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Midnight Itch

Updated: Apr 8

I planned to return to Kuala Lumpur (KL) once I left Singapore to see more of the city and venture to the surrounding countryside for a bit of eco-tourism. I’d hoped to spend a few days on a rainforest excursion at Taman Negara, about a 3-hour drive and boat ride away from KL’s city center, and even reserved a hostel in the area in anticipation of the stay. To my dismay, those plans were foiled when every tour company told me they were at capacity for the week and could not transport me there. That left me scrambling last minute to find alternative lodging in the city on the day of my arrival.

My preference was to return to Mingle Hostel since I had such a wonderful experience there during my first week in KL. The staff was welcoming, the guests were friendly, the vibe was super chill, and the place was clean. I should’ve led with the latter since it is my most important criterion when selecting lodging. I need a clean environment to function like a normal human. Unfortunately, I had to reserve a different hostel because Mingle had no vacancies on the night of my return. The new venue, which will remain nameless, came highly recommended by other travelers and received good ratings on the travel app. So, I booked it.

Let me preface by saying this is not intended to be a slam on that hostel, which is why I will not name them. By all metrics, the accommodation was excellent. The atmosphere was nice and friendly. The rooms and facilities were reasonably clean. It was spacious, and the décor was appealing. That said, two things stood out to me when I arrived: 1) everyone was barefoot because there was a no-shoe policy enforced by staff. That was an immediate "Ewww" since all I imagined were toe jam and foot fungus smeared all over the floors. I sort of complied by grabbing a pair of flip-flops out of my bag to wear as indoor shoes. I’m sorry; my germaphobia wouldn’t let me go raw. And 2) I noticed a cat roaming freely around the lounge area. I didn’t know if it was a stray or belonged to the staff, let alone its health status.

Nonetheless, this cat wandered throughout the area as if it owned the place. It alternated between sauntering along the floor and jumping onto the couches to get a better whiff of the guests reclining. As expected, this cat interacted with me because I am an animal magnet. Anytime I’m around pets, they engage with a calm familiarity. I take it as a compliment since people say that animals can sense our energy and naturally gravitate toward a positive aura. I am not afraid of or allergic to cats; I used to have one I stole from an ex. (Ok, I didn’t really steal the cat as much as he chose me as his new owner-friend, which prompted me to rename him Bootsy Bear and embrace him as my own.) So, I thought nothing of it when this new little fella wanted to sniff me out and play.

I chilled on the couch for a while, talking with other travelers, then left the facility to walk around the corner and grab some snacks from a convenience store. I went out searching for dinner but didn’t see any restaurants or fast-food places where I could order a proper meal, so corner-store snacks had to do for the evening. It was dark by this time, so once I returned to the hostel, I retreated to my room to shower and prepare to settle in for the night.

Sometime later, I was laying in my sleeping bag and playing on my phone when I started to itch. It began as a little itch on my arm. Then on my leg. Next was my scalp. Then back to my arm. Before I knew it, my entire body was firing off its itch receptors at the same time. Everything itched. It was that kind of itchiness that no amount of scratching satisfies, where all you do is break the skin from your nails digging in, creating more inflammation.

I jumped out of bed to examine myself. As I feared, my body was covered in hives. This has been an issue since I was a child. I would randomly break out in hives with no discernible cause. Urticaria, as it’s known medically, is a common condition where the body overreacts to an endogenous trigger, such as an infection, or an external irritant you come into contact with, like food, medication, or airborne allergens.

The cruel thing about urticaria is that it is typically idiopathic and spontaneous, meaning you have no idea why this reaction is triggered. That has always been my predicament, even as a child. Whenever I came down with hives, we could never trace the irritant. Which meant I never knew what I needed to avoid to prevent it from recurring. In this case, was it the cat? Was it something in the junk food I bought at the corner store? Were there irritants in the water that doused my body during my shower? Did one of the guests have cooties I picked up from the couch or in the air? I don’t know. I will never uncover why my immune system went into hyperdrive and coated me with hives.

And what is the purpose of itching, anyway? I mean, what actual purpose does it serve in human biology? I’ve debated this issue with myself many times and have concluded that I would rather just feel pain instead of experience the excruciating sensation of itching. I am certain that itching is a punishment for humanity. It is a cruel and unusual punishment because it drives you to self-mutilate just to alleviate the torture of itchiness. Have you ever had a mosquito bite and caused yourself to bleed trying to scratch the bump? Long, irregular welts forever mark my legs from scratching intensely because I also have eczema flares. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more self-conscious about blemishing my skin with scars and now use a scratching brush to relieve the itch without permanently marring myself. But I digress.

