Illness changes how I move in the world and how my mind works.
When I'm in good health, I have a variety of ways to measure time. Sometimes I measure time by how many papers I have to read and grade.
Other times I measure time by how much money is left in my bank while playing slot machines.
I measure time by when I meet class, what I can expect to accomplish in a two hour class meeting; I measure time by the length of movies, pages in a book, the Bejeweled Blitz clock, when to feed the dogs.
When healthy, the ways of measuring time are endless.
When I'm sick, though, time gets measured in ways directly related to the illness.
How many times did I vomit in the last 24 hours?
How about visits to the thunder jug? Every hour? Two hours? Am I going more frequently? Less?
Be sure to take your blood pressure at the same time every day.
Take Flagyl three times a day.
It's time to draw blood again.
It's time for another X-ray.
Time is measured by physical energy.
How long can you walk before getting winded? Two minutes? Five? Twenty?
How many hours did you sleep today?
The calendar is defined by illness: you've been sick since April 2nd? For two weeks? Four weeks? The whole spring quarter? 8o days? That's two Lents, man.
How soon do the doctors think you'll be recovered? I wish you a speedy recovery. I hope you are up and at them in no time.
You are still sick? How long's it been?
There's nothing wrong with the way time gets measured in terms of illness when I'm sick.
It's simply illustrative of how a continuing illness comes to dominate everything.
My self-identity over the last two and half month has been anchored in sickness. Who I am, what I can do, what I can plan on, how I regard myself, how others regard me, think about me, say to me: it's almost all been shaped by being sick.
Success is measured in different ways. Gone are the professional measures of conducting a stimulating class meeting or the personal measures of listening to others or turning a good deed.
In their stead are measures like whether my fever came down or whether I was able to keep my dinner down or if I was less winded after the 4 o'clock visit to the bathroom than I was at 2 o'clock.
It reminds me of how happy my mom and I were in the last days of Dad's life when he finished eating a Popsicle. To us, Dad enjoying a Popsicle constituted a huge success.
A phone call:
-How's Pert doing?
-Great! He ate a Popsicle today!
-That's wonderful! He must be feeling a little better!
-Yeah! He sat up and everything.
My sense of reality has been so defined by sickness that I have wondered if it's the only way to experience things.
In fact, I've wondered if my condition of being sick is actually what it feels like to be healthy.
Illness exacerbates self-doubt.
Am I faking it? Am I really healthy? Am I just weak? Why do my friends tell me I'm looking good? I feel weak, worn out. Shouldn't I feel as good as I look? What's wrong with me?
So much in my life gets measured by productivity, especially in my profession where workload is determined by how many hours I'm in the classroom, how many hours I spend preparing for classes, how many essays I assign, how long it takes to read those essays, and how much time I spend in service to the operation of the college, through committee assignments, meetings, and as an adviser for different student activities.
Being sick erases this productivity. It erases many of the standards by which I measure my worth as a person and a professional.
It compromises financial responsibility. I was late paying some bills. I was too sick to do our taxes.
Illness breeds anxiety.
For a while, I couldn't do anything to help around the house.
Fortunately, for a couple of weeks or more, friends brought meals over, helping relieve the Deke of the overwhelming task of teaching fourth graders all day, coming home to a sick husband, and having little or no help with tasks around the house or taking care of the dogs.
Above all, illness is contagious. Yes, in a physical sense, but even more so in an emotional or spiritual way. My illness has exhausted the Deke. It has depleted our home of joy. While I've been ill, a pall has hung over our home life.
This has been true when I've suffered my worst bouts of mental illness/depression and has been true as I've been sick with pneumonia and three bouts with c-diff.
Our assumptions regarding how to live well, how to relate to each other, how to perceive and understand the world around us, and how to properly do our work are all centered around being healthy.
Illness erodes these assumptions and we are often ill-equipped to deal with the feelings, perceptions, and other realities that take their place when sickness settles in.
Having health restored is more than feeling better.
It means having the many dimensions and assumptions of one's world, of reality itself, back again.