Friday, February 01, 2008

How Sick is Sick Enough?

During a flight from Victoria to Regina in 2005, my seat-mate Miranda lived up to her name. (Miranda is a classical Latin word which means "to be marvelled at".) She had the worst case of nausea I have ever seen. She had discovered her gift for medication-resistant airsickness on a previous flight, but she could not afford the time for land travel. I kept handing her fresh airsickness bags and a damp towel while she told me her story between heaving sessions. It came naturally to me because she was the same age as my daughter.

Miranda was celebrating her 27th birthday by travelling to her grandfather's funeral. That night, she was going to be carrying the cross for a midnight ritual in honour of the deceased -- a job reserved for the oldest grandchild, but said grandchild had just had part of her arm amputated and was unequal to the task. There had been a storm the night before, knocking down power lines & trees, so Miranda had been forced to travel to the airport (in the dark at 5AM from a house with no electricity) via a convoluted detour, pulling trees off the road with the truck & chain along the way. This woman is a construction contractor who breeds mastiffs in her spare time. A couple of weeks before, her husband rolled her SUV with her entire crew in it. No one was killed, but everyone went off on medical disability at the same time.

When she started to shake after a particularly tough session of trying to vomit up bile, she said, "This is normal . . ." She said that the shaking had started a couple of years ago, and the MRI showed a brain lesion. I asked if she seizured, and she said no. I said no problem, shaking would not freak me out. I told her that in her place, I would be shaking from stress, with no need for a brain lesion.

Miranda was not a whiner -- she just found herself telling me more and more because I was sympathetic. I thought that she might feel less awful if she talked through her stress. At least, conversation would provide some distraction from her misery while we were on the ground waiting to go up for another nauseating ride. The flight from Victoria to Edmonton did not require a plane change, but there were two touchdowns.

Periodically, she would wail, "I'm SORRY!" and ask why I was being so nice to her. She felt overwhelmingly guilty for being sick, and doubly guilty because I was being inconvenienced by her presence. I tried to convince her that I understood that she wasn't vomiting uncontrollably for the express purpose of annoying me, but it was a hard sell.

Miranda represents one extreme of the spectrum of reactions to personal illness. She was ashamed because she could not control her body, ashamed that she needed assistance, and she expected to be punished. Those at the other end of the spectrum love their organ recitals and games of "I'm sicker than you," and expect the universe to revolve around their medical abnormalities. Anyone who refuses to participate in the expected manner is immediately convicted of selfishness.

What I learned from Miranda on the airplane is that sickness is an opportunity to experience grace and also an opportunity to experence rejection. Our experience shapes the way we handle our illnesses. A few days after I was Miranda's seat mate, I walked out of a Christian concert five minutes before it started and was unable to go back in because I could not face the thought of having to squeeze by people again if the urge to pee became overwhelming. I sat on the steps outside and listened as the MC went through the various stages of the sales pitch. I got more and more frustrated, and finally told God I couldn't listen to other people any more and wanted -- nay, needed -- to follow whatever path he showed me. One person -- an insurance salesman who was once a psychiatric nurse -- came and talked to me for a while in a non-invasive way, and left me feeling a lot better. I decided not to apologize for my behaviour, or plead for understanding. When I am sick, physically or mentally, I will remain sick until I am well. That's it.

My mother and I are both of the Miranda variety. No matter how sick we are, we accuse ourselves of malingering. Even though we would not dream of refusing to tend any and all sick people who cross our path, we worry that we are not sick enough to deserve tending. How crazy is that?

I secretly long to be a medical megalomaniac, suffering theatrically from some dreaded, exotic but painless disease, which requires dozens of specially-trained people to tend me like a wilting orchid. What would happen if I threw myself on the floor, weeping, and refused to get up under my own power?

I'd lose control of my life, that's what. Aye -- therein lies the rub.

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