I crash hard on New Year’s Eve.
Bad timing, really. Since I have 50 of my closest friends in my house, ringing in the new year.
I have what I think is a bad case of allergies mixed with jet lag. Since I’ve been in three different time zones on and off over the past few weeks, traveling out, traveling back.
My circadian rhythm has been doing the electric slide.
So I’m dizzy, exhausted, and losing my voice. But I don’t immediately suspect sickness.
But I’m crashing hard. I fight it for hours, like a little kid who doesn’t want to go to bed and miss all the fun the rest of his family is having downstairs. But I’m not well. I’m not really up to partying and certainly not up to hosting — at least not hosting and actually enjoying it.
So I finally tell my husband Justin, who is co-hosting the party with me, that I’m gonna call it quits. I’m going up to bed.
And surprising me, my girlfriend Ro volunteers to come up to bed with me. After I take a bunch of meds and change into pajamas, they both tuck me into bed, but when he leaves to tend to the other guests, she stays.
Justin’s put The Aristocats on the bedroom TV. Because it’s a movie I’ve seen a million times, so hopefully it’ll lull me to sleep.
But Ro has never seen it before. I do a brief, scattered synopsis of the Disney film in my scratchy voice, riddled with laryngitis.
I tell her about Thomas O’Malley, O’Malley the alley cat. Voiced by the same dude who voiced Balloo. Freewheeling and irresistible to the female feline lead, who is voiced by one of the Gabor sisters. Eva, the one who didn’t get arrested for hitting a cop.
And I explain the scheming machinations of the butler, who tragically doesn’t understand the actual intentions of his employer will actually benefit him if he just stops meddling for two seconds.
We can’t really hear the sound, but that’s fine. Because in the low hum, we start to talk about things. What’s been bothering us existentially. There’s a lot of overlap as always between her damage and mine. It’s part of what I love about her.
I find myself becoming more and more nihilistic as we talk. It should be depressing — and maybe to a casual listener, someone who had just tuned into it, our conversation would be. But instead, for me, it feels freeing. Just getting it out there. Being real. About the good and the bad. But especially the bad.
It occurs to me as we talk that maybe I don’t do enough of that. I get too wrapped up in getting things done. Moving forward.
Maybe it’s important to honor your disappointments.
We talk for a long time. And strangely, I neither totally lose my voice nor fall asleep.
She leaves first. “I’m turning into a pumpkin,” she says.
I walk her downstairs. Our other guests are all leaving. Somehow I’m still up.
My husband is caffeinated and is up for quite a while after everyone’s gone home. And I’m sitting there next to him. My body is full of all sorts of things that should make me sleep: Benadryl, melatonin, cough medicine, the cocktails I drank earlier before realizing I wasn’t doing so hot.
And yet I’m awake. Weird.
Later when we go back up to the bedroom, I watch him fall asleep before me. And I spend quite a while lying there in the dark, alone with my own thoughts.
The Person Who Will Bring Me Ginger Ale When I Feel Dead
The next morning, I wake up with a nasty shock: The scratchy zombie voice is gone, and now I’ve completely lost the ability to speak. Nothing comes out.
And I didn’t even get anything from Ursula the sea witch in return, I joke bitterly as I write about it.
Over the next few days, it becomes more and more apparent that this is not jet lag or bad allergies. I’m sick. Very, very sick.
I’m coughing all the time. My whole sense of balance is out of whack. Sleep is nearly impossible. The best I can do is nap. Sometimes at the moment when I’m falling asleep, I wake up yelling, like I’ve caught myself startled as I’m falling out of a tree. When I do manage to get to sleep, it’s short lived. I wake myself up coughing all the time.
Justin goes to the store. Comes home with a load of over-the-counter drugs. Ginger ale. A dozen cans of soup.
He is the “Person Who Will Bring Me Ginger Ale When I Feel Dead.” I tell this to my girlfriend when she texts to check in on me. She agrees. Her husband is similar. We agree that’s arguably the biggest benefit of living with a romantic partner: Sick supply delivery service.
She also tells me that she has come down with a nasty case of allergies. So does Justin. Uh oh.
That’s how mine felt when it started, too.
I feel miserable and guilty when Justin’s illness blooms into a full-blown respiratory infection over the next few days. Thankfully, Ro’s doesn’t (whew); she gets to just have bad allergies. No fun but not nearly as awful as what’s happening at my house.
But at least Justin doesn’t have the balance problems I’m having. He seems to be able to sleep a lot better. Not as well as he usually does but nothing like the horror show I’ve become.
I adapt. I sleep from 8 am to 11 am one day. From 10 pm to 3 am the next. From 9:30 pm to 2 am on the third day.
