A Timeline of a Body Succumbing
I remember back when I was in graduate school, taking a full course load, teaching two courses per term, and working part-time at a bookstore. I used to get sick at every single break. Winter break? Sick. Spring break? Sick. First week of summer? Sick. It’s inevitable, I suppose, when you spend so much time on a university campus, around so many young people and so many customers, loaded with more stress than you can reasonably manage. I was always very proud of my body for holding out until I’d finished grading my last stack of papers to succumb to whatever cold or flu or stress-induced collapse I was about to experience.
And then nearly five years ago when I moved to Los Angeles and started a new job, the high stress and exposure to a whole new region full of all new germs and bugs had me calling out of work every other month, which was awful and embarrassing from a professional standpoint but also awful and exhausting on a personal level. When COVID hit in 2020, through drastically reduced contact with other people, I went five years practically sick-free. No flus, no colds, no COVID, and even the one time I caught COVID that I know of, I didn’t experience any notable symptoms. So I guess it was nice to go years on end relatively healthy, which is weird to say because most of that whole experience was awful for all of us.
What I’m getting to here is that, uh… I’m sick, in bed, wrapped in a sweater and cozy pants and blankets, sipping tea and chicken noodle soup and wiping snot off my face for the first time in what feels like ages. My stomach is upset, I assume from postnasal drip burdening my tummy with some portion of the massive amount of mucus that’s also clogging my sinus cavities and making half of my face—including my teeth, I should add—ache from pressure. My brain is foggy and my eyes are sore and I’ve taken five naps today and I’m just left with my hazy thoughts. Notably, “how did I let this happen?”
I guess I can only blame myself. Not because I made myself get sick, or because I let myself get sick—you know, sometimes you really just can’t help it and I suppose your body needs to get sick occasionally—but because I probably made it a lot worse than it had to be. Because I’ve been going, going, going for weeks. The first few months of the year are my busiest at work, and therefore my most stressful, loaded with the most meetings, the most responsibilities, the most reporting, the most scrambling to get it all done before it’s too late. I guess that’s not really my fault, but I certainly could be advocating more for myself and my health at work. But everything has been fine so far, so I’ve just kept trucking along, pushing myself harder and harder.
Two days ago, on Wednesday, I caught my first whiff of consequences for all that going. I was exercising before work, running through the same old moves I always do, but the weights felt heavier than they should have and my body was resisting finishing each set. I was getting winded lifting weights over my head and, because that’s already not the easiest thing to do, I brushed it off. After briefly thinking to myself, “hmm… this feels like I’m getting sick,” I very quickly thought, “no, I’m just tired today.” That same feeling caught up with me later in the day, as I found myself fading in the early afternoon. Again I brushed it off as just working too hard… as if that wasn’t the problem in the first place.
And then—you’re going to laugh at this one—yesterday, Thursday, I had to fly to Las Vegas and back for a quick one-day, no-night work trip, waking up at 3am and not getting back home until 10pm that night. Stupid, obviously, especially after what should have been a warning the day before. But I got on that plane anyway. Partway through the flight I could feel in my throat that something was off, like sick-breath was creeping in, like that acidic burn that makes swallowing feel just a little bit toxic. Physically I felt fine. I trucked along, I brushed it off. It was too late to turn back at this point, anyway, so I just had to ride it out.
By 11am, my eyes were dry, sore, struggling to stay open, and my feet were dragging, slow, struggling to keep up with the busy day I still had ahead of me. I pushed through, got my work done, and found time to enjoy a nice meal. Nothing got better from there, though. Halfway through the plane ride headed back home, I had snot dripping down my face inside of my face mask: The pressure change on the airplane had turned my sinuses into bursting pipes. I felt like my face was going to explode, my ears were plugged, my face was leaking. The flight was quick, thankfully, but as soon as I arrived home, everything broke down. I was standing over the bathroom sink letting my sinuses drain, struggling to swallow, gasping for a lung full of air, and trying to hack out a request for someone to bring me some medicine, tissues, tea, Emergen-C, anything to help.
And so here I am today, Friday, paying for it. Paying for not listening to my body telling me to slow down, stop, and take a break. Paying for choosing the cheapest flights over the most convenient flights. Paying for putting too much of myself into my work. Paying for letting the stress of deadlines and sales numbers seep into me. Paying for ignoring every sign that presented itself. I probably would have gotten sick regardless, sure, but I could have gotten sick not on an airplane, not at a trade show, not exposing other people to whatever stress cold I was experiencing—for the record it is not COVID, it turns out, and I assume not the flu, given the lack of a high fever. If I had listened, maybe I could have rested some of the sick off before it really got me.
In a cruel turn of events, after several gloomy and cool weeks in Los Angeles, tomorrow, Saturday, promises sunshine and warmth, which would normally translate to some time spent nude on my rooftop soaking up the sunshine and watering my plants and maybe even enjoying an iced coffee and a book. I know. I’m hoping I might still be able to muster the strength to crawl out from under my blankets and peel off my warm layers and go enjoy that sunshine. Maybe I can manage it. But if I can’t, I will surely be kicking myself and blaming myself for not taking better care of myself this past week… or weeks.
And so my message to you all is to please, please, not be stupid like me. Please listen to your body when it tells you to slow down, when it tells you it’s tired, when it tells you it’s fighting something and needs your help. I’m sitting here reminding myself of every little decision I made to prioritize a deadline over health, an obligation over rest, a duty over wellness. And, yeah, sometimes we don’t really get to opt out of the things that cause us stress, or it doesn’t feel like we can. But when we do have those choices, we should be careful to put our health a little higher on that list. Or else you, too, will be stuck inside, snot-faced and wrapped in blankets, and not outside and naked on a beautiful sunny day.