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?