When I was a child, somewhere around the age of eight or nine, I experienced a common rite of passage that included connecting the dots and dabs of cotton candy pink calamine lotion applied by my mother.
She admonished, “Stop scratching!” to which I responded by surreptitiously moving my pajama top up and down on my belly when I thought she wasn’t looking. Chicken pox visited me, not once, but twice by the time I was in junior high school; no surprise, since I always needed to be exceptional in some way.
Last week, on Thanksgiving, as I was preparing to go to dinner at the home of friends, I detected a red, raised rash on my left temple. Thinking it was psoriasis, I put coconut oil (which has become a cure-all for me of late) on it and makeup over it. Within two days, I noticed that my scalp had begun to burn, as if I had been lying in the tropical sun for too long and along with it, jolts of electrical energy, like being plugged into a socket accompanied by stabbing pain in my left eye.
A few hours later, I began to morph into a Human-Klingon hybrid with angry looking crimson ridges on the left side of my forehead.
Driving myself to the ER of Doylestown Hospital, blessedly only a few miles away, I was guided into a room while awaiting the appearance of the Physician’s Assistant, Jen who took one look and proclaimed what I suspected: shingles.
It is caused by the varicella zoster virus. Although it generally effects older people, I was soon to discover that many my age and some even younger experience it. There are about one million new cases of shingles in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.
I knew it meant a course of steroids, an anti-viral medication, as well as medically imposed down time. I was instructed to stay away from pregnant women or anyone who had not had chicken pox, since shingles is a springing-to-life-residual-after-years-of-dormancy version of that childhood disease.
Shingles in and of itself is not contagious, but the virus that is its source is. It hangs out in the nerve root which explains the zapping sensations that heralded the arrival of the condition.
Then the assistant commented on the next symptom—that was the most troubling. Since the swelling and lesions were close to my left eye, she instructed me to consult with an opthamologist. There was a possibility that my vision could be affected.
Immediately, my mind spiraled down into fear mode and my blood pressure skyrocketed as I imagined the worst case scenario. Since working on the computer is part of my livelihood, I wondered how I would function if that was the case. I also knew it meant taking time off from work as a therapist and asking for help from colleagues to cover for me.
My supportive boss insisted that I take time off to recover with the not so subtle reminder “Healer, heal thyself.”
I knew that it was no accident that this condition showed up when it did. Shingles is more likely to present itself when the host is in the throes of stress-filled conditions or if the immune system is compromised in some way.
A few weeks ago, I was introducing the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale to my clients and decided to take the inventory myself.
According to Wikipedia,
“In 1967, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of over 5,000 medical patients as a way to determine whether stressful events might cause illnesses. Patients were asked to tally a list of 43 life events based on a relative score. A positive correlation of 0.118 was found between their life events and their illnesses.
Their results were published as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), known more commonly as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Subsequent validation has supported the links between stress and illness.“
My results indicated that illness was likely, given the life stressors I had experienced in the previous few years.
They included death of both parents, job change, financial flux, my sister incurring two heart attacks, followed by the death of her husband. Add to the mix that I had been burning the candle at both ends until there was no more wax left and I might as well have placed the welcome mat in front of my door for the little buggers to enter.
I had also been warned by persistent, well meaning and sometimes annoying friends and family members that I needed to slow my pace considerably. Two other health scares; one involving a knee injury which has healed, and the other involving a cardiac abnormality preceded this one and still I kept the hamster wheel in motion.
So I took to my bed for the past several days, loading up on the meds that were prescribed, drinking lots of water and herbal tea and green smoothies, diving into dreamland with such zest that would have done Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle proud.
Up until then, when people asked how I managed to accomplish all that I do, I would joke that “sleep is highly over-rated.” Now I revere it as if it was a spiritual practice. I also let go of the long held belief that the world would stop spinning if I did.
My other worry was my increasingly frightening appearance.
My swollen-closed left eye made it seem as if I had gone few rounds with Rocky and my skin was peeling in ways that might have zombies claim me as one of their own. Even though I knew that my face would eventually return to its normal, presentable state, I had a fleeting thought—“what if it doesn’t?”
As I am typing these words, I am grateful that I have turned a corner and the swelling has shifted from my upper lid to below my eye and I no longer need to look at the computer screen with one eye.
