Flu. A virus. Highly debilitating. Potentially fatal. For all our cleverness, technology and modern medicine, we have no cure. Not really. We throw the ‘flu jab’ at it and hope it might hit the mark in some cases. When that doesn’t work, we use other drugs to ease the symptoms. The virus runs its course nonetheless and we are at its mercy for as long as that takes.
Before last week, I had flu once in my life. I thought I remembered how bad it was. I didn’t. Not really. I remembered the aches and the shivers, the feeling of utter exhaustion but I had forgotten so much more: How it plays tricks on my nervous system so that I cannot sense hot or cold with any accuracy and burn myself getting into the bath or with my hot water bottle; how smell and taste disappear entirely; touch of any kind, regardless of how gentle feels burning and scratchy; the smallest of sounds booming and irritating; light, no matter how dim, a nausea-inducing flutter behind my eyes.
Distressing as these symptoms are, they are as nothing compared to the Demons. I remember them well. The last time I had flu, I was seventeen and it was the week before my mock-Leaving Cert. I fought and fought through tears of frustration with my exhausted body and foggy mind because I had to study, had to do well in my exams. The stress debilitated me as much as the virus. The future loomed scarily in my seventeen-year old head: What if I didn’t do well? What if my teachers wanted me to drop down a level because of poor results? What if I had something like this for the Leaving Cert itself? In the end, exhaustion overtook me and I gave in. I slept. And nature took its course.
Fast-forward thirty years and I find myself wondering what I have learned in those intervening years. It is with great surprise and dismay that I realise how much I am personalising this ‘attack’. In my better moments, I can laugh at the Ego making a personal tragedy of a virus, which affects many or the same Ego, so convinced of its own importance and ability to control the situation, it cannot accept this as the opportunity for rest and hibernation for which I expressly asked and of which, I am so badly in need.
In the not-so-good moments, lying awake in a pool of sweat, I rail against the weakness and the pain, the inability to function normally. I fret about losing money because I am self-employed and if I don’t work, I don’t earn. I tell myself this is such bad timing.
This thought stops me for a moment. When is there a good time for flu? If it must come, then the depths of Winter, when all of nature slumbers and replenishes itself is surely as good a time as any. Ideally, of course, it should not take illness to make me stop and rest for a while. I often advise students to ‘rest when you need to’. Where was this love and respect for myself as I hurtled, once again, into a busy Christmas and from there, straight into 2018 without pause?
Seen through this lens, perhaps there is a gift after all. Had this virus not found its way into my system, I would have tumbled again, head first, into another calendar year. If exhaustion had not hit so hard and so fast, it might have come nonetheless, seeping away the fresh energy of Spring. Perhaps this is the de-tox I idly mentioned and the down-time I so fervently asked for.
And there are other gifts too, for which to be grateful: Someone to look after me in the form of a loving husband; a warm, dry, comfortable home in which to rest and recover; a hot bath (even if I burn myself in it!); a change of clothes and bed sheets when the others are drenched in my sweat. On an ordinary day, these may seem like small things. In the face of such a debilitating illness, they are a treasure.
Recognising this, I give up the battle as I did thirty years ago and allow myself to rest. I let my own defence system do what it needs to without the accompaniment of unhelpful mental noise. I find perspective: The Leaving Cert was very far from being the most important event in my life; there are no little people depending on me and I am not the main earner in our house so we won’t starve. As for the rest, my classes will still be there, my office work will be there and the World won’t stop turning because I am not pedalling furiously. When I do get back to the wheel, I can smile at the people pedalling beside me who tell me they have flu because I know for sure that flu does not pedal. In fact, it doesn’t move very much at all. Flu is horizontal.