The good news is that writer brain is cooperating with me. So vacation has been very mentally refreshing, even if I’m physically unwell. Essentially what I keep doing is going to bed with Justin and then when I wake up sick in the night when my medicine doses wear off, I go write and do what I need to do for the day. The bare minimum anyway. And then after he gets up for work about 6:30 am or so, then I can maybe take a nap or something. Try to anyway.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
I wait until he leaves so that my coughing doesn’t keep him up. He says I don’t have to do that, but I’d feel bad if I screwed up his sleep.
Ideally, I’d be taking sick days. But I can’t do that. I don’t really have them, not the way I did when I was working a regular 9 to 5 gig. And I just got back from vacation. I had planned to hit the ground running at top speed immediately upon returning to work.
But it’s all I can do to have the energy to sit and write for a few hours between when I wake up sick and Justin gets up for work.
It’s the self-care compromise I work out. Doing the minimum that needs to be done, trying to sleep as much as I can, and forgiving myself for not kicking ass right away.
I eat Indian food to clear my sinuses. It helps a little. Makes me wonder why I’ve never thought to try this before.
Urgent Care and John Waters
I keep getting worse. On the fourth day, I end up at urgent care with a handful of alarming new symptoms. I’m losing my hearing. Doctor examines me. Says my left ear is terribly infected. Hears a slight wheeze on my lungs that sounds to her like early bronchitis. My right eye is all messed up. Sinuses are exquisitely tender.
Basically, everything from the shoulders up is infected. Lovely.
She prescribes me eyedrops, antibiotics, and nasal steroids. I gravely pull out a piece of scrap paper (the back of an envelope) and start to plan a dosing schedule. I need to take this one medicine with food but never take it with this other medicine. This other prescription needs to be taken every 3 hours. Round the clock? I wonder. I study the dosing instructions. Do some research.
This next one will make me drowsy. This one will make me wired. One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. Sure, sure.
I text Ro to let her know all of the news. She’s gone to Baltimore for the weekend to see the John Waters exhibit, so she’s supportive but busy. Once I realize she has plans, I try not to monopolize her. I tell her to have a good time.
It’s a slow slog over the next few days. Justin buys us both separate Purell bottles. We maintain our distance so he doesn’t get any worse. Feeling like a leper, I begin to dutifully sanitize myself constantly.
I fall asleep at weird hours of the day with menthol cough drops in my cheek. I begin to dream faster and faster. Justin says this means I’m losing out on REM. Becoming more sleep deprived.
In one dream, I’m sneaking into large buffets and eating all of their food. Gorging myself. It’s so good! In real life, I start to crunch my teeth down, munch on the dream food with my jaws… which means I start chewing my cough drops. The feel of the shards against my tongue wakes me up.
Another time I pass out on the couch in mid-sentence. I sleep for two hours until my cat crawls on my lap and meows loudly in my face, demanding to be fed. Or pet. Or something. I’m too mad to check in.
Ro returns from Baltimore, bearing stories. I’ve seen some of the trip on Facebook as she and other friends have posted photographs. But she makes a special point to text me a long string of feedback evaluation forms from “art critics” that are absurdly banal and misguided:
Question: “What did you like about it?”
Answer: “that she did it”
Wow. Such cutting-edge opinions!
It’s kind of ridiculous, Ro writes. People who are a big deal in the art world, but some people can only come up with “Sorry I don’t think I can ‘flip’ this.”
Lmao, I agree, after looking over a few. People have the worst opinions. Ah. I love it.
And what’s she’s bringing me, well, it’s a different kind of soup. A different kind of ginger ale. A different way of supporting a sick partner.
The days, and then weeks, wind on.
I finish my prescribed medicine. Most of the illness vanishes, although a trace lingers. This is getting kind of awkward and frankly a little silly.
But Ro takes me out to dinner. I’m low energy, but she’s understanding about it all. And it’s really nice to catch up.
There’s Nothing Better Than Getting Well After You’ve Been Sick For a While
As I type this essay, I am still coughing a little. But far less. And far less urgently.
The past few days, I have fallen asleep and stayed asleep for eight hours at a time. Miracle of miracles.
I’m still putting off acts of physical exertion that I normally do when I’m healthy. I haven’t gone out and walked around for fun in quite a while. Which is a bummer because I love walks. But I’m doing chores. Cooking. And I am slowly moving away from just doing the bare minimum.
Am I all better? No.
But I’ve turned the corner.
And when you start to get better, it’s almost worth getting sick in the first place because of that rush you get when you start not feeling like you’re going to die any minute.