There was water.
We met outside, doing our part
to stop the spread,
two hours from our house
and two hours from theirs:
built a fire in the grate
next to the picnic shelter
at the Thurston County public park
under the leaky canopy
we brought ourselves;
and the water--
beating on the shelter roof,
puddling on the paths,
pooling in the saggy canopy
until it filled and splashed out all at once
like a bucket at a water park,
sheeting a sudden wall of water
between the picnic tables
and the makeshift hot dog kitchen,
and after lunch, when we walked
to the beach,
dripped down our necks,
soaked the fronts of our pants,
liquified the path under our sodden feet,
rushed down the hill in rivulets
making a vast swamp
that flooded the beach
leaving only a strip of sand
between flood water and salt water
—even all that water,
though it made our visit so brief
(and so wet),
just long enough to scarf sausages,
scuttle to the Sound,
and jump back into our cars
for the two hour return journey
through the darkening mist,
could not drown the joy
of seeing each other again.
Recently, I noticed an unusual pain in my chest, just at the top of my breast tissue. Worried it might have something to do with cancer, I found myself obsessively pressing on the tender spot throughout the day, trying to probe the boundaries of my pain. Where did I hurt? How much? Why? A conversation with my doctor — and, later, a previously scheduled mammogram — proved I had nothing to worry about. But I kept pressing, trying to figure it out, until the day my skin yellowed like an old bruise, and I suddenly realized that it was a bruise. A week or two before, I remembered, I’d banged into a door jamb while carrying a roasting pan at chest-level. My sore spot had nothing to do with cancer. It was just my body’s way of keeping track of an old wound.
In her debut book, The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other, each of Charlotte Donlon’s short, incisive chapters feels like a gentle push on an old bruise. Where does loneliness hurt? How much? Why? As she works her way around the edges of her own loneliness, Donlon maps a surprisingly familiar pain. Frequent moves. Lost friendships. Debilitating mental illness. The moments after sex. Whether we’ve experienced these exact same circumstances or not, Donlon’s keen observation skills, her calm reflective voice, and her extraordinary willingness to be vulnerable invite us to discover that even in our isolation, we share a common bond.
Donlon reports that for most of her life she has experienced what she calls, after theologian Tom Varney, “core loneliness.” But for most of her life, evidently, she has also possessed a powerful ability to intuit the emotions of others. Even as a child, Donlon observed her lonely mother: “Watching her around other adults, I thought it always seemed like she was holding back, like she was careful to be who they expected her to be.” When I read that sentence, I felt as if Donlon was my own child, watching me. Throughout The Great Belonging, Donlon applies this same eye for detail to herself, her daughter, and others. With each observation, the reader, too, feels seen and named.
It is not just in noticing and naming loneliness that Donlon excels. She is also gifted at reflecting on loneliness: sitting with it, thinking about it, allowing it to impact her reading, her gazing, her praying; and, in turn, allowing her reading and gazing and praying to shape her loneliness. Donlon finds food for her loneliness-thoughts in the most unexpected places: the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, a choral performance, the stained glass windows at her Episcopal church, the novels she reads. Throughout the book, she reflects on each of these with calm and measured thoughtfulness. The Great Belonging is not a self-help book, or a quick-fix book, or a ten-steps-to-a-happier-you book. It is a book whose author is on a meditative journey, and she has quietly invited us to come along.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this book is Donlon’s willingness to welcome us into the far reaches of her own mind. Donlon has bipolar disorder; she has experienced addling manias and debilitating depressions. In The Great Belonging, Donlon relays these vacillations without hyperbole and without shame. What struck me most about these particular chapters is that, while they are vital to the book, The Great Belonging does not become, by their inclusion, a book about mental illness. Most books that include this level of openness about mental illness are primarily about mental illness; they are written for the mentally ill and those that love them, or they are memoirs written to shock or educate the general public. The Great Belonging is none of these. It is a book about loneliness whose author happens to be quite open about her own mental illness. In treating her condition this way, Donlon gives us all a great gift: a vision of a world in which mental illnesses can be openly discussed, but do not have to totally define the people who live with them.
