Thursday, July 9, 2009

What It Means To Be Sick

Okay, so the swine flu gods got me. I don't get sick very often, but this makes two significant knockouts in about seven weeks. So with my 6-8 waking hours each of the past 3 days, I have pondered the great question of the infirmed: Why me?

Now this is no great tragedy - a week's worth of strep throat followed 6 weeks later by what really amounts to a moderate dose of fatigue. No great after-school specials started this way.

But that's the point, I think. We all spend our lives doing things, some of us are more physical, some more cerebral, but we get into a certain routine and things hum along. Getting sick, be it major or minor, knocks us off the track.

I live in a place where I can effectively pursue two goals: improve my tango and learn Spanish. Outside of that, I find little reason to be here. So with 3 days lost I found myself wanting to go home. After all, it is 80 degrees in Seattle and the fresh mountain summer air would do me good.

But no matter where I am, I get a bit of this whenever I am sick. I call it depression. To me, the physical symptoms are not nearly as relevant as the emotional ones. And those stem from uncertainty. Doubt takes over the mind when pathogens take over the body. What is wrong with me? It is a perfectly reasonable question. But there need not be anything wrong. Maybe this is just the natural consequence of sharing the earth with microorganisms. Or maybe some other god is just telling me to slow down.

Logical explanations aside, the mind still wonders. After all I live in a house with 7 other people. About 12 boy- and girlfriends come and go regularly. We all make our life in the same dirty city, but only one of those 20 has gotten sick at this time - me. They even appear immuned to my disease-carrying forays into the kitchen.

For me, sickness brings about loneliness. Don't get me wrong, I like to be alone at times; sometimes I need to be alone. What I don't like is to feel lonely.

People are nice. One person I talked to immediately started with the advice: go to a doctor, take your temperature, take lots of fluids, and on and on. All worth appreciating, but all entirely predictable. What I really wanted (but didn't have the strength to interrupt) is to say that I don't feel so good in my heart and then to hear the entirely unpredictable response.

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had a nasty fever and was on the phone with a long-distance girlfriend. I told her what I was honestly feeling at the time: "I feel like I am dying." Her immediate reaction was to laugh at me (worst girlfriend ever). I don't know what exactly I wanted - a bit of sympathy, to be told that I'm not going to die, or something else - but what I got was pure pain, pure misunderstanding, pure rejection. After all, I wasn't going to die; the suffering caused by my illness was secondary, but it magnified the heartache - the feeling that nobody cared.

We don't know much about what goes right and wrong inside our bodies. I happen to believe that better understanding in this area could really mitigate the emotional pain of physical suffering. After all, each of us has, at least once, felt worse than she has ever before felt in her life. Some reason to believe that the chances are good we'll make it through more or less unharmed could really hit the spot at a time like that. If we could find some sense in suffering; maybe we could deal with it more easily.

It was this idea that, years ago, formed my primary motivation to pursue medical school. The interviewers at the University of Washington appear not to have agreed with me. Maybe they were right; maybe there is no sense to be found.

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