In honor of my sickness and my obsession with what getting sick might mean for me, I have resurrected a lost chapter from LITTLE PANIC, one on sickness, that was killed, swiftly and painfully, at the last minute. I present it to you now…
There is no reason for my back to hurt, but it does just like that and out of the blue, and that’s why I think it’s cancer. Alex’s sister’s back hurt and she ignored it for months and when she finally went to the doctor they told her she had cancer of the soft cells and she died four months later. I didn’t do anything strenuous, so there’s really no explanation for it. If I have cancer then I’ll regret how much of my life I’ve wasted and I’ll be paralyzed because I’ll know it’s too late now to even try and achieve my goals. If it still hurts tomorrow, it’s cancer. Maybe I should take something. I’ll take something. If the Advil doesn’t work, it’s cancer.
Cancer would explain my relentless exhaustion, which I’ve Googled and is definitely a symptom. I’ve been exhausted for months, and I don’t know why, but now my back hurts and I can feel a new, terrible reality descending on me. Also my pee is pretty dark, which the Internet says is dehydration, but I know it’s other things, too. Just in case, I drink some water. When I lie down I feel a sort of throbbing in my sinuses, which makes me think that maybe it’s a sinus infection that’s making me so tired. When I look it up, I see it’s a symptom. I follow the links in the comments section and wind up on an allergy site and read an article on inflammation, then follow the links in that comments section to a natural remedies site. I love natural remedies. Anything that promises to change and fix me, I believe, and buy. I learn about Edgar Cayce, the father of holistic medicine, who discovered an ancient healing technique that offered instant cures. All you need is hemp or wool flannel, a towel, a heating pad, a glass jar, a plastic bag, a spare bed sheet and Castor Oil. After buying all that, I come across other anti-inflammatory cures: turmeric soaks, Colostrum pills, oil pulling, nasal rinses, tea tree oil and lavender for the bottom of your feet, and a raw CURES EVERYTHING ginger, apple cider vinegar and garlic shots. Soon, it’s four hours and ninety-three unanswered emails later.
When I don’t feel 100 percent, it frightens me. My worry is that whatever is lowering my level of energy is permanent. When something is even a tiny bit wrong with me (I count having a splinter in my hand that I can’t get out as having something wrong with me) it’s hard for me to completely focus on anything else. All I can think is, what if I never get this splinter out and my hand always hurts and I am no longer able to write? I’ll have to retrain myself with my left hand, and if that fails then I have to Daniel Day Lewis it and learn to write with my foot.
This hyper vigilance to what ails me prevents me from being fully present in my actual life. It interferes with conversation because I am compelled to announce any and all niggling and major complaints to my friends when they ask how I am. It’s not because I think they can do something about it, or even that they care, rather it’s a preemptive strike against failing to live up to what I imagine are other people’s expectations of me. If I am sick, I’m not able to meet their needs, I can’t put them first, and while I no longer vigilantly watch my mother to off-set her death or disappearance, the shadow of me never stopped, and worse, it took that habit out into the real world and assumed responsibility for everyone in a way that’s not even conscious. An old part of me is still running my life; I’ve never been able to turn if off. Since my earliest days, I put my mother first, ahead of me and all else, and I’ve never stopped. Only now, I’ve widened the net, turned everyone into my mother, and second behind them stands me. The only way to reverse this is to put myself first in the only way I know how to come first: having something wrong with me.
The part of me that announces every ache and pain and possible grave illness reads to others as complaining, hypochondria, neurosis and on the few occasions where someone has truly misunderstood me, negativity. Perhaps these are all true, and I am all these things, but the irony of my narrative prologue of ailments is that while it appears—on the face of it—that I’m gunning for someone to fix me, I’m actually—in my own idiosyncratic way—attempting to appease whatever irksome sense of responsibility toward me others might feel, while also alerting them to my inability to effectively care for them, should they fall sick, as I am not at my peak. To put it another way: I am a nightmare.
I fear that the results of whatever ails me will be withheld, that the only way to control what’s plaguing me is by guessing what I might have. My health feels like it doesn’t belong to me, what I experience feels out of my hands, and I’m afraid of all possible illnesses because when you don’t know what’s wrong with you, as I didn’t for so many years, everything is wrong with you. Often, I’ll have anticipatory concerns when an outing is on the horizon. Dinners out, trips upstate, being beholden to a train, or a bus, or someone else’s car, as my way exit, all concern me. Concerts in the park are scary because where will I go to the bathroom? Even when I’m not sick, not even remotely at all, I can make myself sick by worrying that no access to a toilet means I will get sick and that’s why I usually opt out of a concert or picnic in the park.
