As a long-time believer in self diagnosis of my overall operating systems, I am very grateful to be emerging from a most unpleasant, quivering delirium thanks to my new best friends since yesterday, gabapentin, aceyclovir and vicoden.
After one of the most intense weeks of my life, I am finally finding a semi-functional cruising altitude and have come to an important realization.
When it doesn’t go after the heart, it can trigger a very common, very painful skin affliction – shingles. Shingles is the silly sounding name of the re-animation of chicken pox in adults. It lays dormant under the skin of anyone who had chicken pox as a child. It usually attacks older adults whose immune system is already stressed from some other ailment.
But it can also attack adults in their forties like me who bottle up stress over time without finding a proper outlet to relieve it.
Shingles is nothing like chicken pox either. In full bloom it feels like your skin is molten lava brewing over an angry volcano.
What I thought were hives last Wednesday morning looked like seven fire-ant bites of various sizes on my neck and shoulder. I self-diagnosed their cause and fixed the situation that I thought was causing my stress (a debt management issue). I Googled hives and sure enough, my blisters matched. With the stress out of the way though, I expected a quick recovery. I even stopped watching the news since the Japanese nuclear meltdown, tsunami devastation, Libyan conflict, Yemen conflict and our own military-centric government arguing about the wrong things in Washington, D.C. (it’s a revenue problem, not a spending problem!) – all of which only added to my stress level.
But, despite no small degree of self-determination and self-help, my “hives” spread rapidly and by Friday afternoon turned into a full-blown, bubbling terrain down my neck, shoulder, back, chest and even into my left ear.
And here’s where the pain mis-management really kicked in.
It was Friday. A college buddy I hadn’t seen in years was in town for less than twenty-four hours. I cut slices off my giant aloe vera plant in the backyard and applied the soothing balm right onto my boiling skin. I told myself the anti-histamine I’d been taking since Wednesday night was working; cutting out the bad news barrage on TV was working; eating right and avoiding alcohol was working. But plans fell apart (it’s a good thing Laura and I had given up going to restaurants for Lent). I’m sure I sounded like an incoherent mess to him when I tried to explain it on the phone. (sorry TJ!)
Reluctantly, I agreed with Laura to cancel our Saturday painting party so I could heal quietly. On Sunday morning, I woke up shivering in so much pain I could barely speak. My left shoulder, neck, back and chest felt like they were on fire. The huge blisters were on the verge of busting and clearly needed more than aloe vera and an anti-histamine. “These are wicked hives!” I told my wife. “I think you need to take me to the doctor.”
“Finally,” she sighed with a teary mix of sympathy and exasperation in her pretty blue eyes.
So she drove me to the nearby Urgent Care on Eastern and Horizon Ridge at 10AM Sunday morning. There were about a dozen people in front of us. I fought through the pain. Laughing at it, as I wiped away the errant tears that escaped the cracking fortress of my determination. Resisting the urge to run screaming into the wilderness of hysteria was getting harder and harder. When I finally got to see the doctor, Dr. Alfredo Hibbert, he diagnosed my ailment the second I unbuttoned my shirt. Shingles – adult chicken pox that lay dormant under the skin of anyone who ever had chicken pox as a child.
Except shingles are nothing like chicken pox. Even the name sounds silly and elicits little sympathy from anyone unfamiliar with the wicked nasty scourge. Shingles protect houses, right?
A much better name for shingles would be ‘Radical Fire Blister Syndrome’ or ‘Hot Lava Skin’, ‘Demon Pox’ or something along those lines.
I concurred with the doctor that they were painful, but I kept a stiff upper lip. (Why?) By 3PM Sunday afternoon I had two prescription anti-biotics and Zovirax, an immediate relief topical ointment. After taking the meds, later that evening I told my wife I felt like I was floating in electric jelly. Unless I moved, it hurt less. Sort of. But I told her (and more importantly myself) that I could feel myself getting better already.
But floating in electric jelly isn’t normal. Unlike milk, it does not do a body good!
Monday morning there were definite signs of improvement on the molten terrain of my skin. Even more improvement by that evening. However the pain wasn’t subsiding much at all and it was getting harder and harder to hide the fact from my wife. I drank two glasses of Merlot with dinner which dropped me into a cozy swoon. Ahh, nice. Temporarily.
I woke up feeling like shit but gritted my teeth and fought through the pain. My right hand started shaking uncontrollably early Tuesday afternoon. Then my whole right arm. If I concentrated I could stop it. But it was becoming almost impossible to concentrate on anything for much more than twenty seconds.
I decided to take a much needed shower before my wife got home from work. Zazzy, my ever faithful, adoring golden retriever knew something was wrong as I laughed and howled as the water electrocuted my nervous system. As the gentle spray cascaded over my skin, clearing away the multiple dry layers of sticky ointments and strong body odor, my dog’s instincts told her to try and open the shower stall door to release me from my self-inflicted incarceration of searing, mind-expanding pain.
When I finally got out of the shower, Zazzy danced in circles around me. With tears in my eyes, I smiled between gritted teeth and told her everything was going to be better now for sure. Her big brown eyes wanted to believe me … yet remained unconvinced.
When my wife got home, she knew something was seriously wrong with me. She does a great imitation of me from that night, which I hope to tape and put up here, or on You Tube in the next few days. It kind of looks like Frankenstein on LSD, which, when I reach back into my hazy, quivering delirium, is pretty much exactly how I felt.
By a lucky stroke of serendipitous fortune, my cousin Bruce sent me the latest draft of his screenplay via e-mail Tuesday morning. He and his wife have a family practice in Princeton (they’re both MD’s) and I’ve been giving him comments and suggestions on a screenplay he’s been working on the past several months. I mentioned the shingles. He STRONGLY advised getting some pain killers and recommended Gabapentin along with vicodin. “Or you will SUFFER!” he wrote back.
He also told me that on the pain scale, shingles equate to giving childbirth.
I went back to Urgent Care on Wednesday, my fifth solid day of “giving childbirth.” I was delirious, quivering and probably looked like a strung out junkie jones-ing for a fix. But I was functioning. Sort of. Hell, I’d driven myself there, right? I was able to speak. In short clipped sentences. I saw everything through a flickering, kaleidoscopic daze very, very removed from any true awareness of myself.
I felt like I was circling the Earth, checking in with my body every couple of seconds, then returning into the ionosphere. God and I were on a first name basis and chatting away like junior high school girls.
Fighting through five days of ever mounting pain induced within me a uniquely intoxicated reality. My entire nervous system was electrified and in a state of overdrive like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I now completely understand the day-to-day lives of Frida Kahlo, Edgar Allan Poe and other mad, absinthe-addicted visionaries of the past.
I was right there, dancing on the edge of sanity with them.
Fortunately, we live in an age where there are options to inaccurate self diagnosis and self-medication. We live in the Information Age which really should be called the Age of Almost Enlightened Reason. (The Age of Enlightenment + The Age of Reason + the reality that ten of us can’t agree on the color of shit.)
I’ve come to realize that the mis-management of pain is a common, very serious side effect of stubborn adherence to a idealized end goal. Whether it’s to get over an affliction, ease the suffering of others, or balance a State or Federal budget, accurate information can be found and put to good use. Experts can be easily consulted. Immediate, effective results are achievable. If only we get out of our own way and do it.
“Yaba, Daba, Gaba(pentin)-do!”