This past weekend, I opened up my office window and let the warm air fill the stuffy room. It was a gorgeous day where the sun was high and warm but the breeze kept the heat from being oppressive. Later, when we took a break to walk the dogs around a nearby pond and I blended in with the cyclists and joggers and hikers, I even felt healthy.
(Okay, so maybe I coughed up half a lung when we got home, but productive coughs are a good thing in my world.)
More than that, I felt so far removed from the long, hard winter (well, fall, winter, and most of spring) I’d left behind me. In my consciousness those months were wrapped together underneath a disorienting haze, in sharp contrast to the bright sunlight, blue sky, and green grass before me. Nothing about them was distinguishable, and I preferred the abstraction of it. It proved to me there was enough distance to solidify the change I felt: the change in seasons, the change in infection level, the change in medication protocol that, while challenging, is definitely worth it.
This morning I awoke to chilly temperatures, a gray sky, and intermittent rain. Not a big deal, and certainly conducive to working through a heap of writing and editing.
But for one brief moment, as I kicked water off my sneakers and unzipped my sweatshirt, I suddenly had a very vivid image of the winter. One specific day in winter, one that stood out again in my mind just as definitively as the bright sunshine that lit up my office just days before, and one that is emblematic of the whole seven month period:
It was a Thursday. I remember watching the snowfall total in the morning and praying, praying classes would be cancelled because I felt terrible but I’d already cancelled them the day before due to illness. I knew I couldn’t scrape by managing them online again. My peak flow readings were so far into the red zone I wouldn’t even tell my physical therapist what they were (but they’d been like that for days so I’d adjusted to it.)
As the snow gave way to icy, freezing rain that turned the roads from slick to downright treacherous, I knew using our tiny little car wasn’t an option. The walk to the subway station is normally very short, but between the snow, the ice, the heavy bag, and the lack of lung capacity I had from the acute infection, it took me 25 minutes. Getting through class took every remaining ounce of energy (and oxygen, apparently) and what I remember most from when I exited the building was this:
I was stuck. It was now nighttime, and there was no way I could get to the (nearby) subway stop and get home. Not with this bag, this infection, these lungs, this tired body, and not in this frigid slushy mix.
(And my stupid galoshes were leaky. Sure the pattern ones look all cute, but they can’t hack it in New England.)
I needed my nebulizer, I needed air, I needed my briefcase to not weigh so much, and I really needed it to not be snowing/sleeting/raining/icing. I probably needed IV antibiotics too but that particular conversation would happen a few weeks later.
Or, I needed my husband to come and get me, snaking his way through city traffic to take my bag and my hand and somehow get me home.
And of course he did, and of course we made it home, and of course I’d been in situations far more serious than this. But for some reason that night, the commute, the cold, wet feet, the bloody cough, the absurdly heavy bag, the rawness—they all conspired to wear me down in every way.
Maybe it was just the chill in the air today that made me remember how raw I felt that night, or maybe it was the wet feet. Whatever triggered the memory, it was brief and fairly inconsequential, filed away for a blog post later today but otherwise buried underneath morning headlines, client specifications, and e-mails.
So why go through the process of describing an event that ultimately has little impact on me now? (Other than to flex my descriptive writing muscles after hours of more technical writing and research, that is.)
For a project on gender I’m researching the relationship between chronic illness and PTSD. At first, I was looking at the potential emerging link between PTSD in soldiers who have seen combat and the development of chronic illness later in life. But as I dug deeper I found another wrinkle, one that hadn’t even crossed my mind: formerly healthy people who developed PTSD as a result of sudden, life changing (and often excruciating and traumatic) illness. For patients like this who improve and then later relapse, even if it is not as severe a relapse as the initial event, the worsening symptoms can serve as sort of a trigger that brings them back to the horrible moment where everything changed radically, or back to moments of unimaginable physical pain, etc.
(I’m summing a lot of this up and probably not eloquently but hopefully it makes sense.)
It wasn’t a phenomenon I’d heard of before. And clearly my little example of wet feet making me think of a nasty infection and a nasty storm is just that: a little example of the power of memory and of certain details to bring us back to a different place. I’m lucky the place I went to wasn’t bad, just a blip in a crummy winter, something I could use as stand-in for an experience that is not mine. I'm lucky to look back and say,"I'm in a better place."
If any of you out there do have personal experience with this, though, I’d love to hear your insights…