The chest pains were what took me to the doctor in the first place.
Six years ago I was doing my first production as an officially married woman: Sweeney Todd, The Demon
Musical Barber of Fleet Street. I mention the show because it’s difficult to sing. Sondheim is a lover of dissonant chords and screeching harmonies. I was on mezzo soprano. Sometime during the harried weeks leading up to opening, I noticed my voice was sometimes cracking, and it felt thin and reedy. Sometimes it was like singing through pudding, or perhaps through a sieve–like my voice was trying to pour out through thousands of tiny holes. Then came the chest pains.
I hate going to the doctor but I’m also a hypochondriac. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was probably dying of congestive heart failure. So I saw my doc and got an EKG. I remember that day because I had to strip for the test and was really glad I’d worn a matching underwear set. I also remember it because the EKG was clean. Dr. Maxa suspected heartburn.
I really don’t want to bore you with the minutiae of my health history. (For reference: I wrote the entire saga down and brought it to my new PCP a few weeks ago, and I could see her visibly shrink when I whipped it out. And she’s my doctor!). But suffice it to say that since that time, I struggled with what I thought was an inherited case of gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.
My symptoms weren’t very typical. Hiccups, wet burps, dry cough. A lump in my throat like I was constantly holding back tears. Hoarseness and cracking. I found it difficult to talk loudly or for a long time. Sometimes I would lose my voice completely, even when I wasn’t sick. I also had stomach aches, particularly in the morning, and weird fluttery feelings in my chest. I was sick all the time, struck down with upper respiratory crud at least four times a year. And the bloating–OH THE BLOATING. Even before I had a baby my stomach looked postpartum while the rest of my body stayed curiously slim. I almost never had heartburn.
The worst of it though, was the loss of my singing voice. The problems I experienced during Sweeney Tard-I-mean-Todd got worse. I used to occasionally get cast in principle roles. In Sweeney I had several solos, and had actually been called back for Mrs. Lovett. Over the years, that all dried up. So did my range. I started singing alto parts.* I stopped getting solos. I wasn’t getting called back for principle or even supporting roles. When I went to auditions, I lived in fear because I never knew how my voice would perform on any given day. Sometimes my voice would completely cut out in the middle of a note. Just drop off–like Thelma and Louise, go-go-going one minute and disappeared a moment later.
*Not that there’s anything wrong with singing alto. But there is a tiny grain of truth to the stereotype that weak voices sing alto, just as there is to the one that people who can’t harmonize sing soprano. As I’ve sung on both parts many times, I can say this.
It got to the point where I didn’t want to sing anymore. I auditioned for straight plays, and fell back on my dancing abilities in the few musicals I did. The last time I sang in a musical, I wasn’t even given a mic pack.
All this I might have been able to stomach, if I wasn’t still having all the other GI symptoms. They cleared up temporarily on the two PPIs I tried, but they’d always come creeping back. In the past six months or so, I even began to have regular heartburn. At last.
As of a few weeks ago, I’d been to two ENTs (one that specializes in voices and had worked with Usher), a vocal coach, and a gastroenterologist. I’d been on experimental drugs that made me violently ill. I’d suffered through two endoscopies. I’d been on four or five rounds of antibiotics and steroids for throat infections. And my voice was still slowly disappearing. Not only my high notes, but also my low notes were fading away. The worst of it was that the most recent GI specialist I’d seen, on reviewing my symptoms, didn’t even think I had GERD to begin with.
But the last straw was when I had to tell my son I couldn’t read him a third book, because my voice hurt too much.
I went to my new PCP armed with those four pages of health history. She seemed hesitant to address my case. If I’d been to all these specialists and nothing was gained, what could she do? To me it was obvious–somebody needed to hear the whole story from the beginning, with a fresh perspective.
I was also direct in asking for an h pylori test, a stomach condition with which my brother was just diagnosed, and my doctor ordered a blood panel for the major food allergies. But when she looked at everything all together, only one thing came to her mind. A man had recently been in the office with almost my exact symptoms and it had turned out to be…
A caffeine allergy.
My head started buzzing (HA) almost as soon as I heard it. Caffeine, my heart! Of all the things I might have had to give up, my most beloved legal mind-altering substance would be the hardest.
But it kind of made sense.
I used to drink coffee only occasionally, if you can believe that. Then we moved to Orlando. The friends with whom we shared a townhouse always had some made, with lots of delicious flavored creamers. We only lived there three months, but that was all it took. By late 2009–when I was doing Sweeney–it was a daily habit. Over the years I increased my coffee intake and brewed it stronger too. Like weather is to climate change, my daily intake fluctuated depending on outside influences, but the overall pattern was one of increased consumption. As of earlier this year, when my problems really escalated, I was downing 5 to 7 (6 oz) cups a day on the reg–about the equivalent of two Ventis from Starbucks.
It was enough to convince me to at least entertain the idea. Unfortunately, there is no test for caffeine allergies. It’s a pretty rare condition. The only test is to eliminate it and see if you feel better.
I did some research on my own of course, good old Dr. Google. Just as you might suspect, it was hard to find anything on caffeine allergies at all. I did find a couple articles that made me wonder caffeine was the culprit, or coffee itself. I wasn’t sure which would be worse.
Either way, I knew it would be a long road ahead.
Tune in next week when I give you the lowdown on my journey from an all-day coffee drinker to caffeine-free. Warts and all!