocked with a makeshift mobile pharmacy: Advil, Tylenol if the Advil doesn’t work, old Z-Packs, Mucinex, Sudafed, and obviously some sort of medication for stomach issues. You name it, most of us had it and have had it since we were taught how to pack our own bags. By the grace of God, Jewish God that is, because of this aforementioned neuroses, one of my cousins (probably most), carried Benadryl. I popped two in a flash and ran in search of my sisters. Within minutes, I found them, tears of genuine fear pouring down my face. “I’m having an allergic reaction!”, I screamed loudly and desperately.
They said, “No, you’re not”, in unison.
This served to further rile me up. “Look at my chest! There are hives everywhere! What do I do?”, I begged. They looked at me like I was crazy. In retrospect, they weren’t exactly wrong.
The experience stuck with me for a while, maybe too long. But unfortunately and almost laughably, it happened in the midst of my spiral deep, and unbeknownst to me, into years of anxiety and violent panic attacks. I’m not sure the two are connected, but they sure complemented each other in the most destructive way. Shortly after, I began to feel hot and itchy every time an apple was mentioned in a dish at a restaurant, or a pie for any occasion. Thanksgiving became a nightmare. A rash would develop on my chest, forcing me to take Benadryl to calm down and ease the anxiety. This Benadryl dependence got so bad that I actually became immune to the medication, feeling little to no drowsiness after taking it.
“I have an apple allergy”, I declared confidently to anyone and everyone who would listen.
After months of my declarations, my parents pushed me to go to the doctor to make sure this was all real. They became exhausted by my constant questioning about whether a dish had apples, apple cider vinegar, or even apple juice in it. My doctor explained that I was having psychosomatic reactions to apples because I had developed a strong fear of them. I was making myself have pseudo-allergic reactions.
The connection between the apple-flavored Jolly Rancher, and my ‘allergy’ to apples finally hit me while I was avoiding sleep one night. Maybe I am overanalyzing. Maybe I’ve just been to one too many therapy sessions; but connecting the two emotionally intense experiences gave me answers to my unanswerable apple question. This fruit-centric revelation didn’t change my life, but it gave me a win against the pretzel-twisted strings of my anxiety. It is the little triumphs that count in the broader struggle against anxiety.