Rare moments of true bravery, and I really pay. An old boyfriend and I go to Lollapalooza, which is almost a bigger mistake than agreeing to be his girlfriend. Under a skyless sun, wedged between the most frightening people: teenagers who believe they’re invincible and the people unafraid of teenagers who believe they’re invincible, I have a panic attack and have to get air, something not offered to small people in crowds, and I push through the crowd in order to escape, but there seems no end to the people, and I know I am going to throw up, which I do not want to do in front of all these invincible teenagers, and I try to hold it in as long as I can, forcing innocuous thoughts into my head about cleaning my house or having a stoop sale, but it’s no use because a body does what a body wants to do, and mine throws up and the crowd parts easily after that.
My mother always announces her aches and pains, even the aches and pains that aren’t hers.
“Oh Jesus!” She shouts out. As a child I’d come running when she did this, terrified to find her decapitated or holding her own severed arm.
“What happened? Are you okay?” I’d ask, out of breath from racing down four flights of stairs.
“I dropped a pen,” she’d say, staring at the pen helplessly, until I picked it up.
Either this is her tactic for having other people do things for her, or she is practicing to become the first-ever Jewish Commentator of Daily Minutiae. When it’s her own pain, she broadcasts it aloud, reporting on the affected area, even when she’s alone in a room.
“Ouch,” after standing up after sitting. “My hip.”
“Ouch!” I’ll hear, as she comes down the stairs. “My ankle.”
“Oh, ouch!” She’ll say when the faucet is too hot for one second. “My finger.”
“Ouch,” she’ll say to no one from the other side of the apartment. “I sat on a book.”
For as long as I have been conscious of her, she’s done this, and when someone else does it, she assists with diagnosis. Do not get us in a room together.
Me: “God, I don’t know why I’m so thirsty.”
Mom: “I hope you don’t have diabetes.”
Me: “What the hell? My teeth look like they’ve shifted.”
Mom: “Oh no, I hope you don’t have to get braces again.”
Me: “My throat really hurts.”
Mom: “Have you seen an endocrinologist? It might be a thyroid problem.”
When I DO know what’s wrong, she has a different stock response.
Me: “My allergies are terrible today.”
Mom: “Did you take anything?”
Me: “I have the worst headache.”
Mom: “Do you have anything to take?”
Me: “My neck is so stiff.”
Mom: “Do you want something to take?”
My stepfather was the opposite. If I didn’t feel well, Jimmy didn’t believe me because I didn’t LOOK sick, which meant I had to figure out a way to externalize a cold, or the flu, in order to truly be sick. With one parent, everything was something and there was always something to take, and with the other nothing was anything unless there was physical evidence. Like a chalk outline.
Now I spend most of my time asleep. I am tired all the time, like a different type of tired that isn’t lack of sleep. It’s like a deep, bone tired, like a heavy limb thing and not depression. My mom suggests that it’s Mono. I tell her I’ve already had it, and she says a person can get it again. I say I’ve had it twice so she says maybe Chronic Fatigue. I don’t want Chronic Fatigue. If I have Chronic Fatigue, I’ll never be able to participate in anything again, because Chronic Fatigue is chronic, it doesn’t ever leave. So if I have it, my life has already ended and I’ll have ruined whatever time I’ve already squandered not writing my book. Have I considered Narcolepsy? She asks. Later, she says I should go to a Rheumatologist; she was talking with some friends and they suggested Fibromyalgia, or maybe Lupus. Eddie says I should get acupuncture. Kara says it sounds like allergies. Laurie thinks Anemia. My shrink thinks depression. I go up on my medication. I buy a HEPA air purifier, dust mite proof bedding and a Neti pot. When that seems to make some difference, I’m pretty sure I have allergies. To what, I don’t know. I make an appointment with someone’s Ear, Nose and Throat guy, because he’s “a miracle worker.”
There are strollers clogging up the narrow entryway to the doctor’s office, and when I make my way into the waiting room, I’m confused. I backtrack, re-read the sign on the door, and re-enter, walking up to the front desk.
