I have been sick for several days. It began last Wednesday, on the first day of my period, when I thought my body was going to reject my uterus like it rejected every dose of ibuprofen I attempted to swallow to quell the agonizing pain. Thursday, in the wake of this suffering, I awoke with a migraine--the kind that creates so much pressure in my skull that my tear ducts squeeze a steady stream of liquid down my cheeks all day. Friday morning, the headache lingered and I noticed a tickle in my throat. By Friday afternoon, I was coughing violently and my temperature had begun to rise. Over the course of the next five days, I fought a fever, cough, headaches, and a dense web of mucus in my upper lungs.
While I was sick, I laid in bed. I drank lots of water. I took slow careful breaths to regulate my temperature and exercise my spastic, flooded lungs. To attempt anything more would send me into a breathless, fevered haze. As I lay there, wondering how I could have prevented this misfortune, I tried to remember the last time I had been so unwell... six years ago, maybe seven. I was stricken with "cedar fever," or the Central Texas phenomenon of winter seasonal allergies. I'd experienced four months of pneumonia-like symptoms--violent cough, lungs full of hot, bubbling muck that seemed to have no end. That was one of the first times in my life that my body did not simply heal. It was a wake-up call. This week has been one, too.
I have not had reliable health insurance in my adult life until this past year. As a result of living without health insurance for so long, I have developed a neurotic, guilt-ridden anxiety around the prospect of illness; this anxiety is coupled with a stoic sense of responsibility for my own health and well-being. I see my illness as a moral failing. Perhaps the roots of this go deeper than I realize. The brand of Christianity in which I was raised has wound several stubborn knots into the webbing of my mind. This could be one of them. I won't pretend to know the reason for this thinking, but I would like to learn to let this fear and shame of illness go. I try to tell myself I have insurance now, I will be cared for, but there is a sense of doom and wretchedness that lingers.
Long-time readers may remember from the first year of this blog that I wrote a post about a plantar wart that I'd discovered on the ball of my foot. It was the most popular post on this site for a long time. Plantar warts are common and notoriously difficult to heal; I suspect many people found DGY looking for information about how to heal their warts. As the popularity of that post grew, so did my fear and shame about my plantar wart. Eventually, I deleted the post. I wish I hadn't. It was vulnerable and honest. It generated a lot of traffic.
The plantar wart on my foot sprouted when I was 19. I found out what it was when I was 24, when it had grown so much and become so painful that it could no longer be ignored. Shortly after I had identified the source, a few more warts sprouted on my foot. Then a few more on my hand. Eventually, I was walking with a carefully controlled limp, and four of the five fingers on my left hand were afflicted with painful flat warts under and around my fingernails. I tried to be proactive; I used drug store freeze kits and all the natural remedies I could find. In spite of the fact that I had no insurance, I visited three different dermatologists. All were impotent. Nothing worked. My existing warts continued to grow and, occasionally, I would find the beginnings of a new one just under the skin. The warts were hideous, and torturous, and impossible to hide.
I felt so helpless, and so wretched. Despite robust health, I was diseased. The dissonance of that was painful. My mind constantly sought to resolve it. I became convinced that I had done something to deserve the warts, that I was responsible for my disfigurement, and that, if I could only get my life right, the warts would heal. I tried to live better. I tried to be good. I tried to earn my way to perfect health. It didn't work.
Defeated, soul and body, by the continuing growth of the warts on my fingers, in April of this year, I decided to seek help once again. With insurance card in hand, I found a confident, ambitious young doctor who was unfazed by my condition and who trusted me to endure the profound, prolonged discomfort of the treatments he proposed. We set about our task. I returned to his office every few weeks and suffered through his treatments. The process was agony, not just in the way the dying warts sent pulses of slicing pain pinging up and down the left side of my body, but also in the way that a decade of irrational shame and guilt was agitated and released. At first, I questioned whether the results were worth the trouble. But my doctor remained optimistic and, after several weeks of treatment, my skin began to heal more rapidly. The afflicted spots turned purple, and the growths began to shrink. After a few months, I was walking without discomfort, and my fingers looked nearly normal. In October of this year, my doctor pronounced me healed.
The ten-year period during which I watched my body let itself be mangled by a virus that, for many, would cause nothing more than an ephemeral blemish, was transformative in many ways. In my desire to live healthfully, I learned that I don't need to be in perfect health to live well. In having no choice but to live and work and seek relationships despite my conspicuous flaws, I learned that I don't need to look perfect to be worthy of love and respect. Perhaps most importantly, in my efforts to kickstart my immune system, I learned that I am not in control of my body. I cannot will it to be healthy. I cannot force it to do right.
Now that I have health insurance, I can get help when I my body fails me, and that is a tremendous comfort and relief. (Truly, the difference in my quality of life with health insurance versus without is staggering. Say what you will about Obamacare, but if you don't think everyone deserves to have healthcare, you need to fuck off to a quiet place and reconsider.) However, I realized this week while I was suffering in bed, despite the knowledge that no amount of healthy living will guarantee my health and no amount of will can make my body heal, I still struggle with a sense of guilt for my own illness, a sense that I deserve it, a sense that it was earned.