It occurs to me that for most people, being sick is not a totally solitary experience. Someone is there to bring you a hot water bottle, or a bowl of soup, or a face to look at and talk to. If you’re a kid, they’ll stay home with you, or they’ll leave you with someone familiar. If you’re old enough to be at home by yourself – fifteen, twenty-five, fifty – you might spend most of the daylight hours alone feeling sorry for yourself, but even if they do have to go to work during the day, they’ll be back again in the evening. Some noise in the house helps you feel a little less crazy and forces you to remember that as inwardly focused as you are right now, other people are continuing to live their lives.
For quite a long time — except for a two-and-a-half-year relationship in which I was more often carer than cared for — I have been sick on my own. I have lived alone, as I do now, for long stretches of my short adult life. Perhaps it’s a product of being the youngest child of three by some distance. However social an animal I have become, I seem to seek out solitude as a default setting.
I lived alone during the time I was the sickest I have ever been: a week in February 2007 when, after scoring an equaliser from halfway in the dying seconds of a game of futsal at Christchurch’s now non-existent QEII Indoor Sports Stadium, I promptly went home and collapsed on the couch. The next day I met a group of Japanese girls at the art gallery and took them across the road to show them the spare room of my flat, apologising constantly for my sniffles and dishevelled appearance. The day after that, I spent many feverish hours in a leather La-Z-Boy hallucinating hundreds of people into my flat, all of whom angrily admonished me for thinking about going to the doctor.
On the fourth day of the illness, I called Blue Star Taxis to take me to the after hours clinic on Bealey Ave. Alternating between shivers and hot sweats, I sat by the window and looked down at the street for an hour before calling them up again, at which point they laughed and said, “Sorry, there was a mistake.” A taxi arrived soon after, I went to the doctor and got medicine, and about a week later I was back at work.
The previous year, when visiting my mother during a semester break in my final year of university, I said I wasn’t going to get a flu vaccination. Didn’t think they helped. “If you get sick, there won’t be anyone to look after you,” she snapped. I can appreciate the love behind those words now, but at the time, the thought of having to lie around in bed with only a laptop and books for company didn’t exactly give me pause. I thought to myself: So what? That’d be kind of nice. I was younger, more selfish, and more socially awkward than I am now (believe it or not) and an opportunity to spend days on end without worrying about anyone else sounded all right.
I’ve been sick again this past week or so, alone in my perfect Brooklyn flat, and it has mostly sucked. The Internet, so often my redeemer during past illnesses, has provided distraction but little solace. Intermittent and occasionally severe pain has rendered meaningless the view of Wellington City and Harbour from my deck. Given that the sickness has been a new one, not previously experienced — a gingival infection spreading to wring out my throat and head — I have been able to confront the absurd possibility that my body is already failing me, à la Synecdoche, New York. Most of all, I have missed my friends and all the rituals of our weekly Wellington lives: the silly email banter at work, the walk home through Aro Valley, the Friday happy hour beers.
It’s funny, because I’d started to hate the sound of my own voice a bit lately. I’d come home after some event and say to myself, “you could always just shut up for a change.” (I am the type that remembers every conversation of the night, no matter how many standard drinks are consumed, and involuntarily picks back over every spoken sentence before falling asleep.) My body promptly gave me the opportunity to shut up for several days, and it wasn’t as immediately cleansing as I’d hoped; more deconstructive, as if a piece of my life had been removed.
Contrary to my perverse, self-centred hopes, the usual Friday and Saturday fun went ahead just fine without me. In my head, this particular Friday and Saturday fun was the most fun anyone has ever had. One friend graciously brought round a bag of groceries on Saturday and left it by the door, and I felt like I’d betrayed both of us by sleeping through his visit. Still, what would we have talked about? I was feeling very sorry for myself, and he had been uploading photos of fun to Facebook. This was a complex and very indulgent bitterness.
Later that day, I shaved off my beard, perhaps as a means of having a conversation with myself. Or to give myself a new face to look at. In any case, it got plenty of likes and comments.
A few texts rolled in about events I was missing. “Don’t mean to FOMO you but [x] is dancing like a gazelle on the serengheti” read one message on Saturday night. To my surprise, pangs of envy were quickly replaced by smiles at a) the image described, and b) the kindness of my friend to let me know what was going on. I got a few other texts from people, mostly just checking to see how I was, and they helped cast off my acrimony blanket. People are enjoying themselves, or even just going about their day, and want to include me somehow. Why should I be such a curmudgeon? Coincidentally, this is also about when the swelling in my gums started to go down.
I suppose those texts, and some nice words from nice people on social media, were my noise in the house. All that bitterness seems rather silly now. Might get a flu vaccination next year, though, just in case.