Delighting in sickness

Bear with Me

Photo of Luke Stiles

It was Tuesday at recess, and I was in a mood most appropriate for a toddler — one so sour that dragging others down was devilish fun. Just as an insult formed, I felt a sniffle coming on, and my pissiness found a new target.

Exaggerating sickness was a bit of a sport when I was younger, and I was an Olympian. I loved the adrenaline kick of taking my parents’ and teachers’ trust for a joyride.

Day one was the most important performance. I’d announce a dramatic “achoo!” and march myself to the nurse, swooning onto the bed covered in crinkly plastic — feeling like an ad executive who just barked at their secretary to clear my afternoon.

“I don’t feel so good,” I’d croak, putting a hand to my head and willing my sinuses to clog. After I’d achieved a you poor thing, I’d celebrate silently and cross my hands like a dead body, the taste of the wooden depressor still on my tongue.

Of course, the object of the game was to maximize my time out of the classroom, but it’s a tricky business. If I oversold, I’d have to go to the doctor and receive the tragic news that it was just a sneeze or, even worse, teachers would start sending me homework packets through a family friend.

This time, the plan was going perfectly. Nothing can get you into character quite like staring at the ceiling of the nurse’s office with a parent on the way. In the car, I explained my close scrape with anaphylactic shock, my heartbreaking diagnosis and the nurse’s prescription for rest, to which I added ginger ale and saltines.

Back home, I summoned the strength to drape my comforter over the sofa and tuck myself into what I could tell was going to be a good sickness. I lounged in despair and disease like a housewife wasting away in front of the television — drunk off Pedialyte and puffing a pretzel cigarette.

Coming to college, sickness ceases being a free vacation and becomes an intrinsic fact of dorm life. Students from across the world congregate for the first time, unpacking suitcases and antigens alike. College colds float around the lecture halls, unnamed and unaddressed — thousands of hometown viruses colliding in a grand, airborne orgy.

The first time I came down with something freshman year, I was faced with the reality that sickness had lost all its signature perks. I was unable to activate the doting love of my family by holding a thermometer up to a lamp. There weren’t mandatory doctor’s appointments or homework packets to avoid, just feeble requests that someone gets cough drops from Walgreens.

When academic expectations are sky-high and the appetite to grind is insatiable, illness can feel like a thick fog that I should just turn up my collar and trudge through. It was as if to say, we’ve already overcome so much, we’re drawing the line at a head cold?

Sickness lost its levity, its flirtation. I missed channeling Ferris Bueller. Now, everything’s so serious. Moments that I claimed for my own health seemed like borrowed time, like the world spun on leaving me bedridden and behind.

Just imagine, for a moment, I shrunk down and told a white blood cell that what they’re doing is selfish or indulgent. They’d laugh me out of the artery. They see what I often dismiss, that there’s a threat in need of addressing. Believe it or not, my mind remains a part of my body, affected by the same bacterial battles as the rest of me.

That feeling of wanting to be cared for, to have my sickness validated and cooed over, that’s a real desire to see my life’s support system unfurl to catch me. Sure, the Tang Center claims to serve the same purpose, but it doesn’t give me a sticker on the way out, and it can’t make chicken noodle soup.

There’s a comfort in admitting that parts of me have wilted. My need for healing isn’t something to be frustrated by. It’s a reminder that we aren’t machines. We need empty time and space to rest and rebuild ourselves.

Dispense with the belief that sickness is somehow a moral failing and treat yourself with the grace and care you desire. Try not to view personal days as guilty but gleeful. 

You get to hop off the treadmill for a moment and catch your breath. You need Benadryl, not pre-workout. You have a golden excuse, might as well see what it buys.

I don’t want to be flippant about the dangers of illness for the immunocompromised population. I have family members who experience health as a precarious vase poised to shatter at any moment. 

Pulling the curtains closed and staying in bed is the best way to show love for my community and for myself, even when it’s more inconvenience than delight.

So, the next time sickness knocks on my door, I won’t run around turning the lights off, pretending no one’s home or I wasn’t expecting company. I’ll drag my comforter to the sofa, break out my pretzel cigarettes and say, “It’s been too long, my friend.”

Luke Stiles writes the Thursday column on unqualified advice and unpopular opinions. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.