When I had a bruise that I did not remember was a bruise, I could not stop pressing on it until I knew what it was. Only when I understood it could I let it alone and let it heal. The reader comes to the end of The Great Belonging with the same sigh of recognition. Ah, yes, we say. So that’s what this ache is. Loneliness.
In one of my favorite stories in the book, Donlon recounts her first night at home with her newborn daughter. In the middle of the night, overwhelmed and exhausted by the baby’s endless nursing, Donlon picked up the phone to call her mother. The words of calm, soothing advice on the other end of the line got her through the night — but in the morning, the advice-giver called back and confessed that she was not Donlon’s mother at all. A midnight misdial had connected Donlon with a stranger. A stranger who helped the best she could.
In The Great Belonging, Charlotte Donlon herself becomes the soothing voice on the other end of the line. Especially in these strange days of 2020, we are all a little bit lonely, a little bit frantic, a little bit in need of a stranger-turned-mother’s voice in the middle of the night. The Great Belonging is that voice. This is what loneliness is, Donlon says to us in The Great Belonging. This is where it hurts, and why. Here is how to let it heal.
I didn’t fall in love enough
with the writing. The writing is
extremely engaging and compelling.
Please pass along my best wishes.
I’m going to sadly pass.
I love this book. Love it.
A masterful job.
a tough and powerful
absolutely unique story
with brutal honesty
and a unique and compelling perspective.
I appreciate what the author is doing here.
All this to say
It’s not quite—
we weren’t able—
we felt it would be difficult—
to break this out
to see a bull’s eye
—I’m going to step aside.
Our team was hoping
for more of a platform.
She doesn’t have any platform to speak of, really.
Relatively small platform.
This is not a referendum on her skill.
All the best!
I do hope the book makes its way into the world!
Friday was my kids’ last day of school until who knows when. So I decided to go to Costco for my third stock-up grocery run of the week. I’m not hoarding, I just have seven people in the house. Who eat. And eat. And eat. And eat. And one of our seven has a suppressed immune system. It seemed like a good idea to take one last opportunity to prepare to lay low for a while.
When I arrived half an hour before the store opened, the line outside already snaked clear around to the back of the building. As we finally entered, the man behind me rammed my cart with his own, hard, twice. Within minutes, I decided I needed more space and abandoned my cart for a flatbed. I felt like I was in a video game: swooping forward when there was an opening in an aisle, or pulling back to let someone else go through; making split-second decisions about how many jugs of half and half and how many gallons of milk; trying to think of everything we might possibly need as quickly as possible before the checkout lines reached all the way back to the empty toilet paper shelves.
It was clearly not a normal day at Costco. So I had to laugh when the receipt checker at the exit door asked brightly, “How’s your day going?”
How was my day going? Momentarily stunned by the absurdity of such an ordinary question on such an extraordinary day, I snorted and waved at my flatbed. “Oh, you know…” The bags of frozen fruit threatened to slip off the pile of cereal boxes as I forced a chuckle. “Just feeding teenagers in an apocalypse!”
But if the last week has revealed anything, it’s that our kids need more than food. When I woke my children last Friday and informed them that it was the last time they would have to wake up for school for a while, I expected cheers of happiness. But my ten-year-old started crying. “I’m scared,” he whimpered. And a few days later, when I had to tell my extrovert fifteen-year-old to cancel the large nighttime game of Sardines in the park she’d organized with all her friends, she was angry. People do not live by bread alone, I keep reminding myself. In these days of anxieties running high, we’re all starved for spiritual nourishment.
