Thursday, March 28, 2013

Delicate Balance

 Familiar Territory

Today I am looking for the silver living. But like so many other things at fifty, silver linings aint what they used to be. My last post found me taking a day off from a new job to nurse a bad head cold, trying to achieve a delicate balance between taking care of myself and fulfilling my obligations. Not much has changed, except that my new job is now two weeks older, and my headcold is now bronchitis that required a brief visit to the hospital yesterday and an array of medicines whose schedules will now dictate my own. I’ve had good days and bad, moments of contentment lost in what felt like immediate remunerative periods of defeat and despair. I felt much better last week, but this week I’ve taken a turn for the worse, and had to take the whole week off from work after a valiant appearance Monday. I guess my balance, and I, are a lot more delicate than I hoped. On the bright side, in between taking medicine, I can do some writing from the sick couch.

I’ve titled the image that begins this post “familiar territory” for good reason. Almost 14 years ago, at the end of the particularly horrible annus horribilis 1999, I had one of those lingering headcolds that last for weeks, get better, come back with new symptoms, and never seem quite bad enough to warrant a visit to the doctor or days off from work. In retrospect, I should have done both sooner. But in those proud hopeful moments of apparent recovery, who can tell the difference between a cold about to wrap up, and a cold merely gathering strength for its next onslaught? That year, my cold was simply waiting for me to drop my guard before the final attack.  

 Koko the Pug and I, Summer of 1999

I had a dog once. That was how I learned I am extremely allergic to dogs. While I lived in my parents’ house with Koko, this allergy presented itself in the form of my not breathing through my nose once in 4 years, and having to cover up as much as possible in all seasons in order to hug my irresistibly adorable wriggling snorting hive-maker. You can see how well I managed to limit exposure by the photo above! When I moved out, so did my allergic symptoms. Whenever I visited after that, my unprepared body produced increasingly abrupt and severe reactions. But in 1999 my parents went out of town and I agreed to take care of Koko, headcold, allergies and all.

In 1999 I did not understand asthma. I did not have asthma in my or my family’s background that I was aware of, and did not even know anyone with this now seemingly ubiquitous condition. When my headcold landed in my chest the day after taking care of Koko, and I started to hear the sound of a distant train whistle while sitting at my office computer typing, I didn’t even connect it with dog exposure, as all of my previous reactions were immediate. I thought it was an interesting new but temporary symptom of my evolving upper respiratory infection. I’ve had plenty of URIs, and they all resolve eventually, so I waited it out. Then I started to hear coming from my lungs what sounded like a bowl of Rice Krispies newly doused in milk. Wow, that’s a new one! I thought. Surely it will pass by evening.

 Runaway Train
But it didn’t pass by evening. Little did I know that asthma symptoms get worse at night as airways naturally close slightly for sleep. This is okay if your airways are wide open, not so much if they are already half shut. There is a powerful urge in the human condition to wait and see, to believe that things will be better by the morning. Asthma is one of those things that refuses to honor this show of good faith and optimism. By midnight I could not lie down and breathe at the same time. By 3am my distant whistle had become the warning signal of a runaway train. I was in a state of panic as my breathing was reduced to what felt like short sips through a flattened straw. Around this time, not enough oxygen was getting into my brain, which was already in a state of fear and confusion, to make a decision to call 911. Instead, I waited until what I considered “a decent hour,” which was around sunrise, to call my parents and have them pick me up and get me to a nearby emergency room.  This being connected to one of the biggest busiest New York City hospitals, my intake process and wait for care were neither brief nor pleasant. Gunshot victims and defiant drunks and drug addicts were my closest neighbors in cubicles divided only by sheets.  When my body did not respond to repeated infusions of vaporized steroids, and my blood gases were still off after being drawn five times, and I had miraculously repeatedly pulled my entire history from my weakened brain and proven to at least five visiting doctors that no, I was not also a drug addict, they decided to admit me. I think the whole process took at least 8 hours.

 She’s a witch!
The next three days I spent in a shared hospital room in a state of stunned wariness brought on by a constant Prednisone drip and nebulizer treatments every four hours day and night. I wasn’t even sure what day and night were anymore. Sleep I could not, dared not, did not. My room-mate for part of the time was an old Hispanic woman who had come out of heart surgery and was convinced I was a witch. When her family visited she would whisper and point “bruja!” in my general direction. For a moment I felt like I was in the Spanish language version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was wheeled out and back for tests. I was displayed for interns on rounds. It took three days for them to dismiss me, not because they had cured me or identified what was wrong with my lungs, which had only slightly improved in spite of being given enough medicine to clear the lungs of twenty asthmatic elephants, but because they needed the bed, and I could continue to do at home what they were doing for me at the hospital. I didn’t oppose this decision.

 Rice Krispies belong in a bowl not your chest
Once home, life revolved around pill-taking and inhaler puffs. And then, as I was slowly weaned off Prednisone, it became about some of the most vivid nightmares I’ve ever had, and I have had  and still do have some real screamers. Slowly, my lungs returned to normal. I was never diagnosed with asthma. The final advice was – keep an inhaler for emergencies and limit exposure to dogs. Which brings us to 2013.  Another lingering headcold.  Another ill-timed but unavoidable exposure to a dog. The eternal optimist in me promising myself it would be alright, I’ll be fine by morning. Snap Crackle Pop!  First words yesterday at 6am: I need to go to the hospital.  