There I was, the first night back in KL, and my body was on fire. I had medication with me, but not what I needed, which was Benadryl or another antihistamine―but preferably Benadryl because it gets the job done. I threw on some clothes and sought assistance from the front desk. The guy suggested I try the convenience stores around the corner. And thus, my night journey began on the quest for Benadryl.

As I walked, I tried desperately to ignore the intensity of the itch beneath my clothing. Do you understand how maddening it is to itch everywhere without relief? The mental game required to pretend the agony doesn’t exist while being tormented is unreal. I had to gaslight myself! It’s like ignoring an annoying person in hopes that they will eventually get the message and stop; only the more you ignore them, the more annoying they become in response to you ignoring them. There’s no win.

I reached the store in minutes and searched the small pharmaceutical section near the register. They were all unfamiliar brands, and I couldn’t determine precisely what they treated. I asked the attendant if he had sold Benadryl, and he looked perplexed. I thought maybe he didn’t know that brand, so I explained why I needed it. He pointed to his inventory to basically say that’s all he had in stock. I questioned if any medications were antihistamines, but they weren’t. He was kind enough to review some with me, but I don’t think he understood what I needed because he insisted I buy an analgesic.

I left that store and went down the street to another convenience mart. This merchant was more knowledgeable―and his English was better―so he was able to inform me that local merchants are prohibited from selling Benadryl or similar antihistamines over the counter because, in that region, those drugs are marketed for more severe ailments. The clerk recommended I go to the hospital to get Benadryl, as only a physician could prescribe it. Seriously? I couldn’t even get cortisone cream.

It seemed ridiculous to rack up a hospital bill to treat something as minor as hives, something I knew I could treat with over-the-counter meds. I settled for one of the medicines the clerk advised they use for itching relief and returned to the hostel, hoping it would do the trick. Nope. My discomfort had grown to all-out anguish, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I searched the GPS to find directions to the nearest hospital. I couldn’t believe I was going to the emergency room to treat hives. It was well after midnight, and I was walking down the streets scratching myself, looking for a Benadryl fix like a dope fiend.

The whole walk there, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the hospital bill, anticipating something outrageous because I’m American; that is what’s to be expected if you ever go into the ER. I had insurance but not traveler’s insurance, so I doubt my stateside insurance would have covered any incurred costs. Though, I was hopeful as I marched on, mildly comforted by the night air.

Of course, I was the only person in the waiting room. It was going on 1 a.m. The staff didn’t even look like they wanted to be there, to be honest. I was seen quickly, and the physician reiterated the merchant’s explanation for why I could not receive Benadryl over the counter or even prescribed by him. On that side of the globe, Benadryl is not used as an antihistamine; it’s considered a narcotic. And since hives were my ailment, the doctor could only prescribe typical antihistamines and a hydrocortisone cream, which I knew would be less effective. They work fine for seasonal allergy symptoms, not for hives.

By the way, this is not a paid advertisement for Benadryl―they are not sponsoring me! It is genuinely the only medication I have ever found to successfully knock my hives out in thirty minutes or less. Sure, it puts me to sleep in the process, but it gets the job done. That said, I had no choice but to thank the doctor and accept the subpar remedy he offered.

The nurse directed me down a long, cold corridor to the pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions. Then they handed me the bill: 83.35 Malaysian Ringgit. That amounted to less than $20. What?! It blew my mind that an emergency room visit, including physician charges, administrative fees, and pharmacy costs, was no more costly than a decent lunch at a popular restaurant chain. I was thankful the bill was only $20, and at the same time, furious, knowing that the same bill in the States would have been a minimum of $1000. Even urgent care would have run me at least $150, not including the prescriptions.

This post is not meant to be a commentary on the US healthcare system, but we all know that this system is severely broken. Correction: it is not broken; it operates as intended within the tenets of capitalism to be exploitative for maximum profitability. So many families have had their lives turned upside down over medical debt that would have been a fraction of the cost overseas.

At any rate, I happily paid and proceeded through Bukit Bintang to the hostel. I was given two medications, and, as I predicted, neither held water to Benadryl. While they did dull the itch and help me go to sleep, ultimately, I suffered silently for the next two days until the hives decided they had had enough fun at my expense and retreated.

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