The other night at dinner, talk turned to the Bible. My husband is a pastor, but we’re typically a little haphazard about our kids’ spiritual formation. We don’t always do a great job of encouraging (or modelling) a disciplined life of faith. But almost everybody chimed in to say what part of the Bible they’d recently chosen to read on their own. “I’m in First Kings,” said the thirteen-year-old. “I’m reading Matthew,” said the fifteen-year-old. “I’m reading the devotional Grandma sent us,” said the ten-year-old. It’s not that these kids are overly pious do-gooders. It’s that they’re hungry.
So, during these socially distanced days, my husband and I have decided to get a little more intentional about feeding our children. In addition to stocking up on cereal and milk, we’re going to stock up on Scripture. Every night at dinner, as a family, we’re going to memorize another verse of the book of Phillippians. What better time than now to store up words like “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” and “do not be anxious about anything” in our spirits?
Last night was our first attempt. Like little baby birds, each person at the table piped up in turn to attempt, with much laughter, to remember that Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus but all God’s holy people are in Christ Jesus. Verse one got mostly down the hatch. Tonight, we’ll review it and move on to verse two.
“Eat this book,” said the Lord to Ezekiel. Especially in an apocalypse. The teenagers are hungry.
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Super Tuesday didn’t go the way I’d hoped. Coronavirus is in my county. My stocks—that measly sum I dumped into a Roth IRA years ago, back when my husband and I were double-income-no-kids, and haven’t added to since—are tanking. All three of these major geopolitical situations were weighing on me this morning as I crawled out of bed.
I had a little extra time today, so I sat down with a cup of coffee after my kids walked out the door, and picked up my Bible. I’m going to be honest with you: I decided sometime in January that I would read through the entire New Testament this year, starting with the book of Matthew, and this morning, two months later, I’ve made it through all of four chapters.
Partly, I’ve only read up to Matthew 4 because I don’t make time for the Bible often enough, it’s true. But also, I got stuck here. In the past several weeks, every time I tried to read on, I couldn’t. There was something about this chapter—the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness—that had me circling back through it, over and over again. Like it was a page in Where’s Waldo? or one of those Magic Eye illusions, and I just hadn’t seen what I was supposed to see, yet.
This morning, I figured out what it was. I couldn’t get past Matthew 4 earlier because I needed to read it today. Because the three major temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness map exactly onto the three categories of anxieties we’re facing right now.
“Turn these stones to bread,” Satan first whispers to Jesus. In other words: provide for yourself. Take control of your economic situation. Jesus’ temptation to turn stones into bread speaks to my fear that we are poised on the lip of another Great Recession, that everything is about to go downhill. If we could turn stones into bread, if we could magically provide for ourselves everything that we need, our fears about the economy would be groundless.
“Throw yourself down” off the highest point of the temple is Satan’s next ploy, and “you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Here, Satan tempts Jesus with the mastery of his physical safety. What if we could jump off tall buildings without twisting an ankle? What if we could waltz among microscopic pathogens without catching covid-19? The temptation to jump and not fall is the temptation to wrest control of our physical bodies from the dangers that lurk all around us.
Finally, Satan tempts Jesus with “the kingdoms of the world.” “All this I will give you,” he promises, and Jesus faces the desire to control his political destiny. It’s anxiety-inducing to be led by rulers we don’t want to follow. What if we could snap our fingers and put our own favorite candidate—or ourselves—in charge, instead?
Bread, buildings, kingdoms. Provision, safety, power. The economy, coronavirus, the national election. These anxieties feel new and urgent to me, now, but they are the same old anxieties that have been pressing in on human beings for thousands of years. How do I get what I need? How do I keep myself safe? Who’s in charge?
And I’m struck, this morning, by the bizarreness of Jesus’ replies. We’d think the standard Sunday School answer to a taunt about having enough to eat would be “God will provide all my needs.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What? Instead of reassuring Satan, or himself, that God’s got him covered in the bread department, Jesus sidesteps the question altogether. He doesn’t say bread’s not important. He just says something else is, too.
