This week marks my fourth week battling Shingles. It is now officially a saga. What can I do now that the pain has moved beyond what Motrin can control? I am beside myself with pain—literally; I’m like an alien unto myself, watching myself wriggling beneath a glass. I don’t recognize this body anymore. This new level of pain, discomfort and sensation is almost more traumatic than Shingles itself.
After two weeks, I felt that I had sufficiently recovered to claim that I had overcome my ordeal, surviving all the worse that Shingles has to offer. That is when my second outbreak began. All of the healed areas were once again under siege. A new level of sensation has taken hold; torture owns my body. Itching, biting, and walking creatures move along the flesh of my chest and march beneath my arm at will. This can’t be real, I tell myself, but it is. My face muscles convulse; my eyelids—the tops and bottoms on both sides—twitch and pulse. My fingers go numb, and a star of pain ignites in the center of my back, exploding into emptiness. I cancel plans. Buckle down for another term. My sadness, resignation and grief at my emotional and physical distress are overwhelming.
When this all started, with my usual optimism, I decided that everything would work out fine because it was the beginning of my spring break, and at least, I could stay home and convalesce, and perhaps with some luck, party the last weekend before school. This is the story I told myself. This is the presence of mind I embraced. What a ridiculous fantasy. I urged my partner to go on vacation without me because there was no way I could do anything, go anywhere or see anyone. I have had to remain inside and sit with my pain. I maxed out on Motrin, going to the edge of the daily dose, reeling with pain at the end of the it; watching the seconds tick by waiting for the next capsule. I even tried to dull the pain with alcohol, but the beast will not be lulled by bottled trifles. I must ride this wave. I have no choice. I have to go on.
This is the new trauma of this illness.
The pain overwhelms me and my body coils in on itself like an angry snake. As I catch my breath, my eyes drown in tears. I can’t believe that I’m here—still—again! I’m not sleeping, because the pain is more intense at night. My teeth feel like they will crack from clenching of my jaw against the pain, and my head throbs with the pressure. I don’t understand what’s happening, but my body temperature drops, giving me chills and covering my body in thick sweat; the pain rises in waves all through the night. I wake depressed, but I put on a brave face. After all, I am a warrior. I am a survivor. I can handle this.
I am flooded with heaviness and the weighty tenderness of a body deprived of rest and fed on a sleepless night of torment. I begin to sob in agony. I am home alone; I can weep with abandon and no one will hear me. This is the problem. I am so alone with my pain. Depression has moved in and is finding the ground fertile. I miss my friends. I miss hugging people. I miss running around with the beautiful children in my life. I miss the amorous touch of my lover. I am an alien in this body. I reach out to friends—over the phone. Please make me laugh or forget. It is little consolation. I yearn to be well again, whole and pain-free.
This is trauma, emotional and physical trauma yet it does not compare to other traumas. To me, Shingles is a stern teacher. I must forgive her. Even if I don’t like the lesson, mastery is required. The imposed isolation and the loss of the vibrancy with which I customarily live are more than enough to crush me. I don’t have much to give, because just putting on a shirt feels like an accomplishment. But what I have learned is that people are precious. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this for granted, but now it’s even clearer. I can’t wait to hug people without flinching. Screaming babies will be no obstacle to quality time. I’m looking forward to spending more time with people. I know I’m not the only one affected by this disease. As a community, our lives have been altered.
On my way back and down from the crest of the curve, I am aware of how steep and sharp the descent is, no less perilous than any other journey of the human spirit. I hope to understand more about myself as I emerge from this dark night of pain. Like one of Millet’s peasants, out of sheer desperation, I am gleaning the earth for sustenance. I plumb my soul in search of the Edissa I’m becoming, holding my hand up to the glass in an awkward greeting. I see me there, and wonder, Who will be left from this fire? Will I know her?