I’ve always thought of myself as a good patient.
I suffer in silence. I try not to complain too much. I work through the pain/cough/leaky eyes and nose. But I recently had a second episode of diverticulitis and I’ve come to realize I was horribly wrong about how I handle illness.
If you’ve never had diverticulitis, an infection in your intestines, you can count yourself among the lucky. A friend of mine recently asked me what it felt like to have this infection. The best way I can describe it is it feels like broken glass moving through your bowels. It’s extremely painful, excruciatingly uncomfortable, and lays me flat for weeks at a time.
I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’ve been feeling well enough to have some clarity in my brain. For three weeks I was in a fog of fatigue, discomfort, and fear. All very dark places.
Now that I have come out of the dense forest, I realize that while I manage my physical symptoms very well, it’s the psychological damage that I have trouble controlling.
While I am in the grips of severe pain, that is all I can think about. I lay on the couch, staring at a blank wall and pray for the Tylenol to kick in. I can’t have anything stronger; we discovered at the hospital that opioids take my oxygen levels to a dangerously low level. NSAIDs (like Advil) are also off the drug menu because they can trigger an attack of diverticulitis. For more than a week, I chug extra strength Tylenol with total disregard for the recommended time between doses. I worry about damage to my liver. My mind cannot hold focus on anything other than when will this end and why did this happen to me and maybe if I didn’t eat garbage I’d be healthy. As if the pain hammering my insides wasn’t enough, now my itty bitty shitty committee in my brain has claimed a spot and taken the podium.
In the midst of all this, my emotional quotient takes a nosedive. I question my life choices. I wonder if my work is worth continuing. I hear every comment as a criticism. I look for reasons to be angry/upset/heartbroken. If I disappear for a couple of days on social media and no one checks on me, I seriously consider unfriending everyone.
The worst part is that while I am in this dark place of mistrust and discontent, I can’t even recognize that this isn’t normal for me. Every thought and feeling digs roots into my brain and plants itself there as fact. This isn’t a new phenomenon. When I think back to every major illness I have had – and there weren’t so many that I can’t keep count – I can see myself getting angrier, more isolated and irrational.
Here’s what I think is happening. I am an extremely social person, and nothing is more isolating than a debilitating illness. Add to that a global pandemic and an endless stream of bad news and it’s no wonder I sink. The last time this happened on such a deep level was on September 11, 2001. I was at home with shingles – in pain, alone, and watching the attack on the towers over and over and over again. I still feel that hole in my heart.
I never want to get that ill again, but if I do, I hope I can recognize that the whole world hasn’t turned against me. Like the pain, my head chatter is temporary and it too, shall pass.