Yesterday, I called in sick.
Since it’s Winter Break, there was no one to actually call in sick to . . . so I had to call in sick to myself. In the ten years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only called in sick to cancel a class once, on a day when I could barely crawl to the phone to make the call. (This was back when I still had a landline.) Usually when I get sick, but not very sick, I have a conversation that goes something like this:
Body: I’m sick.
Mind: No, you’re not sick. I have a lot of work to do, so you can’t be sick.
Body: I’ll put off being sick until the weekend. But then I’ll really collapse.
I’m very good at not being sick for a couple of days. And then I really get sick when I have time to. It’s something I learned back when I was in college, taking exams. I would study study study, take my exams, do well on them. And then I would go to bed for a week, sick from exhaustion. Nowadays I don’t have exams anymore, but the ends of semesters are just as intense, and I tend to overwork myself just as much. What’s changed is that I cut myself less slack. I assume that I should be able to (a) grade papers and submit final grades for almost sixty students, (2) make sure my graduating MFA students get in their final theses, (3) send a finished novel to my agent, and (4) prepare for Christmas, including the shopping and cooking and decorating, without getting tired or feeling ill. Gracefully, like some sort of academic Martha Stewart.
Instead, of course, I wake up one morning and decide that showering and making breakfast both sound like way too much work . . .
The problem with being a doctor’s daughter (and I’m the daughter of two doctors) is that one was never allowed to be just a little ill. When I told my mother that I felt sick that day, she would come take my temperature. And if I didn’t have a temperature that said “fever” to her, I had to go to school. After all, she dealt with children who were genuinely ill, who were being treated for diseases like cancer. What I was doing fell under the category of malingering. Now when I feel ill, the first thing I do is check my temperature. If it’s normal, I immediately say to myself, “I’m not sick.” The problem is, I never have a fever. The useful thing about being a doctor’s daughter is that when you call a parent and say that you have a pain in your side and it’s probably nothing, that parent can say “Go to the emergency room.” Several hours later, you are being prepped for an appendectomy. At first, the doctors didn’t think it was appendicitis, because . . . I didn’t have a fever. (Not having a fever when you have appendicitis is apparently some sort of bizarre medical anomaly. So I can say with some confidence, seriously I never have a fever. If I ever did, I would probably be convinced that I was dying.)
But if you feel ill, you are ill. The feeling itself is a symptom. If you’re so tired that you don’t want to do anything but lie in bed and watch British crime dramas, you’re ill. If you think a piece of toast and a boiled egg sound like a perfect dinner, you’re ill. If showering sounds like way too much trouble . . . Well, it’s time to call in sick. Also if you’re coughing and blowing your nose, but I tend never to trust physical symptoms.
Mind: You’re just coughing and blowing your nose to fool me into thinking you’re sick.
Body: Go. To. Bed.
Basically, I’ve exhausted myself. My body is completely out of whack, and I need to get it back in again. (Is there such a think as in whack?) And that means giving it what it needs, which is a lot of sleep, and rest, and time completely alone. So I’m letting it sleep whenever it wants to, as much as it wants. And I’m still doing the work that needs to get done before next week, but more slowly. I’m not bothering with going out, or seeing people, until I want to again. (I’m an introvert, so this is very much what I need.) Luckily, I have several pairs of pajamas. I have at least a couple of days until I run out of food. I will probably take a shower today . . . I have books and Netflix on my computer, so basically, I’m set.
I think every once in a while we just have to call in sick to ourselves. We just have to say, “I’m going to be sick. I’m going to be sick until I’m well again.” And then we have to sleep and sleep, and binge-watch British crime dramas, and drink herbal tea. I’ll know when I feel well again because I’ll decide that I’m just so bored, and I’ll want to see what the outside world is doing. I don’t think it will take long.
But until then, I’m going to be well and truly sick.
This painting is The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green. I am nowhere near this elegant when I am sick. But let’s just pretend I am . . .