Being Ill: Social Stigma and Lonely as Heck

I’ve seen a few more plays (The Flood Thereafter and Venus in Fur both at CanStage plus a play reading at University of Toronto) in the past week, heard Jhumpa Lahiri speak, but it’s been harder to drag myself to the computer to write anything. Haven’t even tweeted as much this week. *Sigh* Even writing that down sounds pathetic . . .

Why? I’ve been sick/ill/under the weather. In other words, struck down in the prime of some major research by a head cold. A nasty one, but thankfully it seems to be passing rather quickly (fingers crossed, knock on wood for that one). I was very angry when I realized on Sunday afternoon that the tickle in the back of my throat had developed into a stream and that I could no longer work, sleep, or breathe normally. A few people had told me in the days previous that they were feeling sickly. Unfortunately I think the one that did me in was my roommate. In a shared basement space with a tiny kitchen and washroom, it was only a matter of time. After no sleep on Saturday or Sunday nights, I trudged to class on Monday with many tissues in tow, promising myself that if I made it through, I would treat myself to NyQuil from the campus pharmacy and nap/sleep time as soon as I got home to my Tuesday afternoon meeting, if that’s what it would take.

Surprisingly, I not only made it through class, but I actually enjoyed the conversation in my performance theory/public performance class for the first time. Who knew that a sore throat, exhaustion, fever, a stuffy nose and aching head could make discussion that much more engaging? I never would have predicted it but my guess is that it shut down my normal fears and anxieties. I had no time to think about whether or not I was saying the right thing, but instead would volunteer to speak any time I thought of something–in an effort to push myself through the class at all.

There was something odd about discussing unacceptable behaviors in public spaces (specifically focusing on the TTC) while I reached for a tissue every few seconds. I could feel everyone going, “Yup, and we won’t say it but Maggie with all her germs is the elephant in this room. And when she blows her nose she sounds like one.” It got worse when I actually did get on the TTC to ride home. I felt horrible every time someone had to sit down next to me, but it wasn’t my fault. Such a small, communal space. I wanted to shout, “I’m a graduate student. I can’t get a taxi and I don’t have a friend who can drive me home so please just lay off! I don’t want to be here either. So please excuse me while I blow my nose again and dream of my bed.”

Thankfully the plan worked and I felt much much better after an evening of catching up on heart-warming US sitcoms like Big Bang Theory and Parenthood before knocking myself well and good with NyQuil. I had bad dreams, but could function almost normally the next morning.

It was a sudden, but thankfully quick-to-run-its-course sort of common cold. I should have expected it, but I didn’t. What really threw me off was the way it began. I was stressed with doing so much research for various class projects. I didn’t even think that it could be anything wrong with my health. I stared at the computer and felt awful lonely all Saturday night. Then I couldn’t sleep that night. Still, I tried to corral myself back into research when finally, I couldn’t and the cold chills and drippy throat told me that it was definitively a problem with my body that was causing the extra stress, pseudo-procrastination, and mood swings, not my mind.

And that’s really where I learned from being sick. Yes, Danny may have been the biological cause of my illness, but stress definitely contributed. It’s like my body knew my mind wasn’t listening to reason. All the deadlines had been pushed back, all the professors were telling me that I could slow down my mad work pace. But I couldn’t. The anxious perfectionist kept plugging away to the point where I didn’t feel in control of the work–I felt like it was controlling me. So my body shut down and made me relax.

Finally, I learned that illness in another country can be awful lonely. I have met a lot of people here. I’ve reached out to make connections in so many different areas. But, it takes time to build relationships and find the people you really count on. The ones who will fight against the stigma of illness and their own work to take care of you just a little when illness strikes. It reminds me that I don’t have suitemates from Martel and the Rice community surrounding me anymore and that although I’m glad to be out of my parents’ house, it would have been nice to have them around for that part, too. In other words, it shows me that I still need more time to make Toronto into another true home.

Leave it to me to turn a common head cold into a lesson about work/play balance and loneliness. But if it makes the drudgery that much easier to bear, I’ll take it.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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