Immuno-Witchery (or I Aten’t Dead Pt. 1)

Immuno-Witchery (or I Aten’t Dead Pt. 1) July 6, 2015

(with a spin
alive we’re alive)
we’re wonderful one times one

–e.e. cummings

So, here’s a thing that happened to me recently: I almost died.

A little background: When I was a kid, I got stung by bees all the time; several times a summer, at least. Mostly, I stepped on them with my inattentive bare feet but sometimes, I stuck some part of me into their space and some brave bee attempted to remove the threat to the hive by stinging me. It hurt like hell, of course, but I didn’t really learn any better.honeybee-lavender

When I was 18, I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps at Manassas Battlefield Park in Virginia, doing trail maintenance, cutting trees, re-routing creekbeds, and generally trying to return the Battlefield to what it looked like during the fighting. Minus all the dead and dying soldiers, of course.

We were tearing out a split-rail fence when someone somehow hit a hive and bees poured out in a cloud. I was only stung once but that was enough. 20 minutes later I started feeling itchy and angsty and plain weird. I’d never been allergic to anything, so I didn’t recognize the symptoms of a reaction. Luckily the folks in charge of the work crews had a clue and sent me off to the local Doc-in-a-Box.

The old-style anaphylaxis kit included several benadryl,  a hypodermic needle and a tourniquet
The old-style anaphylaxis kit included several benadryl, a hypodermic needle and a tourniquet

The doc gave me a big fat shot of epinephrine, some antihistamines and steroids, and a prescription for what they called back then a bee sting kit. Also, this advice: next time you’re stung, give yourself this shot, then get to the hospital as quick as you can before you die.

Thanks, doc!

That started a whole new relationship between me and bees. I hadn’t paid much attention to them before, but now I really had to; I was vulnerable. We came to an understanding – they didn’t want to kill me, and I didn’t want to kill them, so we kept a respectful distance.  Meanwhile, I watched them and observed their beauty.  I saw how they lovingly tended to the flowers;  it was devotional how they entered the sacred space of stamen and pistil.  Service.  Power.

Cut to the late nineties. I’d been thinking for a while about getting a tattoo and finally came to a decision.   Around the same time, my now-husband was considering whether he’d put his eggs in this basket, so to speak. It was a very rich and full time and I was generally happy. I took my design to the tattoo artist and, after a bit of finagling, got on the table. The design was a celtic knotwork piece, copied from a piece of jewelry, which had been copied from the Book of Kells. All the while the artist was working away, I was thinking “OWOWOWOWOW! This really hurts! Feels like a bee-sting! Hmm. Haven’t felt that in a while. What does it mean? What is the function of the bee? Purpose, pain, beauty, suffering…what is the function of the Bee?”

The question burned into my skin.

I sat with it for a few years.

In the early aughts, some folks put out a public call for any and all who’d be interested in putting together a ritual for the local community. Many people showed up, from this and that tradition, this and that tribe. As the ceremony took shape, I was invited to be the High Priestess, and two who’d not done this type of work before offered themselves to carry God and Goddess energies. There was a lot of coaching and prep work involved, of course. At one of our planning meetings in the park, I was stung by a bee. At that point, it had been 18 years since my last sting. Luckily, I had my meds, and a dear friend who was an EMT helped me avoid going to the hospital. The question woke up in me again: What is the function of the Bee?

We went on to do a very powerful, if a bit long, community ritual. Laughs were had, tears were shed, the whole shebang. A little bee on blackberrylater, one of the participants sent me a note that said, “I didn’t know that I could do this until you helped me. Thank you!” And all of a sudden, I heard the message the little bee gave her life for. I realized the function of the Bee: she helps flowers come to fruit. She doesn’t make the blossoms, or the apples, but she carries a thing she found here over to there and, by this offering, catalyzes change.

Yesssss! Bzz Bzz!

Having finally understood the relationship, I thought maybe some magick had changed me physically.  I went to the allergist to find out for sure.  He did the usual tests and said, “Hahahahaha! You will never keep bees! Your number one sting allergy is to honeybee!” Maybe he didn’t laugh, but still.  I was very disappointed.

Cut to early this year. When we moved to the Farm, I was suddenly surrounded by honeybees. None were being kept here, but they covered the huge rosemary plants, the lavender, the sage. Whenever I stepped outside, I could feel the entire air buzzing. I got a little nervous. Got more careful. Then I saw a very cool new hive idea online.  This sparked a renewed interest in beekeeping and I started looking at the possibility of immunotherapy for my sting allergy. Maybe I could have a colony or two at some point, if I went through this treatment?

(If you’re not familiar with immunotherapy, here’s how it works: they give you an increasing amount of venom, over a course of days, then weeks, then months, for YEARS until your body finally gives up trying to react. Then you’re relatively immune for a couple of decades. That’s the simple version.)

