Friday, August 17, 2007

An Open Letter to Non-Coughers

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?


Brittney said...

I am so embarrassed when I'm coughing. I try to suppress it the best I can but it doesn't work very well. When I'm up at night I migrate to the kitchen so I don't wake my roommate.

I think I'll print out your post and post it at work. Maybe I won't get the "you really ought to stop smoking" comments.


Anonymous said...

I have the same disease and get the same reactions.

Mary in NY

Never That Easy said...

How insensitive - do people really think that someone would prefer to cough non-stop? Sometimes people's cluelessness amazes me.

Thanks for the commiserating with the whole weight issue... I wish I could just not be bothered by it, but saying "Hello, these drugs are saving your life/helping to ease your pain... perhaps you should be grateful instead of petulant?" to myself still doesn't seem to erase the downsides to being so heavy.

Anonymous said...

The only thing I can say is that sharing a planet with 6 billion other people is tough; people who don't like it should get over themselves, move to whatever small wilderness is left on this planet, and quit reproducing. (tongue-in-cheek, here) A word to all you chronic coughers - I have much more sympathy for you than for the people who are making themselves deaf with their iPods, and therefore have to crank up the volume even more, so that I can recognize that they are listening to the Clash all the way at the other end of the subway car. (And the subways in Boston are metal wheels on metal tracks, so they are not exactly quiet.) That is to say, you can't help a cough, but you do have complete control of the volume on your device.

Kim said...

That had got to be rough. I had a non-physiological cough when I was 11-12, meaning it really was a nervous "tic". Drove people nuts. Went away by itself one day.

But I remember being looked at and I remember feeling as you described.

Anonymous said...

You know, I am totally guilty of being "irritated" by constant coughing. (Sorry, everyone!) But I like to think it's because the underlying issue is my extreme disdain for people who come to work, contagiously sick. Fever, aches, that sort of thing. A chronic illness is a whole different bag. I like to think I'd have a lot more empathy if I knew what was going on, and I knew you weren't contagious and I knew it was "normal." Maybe I give myself too much credit...but this is an eye-opening post for people like me! A good reminder to reserve judgement. :)

Laurie said...

Caroline, you certainly raise a good point: No one (healthy or chronically ill) needs nasty, germy, infectious coughing all around them. I always tell my students that if they are infected with something and are contagious to do us all a favor and stay home! I will gladly accept late work if it means the rest of the room doesn't come down flu, strep, or whatever charming infections circulate through the dorms...

Genevieve said...

I was so blessed the day I stumbled on your blog. I didn't feel like a misfit anymore. I cough and they run or they look at me like I have bird flu. I drive my friends and family nuts with this bark. Who needs a watch dog? lol It's been a rough journey but grrl, you described my life to a perfect T.


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