 Silver Lining Gone with the Tide
Here’s where we go on the hunt for the elusive phenomenon known as the Silver Lining, which is either  nearby but too small, or big enough but too far away to view with the naked eye. Things have changed since 1999. I’m living in Rutland not Manhattan, so my local emergency room visit was so comfortable, comforting and efficient, I almost regretted it was also so brief. They had me out of there in 2.5 hours, from intake to doctor visit to x-ray, to diagnosis and fare-thee-well with a handful of prescriptions. I’m also a little wiser about the ways of asthmatic events, and got myself to a doctor at the first sign my cold had landed in my lungs and was firing up the train whistle. I also know what to expect now that my body will be turned into a science experiment for the next week as I pour in a bunch of chemicals and then take them away again and see what happens. I already feel like a toxic zombie as I write this. I am not exactly anti-medicine. Because I react so badly to traditional pills and potions, I will always opt for natural remedies when possible. That said, I know when I’m beat and need to get help from the big guns, and yesterday, I needed help.

Quality of Life

Today, thanks to my hired guns Prednisone, Albuterol, Zithromax, and Codeine-Guaifenesin, I’m feeling better and worse. My symptoms are reduced, but so is my quality of and control over life. With the particular interiority of the ill and highly medicated, I don’t even care anymore what awaits me when and if I make it back to my job next week. Everything that exists outside of my battles going on inside my body feels unimportant and unreal. So, while I am in this state, I am going to try to make the most of my time at home on the sick couch, in spite of my medically-induced pounding head, flushed skin, sour stomach, and overall jittery agitation,. Maybe my hands will stop shaking enough to crochet a little. Maybe I can sell Steven King the screenplay to the nightmare I will likely have if I take an afternoon nap.  Writing helps. I’d write more but it’s time for my next pill. I'd rather it were otherwise, but as delicate balances go, it could be worse, it's good to be home, and it's good to be alive.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Finding Fault

What is wrong with this picture? Nothing.
Today I find myself wondering why we are so quick to find fault in ourselves and others. Even for someone like me always looking for the redeeming quality in a situation or personality, it is far too easy instead to recognize and react to everything annoying, disappointing or hurtful. When did complaining become such a strong part of the human condition? When did everyone become guilty before proven innocent? 

And maybe because of that culture of blame, there is an equal and opposite trend towards forgiveness, letting ourselves off the hook for every possible past or present weakness, flaw, damage or misdeed. But there wouldn’t have to be so much forgiving if there weren’t so much blaming to begin with. And none of that blaming would matter if we weren’t so hungry for acceptance and approval in the first place.

You hear a lot about “unconditional love” being the highest form of this most sought after of human connections. We love our dogs, cats and other domestic companion animals because they love us unconditionally, flaws and all. We don’t have to prove anything to them because their approval is constant and guaranteed. They don’t stop loving us because we are unpopular, underpaid, overweight, or overwrought. When we can’t meet our obligations due to illness, or sadness, apathy or stupidity, they don’t lose faith in or respect for us. We can be weak with them, tell our secrets to them, know we won’t be judged, and that we will be the same person to them whether we are at our worst or at our best.

It seems that even the best of human relationships can’t measure up to this standard of acceptance. We may find ourselves in a partnership of great mutual tolerance, compassion, and understanding, and still not avoid those chilling moments when it is apparent that someone has let someone down, moments when it seems more sympathy and support are to be found among strangers than loved ones, because loved ones can’t conceal their vast disappointment, and strangers aren’t invested enough to have quite as much to conceal, or at least have the decency to hold off until you’re out of the room.

Feeling bad about myself has occupied far more of my lifetime than feeling good. Much of that blame came from within, but a lot of it also came from outside, from the voiced or perceived disapproval of others whose approval was important to me. It doesn’t really matter that a well-intended desire for the best for me, and belief in the best in me, were often the source of frustration and grief when I failed to achieve that ideal.  At some point an ideal was established as desirable, and from then on, failure to achieve it was easy to recognize and feel bad about, whether anyone actually pointed it out or not.

With such a strong fault-finding mechanism in place, forgiveness has been a difficult counterpart to establish. Not focusing on the bad in persons, places and things takes effort. Not focusing on my own failings takes more. For both, it means stepping back and looking away from the present moment and considering things in a larger context of past and future successes, which is not easy to do when the present moment is so much more compelling, immediate and substantial than the ghosts of what happened long ago or the visions of what hasn’t happened yet and has no guarantee of ever happening.

The good news is, I don’t often feel bad about myself anymore. It takes a lot of overwhelming evidence to convince me I am guilty of being less than I ought to be. I’m far from ideal, but I’m doing pretty good all things considered. Mitigating circumstances carry far more weight in the course of my deliberations. And yet, my better judgment is still swayed by a lingering unnecessary need to prove myself. For instance, I am at home writing this post in bed today because I needed a day off from a new job I only just started a week ago. I began the job while battling a bad headcold, and having pushed myself to complete my first workweek, that headcold is now winning the battle. In retrospect, I should have set aside my unwillingness to disappoint, accepted that I was unequal to the task, and delayed my start date. But I apparently needed to prove something - to myself, to my loved ones, to my new co-workers? – and now I am paying the price. 

Fortunately, my self-forgiveness mechanism is strong enough that, without hesitation or guilt, today I chose taking care of my health over making a good impression. Sadly, that decision was immediately followed by an urge to defend it, provoking the thought process that inspired this post, which I am only able to write because I stuck by my decision. Looking on the bright side, not only will my health benefit from a day at home, but I’ve also been able to clear my mind, and possibly write something that might help other sufferers of unnecessary faultfinding. The fault-finder in me is still too quick to point out everything wrong about me and my choices and their consequences, making me that much more vulnerable to the judgments of everyone in my life. But while I can’t ignore those disapproving voices, neither am I letting them dictate my actions. And that is a kind of progress.