Last week I caught a cold. Usually, this wouldn’t be breaking news. I used to catch tonsillitis every school holiday, and have narrowly missed being able to have my tonsils removed several times. However, that was when I wasn’t permanently ill. That was when I was in my devil-may-care days, when the common cold could not wipe me out faster than my cat inhales the tuna in her bowl. In those days, common cold and flu-like symptoms were the most irritating illness that might trip me up.
Now, armed with my status as a Chronic Migraine Warrior, the common cold can leave me delirious. You know those terrible flus that cross contaminate every school, hospital and workplace, that everyone has a story for, that everyone has had worse and more dire than your current position? Not everyone has been hit by a head cold and a migraine simultaneously, for the prolonged period of two days.
And I think this is where I’ve found my grudge. Why must we all have the worst flu? Why must we battle over which illness is worst, who feels worst, who has it worst?
I’m really struggling with my Chronicness. I’m struggling with the medications that come with that — I’m currently struggling to swallow my eleven tablets and concoctions with gigantic tonsils — I’m struggling with the changes I’ve had to make to my life because of my migraines. I haven’t been dancing in over two years, I haven’t spent a night relaxed and enjoying myself in a bar or at a festival, or even at a theatre show without the fear that something will kick me off and I have to get myself home. There’s a fear around my independence, there’s a fear about driving, there’s a fear about my long-term employability. And now, I know I can be wiped out by the common cold. So there’s a fear of germs too.
A friend of mine keeps reminding me that at least I don’t have cancer. When I lost my voice this week, my nurse told me she’d lost hers for two weeks. Someone else reassured me that their voice loss had been incredibly more dire than mine was.
None of these responses are speaking to my experiences. None of these responses are in any way useful to me, but I’m not sure they’re meant to be. I think they’re often there to make the person who is making these responses feel better. This is ok, but only if we recognize it, and we’re aware of it.
When I was hallucinating on Saturday night, when I couldn’t stand up and had to crawl between the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom with one eye scrunched to the carpet because I wasn’t really sure which way was up anymore, when I left all of my clothes in a huddle on the bathroom floor and passed out naked in my hallway, before I managed to make it to my mattress, where I fought with the duvet because I thought it was convincing me to vomit, and I had to hug several hot water bottles that were cold but felt warm, in order to truly pass out — somehow the direness of everyone’s situation and my lack of cancer did not break the realization that I had caught a cold and I was no longer hardy and infallible.
And it was on the Sunday, huddled under a blanket on the sofa, that I realized just how much of a luxury it is to take other people’s experiences for granted. There is a large part of me that is proud that no one questions the way the common cold may have hit me; they remain convinced that theirs must have been worse because I do not chronically look ill. And that it may very well have been; worse is so subjective after all, and they may have their own chronic demons that made their colds so demonic. My awareness could be greater too.
But then I remember that actually this didn’t begin with, or was ever really about other people’s experiences. This began with my own health journey which continues to terrify me. And I continue to project this fear elsewhere because with each knock, my future feels more crumbly, more delicate and more fallible. Cancer or not, voice or not, my fear, my fallibility is real. Every Saturday night I spend passed out naked in my hallway, praying for the floor to stand still, the insistence that you are more ill — that I am not the most ill I could be — do nothing to reassure me that I will be ok. And let’s face it, that’s all I want you to tell me. That, and a glass of water would be nice too.