The Complex Joy Of Being Sick


I hated school as a child. I mean, there was no special reason for it, except for that maybe I was particularly aware at an earlier age than normal of a certain indignity inherent in submitting to regulation, of following schedules one did not elect. Authority problem, blah blah blah.

And maybe it was because of my upbringing, but I sort of favor the idea that an excess of sympathy isn’t much good for children: the cynical approach to human nature, that most people (especially when young) will avoid discomfort even to their own detriment when allowed. So, like, I’m not saying it wasn’t good that I wasn’t much coddled, that my responsibilities were understood as unavoidable. I’ve seen the children of parents more disciplined than mine living in circumstances I’d view as excessively rigid parenting, and yet often the kids are dutiful, uncomplaining, even ambitious.

At some point, I learned something important: that being ill could dissolve the uncompromising infrastructure of your young life like so many bad dreams. Instantaneously, sympathy! Others to do for you what normally you were left alone to manage! And most importantly, liberty from obligation.

I remember in elementary school learning that the onset of a certain feverishness, a thickening in my throat, was a discomfort that could actually act as a currency to escape. It’s not that I liked to feel unwell; what I liked was the sudden interruption from routine, excuse from class amid the fuzzy-headed fatigue of oncoming illness that led to a dreamlike wandering down silent halls (full of doors behind which everyone but me was set to laboring) to the nurse’s office.

Remember the grids of tile swimming dazedly, silent avenues between walls papered with other classes’ assignments that suddenly felt Vaseline-blurred and distant, no longer immediately relevant? Relief like steam escaping a radiator pipe, hissing. Everything to soft focus, and you were so small; you were really a fragile child for once, aware of your disempowerment and vulnerability.

School nurses aren’t the gentlest of people. You can’t expect them to be; they hold court among utilitarian cots stinking of vinyl and disinfectant; jury-rigged with sanitary paper, accompanied by a donations box of spare thrift shop pants just in case some first-grade child had an accident. There was the perfunctory palm-to-forehead, followed by the mandate to suckle impatiently on a bitter-tasting thermometer. Drowsy seconds swelled long in that weird sanctum, awaiting the verdict — and the ruling of fever was always sweet in a complex way.

Because it meant you were sick, thus prophesied to suffer. And yet also it suddenly meant that you were, for better or for worse, suddenly excised from the certain ruthlessness of your infrastructure: The school, your after-school, of being good, of being anything except for needful and loved. The nurse was calling your mother. For better or for worse, your mother was coming to get you out of there.

No matter how poorly you actually felt, there was a thrill to the subtle liberty of buckling into the family car, watching the school building recede in your rear view, even though it was only noon. Ahead of you lay the surety of your cool sheets, the odd privilege of resting in bed with the blinds drawn, slivers of bird-chirped daylight letting you know that you were doing something profoundly against the grain by ceding from participation.

Such precious gentleness; my home deeply disallowed food at any other location but the kitchen, at any time other than prescribed snacks and meals. Yet when sick, a precious lacquered tray brought up from a little-used kitchen cabinet, decorated with Asian cranes, would come to my room bearing a soup bowl of noodles or of macaroni and cheese, hot comfort foods that felt absurdly luxurious eaten in the table of my bedquilted lap. Mom would pet my hair; she only did that when I was sick.

When you become an older child or young adult, you learn that being sick allows you uncommon languor: The excitement of having the house to yourself, with the full buffet of afternoon television, rarely-glimpsed, available to you. If you were like me, you will always associate the themes and sounds of The Price Is Right or The People’s Court with the recuperative limbo that you and your burning skin had no choice but to spend at home.

It’s not the same as an adult. Illness will become an absolute inconvenience, and further, an indignity. When you are really cut down, the way you’re forced to apologize to other adults for your sudden failure to be one of them feels disempowering. Every crumpled tissue that piles about your bedside is something you will have to pick up later. Your friends will text you to see if there’s anything they can do, and no matter how much you want to ask for Chinese soup or an errand or even, absurdly, for them to love you enough and to be brave enough to sit fearlessly at your side in your germ nest and pet your hair, it isn’t done. You are fine.

You are well enough to stand; you can talk on the phone, and you can laugh at television shows and you can fall off into privileged, fever-addled black tunnels of sleep. It’s an uncomfortable decadence; you are unduly apologetic in the emails you send to the people who are depending on you to do good and adult things in the world. You are sick, you know you’re sick, you’re miserable, and yet something always nags — can you really not take a shower and get dressed and go and perform at something, are you just weak? How hard should you fight the signs of your humanity, the distinct sensation that each of your cells is fragile and prone to corruption?

You know why you feel so self-conscious about it, so damn guilty. You know why you feel, at any juncture, obligated to provide some kind of evidence that you’re actually too sick to work or to keep social plans; no matter how genuinely disabled some virus has made you, you allow your voice to sound as hoarse as possible or you decline to stifle a cough, and you know why. You know.

Because there were the times that you played sick. When you were a child, once you learned that you could, at moments of crushing pressure, just slip out of that dimension and into another that was gauzy and gentle, that was full of broken rules and rare safety. That with enough of a look of malaise – or, if you were crafty, a minute alone to hold your thermometer alongside a lightbulb – you could buy a precious day or two swimming in the daytime shadows of your little bed with nothing but afternoon silence to embrace you. You could buy yourself an uncommonly gentle maternal caress, a reprieve from homework, a special, warm meal that you were allowed to eat in bed just for that day.

You’ve done it before, haven’t you? Hasn’t everyone? Don’t we live in a world where we learn that all relief is viciously hard-won, and haven’t we all wanted to bend the rules from time to time? Deep down, don’t you feel it — that complex mingling of guilt and gladness you feel when you’re a sick adult? After you’ve called in to work and emailed to shoulder your burdens onto others, don’t you feel a childlike gladness that you’ve no other way of obtaining?

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image – © Pawinski