My allergist was amenable to the idea.  I started the regimen with two shots a week.  I’d been going for a couple of months, and they’d just increased the dosage of venom I was getting. It was on a Tuesday, and Matthew was out of the country on a business trip. I came home from my appointment, no problem. On Wednesday, I was sitting and writing in my comfy chair and I started to feel not so good. In fact, it was hard to breathe. I stood up and walked around and drank water and ate food and did all those things you do when you’ve had anxiety issues and now you’ve got a few tools.  Took some benadryl.  Nothing was working.

Here’s the trippy part: it took me almost an hour to decide to trouble a friend to drive me to the hospital. I knew I couldn’t drive. My brain was getting foggy from lack of oxygen. But still I waited, hoping I would feel better. Wondering if I wasn’t making it all up. Wanting desperately to not bother anyone.

Finally, I remembered the cautionary tale of a friend of a friend who died unaided because she didn’t make any noise. I decided to make some noise.

My boon companion ~ after the fateful trip to the hospital, she fell from her perch and refused to stick back on, so Laila gave her to me
My boon companion ~ after the fateful trip to the hospital, she fell from her perch and refused to stick back on, so Laila gave her to me

I walked down to the big house and called for my friend, Richard, but I couldn’t find him right away, so I went over to the cabin (all 3 of our places are on about an acre, so very close together) and called for Laila. She came right out and I told her what happened and, bless her heart, she grabbed her keys and we left. On the way, I gave myself the Epi-pen shot, and sat there staring at the hula girl figure glued to Laila’s dashboard. I wondered if this was the last thing I’d ever see, whether I would live or die.

Of course, I didn’t die.

We got to the ER and Laila sat next to me and rubbed my back and was so very kind. The docs gave me more antihistamines and steroids and showed me where the call button was and made me stay until they were sure I wouldn’t have a rebound reaction when the epinephrine wore off, about 4 hours. Another friend who lives on the land, Cindy, came and picked me up. She took me to the pharmacy to get my prescriptions filled and brought me home.

For the next two days, I lay in bed. When Cindy came in to ask if I wanted some food, it took everything in me to say yes.

In that moment, I saw all the times I’d been offered help and said no.

I saw how vulnerable I was, how much I did need someone now.

And I was deeply grateful for my land-mates who fed me and visited (but not for too long!) and washed dishes.

I slept for much of Thursday and Friday, until Matthew returned in the evening. (He’d offered to come home sooner, but I felt I was in good hands already.)

Saturday was a lazy day of welcome-home. Saturday night, we were watching a movie when I felt the tightness again, the heart-racing. And I really didn’t want to go to the hospital. Everything was so nice and chill and sweet and I didn’t want to deal with the getting dressed and the driving and the doctors. Matthew is really a genius, though, and he told me that we would just drive to the hospital and if I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to go inside. At least we’d be there if it got worse.

It got worse. I used my second Epi-pen.

They hooked me up to the vitals measuring thingie and gave me more prednisone and I dozed for a bit, then they let me go home.

New, improved anaphylaxis kit:  just press this thing against your leg and a needle shoots out and gives ya the juice!
New, improved anaphylaxis kit: just press this thing against your leg and a needle shoots out and gives ya the juice!

I went to see my allergist and he said (and I will forever love him for this), “Yes, this happens sometimes….” I liked that he didn’t try to shift blame or make up reasons for it. Just, the human body is complex and unpredictable and immunotherapy is tricky. You’re essentially poisoning yourself a little bit, again and again, and asking your body to ignore it. (Iocaine powder, anyone?)

He left it up to me whether I wanted to continue or not. I decided that yes, I do. And here’s why:  the reality of my life right now is that I am completely vulnerable to any random bee or yellow-jacket sting. Whereas, if I continue the therapy, I am vulnerable under relatively controlled circumstances so that I can become significantly less at risk in the long-term.

Seems like a good plan to me.

But I got a few really good realizations out of this experience:

  • I can die. It’s gonna happen.
  • I can go to bed for 2 or 3 or 4 days, and the world doesn’t fall apart.
  • So few things are actually worth worrying about. Like 2 out of my usual 100.

Because this moment, this one here, is truly the only moment. The Present is the soft glow of the stained-glass lamp, and the sound of my dog snoring and the taste of this apple juice and the warmth of my back against the chair. It’s recognizing the sound of my beloved’s car driving up. It’s contentment and joy and peace in my heart. Amen. Selah. Ashe. Blessed be.

Honeybee on Lavender photo credit: Steve A Johnson / Foter / CC BY

Honeybee on Blackberry photo credit: Rakel78 – Rakel Leah Mogg / Foter / CC BY

Epi-pen and Hula Girl photo credit: your humble narrator

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