You Mean, You Don’t Like Spending a Week in Bed?

August 17, 2006 at 11:10 am (Uncategorized)

We recently had a weird turn of events. Jay and I were both sick, and he got a nastier version of the illness than I did. It almost made me feel like I was slacking.

I’ll spare you the details of our family’s bout with the stomach flu. The broad brushstrokes of the week of fun, though, involved Jay, laying flat on his back, groaning every few minutes, refusing to eat or drink, and spending a whole lot of time in the bathroom. I, on the other hand, was only flat on my back for a couple of days, did much less groaning, and was able to wander a good twenty feet from the toilet.

At first I didn’t know what to make of this strange reversal. I’m the one without much of an immune system, so what the heck was going on? My initial inclination was to chalk it up to Jay’s Y chromosome. Before I go any further, let me assure you that I truly do love the male half of our species, particularly the cute fellow who became my husband. But, as any woman can tell you, men are, for lack of any better word, wimps. The future of the human race would be pretty dark if it were up to men to labor and bear children. A paper cut lays most of them low. Head colds, flus, and other minor illnesses are typically met with much teeth-gnashing, laying-a-bed, complaining, and proclaiming, “I’m not sure I’m gonna make it. My fever’s up to 98.9. You’d better call the ambulance.”

Imagine my surprise, then, to realize that Jay truly was sicker than I was. It wasn’t just that he was griping more than me; his fever was actually higher, his symptoms worse, his trips to the bathroom more frequent. Oops.

In defense of my title as the “Woman Who Catches the Worst Version of Any Illness,” I must say that I was pretty darn sick, too. But here’s what was odd: I didn’t much mind being stuck in bed with a rumbling stomach and full body aches. It’s not that I was happy to be falling behind in my work, getting out of shape (yet again), and becoming exhausted by my toddler’s antics. It’s just that the whole process felt so familiar that it was hard to be grumpy about it. In the past months, I had been forced to spend three weeks in bed with pneumonia; two days after I was up and about, I got in a car accident, and was staring at the ceiling again as I recovered. The few weeks of relative routine and good health between the worst of the car crash injuries and the stomach flu were the anomaly.

Finally, it occurred to me what was going on as Jay tossed and turned next to me one evening. “I get it,” I told him. “When you’re sick it’s kind of like amateur night at the comedy club.” Gauging by the look he shot me, the analogy wasn’t as clear to him as it was to me. “What I mean is,” I said, and then I went on to explain that I had become awfully good at being sick. The fevers and aches of a flu are pretty much common manifestations of sarcoidosis for me. Emergency rooms and hospitalizations aren’t that exciting anymore. I’m confident I could rig up my own IV, administer all the right physical exams, and order the proper lab tests. I’m thoroughly accustomed to catching everything that comes my way. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised when I learn of a bug that I haven’t contracted (yet).

This normalization of illness is actually pretty depressing, especially when you consider that you can’t translate it into a marketable profession. People who have normalized working fourteen hours a day end up doing fairly well for themselves in business or law; dare devils who learn to channel their adrenaline rushes into professional mountain biking can carve out a career. Sickies, however, just get a slightly superior feeling when their loved ones are ill — and then have to berate themselves for that high and mighty feeling.

There are people, though, who cling to their status of Most Sick. In a world of winner-take-all, what else are they supposed to do when they’re hooked up to oxygen, confined to bed, and feeling lousy all day, every day? When I attended that sarcoidosis conference last year, I met some fellow patients who were truly extremely ill. But they didn’t seem all that bothered by it. In fact, I almost got the sense that they were a little proud of being the most sick of the very sick. I had a lot of conversations where people would catalogue every organ the sarcoidosis had invaded with a twinge of triumph. It was as if they had a successful – but abusive – spouse that they couldn’t quite let go of: “Well, he beats me, but he’s running for governor.”

Here’s the rub. I was doing the same kind of invalid one-upmanship with Jay. I didn’t say it, but I’m sure my entire being was conveying the message of, “Oh, you think you have it bad with your week-long diarrhea. Well, how do you think I feel with my heart condition and my lung condition and my horrible, awful autoimmune disease?” Once I sensed what I was doing, I tried to stop myself in my tracks. Good lord, I don’t want to be the world champion of sarcoidosis. I want to be a kick-ass athlete again, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, a great mother. I don’t want Andrew to look back and think that all his mother could do was stay in bed stoically. Worse, when Drew gets the chicken pox or his tonsils out, I don’t want to stand by his bed and tell him how easy he’s got it compared to me.

When the people in my life talk about their illnesses, they always preface their remarks by saying, “I know this is nothing compared with what you have….” No. And no, no, no. It’s not nothing. Sickness is sickness. It sucks.  That said, my husband is still a lousy patient.

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