Jesus’ response to the temptation about physical safety is also weird. Instead of insisting that God will keep him safe whether he jumps off the temple or not, Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Huh. It’s a head-scratcher. Basically, Jesus is saying, yes, God could keep him safe… but his own physical safety is not a referendum on whether God is still God. It’s okay to pray to God, yes, but we can’t lobby God. We can’t pressure God into doing what we want. And if things don’t go our way—if we do get coronavirus, or cancer, or get in a car accident or lose the baby or fall down the stairs or any one of the vast host of things that can go wrong in this world—those tragedies, while they are tragedies, cannot function as a litmus test on whether God is God. No matter what happens: God is still God. God is still good.
And then, this third temptation. When Satan offers Jesus power, why in the world doesn’t Jesus respond that he already has it? “I’m the Son of God, you fool,” Jesus could so easily say. “Don’t you know who you’re talking to?” But instead, Jesus replies, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Jesus responds to the anxiety of politics by lifting up the supremacy of his Father. There are (or were) many Democratic Presidential candidates in the United States of America in the year 2020. There is only one Lord.
Faced with anxiety after anxiety, Jesus keeps up a steady evasion tactic. It’s not that provision and safety and power are unimportant to Jesus. They just aren’t of ultimate importance. Will we get what we need? Will we be safe? Will we like who’s in charge? Maybe. Maybe not. Jesus cares, absolutely, about hunger and sickness and political turmoil. But Jesus knows that even when all those things go wrong, God is still God. And God is still good.
In Matthew 4, Jesus turns our eyes, again and again, from the pressures of this world to the mystery of God. It’s a radical and captivating and not-wholly-understandable lesson. Maybe I’ll just keep meditating on this one chapter for a little while longer.
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If you saw my last post, you know that last week, I had surgery to remove a cyst that was possibly malignant. I'll skip to the good news: it wasn't! I'm enormously relieved and thankful. My list of "songs to play at my funeral" can go back in the file cabinet for another day.
As I was waking up in the recovery room, fighting to keep my eyes open so I could prove to the nurse that I was ready to be wheeled out to my family, I kept circling back to one thought: Now I can finish my book. Now I can finish my book. I'm not supposed to lift anything heavier than a half-gallon of milk for six weeks: while I'm lying around watching my husband and children put away the laundry, I've got a task of my own to accomplish.
But you can't write all day. I have a nice big stack of other people's books next to my bed, and I'm greatly enjoying having the time to read them. I thought I'd write up a few recommendations in case you ever get any time to read, yourself. Christmas list ideas, maybe?
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler
This is the story of Kate Bowler's first year living with Stage IV colon cancer. I started it while I was in the basement of the oncology center waiting for a CT scan, not sure if I had cancer myself. I finished it after my surgery, when I knew I didn't. It was an incredible book in both frames of mind. Read it for widsom about faith in uncertain times; read it to know what to say and do (or not to say and do!) in times of crisis; read it because Kate Bowler is a great writer. When I finished her book, I wanted to be her friend.
What is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander
When she was fifteen, USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused her. When she grew up, Rachael Denhollander brought him to justice. A lawyer herself, Denhollander is the perfect spokeswoman for abuse victims: smart, savvy, eagle-eyed, and tenacious. This book opens up the ugly realities abuse survivors face in the "justice" system (did you know that out of every 230 rapes reported, only 5 result in conviction?!). It's got a sweet love story, too.
Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
I love the premise of this book: Tish Harrison Warren walks readers through the mundane events of a single day, and connects each episode to an office of the church. Waking up reminds her of baptism; losing keys makes her reflect on confession. So simple, yet so profound. Such a great reminder that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we are loved by God.
I'm going to be done with these books pretty quick, so if you have any recommendations for me, please let me know!
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Two big things have been going on in my life lately. One: I’m trying to publish a book. Two: doctors are trying to figure out whether I have cancer. It’s kind of a lot.
