I’ve had a few sick days in the past couple of weeks.
As with many another deep disturbance in my health equilibrium, I can feel it coming on hours or days in advance. It might start with a dream or a flashback to some episode of violence from years ago and build from there; it might strike like a club, upon seeing a depiction of sexual violence on television or reading about it in a book; or, a sick day might start as a nebulous sensation that slowly coalesces into a familiar, deep pain.
It might even be triggered by the sight of an anti-gay politician or a news article about his or her latest plan to disenfranchise individuals like me and legally erase families like mine, plans that kindle a full range of overpowering emotions because they feel like a systematized, sanitized version of sexual assault against my person--one more variant on someone in authority, someone untouchably empowered, telling me that my body is not my own and inflicting their own sadistic plans on my flesh and spirit.
When it’s a matter of sadness, a sick day feels like a weariness that scours me right down to the bones, leaving me joyless and unmotivated. This is the most common sort of sick day. But sometimes there are other feelings--overwhelming rage, or a crazy-making sense of restless helplessness, a feeling that something is terribly wrong but the means to repair the situation lies just beyond my grasp.
Like any other kind of sick day, these episodes involve recognizable symptoms. But they aren’t the sorts of symptoms others would be familiar with. We’re not talking about a common cold or a case of flu. The internal misery is actually much the same as being sick with the flu, though with the addition of panic, terror, grief, and / or anger. But from the outside a sick day looks to colleagues, friends, and family members like irritability, or hostility, or depression.
I know so many guys who have suffered traumas similar to mine. They, too, have sick days. They, too, can feel the gathering force of a crying jag or a stupor of depression well in advance... when, that is, the sense of profound grief and anger doesn’t lunge into one’s awareness with the stunning pain and suddenness of a knife plunging between the ribs.
Some guys deal with their symptoms by self-medicating. They turn to drink; they turn to drugs; they turn to sex with strangers in the bushes. I have come to suspect that alcohol only makes sick days worse, so when I feel one coming on I avoid drinking. (Now if only I could do the same with chocolate.) Instead, I sleep or else I watch DVDs that bring me comfort. Certain films are just what’s called for on a sick day; "Conquest of Space," for example, of "All About Eve." Movies I love so uncritically that I watch them without lapsing into the habits of critical analysis. "Altered States" is a good flick for a sick day--nothing resonates with a mood of ferocious emotional confusion like a Ken Russell cinematic freakout.)
I call days like these sick days for a reason: The sense of malaise that characterizes them often takes the form of exhaustion so numbing and so complete that it’s an effort just to get through a day. Little meaningful work gets done. I find I am better off simply surrendering to the needs of the moment and wrapping myself snugly in a blanket.
None of this is a matter of feeling sorry for myself. If I sleep half the day, it’s because I am trying to bring myself back to health, just as if I were sick with a 24-hour bug. I don’t want sick days to derail me and cut into my productivity and my well being; I don’t enjoy the sense of being hurt, or broken; but it’s not entirely up to me.
What is a matter of my own choice is applying the effort, steadily and over the course of years, to reducing the intensity, duration, and frequency of sick days when they happen. By taking the time to probe my own thoughts and feelings and physical state of being, I might, I hope, train myself to respond to sick days with a rush of healthful endorphins. By focusing, deliberately and methodically, on what it feels like to be in the grip of a sick day, and then recalling as best I can what it feels like to be free of deep sadness and exhaustion, I can... sometimes... start to drag myself toward a healthier mental state, simply by concentrating on what it’s like to be happy instead of anxious, weary, and freaked out. If nothing else, just knowing that a sick day is, in part, a matter of brain chemistry gives me a vantage outside of the emotional free-for-all where I can hope for some semblance of objectivity.
Some people accomplish this kind of stabilization through meditation, or by going for a long run. I do it simply as a matter of choice: I choose to be happy. When making that choice doesn’t make it happen, I choose to be happy all over again. Sometimes it’s a matter of going through a mental checklist: Column A is the benefits to happiness (less stress, more fun) and Column B is the benefits to being in the claws of a monstrous melancholia (and as painful as it is, there is an addictive quality to melancholia--it’s a strong sensation, and it involves powerful brain chemistry of its own that can be just as compelling as the brain chemistry of happiness). Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of saying, "Enough! Time to change the channel and be happy, for Christ’s sake." Degree by degree, as I make those choices time and again, I come closer to putting sick days behind me.
Supplements help. I take fish oil, GABA, L5-HTP, and vitamin B for mood support. (They work for me, but I probably should note, as the supplement packaging does, that the FDA has not certified that they would necessarily work for anybody else.)
Talk therapy has also been useful. Four years of weekly sessions with a therapist were enormously helpful, though they were four very long and stressful years: Grasping the nettle is sometimes necessary and it’s certainly effective, but it also tends to involve acute pain and suffering. As one friend put it, "Can’t I just skip this shit and be well again?"
It’s a good question, one I have often asked. The answer, I have concluded, is Yes and No. Displacing the pain won’t make it go away. Numbing it with drink or drugs or sex... or, in my case, constant activity and overwork... may gloss the sting over, but eventually will lead to 12-step programs (as friends who are in AA and support groups for sex addiction tell me) or other unintended destinations (such as severe burnout, which is where I ended up a few years ago). It’s ugly and awful to look right into the face of terror, pain, and trauma, but to overcome something means getting to know it, learning how to disarm it, finding ways to tame and de-fang it.
There was a time when I felt that there was an unending scream of aggravation and frustration and agony going on in me. That scream is now a hum, or a murmur; sometimes it rises up once again to the level of a shriek, and that’s when I have a sick day. But I have learned to give myself the same care and attention on these sick days as when I have any other sort of illness.
Perhaps not many other people would understand my need for the occasional sick day to tend to flare-ups of emotional injury, but they don’t have to. It works for me. It’s something I need in order to regain, and maintain, my health and my happiness. That being so, I have every right to ask for it, and every right to expect to receive it.
A guy’s gotta take care of himself, after all.