My Ordeal with Shingles

I’ve had to learn to overcome the shame and pain associated with my bout with Shingles in order to gain insight into the lessons to be found here. For months now I’ve been asking God to release any unnecessary energy, negativity, doubts and fears I have about my life journey and purpose. Like most prayers, mine are often answered in unexpected ways.

The warning signs are now obvious. I clearly had a big problem from the start. Both my arms went completely numb for two nights in a row. This should have worried me, but I dismissed it. The rash started after that. My skin was very red, and itchy. The next day it was beyond itchy to a painful mass that wanted soothing to which I applied hydrocortisone with little result. On the third night I had classic flu symptoms. By the morning, one look in the mirror told me I needed to see my doctor right away; the red mass had developed bumps and felt like someone was rubbing glass shards into my chest. That was when I became alarmed. Apparently, this is the highly contagious stage of the Shingles and Chickenpox virus, Herpes Zoster.

The pain is unreal. Now imagine 100 shards of glass on your delicate skin, moving and burning into your skull through your spine. The agony you feel each time your shirt rubs lightly against your skin is enough to make you see little stars, exhale loudly and hold onto furniture. This is not a fantasy; the pain is real. Some people cannot even think straight when Shingles strikes. While the rash itself is localized to a small area of the body, the sensation is dispersed, owing to the neurological nature of the disease. It emerges from the spinal column and will send pain signals everywhere, including unaffected areas.

At this time, some myth-busting is necessary. Why do we have the crazy idea that Shingles only happens to elderly people? It must be especially bad then, too, but it’s not exclusive to our old age. Talking to friends, I heard from quite a few young women in their late thirties and early forties tell me of their experiences with Shingles. Shingles is the very same Chickenpox virus, which once it strikes, lies dormant in our bodies forever, like all viruses. Therefore, a key trigger is a compromised immune system combined with some sort of high-stress situation, which explains the myth; elderly people tend to experience a compromised immune owing to the natural aging process. The compromised immune system, however, is not enough to cause an outbreak. I’m convinced that stress is really the biggest factor to unleashing this severe pain and possible disfigurement.

In my case, a previous illness, treated with a double dose of antibiotics, followed by worry and stress because I had quit my job and concern about how things would resolve themselves, made me ripe for an attack. As additional factors, I had physical and psychological stress to contend with. I had been attending several dance classes, which exposed me to too many people’s germs and energies at a time when I needed to be more careful about my surroundings. My body just collapsed under the pressure. I had to withdraw from everything to allow my body to heal.

Through this humbling and debilitating illness, I learned that it’s good to have access to healthcare and pain medicine when one needs it. I have a high tolerance for pain, but there is suffering that one need not endure without reason. Shingles will stop you in your tracks. At times the pain medicine works against that reality. It provides a false sense of wellness and vitality, inspiring action over rest, mobility over sedation. Toward the end of my illness, I’ve made a decision to use less Motrin, not because I have to, but in order to sit still with my pain, to withdraw into the place where my body can best heal itself, by stopping the activity that relentlessly drives me. Sitting still has given me time to digest the lessons learned and understand this disease. Here are my recommendations to you if you ever have the unfortunate plight of a Shingles attack:

  • Get a copy of the Balches’ Nutritional Healing and follow as many of their recommendations as you feel comfortable with.
  • Stock up on the highest milligram of Motrin possible to help with the pain. It really is unbearable.
  • Get real pain medicine, an opiate to help soothe the pain.
  • Invest in some Valerian tincture to help you sleep.
  • Sleep, rest and nap as much as possible. If you have sick leave, take it; you will no doubt need it.
  • Find out about the shingles vaccine. It’s available to individuals over 50. If you’re eligible for the vaccine, get it. Though I make this recommendation, I don’t know whether or how it works. Ask your own questions.
  • Get some Reiki or other body work as soon as you are able.
  • Stay away from children or anyone who has never had chickenpox.
  • Surround yourself with beauty, flowers or anything that will nurture your heart and soul. You will need to be uplifted.

As I recover my strength, my body and health, I continue to ask myself about why I felt ashamed to admit to this illness. I was reluctant to mention it to friends; I didn’t want my partner to tell people; I wouldn’t explain why I was out sick. The shame was emotionally crippling. Upon reflection, I see it has always been hard for me to appear weak, to ask for help, to say I can’t. Shingles made me vulnerable to the degree that all those things were true. I am weak. I need help. And, I can’t just keep going like nothing is happening. I’ve had to own all of this.

In the end, shingles seems like an extraordinary gift. I have had to stop and be still. I have had to listen and withdraw. My dreams have been vivid and portentous. I have had time to talk to the people I love. I have found refuge in myself. I know there are several other lessons that will be revealed to me through my healing process. I await these lessons with eagerness and an open heart and mind. This is one lesson I don’t want to repeat.

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