It’s always One Thing or Another … a lighthearted look at aging, life, and the absurdities of it all.
By Mark McNease
I don’t know what’s more excruciating, living through shingles or attempting to write a humor column about them. But since I consider laughter a true medicine, and a sense of humor vital to surviving this life, I’ll do my best to smile through the pain.
It seems appropriate to end my Year of Living Stressfully with a case of something we’re led to believe only strikes people over the age of 60. I celebrated my 58th birthday in October, so while I’m not that far from the mile marker beyond which shingles waits for one in every three of us, I still thought I was safe for a few more years. I obviously have not had the vaccine I see commercials for every hour or so (do our television sets know what products to market to us yet, the way websites do?). I also couldn’t tell you until now that I’d had chickenpox as a child. I don’t remember my childhood diseases, only its discomforts, which were many.
Had I not known that shingles is the result of a compromised immune system, I would have guessed it. My immune system has been battered this year. Stress, strain, anxiety, anger, indecision, frustration: all these things have been part of the toxic stew served up to me in 2016, some as appetizers, others as main courses with seconds.
The company I worked for closed its New York City office, sending five of us applying for new jobs or unemployment. Our oldest of three remaining cats went blind from high blood pressure and had to have a pill every day. (While cats offer the advantage of being self-sufficient pets, that goes out the window when they need a capsule stuffed in a Pill Pocket every morning.) My husband lost his job—sort of—staying on as a consultant and still there, month by month. We decided to take this rare opportunity to finally move to our house in New Jersey, which is taking forever and now appears (click those ruby slippers!) to be set for next spring.
What else? Oh, I had to euthanize the old blind cat. Then another one, who has slept next to me for 15 years, got sick, then sort-of-let’s-wait-and-see better. I eye her daily imagining she’s lost another three ounces. Finally, on November 8, we had the presidential election after months of increasing hostility and rollercoaster emotions. I think that’s what put me over the edge, but I can’t really say. I took upon myself the despair of half the nation. I was sure I could rage my way to a solution. Compromise was not an option. Instead it all came crashing inward: the cat, the job, the move, the election, all of it.
Then, three weeks ago … I felt a sharp pain under my left shoulder blade. I assumed I’d twisted my neck or back and proceeded to blame it on the pillow at my in-laws’ house where we went for Thanksgiving. It got worse. It spread. By that Sunday I had a rash on my back. And here we are.
I won’t bother you with a description of shingles. I was lucky it wasn’t on my face, as it has been for some people I know. Nor was it the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life. That, frankly, came from the deaths of my friends to AIDS when we were still young. Pain is pain. It was terrible then, it’s terrible now. I can feel that same spot under my shoulder blade I’d thought was a pinched nerve and I wonder if it will ever go away or if I’ll just have to learn to live with it.
What I will say is that I took a hard, close look at the stresses in my life and decided which ones I could live with and which ones to flush out of my system. I can’t do anything about elections other than vote and voice my opinions, even my opposition. I’ve always thought anger was a drug too many people enjoy lethal doses of, so I’m passing on that when the tray comes around, and it comes around every time I turn on the morning news. No, thank you. Fury is not my color.
I’ve recovered, and I’ve stepped back. Most stresses can be lessened by simply putting their sources in perspective. I’ll work again. We’ll move. Cats, and all living things, will continue to die. It’s okay. Have fun, stay engaged, enjoy as many things on as many days as you can, and shrug the rest off before it shows up in pains or rashes or righteous outrage that corrodes your soul and steals your time. It’s a non-renewable resource and the most valuable thing we will ever have. Make time the gift you give to yourself and others, wrapped in moments of calm and presence. There’s nothing else like it.
Mark McNease is the author of the bestselling Kyle Callahan Mysteries and the recently launched Detective Linda Mysteries, as well as the co-editor and publisher of the anthology Outer Voices Inner Lives (Lambda Literary Award finalist). He’s also the co-host of The Twist Podcast, and the co-creator of the Emmy and Telly winning children’s program Into the Outdoors.