Thinking ill

Well dear readers, as you might surmise from the title of this particular post, I’ve got the lurgi. (Not, I hasten to add, the Dreaded Lurgi, which as we all know can only be cured by learning a brass instrument produced by Goosey and Bawkes – have a look here if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about.) I’ve written before about being ill, and if you happened to be following this blog then I apologise in advance if I repeat myself… but I think there’s something I’ve noticed this time that’s a little different. And it is – as so often – a question of language and underlying assumptions.

How do you tell people you’re not feeling well if it’s going to affect your ability to meet a commitment? Most of us tend to apologise. Sorry not to be able to make the meeting, or come to work today, or cook you dinner tonight, or whatever else we were planning – apologies, but I’m ill. Then you make plans for what should happen next: I’ll be right as rain before you know it, so we can reschedule the meeting, and of course I’ll catch the work up, and I’ll make you a slap-up meal next Tuesday with an extra-special pudding to make up for putting you out this evening. And then you wait to get better (impatiently and rather gracelessly in my case, because I loathe being ill), and carry on as you were before.

But the eagle-eyed will have spotted the danger that lurks in the language we use around illness. It basically goes: mea culpa. This is my fault, and I must make it right. Leave it to me and I’ll make it up to you.

Now that’s fine up to a point: the delay and inconvenience caused by illness (both on the side of friends/colleagues and for the ill person) is a bind and everyone wants it over and forgotten as soon as possible. However, if you love your work, and are very committed to your organisation(s), and/or are freelance which means that ‘sick leave’ (or indeed ‘sick pay’) is a relatively rare phenomenon, there is an extra layer that can creep into all this apologising. Because you want so much to do the work, or organise the event, or teach the class, or whatever else it is you should have been doing, that you feel it as a personal let-down towards those you are affecting. For goodness’ sake, couldn’t you just swallow some Sudafed and get it done anyway? You can sleep when you’re dead. And so on, and so forth.

Kermit the Frog in bed, blowing his nose

This week I find I have been the completely undelighted recipient of an exciting virus that has manifested, externally, as a mildly irritating cold… but which has also, repeatedly and tediously, left me absolutely without energy. Not just a bit tired. Not just that kind of snuffly sleepiness that tends to go with sneezing and a temperature. Actual battery-drained exhaustion. I decided to go and sit quietly at home on Tuesday afternoon, to read for a bit and then do some work, and fell asleep almost immediately for most of the rest of the day. Going out to get food, eat it and come home, was the only other thing I achieved. Wednesday seemed better and I got quite a bit done before feeling exhausted again. Thursday morning I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. Friday yielded about three hours of work before I just couldn’t do any more. It’s been VERY tedious.

But worse than that, I haven’t actually sounded properly ill. I’ve just sounded like I’ve got a bit of a cold. Which, at one level, is exactly what’s going on. Unfortunately the someone-removed-my-power-source element of this is considerably more of a problem.

Now, I’m not often ill. And I’m pretty reliable, and I work hard, and so when I am unwell, my colleagues are always kind and sympathetic and know I will get back to it as soon as I possibly can. But because on this particular occasion, I’ve been thoroughly irritated with the fact that whatever is causing this doesn’t seem like a ‘proper’ illness, I feel terrible. I feel like I’m taking the mick. I feel like it’s my fault that I’m ill. And my description of my symptoms to friends has involved me saying things like ‘I’m pretty useless today.’ By which I actually mean, ‘I feel like I can barely stand up.’

Finally, on Thursday, I was called out on this. ‘You’re ill!’ a friend replied to my remarks at my uselessness. ‘It’s not a weakness.’ And he’s right. It’s not like I’m sitting at home watching back-to-back Murder, She Wrote and wilfully procrastinating. I’ve not been well and when I’m better (and probably well before I’m 100% again) I will have pressed my nose firmly back against the grindstone. But that’s a bit tricky at the moment, because I have to keep blowing it at regular intervals. So I’m sorry I’ve been ill. But really, when all’s said and done, I really can’t help it.

One comment

  • Susan Sturrock

    Oooooh, dear Katy. If I could send a crate of empathy over I would (chocolate, too). You write so lucidly about the challenges of being a freelancer, a role that never feels more perilous than when you’re under the weather and can’t get back to how you used to feel. But you will. It’s a question of trust and patience, achieving a balance between complete rest and doing the necessary. Huge hugs from SW19 xxxxxxx

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