Over the last few weeks, I have been sicker than sicker than sick. I managed to pick up whooping cough, which, combined with other health issues I already have, made my blood pressure dip to a very scary place, to boot. I had already been having some flare-ups from those other issues, so they made the whooping cough worse, it made them worse. Like plenty of uninsured people do, I tried to hold off on healthcare for as long as I could, but eventually had to cave and suck up the big bill so I could get the big meds and also be sure I wasn't, you know, dying or anything.
This combo of illnesses made it impossible for me to do nearly anything, including most work. When you mostly work from home, you can usually work through almost anything, so when you can't even do that, you know it's bad. They've also put some big cramps in my life. For a week or so, the deepest conversations I had with anyone were something to the effect of "More. Tea. Blanket. Ugh," and the most passionate embrace I had with my partner was the one where I was only grabbing them to say, "Please, I beg of you, just shoot me now." For the next few months, I'm going to be more susceptible to a host of things which could really mess me up, which is going to make most socializing and some of the work I had planned mighty tricky. Also, my partner and I are getting too good at pantomiming kisses; as if being sick wasn't scary enough, the possibility of becoming an expert mime adds a whole new layer of terror.
While I've been on the mend, I've been thinking a lot about that process, especially since thinking about any more than that involves a level of brainpower I haven't had.
When we hear from users who are dealing with infections, like most of what we do, it's usually sexual or reproductive health-related, not about things like whooping cough or the flu. But I've got a few reminders from the front lines of my sickbed that are important no matter what kind of yuck you've got going on.
Sleep and rest are so, so, so darn important when we have any kind of infection. Many, if not most, of us are usually sleep-deprived as it is, which is often part of the reason we pick up bugs in the first place: lack of sleep or rest really does a doozy on our immune systems and the way the whole of our bodies function. Getting rest when we're sick is kind of like turning off the TV, radio and facebook when we're trying to study: it lets our bodies put all their focus on healing. Ideally, too, when we're in the space where we rest -- like our bedrooms -- we're not being nonstop assaulted with all kinds of pathogens like we are when we're out and about.
So, do get that rest. You don't have to be sleeping for days (that's not usually so great either: you want to move your body around some a little bit each day, just nothing too taxing), but take it freaking easy. You have absolute permission from your body to be a slacker, and to focus on totally mellow, non-stressful, non-achieving things you enjoy: board games or chill video games, a favorite movie, a puzzle, listening to the same CD a million times, writing in a journal or penning a song, painting your toenails ridiculous colors, organizing your photo albums, cross-stitching political slogans, whatever.
I know that if you're in your teens or twenties, chances are awfully good that other people, especially older adults, might push you to or past your freaking limits and can be really unforgiving about illness or taking the time to rest you need. But seriously, that is their problem. They need to let up with that, rather than you needing to keep yourself sick or get sicker because of their unforgiving standards. This is one of those places where notes from a healthcare provider can really help, so if you can/do see one, always be sure to ask them for a note for whoever you might need one for that's clear about the rest you need. If you have a job, while it's always so tough to deal with the budget hit missing work can have, do remember that the more rest you get when you really need it, the faster you'll get better, and the less likely you'll be to only get half-well and probably miss way more days of work later on than you will right now.
If you're dealing with any kind of an infection, whether it's the kind I got or a UTI or STI, you're likely to be given antibiotics when you get healthcare.
One common mistake a lot of people make with them -- especially if they have side effects they don't like when taking them, and I hear you with that -- is stopping when they start to feel better, or totally feel better, but the whole course of antibiotics isn't done. That's a big no-no, because what can happen is that an infection doesn't wind up totally cleared up. Our symptoms from an illness, remember, don't always tell us sound things about an illness: we can be ill without symptoms, or feel better when we've still got one. Really, there's little point in taking a medication if you're not going to take it properly. So be sure to listen to and read the directions when you get it, and follow them to the letter. (This is also why you can't just use someone else's leftover antibiotics: there shouldn't be any left over in the first place, and the leftovers probably won't be enough to treat you.)
I'm a pretty mellow person most of the time, but when it became clear I was sick and wasn't going to get better for a while, the inside of my head went something like this, on a nonstop, escalating loop:
"Oh, gawd, I'm behind already and now I'm going to be eighty-million more times behind. I needed time off, and this doesn't fit the bill, now who knows when I'll get any. How am I going to get all the things done I need to? And oh GAWD, I have events and speaking engagements coming up: what if I'm not better by then? And even if I am, will the hell this made me look like still be around, because UGH if it is. Bargh, people want to talk with me and I keep having to ask more and more people to wait. GARGH, my poor partner, all I'm available for right now is whining. BLEH, I miss my friends and I can't even call them and when will I see them and oh no, I have to call my Dad, he'll be all worried, but CRIPES how can I even think about any of my life-life when I'm so behind with work and BLAHAHHHHHHWAHHHHHH...."
