Where Logic Meets Love

On Being Sick

Saturday, April 3, 2010

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On Being Sick | Faith Permeating Life
Since high school, I've half-jokingly referred to myself as a "reverse hypochondriac." There's probably a word for that, but it seems to get at it so much more directly. Rather than being someone who invents illnesses where there are none, I refuse to believe that I'm sick without hard proof, regardless of how I'm feeling.

This can probably be traced back not-too-indirectly to my doctors growing up. We went to a pediatric office (complex? clinic?) where I often saw a different doctor every time. From what I can remember, they all seemed to have the same philosophy: If they couldn't immediately figure out what was wrong with me, it was clearly all in my head.

I realize this approach may be warranted with, say, an attention-seeking 5-year-old, but I went there until I was 18, and when you're in high school and your doctor's telling you "I don't know what's wrong, so there must not be a problem," it can be frustrating, to say the least. When I finally decided, junior year of college, to re-attempt an investigation into my cardiovascular problems, I was downright shocked to be taken so seriously and actually referred to specialists for further examination. I still have the feeling sometimes that I have to prove that something's wrong with me before I'll be taken seriously.

But mostly, I have to prove it to myself, and this is often the most difficult part. There have been more occasions than I care to admit where I've actually said, out loud, to myself, "Jessica, you are sick."

I finally devised a question I could ask myself, which was, "Do you feel the way you normally do on a daily basis?" And even if there was nothing concrete I could point to -- just feeling warm, or queasy, or having a "sick" feeling at the back of my throat when I breathed -- I would be able to answer the question, "No."

Still, I'm more comfortable when I have a doctor diagnosis, or at least something concrete I can tell people, like "I have a fever of ____." (Even this is tricky, because my normal body temperature is in the mid 97's, so a temperature of 99.5 is high for me but doesn't sound very high.) There's actually a weird kind of relief for me to have a stomach flu, because I can point to physical evidence of being sick. This is why I will often give people more information than they want to know, telling them, "I threw up three times last night," because I think they won't believe I'm sick otherwise.

This was especially the case in college, where -- despite all the friendly signs during flu season telling you to be safe rather than sorry and stay home if you felt sick -- professors often had a strict absence policy, dropping you points or whole letter grades after a certain number of absences. So if I was feeling off, but had nothing concrete and no diagnosis to point to, I would usually go to class, especially if it was the beginning of the semester and I didn't want to use up my absences too early. Staying home would have meant not only convincing myself that I was sick, but convincing myself that I was sick enough to warrant missing class, using up an absence and going through the hassle of getting notes, making up work, etc.

I tell you all this to explain several things -- why I showed up to work on Thursday and went home only after multiple people, including my boss, told me to, and why I told everyone, very specifically, that "the doctor said I have mono," even though technically that was not true. What was technically true was that the doctor said that all my symptoms fit with either mono or strep, that the treatment was the same for both (rest, fluids, and ibuprofen and warm compresses for the lymph node that was, as he put it, "not the size of a grape -- more like a golf ball!"), that I should get a strep test and then come back in a week if I wasn't feeling better for a mono test. It wasn't until I was back in the waiting room that an angry-looking receptionist (because I was interrupting her lunch) came out to tell me the strep test was negative, and then I left. What I read later said that a blood test detects things that only show up 5-14 days after the mono symptoms (which show up 50-60 after contracting it, for adults), which explained why he couldn't test for it yet.

I showed up to work for several reasons, but mostly because I only get 10 paid sick days a year as a paid employee (and while I can take unpaid ones after that, the employee handbook ominously warns that you can be terminated for "too many absences"). Including the day off to go to the doctor's, I'd already taken three, and it was only March. I guess I was afraid of being fired if I didn't come to work. What I realized afterward, after my boss told me several times that I should go home and finally said I was a grown-up and could make my own decisions, was that I was more likely to get fired for coming to work with mono and showing my utter stupidity, than for staying home.

The ridiculous parts of it are that I felt like I was lying the whole time, telling everyone I had mono, and I didn't feel like I had enough proof, even with the fever and the golf-ball-sized lymph node, to convince myself that I really was sick enough to stay home from work.

I'm glad I went in for a few hours, because I got a few things wrapped up and delegated my remaining duties for the time I would be gone. And you know what? I was planning on going back in on Monday, but I might as well take it off. And maybe Tuesday. I'm going to still be sick, I have a legitimate excuse in the eyes of basically everybody in my office (as hard as that may be for me to believe), and nobody's going to fire me if I run out of sick days.

That's what I have to keep telling myself, anyway. Damn reverse hypochondria.

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