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.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

2007 Est Arrivee--Cough, Cough, Sniff, Sniff

2007 arrived on good terms, as far as I was concerned.

Heading into the end of 2006, I was healthier, happier, and more prosperous than I'd been in many years. I had intentionally let go of the pain of the year that had just passed at a magical Solstice ritual, and I welcomed the new year with open arms. It felt like a fresh start.

I had a lovely, if low-key, New Year's Eve. I got dressed up in a sparkly vintage cocktail dress and fishnet stockings. I put on high heels, did my hair, and shaved my legs. I went from a friend's lesbian cocktail and dance party to the Academy of Music, where I took the stage before a packed house of 800 as Elvis's lovely assistant. With a kiss and round of applause in your evening, how can you miss, right?

After the second show, I passed on joining Elvis as he switched personas and became Lord Russ at an led Aloha Steamtrain show at the Elevens, and went to a small party with new friends in Westhampton. I changed into something more comfortable once I was there, and had a blast drinking champagne and shots of Grey Goose, eating snacks, and playing a crazy German card game called "Rage." I even won. :-)

I got kissed at midnight by a cute boy, and when we got iced in by the freezing rain, I got to make out like a teenager on a futon beneath the Christmas lights. It was really very lovely. Things were looking up.

The next day, though, I was sleep-deprived and a little hungover. And from there, it was pretty much all downhill. Today is the 27th day of 2007--and my mother's 55th birthday--and I have been sick for all but four of those days.

I went to the doctor yesterday. He had nothing helpful to say unless you count "your face looks puffy. is that normal?" as helpful medical advice.

I don't have pneumonia or bronchitis, which is great, except it means there are no antibiotics that can help put a swift end to the coughing, laryngitis, running nose, fatigue and GI complications.

The Dr. prescribed an inhaler that would make me "jittery and light-headed" and would induce the coughing up of much yucky phlegm. I filled the prescription, but I have not used this thing since I can't for the life of me come up with a reason to feel more light-headed than I already do. And the coughing? Not a strong selling point either.

Instead, I bought myself a Vicks VapoSteam humidifier, so my little apartment smells of moist camphor, which I actually like very much.

While I've been sick, I've had a great deal of time to sit around thinking about things, and I'm happy to report that apart from one day (when I had PMS) I have not really felt very sorry for myself. The house was well-stocked with the things one needs when one is sick--tissues, soup, tea, DVDs, fresh ginger, cough syrup with codeine in it, Vick's VapoRub and assorted other cold comfort items--and this has helped. I'm taking good care of myself, and, while on my sickest days, I wished very much that someone else was taking care of me, I didn't go to the Bad Place, the place where I am a kid again, alone and sick and aching for care that won't come; the place where I want someone to love me and take care of me so much it breaks my heart and I drown in a panicky froth of depression.

I've done a good job of making my deadlines while also resting, feeding myself, and trying not to sink into a depressed, isolated pain-space as the days drag by without any human contact.

My best friend has talked to me every day, and made one emergency supply delivery when I was really in the thick of things. My landlord brought me Theraflu and soup. The cute boy from New Year's Eve stopped by to keep me company one afternoon. And another friend offered to bring me things if I needed them.

What I really want most of all is company, which has been in short supply, but I'm doing alright even without it. I finished a book--The Bourne Identity (I don't recommend it). I watched a documentary--This Film is Not Yet Rated (I recommend it). I'm reading a friend's novel manuscript and am halfway through. I got my car inspected and tried out a new hairstyle (I'm learning to do pin curls like they did in the 40s and 50s). I made soup. I watched a lot of TV shows that I had taped, but never gotten around to watching. I landed a new client. I installed a new showerhead. I took baths. I slept. A lot. I started a puzzle, although this was a mixed bag, because puzzles are more fun when you do them with a friend.

I cleaned my office and everything else I could find. I called friends, except on the days when I lost my voice. And I even went out to meet people for coffee--and once for dancing--on the days when I wasn't totally slammed by sick.

The days I was slammed, I did very little. I let it be okay that I just couldn't. And all I did was stay in bed.

I was all geared up for some serious productivity and some long-awaited fun when the new year arrived. Now, I'm sort of crawling along, just hoping to get upright again sometime before March.

On one of the days that I was in bed sick, I started thinking about the numbers, about the quantifiable amount of time I spend sick every year. I added it up, and on average, it's 26 weeks. 26 weeks! This is both horrifying and liberating.

It's horrifying, obviously, because it's just so freaking much; but liberating because it makes me feel like I'm actually kicking some serious ass by getting done what I've gotten done. It validates my feeling that everything is really hard--because it really is! If a person is sick for half the year, how can she be expected to make a good living? Knowing the actual number of days that I was immobilized by sickness helps me to release myself from the judgment that I'm just not doing well enough. And it re-enforces the commitment I've made to healing my body this year.

Now that I have a number, I can set a specific goal. If I can come in under 20 weeks of sickness this year, I will know that I am definitely moving in the right direction. I'm going to keep track and see how I've done.

Of course, these three weeks (and counting) don't set a great tone for 2007, but I am doing a lot of things right, and I believe that I can achieve wellness this year. I believe I can improve. And once I'm healthier, I'll be able to do the other things I dream about: pay off my debts, travel, go out to dinner, buy great presents, buy a house, and have a love life again.

So, here's to 2007. May we all be happy, healthy, and wise. Happy new year. (And happy birthday, mom.)