Demons: Illness, real and imagined

I don’t know if this is a universal thing for people who have experienced life-threatening illness, but I am a crazy hypochondriac. Case in point: a few days ago, I cancelled plans for the next morning because I was deeply convinced that I would get the norovirus that night. What was my basis, you ask? Mostly I was just tired, but I had a sense of generalized foreboding I couldn’t shake. The nervousness that I’m going to be sick ties my stomach in knots and exhausts me, and then I’ve got even more symptoms. Real or imagined? You tell me.

The last time I was in the hospital was about two years ago, when I had the norovirus–it was the same night that my sister-in-law had her first serious brush with death from the cancer that would kill her a few months later. I had no idea what to do with my reactions to the situation. We’d never been close, and with her designer handbags and catered toddler birthday parties, she reminded me strongly of the girls who’d terrorized me all through middle school. But she was beloved by my brother and his two girls. Besides which, she’d originally been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and it was its cousin, ulcerative colitis, that had nearly killed me in 2005, so beyond my concern for her, my brother, and the girls, I was drawn to the details of her illness in that way that only the traumatized can be. If I hadn’t had my colon removed, it’s all too likely that my story could have gone the same way.

So when the heartbreaking email came from my brother describing her swift decline, I couldn’t really process my emotions–the only option seemed to be to hang out with my Old-Fashioned Bestie and get fatty takeout and watch a Disney movie. If I relied on the coping strategies of my childhood, these grown-up demons wouldn’t have a chance, right? I had my first (and, to date, only) steak and cheese sub and we watched Tangled (sucked).

Later that evening, we got another email from my brother–my sister-in-law had been put on a ventilator, and I assumed that she would die that night. Soon after, I started getting stabbing pains in my gut, but I assumed they were psychosomatic, that my fear and sadness had pushed their way from my mind into the site of trauma itself, the former stomping grounds of my dear departed colon. I was almost relieved when I started throwing up, because at least this meant I wasn’t making it all up.

Once I got to the hospital, though, I wasn’t relieved anymore. The thing I’d forgotten about being sick, like seriously, hospital-admitted sick, is how much I feel personally (even morally) responsible for the way that my body is failing to do what it’s supposed to. Not only do I have this crazy cyborg organ that ER nurses have never heard of (a j-pouch instead of a colon), but my veins are so small and flat that every time I have to get an IV they have to send the special pro phlebotomist in to administer it. And when I am dehydrated on top of that, forget it. I find myself apologizing again and again to everyone there: the nurses, for having to deal with my recalcitrant veins, my partner for how worried I can see she is, my students for missing scheduled appointments, my best friend for foisting my daughter on her. And so on.

Hyper-vigilance is one of the symptoms of PTSD, and it’s the one I’ve always been loath to let go of. A few years ago, I was doing a regular meditation practice where you go through your body and say a series of statements/affirmations/whatever for each chakra. For the first chakra, the one at your feet, one of the statements was “the world is a safe place.” And from the beginning, I felt the need to call bullshit on that one. It seemed frankly delusional. I’d never wanted for food or a roof over my head or been threatened with murder–my life was easier than that of many people the world over, and even I knew better than to think the world was safe. Best to prepare, if you can.

But here’s the funny thing. I can’t really do anything to prepare for being sick beyond what I’ve already done. Based on the experience I’ve just described, I know that if I do have to be hospitalized for some reason, I have a series of clearly delineated steps I can take to deal with it: we’ve got people who can take my daughter at a moment’s notice; I have total faith that my partner will be at my side and can show up in a crisis; I live in a city with the greatest hospital system in the US, and I’m lucky enough to have decent health insurance. And maybe this is what “the world is a safe place” really means–not that I’m protected from pain and even death, but that there are tools out there that will help me through those experiences. A community, an action plan in case of emergency–connections that ensure that my terror will be met with love.

They didn’t let me leave the hospital until well after my symptoms had resolved (something I didn’t think still happened under neoliberal health care, but whaddaya know), and my final day at MGH was wretchedly boring. I didn’t have anything to read or do, and being sick always kicks my superego into high gear, so I hate watching TV. The friends who came to see me were those with their own evidence that the world is none too safe, and one of them gave me the best massage I’ve ever had. I’d been on full quarantine up to that point, and this experience of basic human contact brought me back to earth. I might not be safe, but I’d always be cared for.