I’ve been sick for the last three weeks. Not the relapse or pending-relapse sick, just sick. And not an iota of a clue what is wrong.
One of those three statements is a lie.
For the small population of folk who knew me in high school and with whom I still maintain some contact, some of the following may ring familiar. For most of those who met me after TG was born, it will not. I’m not sure how much, if at all, I’ve discussed my less-than-stellar high school career with anyone who wasn’t unfortunate enough to be there at the time. I was, in short, a poor student.
I didn’t turn in work, and when I did it tended to be half-assed. “She doesn’t live up to her potential” showed up in reports so often that my mother just came to assume that it would be there, should she bother to look at it in the first place. Even in drama–the one place I marginally excelled–that remark came up year after year (what potential, exactly, my director meant, I’m less sure. Certainly wasn’t acting).
During the last two years–no, that’s not accurate…During the entire span of high school, I was depressed (not something in and of itself particularly surprising in that age range). I was ill, too. The illnesses started in 5th grade. On Thursdays. Pretty much every Thursday for about 12 weeks that spring semester (beginning February-ish), I would report to the nurse’s office before or at the start of lunch, before we would switch classes to my afternoon teacher, Mr. Kern, who was, as I recall, in charge the day’s lessons for social Sciences, science, and math (that may well be incorrect).
I was afraid of Mr. Kern. Nice guy–very demanding. Saw through my bullshit. See, Thursdays were the day I returned from gifted-school, a separate site I attended on Wednesdays. Invariably, I’d forget to do or bring my homework for Thursday, the end result of which was a demerit. Ten demerits equalled detention. I recall only having detention once that year–Mr. Kern had to drive me home because my mother couldn’t get off work and my father was in…Idaho (?)…somewhere of that nature. Possibly he was in California. I don’t remember any more.
So, given that I only had detention once, I must have done my homework occasionally, but I do remember how sternly Mr. Kern would look at me when I didn’t have it. Abject failure in pigtails. Again.
I felt awful.
On those Thursdays in spring of fifth grade, my mother would dutifully come get me and take me to the doctor, though my temperature was seldom above about 99.5 F. In the meantime, I’d wait in the nurse’s office, and my teachers–usually in the order of Ms. Whitaker (morning–language arts), Mr. D or one of the rotating bands of physical education teachers, and then Mr. Kern. Each would glower at me (increasingly as the weeks went on), wondering aloud if there was anything really wrong with me.
I felt awful.
True enough, I was usually hiding from my homeworklessness, but…here’s the rub…each week that occurred, when my mother dutifully took me to the doc-in-the-box, I tested positive for strep throat. And each time I took the 7 or 10 (I don’t recall which) regiment of antibiotics faithfully. And scored a positive the very next time I arrived. They finally shot me up (literally) with long-acting penicillin–stuff was thick enough to leave a scar on my hip at the injection site.
No further Thursdays to the nurse, and, as I recall, no further missed homework on Thursdays.
I felt better.
Somewhere in high school, it happened again. Missed days. Forgotten work. Trips to the doctor. Feeling utterly exhausted all the time. Mono spot and strep tests that rang negative each time, though the glands in my throat remained clearly swollen. Sometimes, I just couldn’t do more than lay on the couch and stare at the dog, who was nonplussed by the whole affair.
After a few months of the “what the hell is wrong” routine, a doc at the navy hospital drew a few vials of blood (for which they had to use a butterfly needle made for kids, my veins were so bad and my blood pressure so low**). The results came back with a very high–I recall him stuttering when he said it–Epstein-Barr Virus titer. He ran the mono spot test again. Still negative. There was talk at the time about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which was the celebrated-diagnosis of the day. Though studies (in about 2003) would indeed correlate the high EBV numbers, negative mono test, and the wandering host of other symptoms I presented with (aches, odd respiratory ailments, headaches, poor sleeping, etc.) with CFS, the syndrome was regarded then, as it still is, as largely psychological. In other words, it’s all in your head, please get over it. For a year or more we went through the same series of tests with the same results.
I was still not doing homework and increasingly wanted nothing more than to NOT be in school. And, I felt awful.
I could still do things–particularly things I enjoyed, like going to concerts or participating in theater. I’d be too exhausted to do anything else after the fact, but I could do them. As a result, I came to the conclusion eventually that it was indeed all in my head and the physical symptoms were a manifestation of the depression I was experiencing, and that I was, as it was widely assumed, making myself sick (or playing sick) in order to get out of dealing with school. And sometimes, that felt true, as I would miss doing something and begin a spiral that would involve–eventually–missing school.
