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in sickness and in health

June 30, 2011

An hour or so ago, I suddenly started to feel sick: I got really bad cramps, I felt nauseated, I thought I might barf. I felt hot and cold. So there’s definitely something wrong. But the interesting thing I noticed was I was “performing illness”, as if I had an audience. (Except that I don’t; Spouse is at work.) I was groaning theatrically, I was clutching my abdomen, and practically rolling off the chair.

There’s nothing wrong with groaning, clutching, or falling. But when I explored why I was doing these things, I realized it wasn’t so much that they were authentic responses to my physiological state. Instead, I was half-expecting Spouse to return from work, interrogate me about my symptoms, and remonstrate with me when he remained unconvinced.

Because that’s what my mother did. It wasn’t enough to suffer, you had to suffer in a way that was visible and/or audible, and it also had to be convincing … to her. That is, it had to match, more or less, how my mother would’ve felt in a similar situation. If instead you had some idiosyncratic response, you would be accused of faking illness or injury, probably because you wanted attention, so we’ll punish you by not granting you any. But we will tell everybody else what a faker and a liar you are.

During the spring of my freshman year in high school, I got really sick. When I got my mother to take me to the doctor’s office, our regular pediatrician, Dr. M, was on vacation. The person I saw thought I might have strep throat. I wasn’t going to need to see Dr. M, I could be sent back to school, because I would get better shortly. Except that I didn’t. I felt worse and worse. I dragged myself to school every day, after my mother didn’t believe I was still sick. I would sit in my classes, and just cry. I felt so awful, I was exhausted all the time, everything hurt. I couldn’t pay attention to anything, inside of class or outside. Invariably, each afternoon I would visit the school nurse, who was very sympathetic. She would let me lie down, where I would cry some more. She would call my mother at home, and explain yet again, how she was really sure that I was actually sick. And my mother would insist, every day, that I probably had a test I wanted to get out of, or I was avoiding a friend; that there was nothing wrong with me.

This went on for least a week, maybe more. Dr. M. returned from his vacation, and somehow my mother decided maybe I should go see him after all. His diagnosis? I had pneumonia. (And not the kind where you can walk around, and not realize you’re sick.) Finally I got to stay home in bed, and sleep. I vaguely remember periods of delirium in the four weeks of school I missed. Perhaps that explains memories of my mother sitting at my bedside, with cups of tea she made for me. Because she was not a person who would nurse you back to health. I’m not sure even guilt would cause her to act so uncharacteristically. So maybe I dreamed it.

It’s perhaps the only memory I have of her being truly kind to me. And partly because of that memory (or fever dream?), and partly because of how deeply blissful four weeks of sleep — with no demands being made of me and no one yelling at me — were, I’ve always kind of enjoyed being sick. I don’t enjoy feeling bad, but I do enjoy the respite from quotidian concerns. And I definitely enjoy sleeping a lot.


So I actually feel a lot better right now. I didn’t even get to take a nap! But maybe what I did get was more important – understanding.

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