“Is this Dr. Fenig’s office?” I ask. A child’s raw scream chills down the hall.
“Do you have an appointment?” a nurse asks, directing her question to the computer screen.
“With Dr. Fenig I do, but is this his office?”
“Date of birth?” she asks, removing her gum and holding it in the air, like she’s drying it.
A tightness. Shortness of breath. That awful annihilating feeling of being aggressively ignored.
Her fingers are fat and look like snakes, her press-ons, like ten poison tongues. “Address?”
“263 Cumberland Street, Apt 4. Brooklyn, NY 11205. Am I in the right place?” I ask again.
I exhale, annoyed, and fill with a learned rage. “Empire.”
“Take a seat,” she says, using the index finger on her right hand to nail-tap my birthday into the computer.
“Can you answer my question? Am I in the right place?” I ask again.
She stops typing, looks up at me, pushes back in her chair and rolls away from the desk. “Does it look like Dr. Fenig’s office?” She asks me.
“I’ve never been here before.”
She rolls back. “He’ll be with you in a moment. Fill this out.” She hands me a clipboard secured with a thick ream of paper.
I sit, infuriated, and annoyed by the screaming children. A massive stack of Highlights Magazineis piled high on one seat. I look down at the clipboard and fill out my name, my date of birth, my address, and my insurance.
The ding of the elevator. The hallway sounds like the subway platform. I hear a hand smack a body part. “Toby, stop holding your penis like it’s a gun!”
When I’m done, I hand it back to the woman I hate, who takes it and walks it down the hall. A few minutes later a woman in scrubs comes into the waiting room, looks down at my file and calls my name as though she isn’t sure which, out of the only person in the room, I might be. I stand. We walk through an examination room, past a nurse flashing a light in the ears of a patient and into an adjoining office.
“Take a seat,” she says. Across the room, there’s a laptop that she goes and sits behind.
I hop up on the chair and drop my bag to the floor next to me.
“What’s your name?” She asks.
I pause, glancing at my file she’s discarded on the counter. The one with my name, and take an annoyed deep breath.
“Birthday?” She asks.
“Seriously?” I ask. “I just wrote all this down. It’s in there.” I point to the folder.
She looks up at me. “Address?”
“263 Cumberland Street, Brooklyn, NY 11205. My insurance is Empire.”
I sigh. “Empire.”
“What brings you here?”
“I think I have allergies.”
“What are your symptoms?”
“I’m exhausted. All the time. Round the clock. Painfully so. Plus I have sinus pain.”
When she’s all typed up, she leaves and ten minutes later an Ivy-league-handsome man walks into the room. I instinctively look for a wedding ring, and find one.
“Hi there, I’m Dr. Fenig,” he says, shaking my hand.
“What brings you here?” he asks, studying someone else’s X-ray against the light.
“I think I have allergies because—“
“What are your symptoms?” He tosses the X-rays on the counter, and pulls out his little flashlight. “Open,” he instructs.
“Ahhhh,” he performs for me.
“Ahhhh,” I repeat.
“Good. Inflamed. Let me have a look in your ears.”
“I am exhausted all the time. Like my bones are heavy. The sinus pain and congestion I can tolerate, but the exhaustion—“
“So you’re tired? Like you want to sleep all the time?”
“Yes! Exactly! There are days I wake up and feel like I haven’t slept at all. My eyes burn, and I’m so tired, I’m napping every two hours. I lose like three work days a week to exhaustion,” I tell him. I am desperate for him to be the doctor to help me.
“Doesn’t sound like allergies to me,” he says.
“I’m pretty sure it’s allergies,” I tell him.
“You’re not getting enough sleep,” he says.
“I am. I’m getting too much sleep.”
“Chronic Fatigue. Maybe even depression.”
“It’s not depression.”
“Then Chronic Fatigue.”
“Okay, well, I feel fairly certain it’s allergies. My apartment is old. The second you’re done dusting, you have to start again. My whole family has allergies. So, I’m hoping you can maybe test me, or like help me puzzle out what I could be allergic to, like what allergies create this sort of exhaustion?”
“I’ve never had a patient complain that allergies made them exhausted.”
“But, I am exhausted.”
“What can I tell you? Doesn’t mean you have allergies, but if you think you do, get allergy shots. Is there anything else I can help you with? Are you all set for samples?”