I noticed the shakiness in the shower. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the first I’d been vertical for any length of time that day. I’d slept in that morning, then spent the rest of it either on my couch or at my computer, sitting still, allowing my resting heart rate to border on sleep. That is fairly normal, as is the dizziness and clouding of vision upon standing. It takes a while for my heart to catch up and pump the necessary blood to my brain. As someone with naturally very low blood pressure (I think my systolic has been recorded over 100 once in my life), I’ve grown quite used to it. But the shakiness in the shower is a tip off that I’ve been neglecting myself.
I was dizzy, almost nauseous, hungry but not really interested in food, and focusing my eyes seemed far too tiring. I made it through the quick hot shower and the long process of dressing. Putting on clothes in winter is a ritual unto itself. I’m always cold, even in the best of seasons. Air conditioning seems to be a torture device designed specifically for me. It is likewise related to my low blood pressure, a byproduct of poor circulation and poor heat distribution throughout my body. Even putting on twenty-five pounds since graduating high school hasn’t helped. So I dress in layers.
Underwear first, then long socks, then tights over the long socks and a second pair of socks over the tights. Jeans go on over the tights, then on top a tank top, long-sleeved tee, and today a turtle neck and long knit wrap sweater, the kind that’s half shall and I can toss the loose ends over my shoulder. I top it all with my mala and glasses, wallet sliding into the back pocket of my jeans.
I had planned to head straight up to campus in order to keep working, but instead I plunked myself back in front of my computer with a can of non-caffeinated cola and bag of guacamole flavored chips. I wanted a little sugar in me. I shared the chips with my cat. After the Daily Show was over and the Colbert Report had started I got up to make some ramen, but to my chagrin found myself out of even that. Last night around six I’d had a sandwich I’d picked up at Walgreen’s, along with some of the chips and a cola. Around ten that morning I’d had a cup of coffee. It was now three in the afternoon. I wasn’t taking very good care of myself, but that’s normal.
I have a stress reaction to food – I don’t want any. I’ve suffered from irritable bowel syndrome for literally as long as I can remember, since we lived in Tripp and we moved from there when I was four. IBS flares up in response to triggers. In my case, those triggers were movement (such as physical exercise or riding in a car), stress, and food. Eating literally made me sick. My particular set of symptoms were extremely painful and debilitating. I was basically a forced anorexic for the first fourteen years of my life.
When I was fourteen I decided this was not normal and told my mom to make an appointment with our doctor. I was easily diagnosed and prescribed Levsin, or hyoscyamine, tiny white-pills that when taken at the beginning of a flare up quickly ease the symptoms of IBS. I could finally eat as much as I wanted. I gained ten pounds in a month. Later that year, I grew another four inches, reaching my full height of five foot eight inches by the time I was fifteen. While I now had a treatment that worked, and was cheap, a thirty count bottle only costing seven dollars, the syndrome remained unpleasant, if no longer debilitating, and my relationship with food remains cautious to this day.
Very early on my doctor had suggested a relation to stress. After journaling my eating, exercise, and stress levels for several months revealed no correlations, I shrugged and simply did my best to avoid my other triggers and treat each flare up as it occurred. That is, until I moved out. I mean, moved entirely out, on my own.
My brother and I had bought our house from our parents when I was nineteen. They’d moved to a low-maintenance townhouse a few miles away and a batch of our friends moved in. Tenants changed over the years, eventually even my brother moving out to go live with my now sister-in-law, but I stayed in the house with at least four other roommates until it was time to start college in Lincoln. We sold the two-thousand plus square foot house that summer and I moved into a five-hundred square foot condominium a mile south of campus a few weeks before my twenty-fourth birthday.
Things changed after that. I refilled my prescription before starting school, then a month later like normal, then two months later, then six months later. I wasn’t having flare ups and I wasn’t using as many of my pills. Moreover, I loved living alone, loved it with a passion I’ve usually reserved for important things like architecture or science fiction. I wondered if the doctor might not have always been right, but the low level stress of always dealing with other people had been too constant to be discerned at the time.
It’s been over two years since I’ve filled my prescription, not since I worked at the mountain center for a summer of communal living, yet some habits remain. I don’t eat when I’m sick or sad or stressed. During the end of semester rush, I often stock up on Slim Fast. It makes a good substitute for food, full of vitamins and protein. Necessary calories can come from bagels and ramen. It’s easy on the stomach and opening a can amounts to a two second pause in the work-flow.
I haven’t done that this semester. It’s been cold and I’ve been busy. Between the heavy snows, over twelve inches in twenty-four hours, yesterday’s forty mile an hour winds, and the drift my car is currently buried under, getting to the grocery store hasn’t made it to the top of the priority list. Thus, the shakes in the shower.
