One Day I Woke Up, Suddenly Allergic to Alcohol

One Day I Woke Up, Suddenly Allergic to Alcohol

alcohol intolerance allergy experience

I may never have another drunken night. Photo: Courtesy of Celine Enriquez

It first happened at a Zoom party. I was drinking a can of chūhai during quiz night and only after 30 minutes of involuntary scratching did I notice that my legs were covered with red spots. This was just a few days after I recovered from COVID-19, so I chalked it up as some weird, unexplained symptom of a still-mysterious virus. But now, about 10 months later, I still can’t down cocktails like I used to without breaking out in hives. 

And no, it’s not just Asian glow

Since developing this alcohol intolerance, I’ve also passed out on three different occasions. The first time it happened, I only had half a glass of red wine and a third of a can of the same chūhai. I thought I could scratch my way through the itch, but then my face started to swell and my limbs, covered in rashes, turned warm. I hopped into a cold shower to get some relief but within minutes, I was naked and unconscious in my dressing room, where my sister dried me off in between frantic calls to all the doctors she could get a hold of on a Friday night. My lips were blue and my eyes were wide open. “It was like a horror movie,” my cousin said, with no hint of exaggeration. 

Another time, it happened in the middle of the night. I felt fine after downing mixed drinks and even got through my regular bedtime routine, but I later woke up in the bathroom, bruised on my face and head, with zero recollection of how I ended up on the cold tiled floor. 

I’ve consulted a doctor, but even after blood tests, they still can’t figure out what’s going on. With no definitive answers to what the hell happened to my body, every sip of liquor now tastes bitter, in a way it never did: I anticipate the itchy skin and blurry vision, the feeling of my heart slowing down right before I faint.

“With no definitive answers to what the hell happened to my body, every sip of liquor now tastes bitter, in a way it never did.”

Even more terrifying was the thought that I can never go back to the way it used to be—wine nights with friends, Malibu rum and Coke by the beach, soju with K-BBQ

alcohol intolerance allergy experience

In a Kyoto bar with friends in December 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Sunga

Drinking is a huge part of Filipino culture. My uncles down bottles of San Miguel beer for lunch every day like it was water. I’m nowhere near as hardcore but I always took pride in my high tolerance for alcohol. I started drinking at a young age, so I’ve only ever known nights out with booze in it. My friends liked me drunk, too, and seemed to light up whenever I started on my tipsy life theories. I was happy to wait out the two years under different stages of lockdown, not knowing I would never experience any of these again. 

alcohol intolerance allergy experience

Shot of shots from college. Photo: Courtesy of Celine Enriquez​

For many, the pandemic was a pause button, but it feels more like someone hit fast-forward on my life without me knowing, and I’m now left to figure out what happened from fragments of hazy memories. My brain still thinks ordering unlimited sangria is a good idea, and that boozy brunches are something to look forward to. In reality, these basic millennial habits that gave my basic millennial self comfort, make for awkward social interactions.

Every night out now includes a 30-minute conversation about why I can’t take that free shot from the bar, and convincing myself that sipping on a diluted gin and tonic is fun. I learned to drink to avoid these interactions in the first place. An introvert in an extrovert’s world, the only courage I had in public was the liquid kind. My feet would grow numb—and comfortable—in heels after a shot of tequila, stories from my boring life grew more interesting after three, and my insecurities disappeared after five. I turned into another version of myself, one I can no longer access now. 

“An introvert in an extrovert’s world, the only courage I had in public was the liquid kind.”

But if there’s one thing the last two years has taught me, it’s that life is too short—too short to care what others think and too short to waste on getting wasted (if it could kill you). I still need answers, but I’m learning to live with it. 

alcohol intolerance allergy experience

Me holding an unopened bottle of non-alcoholic wine beside a nearly-empty bottle of white wine I couldn’t drink. Photo: Angelica Reyes

I discovered that if I take an antihistamine before drinking, stick to one kind of liquor, and drink slowly and in moderation, I’m good. This won’t get me drunk, but at least I can sip on something. I’m now on a mission to find non-alcoholic drinks I actually like, but it’s been hit or miss. For my 30th birthday, I bought a bottle of alcohol-free champagne that remained untouched after one underwhelming glass. For now, my fridge is filled with cans of La Croix that I pop open and pour into a glass on Fridays, as if it were a cocktail and not fizzy water. And finally, about a year into my forced life of near sobriety, I’m learning how to socialize again. 

Some people still look at me weird when they find out about my condition—a mix of “I’m so sorry for you” and “I’m glad it’s not me”—so I just double down on the other things I loved about going out: dropping work, dressing up, spilling tea, reminiscing about all the stupid shit I did in high school. 

I reached a milestone recently. Out for brunch with two friends, I happily skipped the cocktail as they sipped on their Aperol Spritzes. They still laughed at my jokes and at that moment, that was enough. Turns out, my life is interesting, and insecurities need to be overcome, not temporarily ignored. I’ve also just traded in heels for Birkenstocks. 

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