The Heebie-Jeebies

This post is the first (and only) speech I gave at HubSpot’s Toastmasters. Spoiler alert: it’s not startup related.

This 1920's graphic makes heebie-jeebies seem like a back cold

One of my favorite things about growing up in Hawaii is the food. Perhaps one of the only advantages of being stranded in the Pacific ocean is an abundance of fresh, delicious, and pretty affordable varieties of fish. It was hard to not be surrounded by the stuff growing up in Hawaii. In my neighborhood, there was always someone parked on the side of the road selling fish they caught that day.

At some point in high school, my dad really got into making ahi sashimi. I wasn’t a big fan of it at first, but it was around enough that I ate it regularly anyway. We usually coupled that with other similar dishes, like poke–usually raw, cubed pieces of tuna, seaweed and some seasonings. Several of these tuna-heavy dinners when by uneventfully, until one night when I got a strange sensation at the table: annoyance. It’s a weird feeling to suddenly get, but I remember it distinctly. I felt like I was late for something really important but had to be polite and stay put.

Over the next hour at dinner, I became fidgety and restless. My hands started tingling, and the feeling moved up my arms and became warm until, eventually, it felt like the tips of a thousand hot, tiny needles were being pressed against my skin, but from the inside.

I stayed up after dinner, uncomfortably squirming while watching television, and the feeling went away a little while later. So I did what any teenage boy would do: I turned off the TV, brushed my teeth, went to bed, and didn’t tell anyone.

That was probably a stupid thing to do, but I was wreckless at that age. That was also around the time when I started getting interested in sports, and swallowing a bit of discomfort probably seemed like a small price to pay to the world’s scrawniest athlete-in-training.

It wasn’t until it happened a few more times that I finally told my parents. The thing that got me worried, was that I wasn’t getting it just from tuna. I got that feeling again whenever I had a big sandwich or more than one helping of soup. There was no pattern to it (unless you count a bit of gluttony).

When preparing this speech, I thought about opening with something more shocking, like, “I live in the shadow of a specter” to poeticize some unknown harbinger. But that wouldn’t really be true. From what I can tell, this sensation isn’t life-threatening. It’s not even visible, and the name my dad gave to it, “The Heebie-Jeebies,” isn’t very specter-like.

After describing it to my parents, my dad admitted that he gets the Heebie-Jeebies too, and has been getting it since his 20s or so. So far, we’re the only ones in our 7-person family who have it. To this day, my dad doesn’t know why he has it, what causes it or if it’s genetic, which is the fact most people find unnerving.

I guess we should be worried, but we’re not. I’ve lived my whole life eating (almost) all the awesome food my family makes, and so has my dad. Even in a highly Americanized Asian family, a fish diet isn’t something one just gives up.

I did some cursor research on the Heebie-Jeebies, and the closest things I’ve found suggests it’s some protein allergy. Through the “scientifically recognized” process of trial and error, I’ve narrowed it down to the following rules for myself:

  • White fish is OK in normal quantities.
  • Red-meated fish are pretty bad, especially swordfish and sock-eye salmon.
  • I’m also allergic to chicken and chicken broths in large quantities, but chicken caught in the wild are somehow fine.
  • I get Heebie-Jeebies from processed pork and turkey, too.
  • For some reason, cooking in lemon seems to make it a bit better.

Those rules have been good enough for me, but they didn’t sate my worrisome girlfriend who recently convinced me to get allergy tested. So I made an appointment a few months ago, talked to my physician, and left with the advice to simply not bother getting tested. According to him, the chance of pinpointing the cause is slim without extensive testing. “Even then,” he said, “at the end of it, they’ll probably just tell you to avoid fish and poultry, which is you’ve already been doing.”

Besides, I figure there are far more serious allergies to have. Nuts, pitted fruits, shellfish or (god-forbid) bacon. Some of those can cause serious symptoms and can be a pain in the ass to avoid, while my dad and I just have to exercise some restraint over holiday dinners.

So, for now, I have my rules, my WebMD articles, and the apathy of a certified practictioner, which, for my dad and I, have been enough to leave the Heebie-Jeebies be.