Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fighting Sickness the Non-Medicinal Way

Single mothers with no automatic support network can't afford to get sick. They need to be at the top of their game, or near it, at all times.

So when I woke up one recent morning with a stiff neck, pounding headache, stuffed-up ears, sweaty skin, and a profound feeling of blah, I knew I had to throw myself full force into nipping-whatever-this-was-in-the-bud mode. These ailments followed a night during which I experienced severe stomach cramps and (TMI alert!) an ache in the buttocks. The cramps were not unusual, but I had not felt hemorrhoid-like pain and pressure on my pelvis like that since being pregnant six years earlier. A pre-dawn visit to the bathroom relieved me, violently, of these problems. Then I went back to sleep and awoke with a host of new ones.

What had caused this? Was it standing outside in the cold and wind for one and a quarter hours the day before wearing a stylish yet insubstantial hat, scarf, and mitten set? That was very unlike me as I almost always choose my winter accessories for their warmth rather than their looks. Or was it, I feared, the result of neglecting to wash my hands a couple of times at the ski mountain several days earlier because I was in a hurry to get back to the table where my younger son was rough housing his brother. I made a mental note to wash my hands before we next ate. But being at the mountain -- or anywhere, really -- with both of my sons has a way of scrambling my thought process. And before I knew it, I was licking salt and ketchup from French fries off my fingers.

Gadzooks! Had I inadvertently given myself bacterial dysentery like in Kathmandu in 1988? That was understandable. Nepal is an impoverished country where not everyone who served food close to a quarter-century ago followed acceptable hygiene practices or was even educated about them. Short of a Katrina; Joplin, MO; or Sendai, Japan, what was my excuse? Needing to race back to referee my scene-making rabble rousers before someone got hurt, which often happens. As a matter of safety, it was a pretty good reason, come to think of it. In any event, something was going on with me. I didn't know exactly what. But I could try to stop it.

Having grown up a Christian Scientist, I am not one to run to the medicine cabinet at the first sign of illness. Rather, I have to be feeling pretty darn shitty before I will begin to entertain the thought of taking anything. Practically ten times out of ten, I will opt out of reaching for a pharmaceutical because I remember oh-so-clearly the few times I have taken them how they made me feel: dopey when I needed to be sharp (hello, poetry class); wired when I needed to sleep (3 a.m.); or dragging when I needed to feel energetic (beginning my day of caregiving).

So what I do, instead, is pound the old non-medicinal standbys into my system: water, Odwalla orange juice, grapefruit juice, oranges or clementines, chicken noodle soup, Ramen noodles, and tea with lemon and honey (particularly green and, my personal favorite, licorice-flavored Yogi throat culture). I try to give myself a bit of a break by asking other parents to drive one son home from the scout meeting and the other home from the faraway birthday party. I take naps if possible (almost never) and hit the hay early. If I have the chills, I will sometimes wear a fleece cap to bed. I try to clear out my sinuses in a health club hot tub and steam room, regurgitate excess phlegm by sticking my finger deep into my mouth, or gargle with warm salt water if I have the opposite problem of a dry and scratchy throat. I lay off vigorous exercise, which is a cinch since I am too busy to get much anyway as well as lacking in energy to boot. A spicy Thai curry dish or one loaded with chilies, I've found, deadens the relentless itchiness of the throat. Finally, as I head for the covers, I clean my mouth with a pleasant-tasting rinse, take a large spoonful of honey with lemon juice dribbled on top, and pop a Hall's mentho-lyptus cough drop into my mouth.

Lying on my side either flat or semi-upright, which helps keep my head less clogged, I shift the cough drop to the cheek closest to the pillow and let it slowly dissolve there. I am careful not to change position so the cough drop does not dislodge and accidentally slide down my throat, causing me to choke. The drop serves two purposes: to coat my throat like honey and leave it with a bitter, Listerine-like taste, effectively tamping down the obnoxious tickling of a bad cough. With the annoyance all but muted, I am finally able to sleep.

This get-well regimen has served me magnificently for the past six years. I started it following the most brutal episode of coughing in my life. Christopher and I had just returned from our annual trip to Florida. The Boston-area weather had turned bad with lots of driving rain and window-rattling wind. That's when the tickle took up residence in my throat, keeping me up for eighteen consecutive nights. Yes, EIGHTEEN. As the pregnant, full-time single mother of a not-quite two year old, by definition I was a wreck. Pile eighteen consecutive sleepless nights on top of that -- but don't forget all the miserable days in between! -- and what do you get? One seriously hurting, bitchy mama.

Rejecting the conventional medical approach, I desperately needed to come up with my own plan. Having noticed that the cough drops helped me during the day, I thought: Why not during the night as well? That's when I very carefully experimented with placing the drop in my cheek and sleeping on my side. And that's when I discovered that this one strategy could help prevent me from losing hours of restorative sleep per night while I was sick.

In general, I have been a very healthy person most of my life. I could go a year or year and a half without coming down with a single debilitating cold. That all changed after the birth of my oldest son. My immunity shot from exhaustion, there was a long period of time when I could not go even two weeks without falling ill. The tendency did an about-face, thank God, after the epic eighteen-nighter. My periods of health stretched to six months, then a year, and now they stand at a year-plus.

Prior to the past few days, I could not remember when a variety of symptoms last pulled me down. Right now I am in kick-butt mode for my cough, stuffed-up head, intermittent headache, and, yes, laryngitis, too. But it's time to add the final piece to my program: replenishing my stock of supplies. So off I go to Market Basket for lemons, orange juice, clementines, honey, and chicken noodle soup.

Wish me well!

How do you cope with sickness?

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