On the one hand, I have publishers saying they love my writing, but they need to see a larger “platform.” Evidence that some magic number of fans out there in the world would actually buy a book from little old me. So, I’m dutifully, clumsily, trying to build a platform: I started a writer Instagram page. (My daughter says I took a “mom selfie.”) I’m posting more on Twitter. I’m floundering along on Facebook. I’m trying to get speaking engagements, I’m trying to publish articles, I’m trying to get in touch with anyone who knows anyone who might be able to do anything to help bump this little thing along. Trying, trying, trying, and meanwhile the rejections keep coming and it’s hard not to put my head under the covers and say sorry world, never mind, I didn’t really have anything to say after all.
But then there’s this other thing. The thing growing at a disturbing rate deep inside my body. It’s a “complex ovarian cyst,” in fact, and at first it seemed okay because there wasn’t increased vascularity and my cancer antigen level was low, whatever those things mean, but then on follow-up ultrasound it had grown fairly rapidly, so this week I got referred to a gynecological oncologist. (Say that five times fast.) If you’ve ever had to walk into a doctor’s office labelled “Cancer Center,” well, you know it feels.
The funny thing is how these two big things have been pushing on each other in my mind, the book and the brush with mortality. You can’t be referred to an oncologist without thinking just a little (okay, a lot) about the possibility of your own demise. Wondering what your husband is going to make for your kids for dinner every night for the rest of their oh-so-short little childhood lives. Thinking about what you might want to do with however many days you have left.
And what I realize when I contemplate my own mortality is this: I don’t care about my platform. At all. I don’t care how many followers I have on Twitter. I don’t care how many people like my Instagram posts. I don’t care if I have a cute headshot. I want speaking engagements if God has something to say to someone through me, but not because I was to make that section of my book proposal look longer. If I’m going to die (and we’re all going to die), these things don’t even begin to scratch the surface of things worth worrying about.
But, when I think about dying, I realize that I do care, a lot, about getting this book into the world. If my days are numbered (and they are; everyone’s are), then right now I only want two things with the rest of my life: I want to love my family well, and I want to see this book fully birthed into the world. Because I really believe that God, the immortal invisible only wise God, has something to say to this beat-up, broken-down, weary old world of ours. Maybe it’s hubris, but I do believe that He’s entrusted one tiny whisper of His word for the world to me. And I feel a new urgency about breathing that whisper out.
The oncologist was encouraging. She doesn’t think it looks like cancer. But we won’t know for sure until it comes out, so surgery has been scheduled for November 12. And then, I’m going to take the full six weeks I’m allotted by law to recover from this surgery; I won’t go back to teaching until after winter break. And in those six-plus weeks, I plan to finish writing my book. To revamp my proposal. To get ready to try again.
I’d love to send you a letter someday that says “I have a book contract!” or “That stupid cyst was benign!” But meanwhile, I’m just waiting. Waiting to see what God is up to in all this. Thankful that He’s here, walking around in the fiery furnace with me. Trying to figure out what is mine to do, platform-wise or otherwise, in the meantime.
If you feel like talking to Jesus about all this, please remind him of these things:
I’m not in control of either of those things. I can’t make either of them happen for myself. But I’m trusting in the One who can.
“Your platform,” she says, “is your body of work.”
She means, I think, to liberate me from the metrics of platform-as-followers: the notion that if I could somehow lash together enough social media fans, like so many planks of decking, I could step up on their backs and stride away to stardom. But the idea of platform-as-body-of-work strikes no less fear into my heart. What is my body of work, anyway, I wonder. A few dozen blog posts read by a few family members and a few close personal friends? A handful of articles published on websites, some of which have now shuttered? Another handful of essays slaved over in my MFA program, and submitted, and submitted, and submitted, and finally let slide into some dusty corner of my hard drive? No wonder the publishers rejected my book proposal. “We love the writing,” they say, “but she has no platform.” No platform. Not enough followers; not a big enough body of work.
