Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Getting a Cold

What happens when an acute illness visits a chronic illness.

I was recently visited by that old friend, the common cold. I used to think nothing of it. A cold was a minor nuisance that didn’t even stop me from going to work. But now that I’m chronically ill, a cold is a big event in my life. In How to Be Sick, I call it “sick upon sick.” Here I share the good, the bad, and the ugly of getting a cold (although what follows could apply to any acute illness).

The Bad: Sleep Disruption

Usually, how well I’ve slept the night before is the most important indicator of how I’ll feel the following day. I often say that I can sleep well and still feel very sick the next day, but one thing is for sure: if I don’t sleep well, I’m guaranteed to feel very sick the next day.

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Enter the common cold. Sleep disruption at its best: a throat so sore that the sensation of in-breath going across it can cause a wince; a nose that alternates between being too stuffy to breathe through and too runny to contain; a tickly cough that seems to always kick in just as sleep is about to descend. Sick upon sick: yuck!

The Good: Forced Cutting Back on Activities

As I mentioned in “Confessions of a Sick Person,” the author of How to Be Sick doesn’t always know how to be sick. I tend to push my limits rather than stay within my “envelope.” When I became chronically ill, I was surprised to learn that I could push myself too far even from the bed. Why, I can even overdo it at 4 a.m. while I’m still half asleep. Here’s how. I’ll wake up and an idea for my book or my blog will pop into my mind. Afraid that I’ll forget it if I go back to sleep, I turn on the light and jot down my thoughts. That, of course, wakes me up sufficiently that I can’t get back to sleep.

But when I have a cold, I’m much better about taking care of myself. If I get one of those 4 a.m. ideas, I can’t be bothered to turn on the light and take notes. Instead, I just say to myself, “If it’s that important, I’ll remember it when I get up in a few hours.” (Of course, I have no way to verify if this has ever been the case!)

The Bad: Isolation

I know how fortunate I am to have a live-in partner who loves me and takes good care of me. Aside from his company, with few exceptions, my socializing is confined to short visits once a week with my friends Dawn and Richard, although I have to cancel if I’m feeling too sick.

When I woke up with cold symptoms, I knew I’d have to cancel my regular visit with Dawn. It was very hard. I can feel isolated even though I regularly see these two friends, so cancelling with Dawn heightened my awareness of how cut-off I am from in-person contact.

The Good and the Bad: Something to Share

The Good: Finally, health-wise, I have something in common with friends and family: I’m contagious!

The Bad: Finally, health-wise, I have something in common with friends and family: I’m contagious!

The Ugly: I Can’t Tell If What’s Acute May Be Becoming Chronic

Some of the symptoms that I get only when I have a cold are symptoms that are already suffered by others with chronic pain or illness. These new symptoms mix with my chronic ones, and together they feel like one big indistinguishable mess of an illness. As a result, there’s always a nagging fear in the back of my mind that one or more of these new symptoms won’t turn out to be acute and will hang around to become part of my constellation of chronic symptoms. There’s nothing to be done about this but to keep a Don’t-Know-Mind, wait for the acute illness to subside, and see what symptoms I’m left with.

The Good: Hope

Several doctors with whom I’ve consulted think that my immune system is chronically activated—“stuck on the ‘on’ position” as one doctor put it—meaning that it never returned to normal after I got an acute viral infection in 2001. So, theoretically, something could come along that would “reset my immune system” (a phrase that several doctors have used).

As a result, whenever I get an acute illness, along with “The Ugly” noted above, there’s always the hope that when I recover, the acute illness will have left in its wake a normal immune system, meaning I’ll no longer be sick! My doctor has shared with me that he always hopes for the same. It may never happen and I don’t get my expectations up. But a little hope creeps in every time.

Several years ago, I was getting acupuncture treatment—another hoped-for cure that didn’t work out. One day I told the acupuncturist that I thought I was coming down with a cold. She got very excited and said to me, “There’s a saying in Chinese medicine that you have to be well enough to get a cold.” I never fail to remember those words when I get a cold. Their logic (or lack thereof) appeals to me, and it’s a goofy enough idea that it just may be true. It didn’t come to pass with this last cold, but there’s always the next one. Hope.

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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