^^^ (The Invalid, by Louis Lang, at the Brooklyn Museum)
If the past few years in our increasingly hellish world have taught me anything, it’s that Whoever Is in Charge of The Universe (hence forth abbreviated as “WIICOTU”) has much bigger fish to fry than to bother arranging particular circumstances in the interest of teaching me a lesson. That said, I’m pretty sure there are Big Things I’m supposed to glean from the need to pause imposed by mononucleosis.
The biggest is simply how to pause, and for a significant, sufficient amount of time, especially as someone who’s hung her identity at least in part on a willingness and ability to over-work.
It’s not just me. It’s the whole freelance editorial/media enterprise. No matter how you slice it, whether you have a full-time job doing something else entirely and you freelance on the side, or you cobble together a career out of multiple gigs, there doesn’t appear to be a way to succeed in this arena without doing too much. Now add being a woman and a people-pleaser to the equation. If you are a woman who was raised at a time when placating men was considered Job Number One, perhaps you can relate.
Doing too much for as long as I have has taken a toll on my health before. After editing each of my NYC anthologies—while also teaching and ghostwriting and tackling other freelance gigs to stay afloat—I was leveled by two separate bouts of shingles, two years in a row. Two years later, in 2016, while juggling an assortment of gigs, I got sick eight times. (We had to postpone our party celebrating Brian’s February birthday five times, until mid-July, because I kept falling ill. “Will the party actually happen this time?” became a running joke among our friends.)
This year—after four terrifying years of Trump, a terrifying year-and-a-half of Covid threat, and a year of writing my book while taking on other work to stay afloat—I have landed in what feels like a never-ending mononucleosis hell. This week I made things worse, setting my recovery back by, you guessed it, doing too much. I thought I was well enough for certain activities, but I wasn’t. When I started to feel week while doing those activities, I didn’t listen to my body and lie down. No, I kept going. Then my pounding mono headache and fever and dizziness returned for two horrible days.
You’d think that by now, after 55 years living in my much immunocompromised body, I would have figured out a few things, such as: a better way to work and live; how to know when I’m pushing myself too hard; how to stop pushing myself too hard; how to fucking rest. But clearly I have not. And so it’s tempting to see mono as a Bearer of Lessons, sent directly my way by WIICOTU.
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The lessons are obvious: I need to pause in a big way, not just so that I can get well, but also so I can figure out a more sustainable, more financially rewarding, more emotionally satisfying approach to work. I can’t just return to business as usual, because that approach has consistently been detrimental to my health, and I’m getting too old to be so cavalier about that. This requires me to do some uncomfortable soul-searching about what I want to do and who I want to be, and what I’m willing to sacrifice for those things. It requires me to identify and consider letting go of some of the “rewards” of my work life that haven’t truly served me, which have cost me too much for the slight profile (and ego) boost they’ve provided. It requires me to do the really difficult work of confronting and contending with my ego, and evaluating the price I’ve been paying to appease it. It also requires me to learn to count to ten before saying yes to gigs that don’t pay enough for the amount of work they require, and then, even harder, say no to them.
These are pretty hard lessons. If I don’t pay attention to them now, I’m certain they will be imposed upon me in even harsher ways in the future. Usually I’m a pretty good learner, but there are some significant hurdles for me here. Each time I lean into resting and taking time off and saying no to certain opportunities, I’m faced with a full-on identity crisis. I think:
Who am I, if I’m not producing? Not serving others, either as an editor, or a mentor, or a literary citizen? Not shining, publicly? And, by the way, who gave me permission to say no to opportunities, or to take time off and rest? Who the hell do I think I am, some privileged rich lady who can just luxuriate in her pajamas all day, watching streaming television in the air conditioning? There are bills to pay! Your small amount of savings is dwindling! There are opportunities you are missing that other people would consider amazing! Besides, you’ve been out of the spotlight for over a year. Everyone is going to forget who you are and what you’re good at, and you’re never going to get hired for anything ever again.
If I had a therapist right now, I imagine this is when she’d ask, “So, whose voice is it saying all that to you?” Good one, imaginary therapist! It’s so many internalized voices. (What “she” doesn’t know is that a prior shrink once labeled me “a radio receiver for everyone else’s thoughts and feelings.”)
Half the battle is caring too much about what other people think. It’s always been something of a mental health hazard, and now it’s become a physical one.
^^^ (Speaking of listening to my body… One of the weirder aspects of mono is that it messes with your tastebuds. I went from thinking Doritos with nacho cheese we’re fine but no great shakes, to craving them intensely, as if they are medicinal. I’ll suddenly feel weak/exhausted and be like, “must…have…Doritos…” I’ll send Brian to the bodega next door, on a Doritos-procurement mission. We’ve started referring to them as “Vitamin D.” 😂 Also weird: there’s some kind of weird Jane Pauley thing is going on with my bangs lately.)
At the moment, in true Libra fashion, I’m trying to please two groups with disparate points of view. What they disagree about is the state of my health, eight weeks into mono, and whether I should be ready by now to get back to normal life and a full slate of work.
Group #1 is comprised by people who have been close to me, especially as I’ve gone through this hell, witnessing my many ups and downs. They are accompanied by some people I don’t know well, but who have either had mono themselves, or have watched others endure it. According to Group #1, yes, eight weeks is a lot, but it’s actually short in mono-time, and I should be prepared to seriously rest for a lot longer. I should not overestimate how well I feel the minute I start to feel well. I should just buckle up for the rest of the foreseeable summer (at least!) and chill the fuck out.
Group #2 are acquaintances who mostly do not know anything about mono other than what I explain to them, and who, despite what I explain to them, think I should be better by now and don’t understand why I’m still lying around my house, after two months. These people have nothing against me. They just aren’t familiar enough with my situation or my diagnosis to understand what’s going on. They know me to be a serious over-achiever, and so observing me in recovery mode is confusing to them.
Take, for instance, my lovely next door neighbor, who texted yesterday at 5pm to ask me to come outside so she could ask me a question. I rose from resting on the couch to go see her. When I got there, she looked at my messy hair and the shlumpy shmatte I was wearing and said, “Were you sleeping? In the middle of the day?” I started to explain that I was still sick, and that I was recovering from my latest set-back, caused by over-doing it, and her eyes completely glazed over. I could tell she was waiting for me to stop talking so she could go back into her house and start dinner.
It’s amazing how much power I give to this second group of people who do not really know me intimately, most of whom have never even heard of Epstein-Barr, the virus behind most cases of mono, including mine—the name of which forces me to think of two very icky men who’ve been in the news a lot these past few years.
I give a lot of power to the first group, as well. I worry about some of them yelling at me for staying on social media at this time—a real life-line for me, warts and all, while I’m feeling so isolated. I worry about some of them yelling at me for continuing to write this newsletter, another emotional life-line right now.
Basically, each day, and with each activity I consider undertaking, I invite these two factions in, and weigh what I imagine to be their judgments. You’re not resting enough! No, you’re resting too much! Back and forth, and back and forth, like this, again and again. It is exhausting. And I’m already pretty freaking exhausted.
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As tired as people might be of hearing about my condition, I promise you I am much more tired of being sick and living in this suspended state. After setting my recovery back a bit this week, though, I realize its futile for me to fight it. I’ve got to get well enough to start teaching in two programs in late August and early September, and to start figuring out the next phase of my work life. When I get antsy, or let Group #2 get too loud in my head, I must remind myself that I’m resting now so that I can work better, and more efficiently, later.