But my body of work is five thousand dinners cooked on five thousand nights. Potatoes peeled, pork seasoned, zucchinis sliced. My body of work is soccer practices and piano lessons and band concerts and cross country meets. My body of work is measured out in Band-Aids and shoelaces and snack-size Ziploc bags. My body of work is driving my brother to the nephrologist and teaching second graders to find similes and creating the song lyric slideshow for Sunday morning church and listening to a friend while I fold socks.
My body of work is four bodies: bodies I held inside my body for as long as I possibly could, laying my body on the couch each day, ignoring both its protests and the studies that say bedrest produces no measurable benefits, only getting up for the toilet or the shower, until the February December April July day when my body gave way and their bodies hurtled, some too soon, into the world. My body of work is four bodies that I nourished with my body, attaching my body to a green hospital-grade breast pump in the middle of the night, ferrying the bottles to the NICU in the morning, reaching my fingers through the portal in the side of the plastic isolette to stroke their little calves to say hello. My body of work is four bodies I no longer bathe, wipe, buckle, clothe, swaddle, or carry. Four bodies I still snuggle, feed, spit-polish, and prod.
“Another way to think of it,” she says, “is that your platform is your credentials.”
Ah, yes. Credentials. My bona fides, the chops that qualify me to write this particular book. My credentials, I think, are the hours I have spent on my therapist’s couch. The hours in the psych ward, the hours in the self-help aisles of the bookstore, the hours with my face pressed into the living room rug. What other credentials for writing a book about the time your life fell apart and got pieced back together again can there be?
Of course, the world does not owe me a book deal. So I spent more time growing a family than a platform. So a sales and marketing team decided not to take a risk on the size of my intended audience. Who am I to argue?
My oldest son’s home room teacher emailed tonight to say that my son is a pleasure to have in class. He is “a silent leader,” she says. “The students really look up to him and many have mentioned they feel they can be more successful seated by him. I'm so glad I get to have him as a student.”
I have written a book, and I hope someday it gets published, platform or no. But tonight, my body of work is a boy who sets an example for his classmates.
For tonight, that’s enough.
Well, hello. It’s been so long since I wrote a blog post, I had to make a new blog. But I’m just sitting here feeling kinda crappy, so what else do I have to do? (Spoiler alert: if reading about the minute details of other people’s illnesses isn’t your jam, you might want to go find something else to do with the next six minutes of your life. No hard feelings. Long story short: Lyme Disease sucks.)
So, a week and a half ago, I was tromping through the woods in upstate New Hampshire. “But Sarah,” those of you who know me will say, “you live in Oregon.” Yes, I do. I was in New Hampshire on a research trip for the book I’ve been writing for about ten million years. And yes, tromping through the woods was part of the research.
I was there with my mom, which might have been part of the reason we maybe weren’t as good about the tick checks as we should have been. What forty-year-old wants to get butt-naked in front of their mom? Or vice versa. So she looked at my back, and I looked at hers, and we just kind of did the rest of our bodies ourselves. Turns out, there are other parts of our own bodies we really can’t see with the eyes on our heads.
Cut to last Thursday. I’d been home from New Hampshire for a few days, and I was sitting at my son’s baseball game when all of a sudden I didn’t feel so good. I felt bad about not walking over to say hi to my son’s friend’s mom before I left, but I just couldn’t. I had to get home Right. Then. My husband found me crumpled on the couch about half an hour later.
The first couple days were okay. I had fevers that rolled up and down like a roller coaster--you’re shaking with chills, it’s getting higher, you feel like you might incinerate, you’re at the top, you start to soak your clothes with sweat, you’re coming down!--but the fevers only got up to the 101 range, and I felt well enough to sit in bed and write. Well, my head hurt. And my body ached. And I had the teensiest bit of a cough. But really, I was okay.
