I’m spending the day in the hospital, waiting for someone I love to get out of a long surgery. I came prepared—laptop, headphones, research I should be doing, and of course, several glossy magazines. (What can I say? Distraction is the best antidote for worry). I noticed a definite theme running through all of the magazines—this is the season for stress. There were tips on stress-free shopping, stress-free entertaining, stress-free family functions, and stress-free travel.
It made me think of a recent post I wrote about stress and illness and the tenuous relationship between the two.
Just in case I haven’t already hit you over the head with it (let’s be serious, if you’ve read the other post, you know my position), I believe in the distinction between stress causing illness and stress exacerbating illness. As in, stress did not cause the genetic respiratory condition responsible for so many hospitalizations—my suspect genes did. As in, stress did not make me cough for 17 hours straight and go into respiratory failure, but 20+ years of the wrong treatment for the wrong disease certainly contributed.
Did stress play a role in making the infections and recovery worse? Sure it did. Stress takes energy away from recovery. I’ve seen stress make diabetic blood sugars skyrocket, I’ve seen stress make arthritic joints ache with more severity, I know this relationship is a strong one.
As firmly entrenched in my position as I am, my husband said something the other night that gave me pause. In speaking with someone else about my health, he mentioned that I was much more stable the past few years because of the lifestyle changes I’ve made. “Your schedule in college would have made the healthiest person run down and sick,” he said.
He had a point. In college I worked anywhere between 30-40 hours a week on the campus newspaper (usually from 5pm till the middle of the night), got up early to fit in five courses a semester, interned another 15-20 hours a week, and did lots of other random stuff. I was either running around on 3 hrs of sleep and heavily over-committed, or I was an inpatient.
For three years now, I’ve proudly asserted that the reason I am in the hospital less often and for shorter periods of time is because I finally have the right diagnoses for several of my health problems. I’m getting the right kind of preventative treatment (daily chest PT), I’m on the right medicines, I’m seeing a doctor who specializes in what I have. I’ve stopped the vicious cycle, and better understand how to cater to my persnickety lungs and deficient immune system. I firmly believe if I hadn’t gotten this diagnosis and wasn’t doing all these things, I’d still be making trips to the ICU. It surprised me that my husband hadn’t factored this into his conversation. To me, it is all the difference in the world.
And yet, I have made a lot of lifestyle changes. I don’t survive on three hours of sleep per night (adrenal failure makes that one pretty impossible). I am not so desperate to prove I am not sick by taking on too much. I’ve made sacrifices and compromises both financially and professionally to ensure I am not in that vicious cycle again. I’m trying to set myself up now for a future that while promising, is not as certain as the present.
So there is some truth to what he said, certainly. I’m not sure I would have made those changes, would have matured in the same way, if I hadn’t had the diagnostic breakthroughs. But I also believe 100 percent that if I were still living my life the way I used to, I would be sicker. I’d be more run down so infections would hit me even harder. This is not wisdom or enlightenment so much as it is common sense, and I think it applies to anyone, regardless of health status.
(And yet if I were to run into a certain doctor from my past today, the tiniest part of me would want to tell him: It’s the holiday season. My grades are due in two days, and two huge freelance projects were due this week. I just sold one house and bought another (its own unique brand of home inspection-acquired stress) and my life is half-packed, the boxes stacked and ready to move three days before Christmas (good timing, much?). My computer died in the midst of the major deadlines, I’ve had the plague since sometime in July, and someone I love is having invasive surgery as I type. If I were to pick a stressful couple of weeks, it would be these.
And yet I am breathing just fine, thank you. Stress, huh.)
But of course I wouldn’t say it. I would nod a hello and go on my way, my indignance tempered by gratitude that at least I now know what’s wrong, and I know what choices I should make to keep me well.