I used to reserve a special kind of secret scorn for those kids who took weeks out of high school for vague illnesses that never seemed to resolve. I just figured their parents were of the more lenient sort than mine, who would tend to respond to early-morning-sour-stomach with a penetrating stare and, “Are you REALLY too sick to go?” The answer was usually a guilty guilty no, so instead of sleeping in I started to pride myself on rising to the occasion through – it turned out – itty-bitty stomachaches, the same stomachaches (I assumed) that brought lesser fighters to their knees. While I resented people who took sick days, I got to thinking I was the robust Elizabeth Bennet to my other friends’ wilt-y Jane Eyre’s…or something. I was “of a good constitution.” I did not miss class (…well, for illness, anyway). I was no damsel! I did not have fainting spells! And I would live forever.
I continued to belligerently flaunt a good metabolism, all through college and then some. I had a few colds; I would go to studio anyway. And brag about it! I didn’t need doctors, because I had WebMD, and could therefore nurse myself through any sort of bad day. One needed only to try harder, assume a modicum of grit, and physical unpleasantness could be kept at bay. I’m only now beginning to own the silly point-of-pride in it all, how preposterous it is to think good health is something earned, or bestowed with favor. At least in this case. Because I certainly wasn’t earning it, ever. Oh no no no – that special secret scorn extended to anyone eating gluten-free, or exercising regularly, or following a special diet or any sort of health regime. In my heart of hearts, I was Darwinian. I accepted homeopathy, in lieu of preventative measures. I was just one of the strong ones. AND I WOULD LIVE FOREVER.
Then, about a year and a half ago, I started recording these occasional migraine headaches. The first time I started to note a pattern with these day-killing monsters was during one weekend spent at my parent’s house, the morning after a night of maybe three plus glasses of red sangria. “It’s probably the red wine,” my mother said, while I shuffled miserably from bathroom to bed and back again. Very shortly thereafter – aided by an evening recovery, via one ginormous Chipotle burrito – we reformed the incident to read, “Brittany had a hangover.” I sheepishly left it at that.
But then it started happening again, and all over the place, outside the original conditions. Usually I’d have been drinking the night before, but very scarcely to excess (I’m a lady). Sometimes I faulted pills I’d be taking at the time, or barometric pressure. I saw one doctor over the course of a particularly ill August who told me to start keeping a headache log. I abandoned the project when the monster days stopped – but then a few months later, they’d happen again. I had one today, following no alcohol. And guess what? I have become my own greatest scoff target incarnate: the person who complains about being mildly sick all the time.
Joan Didion wrote something in Goodbye To All That about spending the bulk of her early New York twenties “in someone’s living room, about 5am, with a slight headache.” It somehow sounds romantic in context, the idea of holding up battle scars for our adventures, great evenings – heaven knows we’ve all bragged about a hangover in some context or other – but to anyone who’s ever spent a day bobbing around between “slight headaches,” the fact of them are no joke. I’ve spent so much time, already, in the pursuit of semi-illicit pleasures that I know will cost me the next day. And why? Because this is the time to do that kind of thing? Because the pleasures themselves are always so innately satisfying? It’s not the tidiest comparison as my particular headaches aren’t all about alcohol, but a part of me wants to chalk up my fall from constant good health to a cruel twist of karma: I should never have secretly mocked those sick kids! I’d never banked on getting an older person’s body, one day. Yes, a part of me believes I’ve invited, or at least made up, a part of my new ailments.
It also turns out that, more often than not, into adulthood people are not lying about being sick to get out of algebra, and taking a sick day is not about cartoons. It’s really very miserable to move around in the world half-functional, unsure as to the cause of your problem and unable to predict it, the doctor an expensive enigma, our qualms vague in context. Or to people whose qualms are not so vague, are serious, to those battling actual chronic injury, perhaps every single day with a boldness – I see now that you’re the strong ones. I am sheepish, now, and I know the migraine headaches which afflict some 28 million people on the reg are not even close to granting me insight into real pain. That’s quite scary. I may not be one of the strong ones, after all.
I worry about time, lately. I just finished reading Iris Smyles’ new memoir, Iris Has Free Time, which is a book that begins very Sex and the City and ends very dark-regret-packed-reflections-from-an-alcoholic. Her book is interesting because it achieves the feel of an ode and a cautionary tale, simultaneously – she talks to her former self with a high regard for that self’s panache and humor and joy, but a real disdain for some of the choices this panache-packed, humorous, joyful person was (or was not) able to make. Because I originally picked her book up to compare it to the trajectory of my own life anyways, I couldn’t help tracing certain similar lines: I’ve been assuming endless time, assuming bottomless stores of energy, assuming that “good constitution” which are of course the tools of any book’s heroine worth her salt. But sometimes, these days, I get sick. And when I get sick, I lose free time. I lose something – I know it’s small – to nature (or whatever psychosomatic demon it is plaguing me when I can’t get out of bed all day), and I’m kowtowed, then. And I’m not dying, and I take medicine, but that won’t always be so.
I didn’t mean to get so macabre. It’s just that I’m feeling very sorry for myself, inside a headache which is so supremely itty-bitty in the grand scheme of things. So is it about humility, now? When a sweeping higher power sucks our faculties away, do we succumb and curl up in the fetal position and put a silver popcorn bowl at the foot of our beds just-in-case? Or do we take superstitious punitive measures, like stopping drinking, or going gluten-free? But then, what would happen if we stopped drinking, or stopped eating cake? Everything would end! It would be like the land before time, all over again. We’d become that other kind of most-scornworthy person, the sort who goes to bars and orders water. The sort who passes on free cake, when it comes around.
It’s difficult to know what’s brave or right to do, what’s the best use of one’s time – more so when confronted with the notion that there is always less usable time than we hope there’ll be. So… I’m going to a doctor. Something’s gotta give, and presumably better my ego/seeing sunrise/binging on cookies than everything else. We must begin to select our adventures, the more marks they leave. I’ll begin to think that’s the real skill behind a woman with a “good constitution.”