Monday, November 27, 2006

As Good as It Gets? Thank You Very Much

The Wedneday night before Thanksgiving, I collapsed on the couch just in time to watch “Top Chef” with my husband. I had the day off and spent most of it preparing appetizers for the next day’s feast—in between bouts of coughing, wheezing, and assorted aches and pains. For weeks now I’ve been battling what I refer to as a “high-functioning plague,” a respiratory infection that has lodged itself in my lungs and won’t let go. While it makes breathing difficult and congestion constant, I am usually still able to go about my daily activities and am not confined to bed. I feel sick, but it is a functional sick, so it is okay.

During the commercial breaks, my husband and I chatted a bit about our upcoming few weeks. I mentioned needing to schedule a test I’d had to cancel earlier this fall, and the conversation eventually drifted towards an inevitable topic with us these days: maintaining stability. It’s been 10 months since I’ve had a seriously acute respiratory event and needed to be hospitalized, the longest stretch I’ve had in over a decade. I am so conditioned to expect critical illness that sometimes I can’t even believe it. I’ve had to juggle several other conditions, but they are more life-altering than life-threatening.

Three years ago, I spent the entire week of Thanksgiving in the hospital. I spent Christmas Eve of that year being transported by ambulance from my parents’ hometown hospital to my Boston hospital, one Christmas out of the past five I have spent in the hospital in recent years. Holidays haven’t always been especially festive for me.

But here it was, the night before Thanksgiving. My appetizers were finally ready, my condo was scrubbed clean, one of my favorite shows was on, and I wasn’t anywhere near the hospital. The holidays were indeed making a comeback.

As the night progressed, my symptoms worsened. I turned pale, got clammy and sweaty, and the exhaustion in my arms and legs was overwhelming. This was a nightly occurrence, as was the coughing jag that followed. We barely noticed it, only pausing to turn the volume on the television up more so we could still hear it above all my racket.

“It’s not great, but it’s a lot better than the past few years. I’m not healthy, but I am stable,” I said to John.

“It might just be as good as it gets. And you know what? I’ll take it.”

“Me too,” he said. “It’s more than good enough for me.

And when we sat down to dinner the next day with our family—including my father, who only a few months ago underwent heart surgery, my mother, whose joints would pay for her meal preparations for days to come but whose smile didn’t show that, and my niece, a healthy and happy two-year-old—we knew that while stable never means perfect, we’ll gratefully and thankfully take it for all of us.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Invincibility and Illness

One evening last week, I noticed a girl doing something I would never do on that particular stretch of urban street: walking alone in the dark. Granted, it wasn't extremely late and there were lots of cars and buses on the street. But it was a poorly lit section of road in a pretty tough area—one where a gang of children (children!), ages 10-14, had nearly stabbed a man to death around 9pm just a few weeks ago—and with lots of dark alleys and shadowy hills, it wasn’t exactly a welcoming area once the sun went down.

I could tell she was a college student: she looked about 18, she was wearing a sweatshirt with the insignia of a university just a few blocks away, she had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and like many of the students I see on my campus, she had iPod headphones in her ears and Ugg boots on her feet.

Beyond these telling details, there was something else that told me she was in college: her air of invincibility. She strolled down that dodgy, dangerous street confidently. I admired her for this, but I also worried about her on account of this.

I think it’s an almost universal experience, that sense of invincibility and fearlessness so common during the college years. We’re insistent that we can work hard and play hard; we take challenging courses as we balance campus parties and social events. We stagger home from bars late at night, usually without worrying about if this is safe. We pull all-nighters to cram for finals without considering what this does to our bodies. We eat unbalanced meals at ungodly hours, we think coffee is an equal substitute for rest, and we think because we are young, we can get away with it.

In college, I may just have been foolish enough to walk alone in a city at night. In fact, I know I did this on more than one occasion, buoyed by the false notion that because I was in a “good” area that guaranteed nothing bad could happen. But for me, this air of invincibility was even more pronounced when it came to my health. In addition to the typical age-related tendency towards taking risks, I had to contend with my innate response to the interruptions of chronic illness—the harder it pushed me, the harder I pushed back.

