Seeing through sickness
I’ve had enough sore throats in my life that I’m now able to distinguish between those that come from allergies or simply being run-down and those that are serious. Yet, no matter how closely I am acquainted with them, to this day nothing makes my mood dive south more than waking up with a sore throat and chills. Now, with the weather changing and fall making its discreet arrival, I’m sure many at Brown are waking up to the same nightmarish introduction to flu season. For first years like me, this month will mark our first time falling ill in college.
A few weeks ago, I woke up to my throat feeling like it had experienced death-by- sandpaper. The beginning of any illness has always been the same for me. In the midst of a crescendo to full-on misery, I drowned in destructive thoughts about how taking care of myself would have prevented this monstrosity that reminds me of its presence every time I swallow. Even worse, I was sick right in the middle of midterm season, and the days filled with fatigue, spikes of nervousness, and feverish episodes. My parents suggested I come home for Saturday, as I live only 50 minutes away in Massachusetts. Not ready to swallow my pride, or really anything at all, I reassured my parents that everything was okay, that I’d have to deal with this experience sooner or later. Nevertheless, my body craved to be in fetal position, and my homesickness only amplified. I capitulated and agreed to come home.
There are special moments that words cannot emulate, when in a wash of warmth, the joy of living becomes crystal clear. In such moments, we promise ourselves that no matter what evils befall us in the future, we will try to find our way back to this feeling, this undeniable sense that it’s going to be okay. The sight of my family again, even after only weeks apart, gave me this magical feeling. Everything I saw was utterly familiar, but with a childlike novelty attached to it, imbued with a warmth that was at once new and nostalgic. I had forgotten how crisp the air a bit farther north in Massachusetts could be. My parents’ cooking is basic, but I preferred it at that moment to anything I could have found in a dining hall. Showering and sleeping in my home for just that one night felt like enough rest for a week. For the first time in my life, I was treated like a celebrity in my own home, and the jovial atmosphere almost matched that of a holiday. One would think that the Scrooge-like mood my cold put me in would distort and sour the experience, but somehow the run-down state of my body made my mind all the more perceptive and appreciative of the present moment.
When we are physically healthy, life can seem like a lulling, sedate marathon forward. Being sick drives the status quo of life to an even lower bar, but perhaps this is absolutely essential to having a healthy outlook on life. We go from feeding ourselves angst and doubt about what we are lacking, at times taking our thoughts to the most painfully abstract places, to yearning for the simple things we had in the first place. As the cold dies off and we start to get back more and more pieces of ourselves, every improving day is bliss. We feel rejuvenated, even more so than if we hadn’t been sick in the first place, filled with a new reserve of carefree gratitude for all the small things we could do before, even like being able to study rather than having to stay locked away in bed. Perhaps we learn the most about life from our suffering, which illuminates the things in our lives that are easily lost and, even more importantly, the things that remain solid and true no matter what. We are not naturally wired to count our joys every day, instead predisposed to worry about threats, no matter how nonexistent, to our current and future situations. Illness and suffering force us to count our blessings.
We can apply the same principles I learned from my cold to our everyday lives here. We cannot forget about the things we don’t see because they are always there. At home it is family, but here it is each other and the community. Those who make fun of Health Services for being slow or inefficient make the same terrible mistake that I did when the sore throat first hit. I live right across from Andrews House, where appointments can quite literally be scheduled for the hour between classes, never pushed to over two weeks later, and a doctor can grant the same peace of mind that family is too far away to give. I’m grateful to those at Health Services who can provide any form of respite to a sick student trying to find their footing and who are considerate enough to send an email concerning whooping cough after only one case.
Among the hundreds of clubs and mutual friends at Brown that we are involved with, each is a shoulder to lean on. We often don’t realize how much care others have for us until we need it most. Even the customary “how’s it going” check-in when passing someone on the street is so much more than a banal greeting, an invitation to share whatever is comfortable and ask for whatever is needed. Being met by such a greeting at the end of a long, feverish day reminded me of how many branches of happiness and people I still had beyond my family, and I remember smiling and replying, ”pretty well” instead of divulging into some rant, because it was actually the truth. Perhaps it’s these simple reassurances that are the most poignant.
There is one last thing I notice at the end of every illness, and I find it the most insidious of all: We forget too quickly. I’m only a week back from fully recovering and already find my mind is agitated by the smallest of things, such as the TA hours I should go to but never get to, the softened apples at lunch, how a driver did not yield to me, and so on. I’m back to questioning everything from my competency to a decision of grabbing a cookie at the Ratty. I can no longer summon that appreciation for the status quo I had felt so strongly during my time of sickness. Just weeks earlier, I would have paid good money to have the energy to get out of bed, yet now it’s back to being a banal routine. Andrews House is still right across from my dorm, and yet I have to force myself to recall how grateful I should be to have it.
I don’t know how to prevent myself from forgetting. But I promise you, no matter how far circumstances dip, we are always in better hands than we think; if there is anything that my first sickness in college taught me, it is that life is an untapped reservoir of warmth and hope if we frame it right. Take care of yourself. Take care of others. Take care of what matters.