This Is Personal

Nickel Ore
I have belonged to one Nickel Allergy support group or another (online), for a while now. I am struck by the importance of such a group. I am also struck by its limitations, even dangers. It is not so different than the kind of support group that has always come together around a personal issue - whether it's alcoholism, a child's disability, a cancer diagnosis, or even comparatively simple issues, such as owners of new puppies who really want to keep the carpet clean. These groups arise naturally, often as a result of serious issues that deserve serious answers. They cross traditional borders between medical and mental wellness, and attempt to reach people in the moment to talk them down or boost them up.

So it is with nickel allergy. As much as some people out there may blow off nickel allergy as the kind of medical condition you can ignore, it is not. As much as doctors as a whole may be a great source of knowledge on the subject, nickel allergy also seems to be a blind spot for a lot of doctors. People with severe allergies affecting their daily lives are not only haunted by symptoms they don't understand, but the depression and anxiety that accompany a condition that is unexplained and worsening.

I find it valuable to read along in these groups, mostly listening, sometimes chiming in. Most people motivated to belong to a group of this nature have symptoms much worse than my own. As a result of participating, I find myself grateful that I don't have to intimately know the nickel content of every morsel I eat, or the chemical structure of the dye used in the clothing I wear. I ask better questions for myself, and many of the people I serve. I am more aware of my body, and more sympathetic to people who face a variety of struggles.

We instinctively trust people with the same condition to offer advice, because there is great power in shared questions. Advice of this sort is caring, personal, full or stories of adversity and occasionally of the triumph we aspire to. The evidence and resources offered can be strong or weak, but these are almost always offered with the best of intentions. The need to belong, to learn in this way is strong, and, I think hearkens back to how humans have always learned best - in small groups, and from each other.

However, I strongly caution those who would circumvent doctors, or other sources of hard science, altogether. When you or your child has a rash you can't identify, you go to the doctor. Really, don't just post a picture online for the general public to diagnose, even if it is your friendly, trusted group. Even a good doctor would need much more than a photo or two, to give you good advice.

Sure, we live in an era where we have learned to be skeptical of what we read, and that includes taking advice from some of the experts in our lives. We no longer take orders passively, simply accepting what one professional says, as the one pure truth which must be obeyed. Being skeptical is good -- it's great, in fact, when it is also coupled with probing questions, independent research, and willingness to fact check fearlessly. But avoiding the advice that is given to you, just because you don't like it, is a dangerous business. And so is seeking the advice from easy, cheap sources, like sympathetic friends. Friends can steer you in the right direction, and they can talk you down from depression, but there is a time and place to admit that doctors know stuff we don't know. They have tools we don't have, and they can be an important resource in getting to a good place again.

Okay, as I write this, I temporarily imagine a better medical system than we currently have, here in the United States. Maybe your experience tells you that you, yourself, are a more reliable and diligent researcher of your condition than anyone else can be. You have probably learned some things that work well for you, and you have found to be true. Good. But also be very selective about how quickly you dish out advice to others. Self-diagnosing and folk remedies are lovely, lost arts. And they are also fraught with dangers.

You would think that in the midst of the information era, itself, we would all be so smart, we would be our own professionals in everything. This is a climate in which we may begin to think we can all teach quantum physics, diagnose our own conditions, argue our own court cases, and fix our own cars. But really, eyes open, can we?

Friends are friends. Their advice is personal, insightful, and valuable. Independent research is almost a requirement for daily living. Do that. Professionals in the field, though, have a vested interest in knowing more about the same things you want to know about. They have tools and solutions that are otherwise out of reach. They may even have a name for your condition, and a course of action that actually helps.


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