The very nature of a blog is self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-important and selfish. I know that I write these thoughts down to entertain you while keeping a diary for myself, as I seem physically incapable of writing unless there’s a prospect of an audience. But some days, I do wonder what it means that I write all of this shit down. Particularly now, when I’m about to tell you about a rash.
Really, you can stop reading right now, if you want. I totally get it if you don’t want to read about a rash. It seems like, perhaps, this is the most self-important thing I could write about, a rash on my back. But then I know that some of you really enjoy reading about this kind of thing. I know because you email and tell me so. Sometimes you tell me way more than I need to know, and I love you for it, but … man. (This is not addressed to the small group of you who got together recently and emailed asking for pictures of my legs. This is addressed to the ones who are just like me, which is as close to normal as we’re ever gonna get.)
A rash. Pretty small, about the size of a cell phone window, to the left of my spine on my back. I had taken a bath one night, and a couple of hours later I noticed it. I put Benedryl on it and went to sleep. The next day, when it had not improved and itched like it was on fire, I took the super-cool Canadian antihistamine I’d bought in Toronto. (We really enjoy impersonating the skydiver on the box. He’s so high from Canadian drugs: ‘WOO! YEAH! I CAN FLY! WOO-HOO!”)
Not only did the skydiving drugs not work, I woke up with a really bad headache. Itchy back, Canadian drug hangover, rash. I’m super sexy.
Then by the end of the day, I started experiencing shooting pains down my left arm. I thought, “I’m falling apart.”
So I’m clutching my stomach, feeling strokey down my left side, trying not to scratch the upper left hand side of my back, nursing my FDA-unapproved headache when I decide I’m going to have to see at least one doctor in the morning.
I see the dermatologist. She was the one who first saw me when all the staph stuff started. [Now that I think about it, it might have been one year ago to the day.] She asked how that turned out, and asked how married life is treating me. Then she looked at my back.
“I had taken a bubble bath, and then this happened, so I guess it’s an allergy,” I say. “I tried Benadryl and… a … Canadian… drug. Is it the Canadian drug? I shouldn’t buy drugs from Canada. I’m sorry I did that. Do you have a salve or something in possibly a balm?”
“Hmm,” she says. “This is either herpes or shingles.”
And then she walked out of the room.
So now I’m topless, itchy, and wondering how the fuck
A) I got herpes.
B) I got herpes on my back.
C) When stee had the time to get himself herpes.
D) Or if somehow someone hugged me with a herpes hand and gave it to my back.
E) Shingles? Am I eighty?
She comes back in with a pamphlet, which always makes you feel good about yourself, and sits in front of me on the Let Me Break This To You Gently stool. “What’s been going on?” she asks. “Are you under a lot of stress you might not have told me about?”
“I don’t understand how I could have gotten herpes,” I say.
“If your husband is a carrier, and he kissed you on your back, that could do it.”
It’s like back when we didn’t know how HIV was transmitted, and we’d worry that if you drank from a straw where a stranger who had a cut on his lip had once sipped or if you were in a pool and someone thought about AIDS — it just seemed way too farfetched.
She asks if I’ve had any pain anywhere else. I tell her about the heart attack I’d been suffering for a few days, how it’s mostly under my arm and on my side, shooting down my arm toward my wrist, where the skin feels tingly. I thought it was from yoga, then from my sports bra or my Forerunner. I had explained away all of the pain.
“No,” she says. “You definitely have shingles.”
You never actually recover from the chicken pox. It sort of lives in your spine until your immune system is compromised somehow, where it then attacks a single nerve running through your body. So you only get shingles on one side of your body, and when you finally get a rash, that’s apparently the end of the nerve. Or something like that. All I know is I didn’t catch this from anyone, other than Vanessa Bachtell in the fourth grade when she gave me chicken pox at my birthday slumber party, and I can’t give it to anyone, unless someone who’s never had the chicken pox got all up in my back rash.
I still ask if it’s contagious about seven times. She repeatedly tells me that it isn’t, but that I should read my pamphlet, get some medicine, and that it shouldn’t get much worse. “Just read up on it,” she says.
“But if I read the Internet, it’ll tell me my head’s going to fall off.”
“Oh, don’t read the Internet,” she says. “Never do that. Just read the pamphlet.”
She tells me that the medication is the same even if it were herpes. I’m glad she told me this, because otherwise I wouldn’t have understood why the women at the pharmacy handed me the medicine with their heads tilted to one side. “You know how to use this?” one asked, smiling with a squint.
