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Sick

Very seldom do I get sick–knock down, drag out sick. Wednesday before last I was hit with something I had not been hit with in a long time.

In 2002 I became very ill. It was more than a bad cold, though it had some of those aspects, but it was unlike anything I’d experienced. Muscles burned and joints felt as though they were melting into sandpaper. My stomach was turned in tight, burning knots. Electric pains zinged through my arms and legs and sparkled across my chest. I couldn’t see well. My tongue burned. I wanted to vomit but couldn’t. After a few days I had a seizure.

Hypochondria runs in my family. Some claim I have picked it up: I am always tired and sleeping poorly, always skittish and nervy except when I am leaden and inert. Childhood was constant colds and “allergies”, though when the allergies stopped and colds began is hard to see. Two fixtures of that time are the banana yellow and deep autumn orange of the two Triaminic bottles my mother always had around. The orange tasted good and had a crust; the yellow was bitter and pungent, like medicine. I graduated to Nyquil and other pills, like everyone else thinking they helped. I seldom went to the doctor as it was too inconvenient for me to go; when I could drive myself I gave up on it. Why sit around for hours to be told it’s just a virus and nothing can be done? The bored doctors were dismissive. They exuded offense at my illegitimate use of their time.

Aside from a few very bad colds and one standout food poisoning experience, illness and injury had skipped me. I had little patience for what I regarded as the professional sick, including the old with their interminable monologues on this malady, that doctor, those pills. Smoking, bad eating and other self-abuse caused all these problems. I did not abuse myself so I would not have such problems.

April 2002 was a boundary with before and after. The bizarre, powerful virus lingered, changed, settled as my fear grew. Doctors withdrew as I entered that terrible country of a set of problems not naked to the eye and without a clear recipe. They had no suggestions aside from the not-so-hidden stance that it was psychosomatic. I slept all the time, exhausted. As time went on I had trouble walking, falling a few times. I kept moving, though complaining; I was already a disappointment to some ideal of myself working part-time and could not allow further degradation.

Not until 2005 did I begin to feel something like well. I had found a doctor with an idea that was ultimately wrong but led to another doctor and better treatment. The next two years presented occasional frightening relapses to those first dark years, muscles aflame and head in a helmet, but weeks or months later the trend toward normal resumed. The normal stretches lengthened and deepened in quality, but underneath every good day was the worry I would wake to another bad one. I worked hard at jobs, afraid I would lose the ability to hold them. I was guilty about my then wife having supported me. But I kept getting better until that became all there was.

To go back to that place in 2002–suddenly and utterly–was a bad trip. Confidence greys and disappears; the future collapses to the present. I lay in bed and breathed and repeated it’s just some virus, it’s just some transient thing, but outside the clouds rolled in. Early on the escrow people call about the house–time to sign papers on the day of my worst fear: being unable to work.

The worst lasted two days, but it lingered for a week. I still feel unwell at the edges, the fatigue having set up shop again. But to look back on that time is to realize it was almost ten years ago, as far back and crossing over into forgetting as is 9/11. To enter that forgetting is a release I had never imagined when younger: it is important to forget some things.

I can manage and imagine being well again, see this as a temporary and minor misfortune. I can move ahead. That is the only place to go.

Evergreen Center for Integrative Medicine

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