Sunday morning, everything changed. My husband is a pastor, so he left the house at zero dark thirty as he always does on Sunday mornings, and the idea was that I would drag myself down the stairs and out to the car so I could drop my four kids off at church. But when I woke up that morning--actually at about 4 am with violent chills that shook me for an hour, and I never did get back to sleep because I felt that bad--I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. My temps were in the high 102s. It didn’t seem safe for me to walk down the stairs, much less operate a vehicle. I did not open my computer that day. I laid in bed and tried not to die.
By Sunday afternoon, I remembered something. My insurance company has been advertising this Teladoc service, where you pay ten bucks to talk to a doctor. I don’t really know what I expected a doctor to do over the phone, but I decided it was worth a try.
After I registered with the website, I figured I should take my temperature before the doctor called. As I peered down at the rapidly escalating number on the thermometer with my right eyeball, I started to panic. Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. It finally stopped at 103.7. He’s going to tell me to go somewhere.
And that’s exactly what happened. The doctor had a perfectly lovely phone voice and asked all sorts of great questions, but in the end, he told me I need to go to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room. “Do you have someone to drive you?” he asked.
My husband was out in the backyard on a work call. I texted him twelve times in a row and called twice before he finally got off the phone and ran upstairs. “We have to go to the Emergency Room,” I told him.
“Not Urgent Care?”
“Let’s go to the ER.” As far as I was concerned, I was dying, and I had already spent ten dollars on a middle man who shuffled me down the line. Why spend another forty-five at Urgent Care when they were probably just going to put me in an ambulance?
At the ER, my temperature had, of course, gone down. Don’t you hate that? It was only 100-something at Triage. But it was a lovely Sunday afternoon in June, which, in my limited experience, is an excellent time to get through to the ER. I only had to curl myself into a fetal position on the widest chair in the lobby for maybe twenty minutes before they came out to get me.
By the time I got back to the room, though, my face was on fire. “Do you usually look like that?” the nurse said when she walked in. “I’m going to take your temperature again.” 102.9.
Then the doctor came in. Honestly, I don’t know where they get some of these people. This guy was perfectly nice and all, but nice isn’t really the sum total of what you want in an ER doc, is it? You also want 1) someone with normal speech patterns and 2) SOMEONE WHO FIGURES OUT WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.
First, the speech pattern thing. This guy began every sentence, I kid you not, with the words, “Yeah, I was gonna say.” As in:
“Yeah, I was gonna say, hi, my name is --. What seems to be the problem today?”
“Well, I’ve had a fever since Thursday, and today it was 103.7 at home, so--”
“Yeah, I was gonna say, so you’ve been having fevers?”
“Yes, and also, I have a really bad headache--”
“Yeah, I was gonna say, do you have any other symptoms? Headaches?”
“Yes, really bad headaches. And my back hurts, and--”
“Yeah, I was gonna say, does your back hurt?”
It was the weirdest. You were going to say… when? When I was already answering your last question? Or you just have a strange need to pretend like you were about to guess what was going to come out of my mouth?
Honestly, how does someone get through medical school like this? I assume in all those four years there’s at least ONE DAY where you practice talking to a patient and somebody observes you and tells you how you did. I can only assume that somebody was being too nice to this guy. Well, his “Yeah I was gonna say” thing is weird, but I hate to bring it up… People! Stop being so nice to each other!
I mean, I will feel bad if the guy has an actual speech disability. But I’m not feeling so well right now. Mea culpa.
By this point, my in-laws, who live in upstate New York, were texting my husband, “LYME DISEASE. TALK TO THE DOCTOR ABOUT LYME DISEASE.” Well, okay, they probably didn’t say it quite like that. But that was the general drift. So we did. And here’s what Dr. IWasGonnaSay had to say to that:
“Yeah, I was gonna say, for Lyme Disease, do you have a rash?”
Bear in mind that by that point, my fever was back up to probably over 103. And I had been sick for four days. I had not been performing luxurious self-care routines in front of the mirror. And my husband, who was terrified of getting sick himself, had been keeping a wide berth. So honestly, how were we supposed to know if I had a rash? But I hadn’t seen one. So I said no.
