Last week I had a headache every day. Not a small headache, a big nauseating headache with visual disruptions. I have a long history of severe migraines but I also had a pain in my side that made me afraid my internal organs were rotting inside me. Gradually my skin felt more and more like it was burning and pulsing electrically. I went to work every day and maybe complained about my head but I didn’t tell anyone about the pain in my side. I stopped drinking coffee and taking acetaminophen out of fear it was my liver or an ulcer or my pancreas. I hadn’t gone running since the Friday before and I could not bring myself to get back out there. I was painfully tired, going to bed as early as 8 pm only to drag myself up in the morning as if I had been on an all night bender. But I still didn’t tell anyone until Wednesday (which is my Friday).
I was at work for only about an hour, chatting and joking with colleagues, engaged thoroughly in my pain denial when suddenly I was overcome with a fear for my own health and wellbeing that probably should have arrived days earlier. That fear began as electricity in my side and culminated in me shutting my computer, putting on my sunglasses and walking out, only stopping briefly by the desk of my manager with the words, “I’m suddenly not feeling well and I am leaving now.”
I went to an urgent care center nearby and they saw me with very little wait. The walls in the exam room had framed pictures of Dr. House MD, the casts of Scrubs and M*A*S*H, Dr. Spoc, and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. “Where am I?” I asked myself waiting for the doc to see me. When he came in he was perfect. I could see why the walls would be lined with TV doctors. His demeanor put me at ease immediately and you could see that performance of reassuring doctor man was part of his professional ethos. He clearly knew the value of bedside manor in patient care and I wish he could be my GP. I have immense respect for someone who can work in urgent care and maintain that sort of engagement on a personal level with patients. It was the perfect mix of taking my pain seriously and calmly not creating further alarm.
He asked me about my symptoms and I laid out the week for him, the electric feeling, the internal pain, the headaches and visual disruptions. He asked if I had a rash and I said I did not. I had looked at my skin that morning and nothing was there, but when he asked me to pull up my shirt he saw a small spot near my spine and another at the bend in my waist. They were little clumps of blisters.
He asked me if I had ever had the chicken pox. “When I was a kid, very bad actually, I have a scar in my eyelashes.” He asked me if I know what shingles is. I told him that from TV commercials I know it is an old person problem caused by the chicken pox virus. I told him about the line in the John Waters movie, A Dirty Shame, when a stripper on house arrest, whose claim to fame are biggest tits in Baltimore, has her fan mail intercepted by her grandma.
“Mail here for Ursula Udders,” the mailman sings with a stack of fan mail. “Her name is Caprice, and she’s got shingles!” barks her grandma.
Shingles, for those of you who have not seen those commercials or the John Waters film (she does not really have shingles in the film, it is just a mean thing for her grandma to say), is caused by the same chicken pox virus a person had as a child. That virus lives in your spinal nerves for fucking ever just waiting to strike. If it becomes active again, it generally branches out from your spine in a band of blisters a few inches wide across only one side of your body. It is not contagious because it is a virus your body kept special just for you! It is serious and incredibly painful, like electric knitting needles stuck all the way through your body. And apparently it’s not just for oldsters!
At the point when I saw the doctor it was only two small spots of the blisters, but by the next day they had spread and become astoundingly more painful. I actually turned down painkillers the day I was diagnosed and went back the next day in horrendous pain and full of regret for my short sighted tough guy act. I was put on antivirals, steroids, and opioid painkillers. Every time I thought I felt a little better my body would tell me to go fuck myself with another scattering of blisters and ramp up the pain another notch. I now look like I went for a romantic stroll with an octopus who had his arm around my waist, only the octopus is made of poison ivy… and on fire.
So at this point I have not been to the office for over a week.
At first I felt ashamed to tell people I have shingles. Not just explaining to my many lovers that I cannot see them because I have shingles, but even telling the office about it. I don’t know why exactly I felt shame over this, it’s not like I have the clap or explosive diarrhea or something! I just didn’t want to be sick. I felt like a slacker or like I had given in. I felt like a weak, pathetic, imposter.
Even though I didn’t want to talk about it I emailed my managers about what was wrong with me and offered doctors notes if needed. I also offered to work from home, in particular on the special project I’ve been working on. I’m angling for a promotion. My managers have been very supportive and I was grateful for the approval to work from home. But why wouldn’t they want me to work from home!?! DUH! Why did I feel like they were doing me a favor here? The work needed to be done and I actually logged so many at home hours that it amounted to about a days worth of overtime so there was no need for paid sick leave at first (and I STILL felt like a slacker for not going in!). It wasn’t until Tuesday and Wednesday this week that I actually had to admit I couldn’t take it anymore, even from home, and that I needed a real break. I had to give up control and relax or I was not going to get better.
I have never thought of myself as a workaholic, just a person with a good work ethic. I arrive a half hour to an hour early every day, and I have always worked hard and said yes with enthusiasm to any tasks asked of me. I work as much overtime as I can because I care about what I do and because who the fuck am I to say no to a dollar? Sound’s reasonable right? Well if you take on too much and never take a day off and still think you are going to party and thrive you have another think coming.
For some reason I was terrified to ask for a day off. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve ever taken a day off or anything. But this time it felt different, like admitting defeat, and I was afraid that saying so would undermine all the work I’ve put into my special project. I was afraid I would be proving that I was not as valuable as I had tried to make myself.
Please keep in mind no one at work made me feel this way. Not one person, manager, coworker or otherwise has been anything but grateful for my contribution and concerned for my wellbeing since this all started. This is all my own crazy shit. My main project manager responded with a “Oh no! What will I do without you!?” followed by assurances that he would take care of it while I recovered and that he wanted me to get better. SHOCKING! What was I afraid of again?
So what have I learned now that I actually took off and let go for a couple days? I learned that I need to strive for work/life balance and not be so proud of not asking for help. What a dumb-ass thing to be proud of anyway?!
I’m looking forward to getting back to my half marathon training again and working out a better relationship to my career as soon as I am well again. I can’t say I’m a totally changed woman for this experience, but I am going to try harder to be kind to myself and relax a little. None of this is life or death, until it is.