Our quickie family staycation had been arranged a few months ago at a cute beach cottage, one of the many perks of living in Southern California. As all moms know, however, packing for a two day trip might as well be packing to flee the zombie apocalypse. Our SUV crammed with beach toys, blankets, firewood, roasting sticks, and a plethora of junk food, we headed 45 minutes up Pacific Coast Highway. This would be our first vacation as a family of four, not five. We purposefully chose a place that was new to us.
Regrettably, however, at my doctor’s visit the day before departure, I learned the angry, ridiculously painful rash on my neck was shingles. Wait, what? Isn’t The Shingles an old people disease? But I’m not even 45. OK, next month, but not yet.
My doctor explained, “Stress can make you sick.”
“No, really,” she said, all thirty-something perky, “shingles is often triggered by stress, coupled with a weak immune system, which can be caused by stress. Have you been under any unusual stress lately? Are there any factors in your life that could be causing stress?” I was wondering how many more times she could say stress.
I briefly explained the last seven months. Said I was coping really well, I thought, and I have a therapist and a support group and go to church and even work out occasionally. And that OK, I eat too many carbs and drink too much wine, but I’m totally coping. In my mind.
My body, apparently, isn’t coping so well. Which is why the chicken pox virus lurking in my nervous system decided it was time for a rave. On my neck and face. I can deal with a rash that looks like leprosy. But the pain? I had unmedicated births, because I’m a martyrish dumbass, and the fire of herpes zoster brings back some horrible memories.
I was hoping the sand, saltwater and sunshine would be a miracle cure, along with The White Man’s Medicine and some decent wine. The coast was slightly overcast and breezy, which meant perfect weather for reading on the beach. I brought along Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir she wrote about the year following her husband’s sudden death. Some of her literary references are so highbrow I had to google them, but much of what she writes resonates. This passage stopped me:
The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as a morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”
And there it was. The stupid shingles setting my nerves on fire? All the energy I put into appearing normal, functioning as normal, going on with life as normal, taking a family vacation as normal — that was energy diverted from my flagging immune system. There’s a visceral economy of grief, and I’d maxed out my card. In the immortal words of Stinger to Maverick, “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.”
The one benefit, if there is any benefit to the nastiness of shingles, is that I can complain. I can kvetch about how terrible I feel, in messages and texts and emails and conversations, and willingly solicit sympathy, and not feel guilty receiving it.
Focusing on physical pain is a welcome distraction from dealing with psychological pain and heart pain, which are a lot harder to describe, much less discuss.
My doctor noted my last visit had been to urgent care, in February, with chest pain and high blood pressure. Did we need to follow up on that? The EKG looked normal. No, I said. I thought I was having a heart attack, with the chest pain radiating into my arm and the sweating and the shortness of breath, but it turned out it wasn’t a heart attack. It was just my broken heart.
The sand and sun and saltwater helped, I guess. I still have shingles. And my heart still hurts most of the time. But at least temporarily, the stress abandoned me so I could read a book, and watch my little guy jump in the waves, and roast marshmallows, and be grateful the four of us could be together. Yes, the four of us.