This advice column in Salon—“There's a cougher in the office and it's driving me mad!” gave me a lot of pause, especially since the academic year is about to begin and I will soon be sharing a very small office with several colleagues and in front of classrooms of students.
As you'll see, the letter-writer seems to think his co-worker’s cough is due to some sort of neurosis, not a physical condition. I can’t say whether that’s fair or accurate (somehow it seems unlikely), but I can say that for people like me, persistent public coughing is as much a nuisance for us as it is for everyone else.
You see, coughing is an occupational hazard of being me.
I am famous (infamous, really) for my cough. When it is juicy and tight, people in doctors’ offices grimace at the sickening sound of congestion churning around and politely ask if I’m getting over something. Some offer thoughtful but useless cups of water, others un-subtly move seats. “I’m not contagious, I’m just being me,” I’ll say, and I’m met with confused stares. I get lots of turned heads and cool stares in movie theatres and on the subway, in stores and restaurants. I blush, knowing people inch away from me thinking I am contagious and knowing this is not unreasonable of them.
When the cough is spasmodic and choking enough to land me in the emergency room, people in the waiting room practically trip over one another trying to move away from me, something I’ve dubbed the “ER Duck-and-Run.” Someone will quickly slide a facemask over me and wheel me past the triage bays and right into the ward, and I can still feel people’s eyes on me and their apprehension enveloping me as I am wheeled away. I’m torn between wanting to reassure them I don’t have SARS or something and wanting to say “I can’t help it, stop staring at me!”
But can I really blame them?
When my cough is dry, it is a hoarse bark, the kind of nail-splitting sound that ricochets off of walls and echoes obtrusively through quiet corridors. That cough is the one people remember most. It is the cough nurses hear long before they come through the ER doors and actually see me, the cough that makes hospital roommates discretely ask for a room transfer, the cough whose grating tenor disturbs family members visiting loved ones several rooms away. It is the cough that makes me excuse myself from my writing workshops and wander through deserted hallways until I find a place far enough away to absorb its sound. It is an almost shameful fame I have acquired by proxy of this cough of mine because I do not have the power to change what is so obviously uncomfortable for other people. I do not like that feeling.
So believe me, non-coughers of the world, people like me try to hold it in. We try to stifle it until we can duck into a bathroom, we make sure our mouths are covered, we are just as put out by the constant hacking and the rib-aching choking. We don’t mean to interrupt or irritate you, and we certainly don’t mean to be such a distraction. Coughing is our survival mechanism, the process we need to move the gunk in our lungs around, so while we hate it and it often hurts and we cannot help it, we also know we need to do it.
Thank you for the cups of water, for the smiles of understanding, for not moving your seat or shooting me a look. I promise I’ll try to keep it down, okay?