Lessons learned from two months of illness

Anstruther harbour beneath a grey sky
Anstruther harbour beneath a grey sky

This morning, having picked up my latest medication prescription from Brown’s Pharmacy on Anstruther’s Shore Street, I took a walk along the pier deep in thought.

I found myself about halfway along the pier, staring at the beach wondering if the tide was going out or just coming in, realising that despite the fact that my maternal grandfather was in the Royal Navy, I have never been particularly drawn to the sea. I prefer rivers and forests; I grew up on the edge of the ancient Ettrick forest in a town split in two by the Ettrick river.

For the past eight weeks or so, I have been signed off work with a combination of ailments. Underlying it all: exhaustion. I’ve pushed myself too far these past 16 months or so, since leaving home. On top of that, like layers of an onion, a low-grade prostate infection—something that I’ve had before, in 2013, that is likely caused by my kidney condition. And then an upper respiratory infection—a URI but not the ones I encounter in my digital communications day job—that kept returning. Earache, a sore throat, and a chest infection that defied two courses of antibiotics but finally succumbed to the third. What a relief.

This morning I woke up feeling awful, afraid that the URI had returned for a fourth time. It felt like someone had been poking needles into my ears, the glands in my throat felt tender, and I was short of breath.

I’m not one who likes to cause a fuss about myself. I will often go a week in pain just to see if my immune system will deal with it, or to fully test whether it’s viral before I call on the health professionals to wade in with their antibiotics. I have echoing in my head the messages of so many health campaigns: use fewer antibiotics, don’t visit the GP if it’s a mild viral infection but rest, drink plenty of fluids and take paracetamol. I did that in March. I got worse. Nervously, I telephoned the GP practice. About 20 minutes later the on-call GP phoned me back, listened to my woes and invited me in to get checked out.

To my relief, it turns out there is no sign of any of the infections. The pains I feel may simply be my body returning to normal after weeks of fighting on four or five fronts, like floorboards creaking after an earth tremor. My blood pressure was the most normal it has been for about two months (142/90), and my temperature a little on the high side of normal (37.1°C), but then I don’t actually know what my normal is.

Having thought twice before that the URI had been conquered, only to have it return a few days later, I felt palpably relieved. It was as though the doctor had given me permission to finally relax and now recuperate, build strength and recover.

Lessons learned

What has struck me over the last couple of months is how patient I have been. Most of the time, anyway. Over the years, through various ailments—back injuries, meningitis, shingles, etc., as well as the usual bouts of flu—I have learned that when your body is sick it is telling you something. And so it’s important to listen to it.

When I told the doctor last week that I had been sleeping loads, I realised that by “loads” I meant maybe eight or nine hours a day. That’s a normal amount of sleep but about twice what I usually get.

I have realised just how much I push myself above and beyond what other people expect. I take work home, when I should be relaxing; I work more hours than I’m paid for at hall, when I could hand things over to others. These few weeks have been a good lesson that I am not indispensable: many things can be done by others.

I’ve known for a long time that I need to find a better work/life balance. I’ve known for a long time that I need to make time for exercise and eating properly. A read a few months ago something along the lines of: if you don’t make time for exercise then you will need to make time for illness. That really struck home this month.

I’m signed off until Friday 26 May. For the next week and a half, I’m committing myself to work on a better, more healthy rule of life of prayer, and relaxation, of reading and eating, and plenty of sleep. And when I have a little more strength of exercise too.

Here’s to a healthier and more balanced 2017.