You get the picture. It's freaking stressful to be sick: your body is stressed out by it, and it makes any stress you already had seem or feel even worse. And then the existing stress and the extra stress make it even harder for you to get better, so you get more stressed. You've got to learn to let a lot of things just go. Taking things one day at a time helps too: for instance, there's really nothing I can do about things weeks from now for now, and who knows, my worries about things later may turn out to be needless. We can also ask for help. It's great for all of us to carry our own weight when we can, but sometimes in life we can't, and when you're sick is usually one of those times. Chances are there are people in your life you've helped out when they needed it: now it's time for you to ask them to return the favor.
Think about it this way, perhaps: just like with the rest, in some ways, any kind of illness often has something to do with a memo from our bodies telling us to slow the heck down and do a lot less. Just like most of us don't get enough rest, most of us carry too much stress, overcommit, and don't manage either as well as we could. When we're sick, we can get some practice chilling out that we probably need more of anyway.
Let "ease on in" be your mantra. Also "all things in good time." Sure, it stinks to be unable to do the things we really want to do, but it usually stinks more to do them and get other people sick, stay sick longer ourselves, or to get sicker. To boot, a lot of things which can be awesome when we're not sick are usually less-than when we are, especially things that ask our body to do anything challenging. Like sex.
With sexual or reproductive illness, or after a sexual or reproductive surgery of any kind, particularly, you'll often be told to hold off on sex for a given amount of time, either to heal from infection, or prevent infection for yourself or others. If you have a genital infection, that also is often about being kind to tissues which are already delicate, but can be even more so with an infection. That's a directive some people aren't always keen about, and one plenty of people play fast and loose with, thinking maybe "just this once," or, "well, what about THIS kind of sex instead of that kind?" Over the years, at Scarleteen and elsewhere I've counseled a lot of folks who've gone ahead and not held off, and made everything worse, or who want to find the magic loophole that isn't. With a cultural trend towards things like "technical" virginity, some folks will go to "Well, oral sex isn't really sex," or "He was only inside for a second," kind of places which may seem like sound rationales to you, but when it comes to sexual health, sex is sex, and when a healthcare provider says to lay off it, there's not usually any nuance: they usually mean any and all kinds of genital sexual activity.
You don't have to tell me twice that it's a bummer not to be able to be intimate or sexual in the ways you want to, especially when you could use some extra comfort, some validation, or hell, figure if you're going to be in bed all day, you might as well do something fun there. But when sex puts your health or that of others at risk, it's just not a smart choice. And sex can always wait until we're feeling better. If a partner can't deal with that, they need to step it up and learn, and probably adjust their mindset about sexual relationships so that there's always room, whatever the reason, for sex they might want to be sex they just can't engage in right then.
Hopefully none of you are in a situation where sex is an "if you must," but you know, sometimes some folks are. So, if you must, and you've been advised not to, then at the very least do safer sex to the letter, using the appropriate barrier for whatever kind of sex it is, be that a condom, dental dam or glove.
An extra tip? We often hear people say that one of the barriers to having conversations about sex or a sexual life with partners is a lack of time to do it, or finding that their time is so limited that talking about sex means not engaging in any. Well, here you are. You're sick, buddy. You need to shelve sex for right now, and that's just that. So, now might be a great time to have some of those talks. They might be serious talks, but they don't have to be. This could also be a time to talk about sexual things you've been wanting to do or explore, or to sit and verbally review all the things you've been loving about your sex life (which can make it even more exciting when you can get back to it).
Sometimes illness happens when we could have prevented it or done things differently that might have reduced our risks or made an illness we got no matter what less bad than it was. That sucks when we're in the thick of it, of course, because feeling sick stinks enough without a rousing, relentless chorus of "I should've known better" going round and round in your head.
But the things we might learn by becoming sick can help us out as we recover, or give us valuable takeaways moving forward. For instance, in my case, something like this is always a reminder that I often do way, way too much in a day, a week, a month or a year, and that I need to always do what I can to try and do less and slow the heck down. It was a reminder that both my partner and myself can make some extra efforts to keep our immune systems working better. I also am reminded that I need to make some effort to make more room in my life for things like this happening, so when they do, they won't be such a huge crisis, and to cut myself a darn break for, you know, being human like everyone else.
What might it be for you? Let's say you've picked up an STI. Obviously, it can be a reminder, if you haven't already, to beef up your safer sex practices, or go back to square one with them with a partner if you've ditched them (which is always important any time an infection winds up in the mix). Maybe you've been in denial about exclusivity you want, but which, given the particular STI you have now or keep getting, obviously isn't the reality of your relationship: you may need to make choices around that. Maybe you know you need to get tested more often or draw harder lines about partners getting tested before you're sexual with them. Maybe those UTIs you keep landing are a billboard telling you that your habit of drinking tons of soda, but rarely water, is one you really need to break, like, yesterday. Or maybe you have an existing health issue or illness you need to find out more about so you can manage it better, or maybe you need to find yourself some more sex ed to know more about what your health risks are or can be and how to reduce them.
Whatever your takeaways are, take them, use them as best you can, and focus on what's useful about them and being proactive to improve things, rather than using them as a club to beat yourself up with, or yet one more source of stress that'll only keep you from healing as quickly as you can.