After the cola and chips got me together again, I set out to school, walking halfway and catching the bus at the State Office Building. I fished the sandwich I’d saved out of the refrigerator in the graduate student lounge and bought a milk from the machine in the lobby. Adding that to some hot tea and naproxen has made me feel almost human again, even if my brain isn’t functioning quite at full drive. My neck and shoulders hurt and my jaw aches, a new stress reaction I’ve only developed these last few months. I can’t believe I’m grinding my teeth. I’ve never slept deeply enough for that, but I have been known to frown in my sleep, so clenching my jaw can’t be that different.
I am, all things considered, amazingly healthy. I’ve never had a broken bone or stitches. I’ve only been in the hospital once, for impetigo combined with a bad reaction to amoxicillin, and then I was so well drugged that I didn’t really mind. I’ve always been slim if never athletic. I have strong healthy hair and nails which grow like crazy. Low blood pressure is something I’ve learned to deal with and the flip side means I’m unlikely to ever suffer from heart disease or stroke. The women in my family tend to live an amazingly long time. I’m expecting no different, busses willing.
But that doesn’t mean I can just take this body for granted. It too will age, become sick, die, and decay. There are dangers everywhere, disease and injury. A bad bicycle accident one day could cause me to lose entire parts of it. And neglect, like the twice yearly end of semester stress-fest, can cause all kinds of damage to mind and body alike. After all, the two are not separate entities. When my body suffers, my mind suffers. It’s one of the reasons I prize my sleep so dearly.
However, I can’t take time for granted either. My time is finite and my health is not invulnerable. I may occasionally let myself be lulled into the idea that things will never change, but I know this isn’t so. It takes episodes like today’s to bring that home sometimes. I may be occasionally worried or troubled, but the prospect of age and death doesn’t really upset me. I have better things, better emotions to spend my time on.
When I am reminded of my own transitory nature, I’d like to think that I take the time to reflect on attachment, interdependence, change, and selflessness, but the truth is I don’t often bother. I read Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. During the later portion of the book he spends a year like he’s dying, doing all the things he’s wanted to do, getting his affairs in order, visiting friends, and preparing for his death. At the end of the year is says goodbye to his family and symbolically dies. But how often is death like that? How often do we get to approach death with a sound mind and strong body? How many of us get to put our affairs in order and say our goodbyes?
My Great-grandma Peterson was one of the few who had that opportunity, I believe. She was ninety-three and cheerfully forecast her own death, only wishing everyone would have a chance to come visit before she went. She got her wish, but she was certainly not of strong body there at the end. She was old, withered, and frail, in a wheelchair attached to an oxygen machine. But her mind was there and she was content.
Marilyn died in drug-hazed pain, wracked by tumors growing in her body, her children weeping beside her. She would have been weeping for them, and no doubt had in the days prior, if enough of her mind had remained. The last time I saw her, she was not there. Neither was my Grandma Elaine. She was like a tiny decaying doll my father could barely bare to see for a few minutes. I don’t think she had made peace with her own passing, not even the measure of peace Marilyn had made during the long months of her illness, despite Grandma being eighty-four.
In the next few years I’ll undoubtedly lose my remaining grandmother, then my parents, likely my father first. My mom swears she’s going to live to be a hundred and thirty just to make my life miserable. She may manage it, but she has also declared she wants to go out like Grandma Pete, and I’ve no doubt she’s the will to do it. My brother is likely to be a widow someday. My sister-in-law has already had heart trouble in her early thirties and her family has a history.
Someday, busses willing, I’ll follow them. I may not have a year’s warning, or even a single day’s. I’d like to think I could go tomorrow and I’d be fine with that, but I’m not. Most people would wish for quick and painless, but I’ve seen that. It leaves the most grieving, the most pain behind, shock and confusion. I wouldn’t want that for my family. I would want them to have time to prepare, to say their goodbyes. Maybe in the long run that doesn’t lessen the pain, but I would hope it might.
That’s a large jumble of odd thoughts, past and future musings, all from a little shakiness in the shower. However, I’ve often felt it’s those kinds of little things which spark great realizations. In the movies it’s always the life or death experience, the near miss, the great trauma, but if that is what it takes to wake most people up, then most of us will continue to walk around in a haze our entire lives. Maybe it’s just wistful thinking, but I’d like people can wake up just where they are, even if only by small degrees.
I think mainly it helps me bring my brain back on line, pull out of the work-work-work rut I’ve been running in these past few days, remember the other things like eat, talk, think, walk, laugh, and eat some more.
And speaking of, if I’m ever going to die, I ought to get on with the business of living and eating.