I laughed when I realized how all of these years as a journalist has helped me develop the skill of typing with my eyes closed completely, so that I didn’t over-work my right eye.
Since physiological conditions are intermixed with and influenced by psychological factors, I have learned from icon Louise Hay that shingles are about “Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Fear and tension. Too sensitive.”
Affirmation: “I am relaxed and peaceful. I trust the process of life. All is well in my world.”
These thoughts have been prevalent lately as I go out into the world and sometimes absorb the emotions of those I encounter, personally and professionally.
I present as confident about the future, but still harbor fears. I sometimes wonder how I will support myself; forgetting that I have done it successfully all my life. I have worried about losing everything. Perhaps it is the unconscious ancestral coding; having grown up in a Russian immigrant family in which persecution and anti-Semitism were part of the history.
When I thought about taking time off, the terror kicked in even more ferociously and it was as if a dragon was breathing on my beleaguered head. “If you don’t work, you don’t get paid,” it bellowed at me.
Holding my well worn, fire scorched shield in front of me, I countered with the standard line that I have offered to my clients for years “I have survived everything that has ever happened in my life, since I am here to tell about it and I will get through this too.” “We’ll see,” it sneered, belching smoke and slunk back into its cave.
Uncharacteristically, since I am generally the one offering, I reached out for support from my face to face and Facebook communities to buoy my spirits and the response was astounding as people offered love, prayers, reiki and their own stories of having encountered the same dis-ease and what helped them to get through it.
This truly is a global family, linked by love as well as circuitry.
I was willing to receive and absorb the energy and yet there were times I would feel impatient and whine a bit.
“Come on, God….with all these people pulling for me, could we please speed up the process?”
Benevolently, Spirit smiled and reminded me that I had a bit more to learn and a lot more resting to do.
Lesson One: Good self care is essential and taking heed of messages that my body was giving me can’t be ignored. I liken myself to an athlete or dancer who performs while injured. While it might seem admirable to keep on keepin’ on, I know that it can cause further damage.
Lesson Two: My mind is a clever tool and has a way of framing thoughts that are undeniable. I had been harboring resentments and anger about the way I thought things ‘should’ be in my life, not voicing them and it seems they showed up in the form of the lesions on my skin. Since shingles are viral, and my symptoms spread like wildfire, I needed time to cool down.
Lesson Three: I developed a strong sense of compassion for people who live with chronic pain on a daily basis.
Lesson Four: I grew greater compassion for myself. Initially, the doc at the hospital suggested something stronger than Tylenol for the pain and I turned it down, wanting to push through it, since I have a pretty high threshold. A few days ago I ‘knuckled under’ and took Tramadol. When I mentioned that to a nurse friend, she reminded me that it was a nurturing and kind thing to do for myself and not a weakness and she invited me to change the way I expressed the need to take the medication.
Lesson Five: I incorporated the tools that I have used for so long, including meditation, visualization and affirmation. I repeated “I see my way clear to complete and total healing.” Since my nervous system was on sensitivity overload, I wrapped myself in softness, from flannel p.j.’s and comforter, to the sounds of silence.
Lesson Six: Humor is essential. On Saturday night, when I got out of the car to pick up my prescription, I noticed that the left headlight was out on my Jeep. How ironic is that? Blessing my son for replacing it, I found ways of laughing about my appearance; not quite confident enough to post a picture on Facebook as my son suggested. Halloween is over and I didn’t want to scare anyone.
Lesson Seven: I am loved just for being. I need not do anything spectacular for people to want to help me in whatever way they can; either in person or from a distance.
Lesson Eight: Gratitude is a key that unlocks the door to healing. I reinforced how thankful I am that ‘this too shall pass’ and imagined my entire being as radiant and healthy. I also intend never to take my healthy body for granted.
Lesson Nine: As self critical as I can be at times when looking in the mirror, I vowed to remember anytime I feel like honing in on imperfection, how, for a few days, I appeared to be a ‘zombie prizefighter’.
Lesson Ten: All is in Divine timing. As much as I had an agenda about the chronological period of recovery, the celestial healer had other ideas for me.
And I have learned that the world doesn’t stop spinning just because I have. Even God rested on the seventh day!
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Editor: Catherine Monkman