“No, I’ve never had to take this before.”
“Just make sure you wash your hands really good after using the cream.”
I asked, “Am I allowed to drink alcohol on the medication?”
She looked at me for a second and then says, “You should probably minimize your alcohol intake.”
It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized she was referring to my lifestyle.
Now the pamphlet is for people who are elderly with shingles, and talks about the kind of excruciating pain that makes you want to take your own life. I have, most definitely, a mild case of shingles. So I don’t know what I can and can’t do.
Enter Dr. Google.
Shingles’ symptoms may be vague and nonspecific at first. People with shingles may experience numbness, tingling, itching, or pain before the classic rash appears. In the pre-eruption stage, diagnosis may be difficult, and the pain can be so severe that it may be mistaken for pleurisy, kidney stones, gallstones, appendicitis, or even a heart attack, depending on the location of the affected nerve.
(From the hilariously-titled Shingles: An Unwelcome Encore)
Shingles are an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin that is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox – the varicella-zoster virus. The first sign of shingles is often burning or tingling pain, or sometimes numbness, in or under the skin. You may also feel ill with fever, chills, headache, or upset stomach. After several days, a rash of small fluid-filled blisters, reminiscent of chickenpox, appears on reddened skin. The pain associated with shingles can be intense and is often described as “unrelenting.” Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles. Scientists think that in the original battle with varicella-zoster, some of the virus particles leave the skin blisters and move into the nervous system. When the varicella-zoster virus reactivates, the virus moves back down the long nerve fibers that extend from the sensory cell bodies to the skin and cause the characteristic blisters of shingles.
You can only get shingles if you have previously had chickenpox. After having chickenpox the virus lies dormant in the nerves, and shingles occurs when it is revitalised in one particular nerve to the skin, thus explaining the way it affects a clearly demarcated band of skin only.
Usually the cause is a decrease in your body’s natural resistance, which may come through other infections, stress, being generally run down, or occasionally, when the body’s immune defenses are affected by certain drugs or other immune deficiencies.
Most people are surprised by how ill they feel with shingles. This seems out of proportion with the extent of the skin involved. There is a general debility and exhaustion, sometimes with aches and pains and sometimes a mild fever. Depression is often a feature of shingles, as in many other viruses. You may need up to three weeks off work.
All of this means I’m going to have to find a good way to deal with stress, or become much better at letting things go. If stress caused the year-long staph battle of 2004, and now stress knocked my chicken pox out of remission, I have to do something before I’ve got the dropsy, Bell’s Palsy and rickets.
A headache, stabbing stomach pains, shooting arm pain on one side and a small itchy rash — who’d have thought they were all symptoms of the same virus?
Right now I’m self-medicating with three episodes of Queer as Folk, microwave popcorn, manuscript work and a promise of a play tonight where I’m going to try to not rub myself along every corner and bumpy surface. Then I’m going to a birthday party where I will try not to tell everybody I’m diseased. It’s okay among my closest friends (and you thousands of near-strangers) to know I’m a freak, but acquaintances? It’s really important that they think I’m normal.
I don’t know why I bothered being such a good kid. I don’t do drugs, I never treated myself recklessly. Why not have a heroin addiction, if I’m just going to see a bunch of doctors and take medicine that screws up my liver? I mean, seriously. Why haven’t I been living the good life, if I’m just going to have a broke-down old-lady body anyway? Why do I bother running for miles and miles and bending myself in painful yoga poses if someone’s still going to tell me at the end of the day that I need something to deal with my STRESS? Isn’t that why they invented drugs? Man. Ain’t no namaste keeping away my pox, or boils, or zits, or twitch eye. Why the hell can’t I be a normal girl?
Sidenote: Yesterday while running I passed a yard where someone had left a kitchen butcher knife stuck into the grass like someone had been practicing knife-throwing. It was pretty close to the sidewalk, but still firmly stabbed on the other side of the property line. What’s the protocol on that one? The yard was across the street from a day care center, but it was someone else’s property and someone else’s knife. If I had picked it up, do I keep running — iPod in one hand, grass-covered kitchen knife in the other? I would totally get arrested and have nothing to say for myself, right? And if I just leave it there and someone gets stabbed… is it my fault? What would you do? I kept running, but I still think about what the hell that knife was doing there, and what happened to it. And then I thought, “If I get attacked in the next mile, at least I know where to run back to find a weapon.” That’s self-defense 101 there, kids.