I was choosing to be sick so that I didn’t have to continue to be the abject failure (though I now seldom sported pigtails). Over the past nearly 20 years, I’ve carefully managed stress levels, however, even going so far as to choose a career with built-in vacation times, in order to ensure that I didn’t push myself too hard and make myself sick again.
Now, I want you to look at that again. Simultaneously, I held the belief over the course of 20 years that I had the ability/control to make myself sick (or was faking it to such an astounding degree that I skewed the medical tests) and that I had to take care of myself to prevent it from happening again. And for these twenty years, it’s never occurred to me that those two beliefs might be mutually exclusive.
My work situation changed recently. Since 2007, I’ve slowly given up those built-in down times by shifting my responsibilities away from teaching and toward administration. Even when I worked and planned and did stuff during those breaks (and I did), they felt different. And, as I predicted (while believing myself to be inherently lazy and inclined toward shirking my duties), I don’t take care to take breaks anymore that don’t involve some insane level of activity–physically and mentally. This year has been the worst–I’ve taken to telling myself that I just have to make it until June. June. Just hang in there. Forgive yourself the mistakes. Hang in there. Hang in there. Hang in there.
And then I’d realize there was something else I’d meant to do. What was it?
The illness of the last three weeks feels so much like high school that it scares me. I feel deflated. And when I need to ramp up energy, I can (sometimes), but it means that other things can’t and won’t happen. I’ve been chastising myself for months now about the things I’m forgetting to do, the details I’m missing. For being lazy. Forgetful. In case anyone is counting, yes, the cervical (neck) glands are indeed swollen. Perhaps it’s just the flu.
I’m sort of waiting for Mr. Kern to arrive, demerit board at the ready. Of course, I no longer need him, since I’ve utterly internalized the conversation.
I tried working the steps on the matter of how I feels, and got as far as step one when I realized that I’d never allowed myself to imagine that I was sick. Really sick. Not faking it. Not trying to get out of doing something. I mean, there are things I am currently avoiding, but it’s because I have no energy for them, not because I have a burning desire to argue over what it is I haven’t done. I’m putting the majority of energy into work, so home and me are getting left in the dust–I’ve nothing left. Nothing.
What if I turned the conversation about the 5th grader around? What if she was forgetting her homework because she was sick? She wasn’t necessarily aware that she was sick, but she lacked the energy to complete the task–perhaps even to recall that there was a task. What if she was that sick? That exhausted? And that inclined to assume she was at fault for everything–even being sick. It had to be purposeful. It had to be her in control of the illness–it couldn’t be that she felt awful.
Awful is easier to ignore when engaged in something that one enjoys. Reading is, and always has been, something of a distraction for me. I could feel awful, get lost in a book, and feel marginally less awful for a while.
What if the depression, which was co-morbid in both 5th grade and high school, did not cause the illness, but was caused by it? And made the forgetting worse. And what if it doesn’t matter which was the chicken and which was the egg and which came first? What if it just is?
I was depressed and I felt awful.
I am depressed and I feel awful.
I’m working on the depression and the shame. I think that work has kicked the door open for me to begin to imagine that I didn’t do wrong in high school and in fifth grade. There was a finite amount of energy available to me, and I didn’t know it. I blew through it just trying to keep up with every one else, and I blamed myself for not measuring up. Clearly, I was in control (and, perhaps, this was another area where I grasped at straws to make myself believe I controlled something) and had something to be ashamed of.
How in the world did I convince myself that I controlled when I developed strep throat? That it was my fault? WTF?
So it’s not that I don’t have an iota of a clue what’s up. I don’t know that the CFS is back. I’m not certain I want to walk that road in the medical establishment again (there is nothing, after all, to be done about it). I’ll go in, get the appropriate tests to ensure that it isn’t anything easily dealt with (at which point I’ll be irritated at myself for waiting so long to go in). But, if they come back negative, I don’t know what I’ll do, and, at the moment, I’m leaving that with HP, who at least has provided me with an avenue here to see that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t me.
Which makes me feel, oddly, a little better.
*168th post/confession/whatever. No other numerical significance I am currently aware of.
**Recent information suggests that the low blood pressure is part of the host of problems, as the brain doesn’t get as much as it otherwise would. This speaks, perhaps, to why, as I have long believed, I improved when I got pregnant. My blood pressure went up and reached normal for perhaps the first time in years, allowing some of the damage to heal. I was a damn sight more active and a FAR more engaged student during that period than I had been before.