I over-extended myself largely to prove that I could do whatever I wanted despite being sick. I took on too many extra-curricular activities, I spent far too many nights at the newspaper till 6 am, I hated to turn down plans with friends. Each time I went into the hospital, I came out of it with an even more relentless attitude towards taking on too much. Did I ever really think taking such risks with my health would work out favorably for me? Did I ever really believe that none of this would catch up with me in the end?

Of course I didn’t. But that didn’t stop me in those days.

My belief in my own invincibility is much more muted these days. Now I am the one reminding my young students not to roam the city streets alone. Between my vigilant attention to local news and surging violence and my evolving realization that none of us are untouchable when it comes to taking risks, I’d sooner spend my last few dollars on a cab then put myself in a potentially dangerous situation that is both completely predictable and avoidable. I am not ruled by fear, but I think about safety much more than I did when I was in college.

In terms of my health, the gradual progression of my conditions has forced me to abandon the notion that the choices I make don’t have consequences. I spend far more time and energy trying to prevent symptoms from worsening and trying to maintain a balance between what I want and what my body needs than I do in trying to “strike back” at illness or prove that it can’t stop me.

Part of this transformation is simply the maturation process all young adults go through, and part of it can be attributed to the fact that at some point, we get too sick to be able to pretend we’re otherwise any longer. For me, this all happened at the same time.

I watched the young girl disappear into the shadows as my bus pulled away from her somewhat wistfully. Sometimes I miss that invincibility, that ability to take such risks without worrying about the consequences—but such nostalgia is fleeting. I may not take the same kind of risks, but I don't pay the same consequences either.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rainy Day Reflections

I’ve been too busy lately to do a lot of things. Writing deadlines to meet, student essays to comment on, fellowship submissions due and a nasty respiratory infection all converging during the same week left me feeling run down and out of touch with the people and the things I care about.

The tighter my chest got, the more achy my leg muscles became, and more I realized how long it had been since I had seen my friends, the more I knew I needed to make some changes:

Step 1: I started a course of very strong antibiotics and resigned myself to using my nebulizer a lot more often than normal.

Step 2: I saw my friends not once but twice on Saturday—and luckily, I had a husband who was willing to chauffeur me around since I was too exhausted to get there on my own. Catching up with some of the girls was wonderful—we keep in touch via e-mails and voice mails, but seeing them in person and having time to really talk was just what we all needed, I think.

Step 3: I read the whole Sunday paper today, something I haven’t had the luxury of doing in months. It reminded me that I was allowed to take some time to relax, that there is a state of being between overdrive and bedridden.

And then something happened that made me even more refreshed and energized. I was at Sunday Mass when they announced they were offering the Anointing of the Sick following the service. I’d been anointed before when I was critically ill, but it occurred to me that I was asking a lot of my body right now and would be asking even more of it in the near future and I could stand to be anointed.

As the priest said the prayers of healing and hope, I couldn’t help noticing the other people who formed the circle around him. There were about 20 of us in total, and together we spanned several decades, several ethnicities, and inevitably, many different kinds of illnesses. Yet I couldn’t tell from looking at any of them what was wrong—and that was exactly what I needed.

Our circle reminded in a very real and immediate way that I am not alone, that every day there are people all around me who must also find ways to balance all the forces in their lives in addition to illnesses. Their challenges might not be visible to the outside eye, but they are still there. After weeks of feeling isolated by my infection and exhaustion and my workload, it was a relief to feel a sense of community.

As I listened to the priest’s words, it hit me that there are many definitions of the word “healing.” I wasn’t looking for my conditions to be healed, nor, I realized, did I need them to be. Healing can also mean returning to a place of hope and faith—in our own bodies, in the ones we love, in the unseen community that supports us when we don’t even realize it, and in whatever form of spirituality or reflection we subscribe to.

Turned out to be the most productive Sunday I’ve had in a long time.
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