What happens when you wake up one morning unable to move and no one knows what’s wrong with you? You begin a whole new life trying to heal, and hide the problem. Working with serious autoimmune disease (or surviving journalism on 80 mg of daily prednisone)
Mystery Illness: In search of an oil can
By Shelley Page
On Easter Sunday, when I was 19, I awoke from panicky dreams of missed j-school deadlines and failed foul shots to find that I was encased in a body bag of pain.
Before I consciously understood that I couldn’t move, my first thoughts were of a feature story due the next day, an air ball I doinked in the last basketball game of an inauspicious season for Carleton University, and a gnawing hunger for carbs.
I imagined crumpets, discounted and day-old, from the thrift bakery around the corner. My roommates and I survived on its discards.
It was like having a beer store on the block if we were a house of 18-year-old guys with new fake ID, instead we were…four girl jocks with no cooking skills and 4000-calorie-a-day requirements. I’d polished off the last crumpet the night before. I imagined the gutted innards of our communal fridge.I needed to hunt for real food.
Yet, I could not lift my head. I still remember that first stab of panic, and then surveying my body. I tried to wiggle my fingers, lift my arms and then my legs. Each attempt was answered with a ripping, muscle-wrenching rebuff.
“Jen? Jen? JENNIFER!”
There were two Jens in our house, one a varsity basketball player, the other volleyball. I was pretty certain the house was empty. The others home for Easter. A B.C. girl, I’d stayed put. We’d mostly grown to resent each other over the previous months. Too many borrowed and misplaced sweaters and scarves (by Jen 1), too much pilfering of each others’ stores of bread, popcorn, and Kraft dinner (from Jen 2). Too many bills unpaid, cheques bounced. (Debatable)
The phone was cut off due to a dispute over long-distance calls to Toronto. The Jens thought they were mine because I had been trying to land a newspaper job in Vancouver or Toronto.
None of us were on speaking terms before Good Friday. Still, I hoped Jen 2 would come home first. Besides having a wicked foul shot, she was kind.
Heat eased seized muscles. I sought refuge and relief in the tub, where I had climbed after so many practices.
The bathtub was up two short but daunting flights of stairs. After a few false starts, I realized I could force myself, one ripping stab after another, to writhe, and that gave me momentum. Rolling off the bed and onto the floor, I cried out as I fell. Then slowly, I crawled out of my room, down the front hallway, through our paper cluttered living room with its slanted floor, past the dead phone, toward the stairs.
I tried to take the steps on all fours, but I was using too many muscles, each with its own distinct pattern of hurt. So I pulled myself up on the railing and slowly climbed. I wrenched on the tap to fill the tub. Fortunately, we’d paid the hydro and electricity bills.
The hot water did not ease the all-encompassing cramp. I lay shivering in the cooling water wondering what was wrong. Some sort of whole-body sprain? From what?
I dressed slowly, setting off toward the university’s health services, normally some 30 minutes away. Each slow step made me wince, then weep. I felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. I needed an oil can.
What if the doctor insisted I immediately be admitted to hospital? I was scared. She was middle-aged, with a short grey bob and weary eyes. In a tumble of words, I told her I’d woken up paralyzed.
“Frozen. Totally. Nothing moved.” Her eyes followed the slow waltz of my hands.
I obviously was not paralyzed.
She didn’t eel the swollen, tender joints in my hands, wrists or elbows. She didn’t rotate my head or lift my legs to watch me wince. She didn’t give me a gentle hug and tell me it was going to be OK, which may be why I struggled on foot to reach her. Instead, she asked me if I was stressed and whether I was sleeping. Tears welled in my eyes, which must have seemed a confirmation.
She pushed a sleeve of slender, white pills into my stiff hands.
“Just take one of these at bedtime and relax a little.”
I limped home with my diagnosis: hypochondriac.
I hid the pills in a sock where Jen 1 wouldn’t find them, wolfed down a bowl of Jen 2’s Corn Pops, then crawled into bed.
I fell asleep wondering what caused this body bag full of hurt? I hoped to awake to find this was just a strange glitch in one young, journalism student’s life.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of Sick Days right here at Ex-Press.com