How To Be Sick
A fever-prompted reflection on illness and identity
Here is the truth:
I know how to be sick.
I know how to pause, how to slow down and rest.
I know how to curl up and find comfort within the discomfort, I know how to hold myself when the body is aching and the muscles are shaky.
I know the inconvenience of illness, and the gift of imposed solitude.
I know how to drink tea. I love tea. Maybe it’s the ritual of it that I love, even in its most simple form: Set the water to boil. Put a teabag in a mug, pour in the water. Hold the mug carefully, it’s already hot. Watch the steam rise in tendrils. It cools down quickly, and then there is a small window of time between too-hot-to-drink and too-cold-to-be-tea. When the water becomes tepid (as it always does), heat the kettle again and repeat.
It’s good to drink tea when you are sick.
This is one of the things they tell you, universally and automatically. Drink a lot of tea, get a lot of rest, they say. Feel better soon! they say this too, all of well-meaning and true, except —
I know the things they don’t tell you about being sick, and the times that all the tea in the world won’t change a thing.
All I’m saying is: I know some things about being sick.
I know the different kinds of sick.
The unglorious stomach-upset and nausea rising sour, stomach empty and bloated and cramping and everything foul.
The invisible loss of cognition, where the mind is heavy and the thinking is foggy and everything, e v e r y t h i n g, is harder and slower and a unfathomable level of demanding, if you can even fathom anything.
The creepy sensory dysfunction, (paraesthesia, they call it), when the nerves are electric and vibrating and every sense is hyper-sensitive.
The truth is, I haven’t thought about these things for a while. Writing it down now, it is like remembering a language that I used to know well.
The language of the sick. The world of symptoms and procedures and routine blood tests, number scales to rate the pain and the nuance of each adjective (would you describe it as pounding, stabbing, burning, aching?), the precision of each term used (do you feel weakness, vertigo, dizzy, lightheaded?).
The lexicon of diagnoses and prognoses, everything with double names and abbreviations and once it’s on your file it’s there to stay. (“I see you have Multiple Sclerosis, Crohns disease, and Asthma, is that right?” the doctor asked me today on the phone. “Can you tell me how you are now, do you have a fever, sore throat, body chills?” she prompted. Yes, I told her, yes to it all.)
I know who I am when I am sick.
Here is a harder truth:
I know how to be sick more than I know how to be healthy.
I used to know how to be sick more than I knew how to be healthy.
I used to live more in that Other World.
Not anymore. Not for now.
Now I’m healthy and active and outward and working. What do you do?, some one can ask me, and I have what to answer in the conventional way.
Now I’m healthy, which comes from the Old English word hælþ “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.” I might have broken pieces, but I am not broken. I’m wholeness, being whole.
Now I’m healthy, or in Hebrew — בָּרִיא, which comes from the root ב.ר.א, to create. I’m creating myself anew, I’m a being who creates.
Now I’m healthy…can I say this as a sentence and a feeling to explore, without the judgements and associations attached?
“Sick,” “Healthy,” we say these words as if we know what they mean, as if they are static conditions (where one state is ‘bad’ and the other is ‘good’).
We don’t know. I don’t know. I’m learning and learning still.
I’m learning that there is joy and pain accessible in both states, and that there can be pain without suffering, and suffering without pain.
I’m learning to take care of myself in the ways that are right for me, regardless of how or whether it was prescribed.
I’m learning to do and go-go-go, and also to stop and rest.
Now, actually, is a good time for me to stop. It’s time to rest.
Thank you my friends and friendly readers.
Wishing you well x