Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting the Grade

I got my first major clue to future health woes only months after I graduated from college. I was singing and dancing in the shower, feeling sorry for the guy in the next apartment who never sang out loud (oh, the weird ways I used to judge people to make myself feel good), and having a blast as I got ready for work. When it was time to belt out the chorus, I threw my head back and got really dizzy.

I stopped singing, which was probably heaven for my neighbour, and I stood there trying to steady myself. The bathroom was spinning. But it wasn’t moving in a circle, it was moving up, up, up, and then when it got to the highest point that I could see, the world moved down, down, down. Technically it would be better described as bouncing, I just couldn’t resist the cliché. As soon as my head went back, I knew that there was something seriously wrong with me, and when the room didn’t settle, it became more than a gut feeling.

I didn’t want to chance the forty-five minute commute, being off-kilter, so I called in sick and I made an appointment with my family doctor. She asked me questions and shone a bright light in my eyes. I told her that I had occasionally felt and heard a fizzing, ginger ale sound at the base of my skull, in case it was relevant, and she gave me the first well-that’s-not-good-look, and told me it was probably vertigo. I was given instructions to take it easy and to avoid long drives for a while.

When I talked to my boss later that afternoon, he asked me what I was going to do, because I had no STD or LTD. Honestly, I had to ask him what STD was. Short-term disability, he patiently explained. The temporary, low-paying job also offered no drug plan.

My world slowly stopped spinning. After the shower incident, things got back to normal pretty quickly, except I had a growing fear that my body was somehow fucked up. Proper fucked. As a safety net, I got a job with benefits, including STD. It was around this time that I tried to donate blood, and I wasn’t allowed because my pulse was unsteady. A few weeks after that, my doctor put her fingers on my wrist as she watched the second hand go around her wristwatch, and reassured me that everything was okay. There were a few missed beats, or PVCs, a completely normal occurrence in all healthy young women. Another worry quashed; no biggie after all.

Over the next eighteen months I forgot about the vertigo and the anxiety that had crept up so quickly. Happy to focus on regular things again, like starting a career, it was easy to ignore the gut feeling that I had way back then. My friends and family were also happy to move on. Who wants to focus on sickness? Even when my health issues resurfaced, the decline was mostly gradual, so I had lots of time to get used to each little problem, and so did my family. In fact, there was only one other big thing that brought me to the doctor’s office.

Things happened so slowly that I thought my body was just getting older, though I was in my early twenties. If my day-to-day health was mapped on a chart using a scale of one to ten, the line connecting the numbers would resemble a very slight slope, pretty much the opposite of a ski hill. When you looked at each day individually, there would be very little to indicate a serious illness; but looking back on the years, seeing the steady decline, it would be easy to know that something was wrong. We live day to day, not year to year. Measuring the grade is useless if you only have a day of data to go by. And comparing one day to the next can warp a sense of level ground.

The clues we get from daily life are less concrete than the ones we get after years of retrospect. My husband noticed a big difference in my attitude and my level of happiness before we knew I was sick, but he had no way of translating those changes into a diagnosis. It seemed more likely at the time that I was going through an existential crisis.

Nothing Tim could have done would have solved the mystery of my broken body - not even if he quit his job and followed me around with a pen and a pad of paper, jotting down everything he observed, and then analysed the lists every week. The rest of my family and friends had even less to go on, because I didn’t want to talk about feeling gross, even on my good days, when words were not so cruelly elusive. As humans, we are in charge of caring for each other, not fixing each other. People cared for me and that was enough, just like the way you care for your mom, Anonymous, is enough.

Thank you to Anonymous for this question: Why do we, as friends and family, not pay attention to the changes in a person till it’s too late? Is it because we do see change and ignore it because we have busy lives, or is it because our minds don't trigger the change until we have reason?

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