I just recently bounced back from four days of involuntary downtime due to a diagnosed severe case of bacterial tonsillitis and respiratory infection. I don’t encounter episodic illness often, so this forced period of stay-at-home fallowness gave me plenty of time to reflect on a lot of things. Having mostly recovered by now I have come to some personal conclusions that challenge the default thinking a lot of us may share when it comes to how we think about health.
Last weekend I came down with what seemed like a chest and throat infection that started out extremely painful. I am fortunate enough to live in a small village in rural Hong Kong that has an excellent public health clinic. As a citizen of the territory I was able to both consult with a medical doctor and receive quality prescribed medicine (European branded and Hong Kong generic) within a reasonable amount of time for an affordable US$ 6.35 total. No insurance company necessary. After my doctors visit I retreated home in a state of extreme pre-medicated discomfort and gladly tucked into the several packets of prescription medications I now had at hand.
Fortunately, I do not need to take any medication on a regular basis. With this as my baseline, I was honestly surprised with the near instant relief I felt from the cocktail of industrial strength anti-inflammatory, cough suppressant and antibiotics I was prescribed. By the first night, while still painful, it felt like my condition had at long last stabilised, and that in itself felt like a miracle.
And so my first sickness-induced revelation occurred to me; that pharmaceuticals medicines are an absolute miracle in their ability to stabilise conditions. In my case this was a rather simple, painful infection, but for others this stabilisation can be much more a matter of life and death. Pharmaceuticals are an unloved aspect of modern medicine, perhaps not completely undeserved, however I have quickly reaffirmed my belief that they also do deserve a lot more respect than they often receive when used with common sense. In my case I knew with good certainty that my prescription for antibiotics and anti-inflammatories would not be something I would take long term and was probably necessary for extreme symptom relief and a timely recovery, so it made complete sense.
The other more profound sickness-induced revelation that occurred to me last week centred around the opportunity that sickness itself affords us, if we allow it. For several days I could hardly bare the thought of swallowing because my tonsils hurt so badly, and I lost two nights of sleep as I lay all night in a state of semi-shock from the pain and adrenaline. This is, of course, mild in comparison to many other chronic and acute conditions patients endure, however it was still an uncomfortable reminder of what illness can be like. With several days to myself with little to do but think about how sick I was, I began to explore my own thoughts on how I may have gotten sick in the first place and what I could do going forward to prevent going through this experience again anytime soon.
Even for my own relatively mild episodic illness, I found that there was a lot to be explored from such an experience. In my case, I may have caught my infection in any number of indeterminate ways. Perhaps it was from working and living around areas of Hong Kong that have seen unprecedented use of tear gas over the past four months. Maybe I just got unlucky with whomever I sat next to on the water ferry back home. Or maybe, just possibly, it could have been from how I am living more generally – taking too many jobs spread out over an inconsistent schedule with too much of a mental burden during an already society-wide stressful time in an infamously stressful city. All manner of different scenarios began to emerge. I could go deeper still and wonder if maybe city life really isn’t for me, with it’s associated pollution, late nights and the license for over-indulgence we all enjoy (too much). We all have different thresholds for stress, activity and indulgence, so maybe I’d just over done it personally, lowering my immunity enough to catch a nasty bug.
All this is pure self-introspective conjecture, and the real cause will forever remain unknown and indeterminate, but what I found powerful and interesting has been the idea that it was illness itself that gave me the time, space and opportunity to think about and put my life under an intense magnifying glass. I saw things in my life that I know do not resonate with who I really am, and in the illness context of feeling physically terrible it somehow felt easier for me to accept these realities and press myself more genuinely for change. Maybe it’s a little change or maybe it’s a big one – the choice is ultimately ours.