“Yeah, I was gonna say, if you don’t have a rash, then it’s not Lyme Disease.”
And here’s what I would like to say, in the radiant glow of hindsight, to that ER Doctor: First of all, it’s not true, what you said. People can have Lyme Disease without a rash. But second, if a patient comes to you with a high fever, instead of asking her if she has a rash, look for one yourself. You are a doctor. It’s called an exam. I promise I won’t feel weird about it. It is, after all, why I am there.
Instead, they sent me off for a chest x-ray to look for pneumonia (negative), and did a nose swab to check for flu (nada). They gave me some IV fluids. Then, they sent me home.
“It’s just a virus,” said the nurse. “You’ll feel better by day eight.”
Are there really viruses that make you feel this bad for this long? I wondered. “But my head hurts so bad…” I was honestly surprised that they hadn’t ordered an MRI to watch my head explode in real time, at least for science.
“We can’t do anything about the symptoms,” she said. “Go home and get some rest.”
Luckily, luckily, the next morning I caught a break between fevers and decided to take a shower. Luckily, I was toweling off in front of the mirror. Luckily, I spotted a big reddish patch on the back of my right knee.
“What is that?” I asked my husband.
I had already called and made an appointment at my primary care doctor’s office. Now I knew what I was going to say.
“I think I have Lyme Disease,” I said when the doctor walked into the room.
I could tell she didn’t believe me. “Let’s start with the symptoms,” she said.
But as I unspooled my story, and especially when I showed her the rash, she caught on. She was brisk, but she followed the CDC protocol, which I had already looked up before I came in. “Ninety-nine percent of people who walk in and say they have Lyme Disease are wrong,” she said on her way out, “but I think you really might.”
I do like to be right. I gave her a weak thumbs up.
The next problem was the antibiotic. I’m allergic to penicillin, so the doctor had prescribed doxycycline, which causes nausea. Sure enough, less than half an hour after I took it, that baby came right back up.
The ibuprofen I’d taken that morning had come up, too, along with the single nibble of an edge of a Nutri-Grain bar I’d swallowed along with it. In fact, I hadn’t kept anything down since Saturday.
I called the doctor’s office--this was at 12:30 pm--and they promised to call right back. I spent an hour lying on my bed in a feverish haze, head throbbing, imagining how nice it would be when they admitted me to the hospital to administer the antibiotic via IV drip. Someone will finally take care of me…
But it wasn’t to be. I called the office again an hour later and found out from the “Patient Coordinator” that the doctor had written a script for an anti-nausea med, but the nurse hadn’t called it in to the pharmacy yet. “She’ll call you right back.”
An hour later, I called again, this time in tears. I wasn’t sure which would happen first: my head exploding or incinerating, but either way, death was imminent. “Could you just please tell them I feel terrible?”
“She’ll call you right back.”
They finally called the medication in at 4:30, and the pharmacy had it ready at 5:30. All afternoon I had been lying in bed thinking, I’m sure labor was worse, but this is a close, close second.
“Take this medication with a small meal in case of upset stomach,” reads the Doxycycline bottle, so in addition to two anti-nausea tablets, I also ate the largest meal I could bring myself to swallow: three Saltine crackers. Even so, I spent the next two hours in agony. My head was throbbing, my whole body was feverish, and I couldn’t lie down because if I did I was sure I’d throw up. All I could think about was my tiny, shriveled stomach with nothing but two globs of cracker and that one enormous pill burning a hole in its lining. I don’t want to compare myself to cancer patients, because cancer is obviously way worse, but let’s just say I have a whole new empathy for people on chemo.
But. The medication worked. That was last night, and this morning, my headache is much diminished (though not altogether gone), my fever is lower (though again, still present), and I actually ate half a bagel.
Now I’m going to take another of those doxycycline pills. Wish me luck.