Regular readers of this column – all three of you, but I exaggerate – have no doubt intuited the manner in which topics are selected each week. It goes something like this: "Oh, [expletive deleted], it’s Thursday. I better come up with something." I generally have no larger purpose than engagement of some sort with the issues of the day. These are decidedly ad hoc ruminations.
So this week, I write about my most vivid recent experience.
I have been a very lucky man thus far. No medical history to speak of. I’ve only twice found myself dependent upon doctors: Once in college to get wisdom teeth removed. And then, a little more than a decade ago, some ornery tick infected me with Colorado tick fever, a malady so rare the resident who diagnosed it at the Yale-New Haven emergency room is still probably talking about it. Generally, I bounce along with energy to spare. I count on it.
Not this week. A secret assassin found his mark, and stabbed me again and again in the back and right flank. I would turn to see who would do such a thing, imagining a long, long list of folks whom I have antagonized over the years. No one was there. I was becoming a run-down dog, sleeping away a perfectly good Sunday afternoon, a day I am usually in the office preparing for the week’s mayhem.
"I think you should see a doctor," my wife said after I gasped in response to a stab in the back.
I pretended not to hear her. Selective inattention is a specialty of mine.
"I don’t want to be medicalized," I grunted, when she insisted on repeating herself enough times to make it through the dense fog of my denial. "It’s just a pinched nerve," I said, all the while appreciating how effective a skillful torturer must be. I would have confessed to anything to make the interrogation end.
I lay abed at night trying not to show signs of pain, working hard to win the award for Macho Jerk of the Year.
"What’s that?," my wife said the next morning. A rash on my torso.
"Nothing," I replied. I quickly put on a shirt and left the room. Later that day I snuck a peak, when no one was looking. It was a rash all right. My executioner kept stabbing at me, and I was tired, more tired than I should have been.
I broke down and went to our family doctor, fearing that the end had come.
The diagnosis took about a nanosecond.
"Shingles," the doctor said.
I cowered. Shingles? Isn’t that what homeless men suffer after they run out of money for cheap wine? I eat three square meals a day. I get plenty of sleep. I exercise. I even bathe daily. Shingles?
Well, there it was. I was given horse pills to swallow and a narcotic pain reliever.
"No way I am taking those," I told her. "My clients have a lot of trouble with pain pills. I don’t want to get hooked." She smiled. "Cut them in half and take them as needed. You won’t get hooked," she said. Did she want my membership card to the Man Club, too? I had been diagnosed, and was now given permission to use powerful pain pills.
My wife knows better than to utter the words "I told you so," so I was spared that form of humiliation. She fussed over me, promising to be there no matter what I needed. Chicken soup appeared, and fat-free ice cream. The dogs curled up next to me, instinctively protecting me.
That night I took a pain pill, but only when no one was looking. The next day I headed to court in New London. Shingles was not going to stop me.
It is a good thing I drove alone to court. I was gasping aloud as needles of pain tore into me. After court, I came home, went to bed, and stayed there for 18 hours. It was the first time in a long time I had done that.
The medications kicked in the next day, and I started to feel something like optimism and hope again. Recovering from an illness is a wonderful gift. Pain dominates your horizon and becomes the limit of the known world. To be free of it, even intermittently, is release from prison.
But still the gods remind me who is in control. A stab of pain every few minutes keeps me as close to humble as a vain man can get. But best of all this rarely experienced sense of gratitude for those pain-free moments. It is good simply to live. I am lucky to escape so quickly from pain; I am reminded that some have it as a constant companion. Illness teaches empathy better than any sermon or any text. I hope I am spared the need for a refresher course any time soon.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.