Monday, January 29, 2007

When the Sickness Comes

When the sickness comes, the world gets smaller. As days, then weeks pass, every dream, plan, desire, or project that isn't about survival is eventually shunted out to the periphery of my reality. I let them go like ballast in an attempt to stay afloat, and my world is as small as the one inside a basket, suspended beneath a balloon, drifting through cloudy climes. I have a clear destination in mind, but with no guaranteed method of propulsion or navigation, I curl up in my basket alone and drift, hoping the right winds will take me back to a place where I am well.

It's hard now, to remember what it's like not to be sick. But this is one of the rare times when hope is actually useful, when hope is not a false expectation that will lead to the devastation of a heart. In this case, my hope is pinned on something that can actually happen, a thought I refuse to let go of: there will be a day when I am not sick.

I understand that I may be wrong about this. I understand that it's possible I will never be well. I have lost two friends from college already to brain cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease. I know that some illnesses come, and they never leave, no matter how hard you fight. But I do not have those terrible things that they had. I have something else, something the doctors can't seem to name...or to cure. So, until someone officially tells me otherwise, I will believe in the possibility of wellness. I am stubborn and willful and ferocious when I have to be. And I am learning to be patient and balanced and compassionate with myself, as well.

Our friends in recovery are onto something when they say, "one day at a time."

Last night I laid in bed and coughed for eleven hours without a break. My chest burned, my throat ached, my mind and body were exhausted, but my lungs were impervious to every remedy I offered them. Prescription cough syrup with codeine; Vick's VapoRub; Theraflu; a Vick's VapoSteam humidifier, water...eventually, I drugged myself into oblivion with a double-dose of codeine cough syrup, combined with two puffs of an inhaler, a Xanex, and the moist camphor-scented air of the humidifier.

I slept for six hours, woke up after 4pm, just in time for a little daylight. My head ached, my throat and chest hurt just as much as when I was last conscious. I missed my first yoga class of the new year, my therapy appointment, and a deadline.

But I did not despair. I did one thing at a time. The world outside my basket was nothing but clouds, and in here, my priorities were basic. These days there is one question, and one question only: what can I do to help myself right now? Despair is never the answer.

So, I got up.

I put on clean, soft, warm clothes. This helps. It takes effort to change clothes when one is this sick, and has been for so long. But if I make it a clear priority, I can get it done. I took a moment to feel grateful that there were clean, soft, warm clothes to be had.

I turned up the heat. I don't get fevers. Instead, when I am sick, my core temperature drops. I'm down more than two degrees now, to 96.7. This is hard on a body, and it makes fighting infections even harder. So I turned up the thermostat to 69, then later, as the chill deepened, to 72.

I fed the cats and gave Cal his pill. I washed my face. I made decaf coffee. I took my homeopathic supplements. And I got to work. I tested one more device--angry at how difficult and exhausting it was to fight it out of its box--and I finished and filed my story.

I created and filed my invoice. I made something to eat and turned on the TV. I ate slowly because of the nausea, but I got through the whole meal and kept it down. That's important. That's a victory.

I've been sick now with this particular virus for nearly a month. The doctor says there's nothing he can do. Being sick has meant that I got less done than I would otherwise. But, in the moments when I found I had some energy, I did what I could. I pushed myself. I got groceries, got to the doctor, got my car inspected, made fresh soup, finished assignments, got out. I seized the days--the moments in the days--when I could seize them, and that has made getting through all the other times possible.

Last year, I interviewed Andy Skurka, a young man who was the first person ever to hike across the continent. He started in Quebec and ended in Washington state. It was a journey of more than 7,000 miles of mostly wilderness hiking. It took eleven months of walking a marathon a day to complete.

About halfway through the hike, he hit the bitterest portion of winter, and spent three months hiking through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Temperatures got as low as 24 below zero and he snowshoed for 1400 miles. He said that during this time, he had to change his mindset.

"During the summer I didn’t care if I’d be on the trail in a few months," he told me. "But during the winter I wasn’t sure I’d make it. So, I took things one day at a time. I knew I could get through a day. I wasn’t thinking any longer term than that. It was a really desperate way to be living my life for three straight months, but I also found it very effective when the challenge was as great as it was."

I'm not going to win any awards for staying alive and getting my work done. There won't be a crowd of people to embrace me and share in the celebration when I beat this thing. There won't be any magazines calling to interview me. But I am taking the same approach Andy took to his winter hike in my life these days, and I have found it is very effective, when the challenge is as great as it is.

The one thing I really wish I could conjure up for myself is some companionship. Being sick and alone is so much more difficult to manage than just being sick. But for the time being, that's not something I have access to. Mostly, the people who live locally have said "no" or just ignored my calls. Like Andy, I am on this trail alone.

I suppose the biggest caveat is that Andy chose to hike alone; for me, it's a less voluntary circumstance. I've chosen to spend one year being intentionally single. It feels important to know that I can. But, since it's been more than a decade since anyone really wanted to be with me, there's no rational reason to believe that someone will arrive in July (or any time after that), when my year of being single is done, and want to share my life with me.

Just as Andy couldn't think about doing all 1400 winter miles at once, I can't think about doing another decade, or the rest of a lifetime, in the social winter that is my life. So, before I sink too far or get crushed beneath an avalanche of grief, I bring myself back, stubbornly, fiercely to the only question that really matters today: what can I do to help myself right now?

Despair is not the answer.

And the only thought worth hanging onto:

There will be a day when I am not sick.

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