Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Emotional Trajectory of the Common Cold


I’ve recently recovered from a slight cold and am fascinated by the emotional trajectory I’ve been on.

The cold hit me on Monday night, with a sudden fit of hayfever-like sneezing when I turned the dusty gas heater on in the loungeroom. I started to feel that hazy exhaustion that creeps up on you slowly until your brain finally registers the fact of malady. I didn’t want a cold because I can never sleep while my nose is running, but that first flooding of the taps was it. After that it was just the kind of cotton woolly, remote feeling that only makes sense when you’re lying in bed propped up by pillows reading a deliciously spooky book with Classic FM playing the top classical 100.

In other words, the first day of the cold was utter bliss. It happened to be a public holiday, adding to the sense of unearthly lull. I had a deadline the next day and did the few hours of work required to keep up. Then I escaped to the haven of Bed, and read for a while, and when my brain was too tired to read, slept, and then read again. Lovely.

The next day I had to do more work. I met the deadline at around 3, and then it was back to bed, again feeling suitably deserving. Naughtily I hadn’t had a shower since Monday – not like me at all, but it was scary how easily not having a shower became normal!

By Thursday I was starting to feel stir-crazy and desperate to get out of the house. I got up early and, determined to stay up, showered, dressed and escaped to the local shopping mall, ostensibly searching for early Christmas presents but really just playing hooky. Unfortunately I was squandering my limited stores of energy and that afternoon after lunch I collapsed in front of the heater, alternating between a futile struggle to keep reading and an exhausted doze. I was starting to be plagued by the usual spectre of Things Not Done, and to get angry about my lack of energy.

A visit to my mother that morning hadn’t helped. I’d dropped over to borrow a handsaw on the way back from the shopping mall. October has been the wettest spring in Victoria for 18 years (thankfully the dams are now more than half-full) and my front yard was a wilderness of feral foliage threatening to engulf me like the forest in Sleeping Beauty. I would take control! I would rise like the Phoenix with renewed strength and hack through the gnarled branches of my wintry hibernation, greeting the emerging summer sun and embracing a fuller life.

Detailing my relationship with my mother would take a book rather than a blog entry, but she has always reflected my own mental and physical health issues (many of which, sadly, she unwittingly passed on to me). I’ve recently realised that, apart from chronic low blood sugar, she has probably been suffering from low-level depression, or dysthymia, for my entire life. (Quite possibly her mother also suffered it.) On this day she was on the couch reading the paper, and now that she has osteoporosis (it is being treated but it’s a long haul) she’s increasingly surrounded by the semi-controlled mess of my hoarder father.

She looked up at me with that undisguised, slightly bitter exhaustion she hides so well from her friends and extended family, but is ‘where she lives’, so to speak. Everything seemed to crystallise in my all too damning assessment: she wanted to move from the house years ago, and downsize as her friends were doing; my father wouldn’t move because of his hoarding, and the strong emotional attachment he retains to his birth family, from whom he’d bought the house when my sisters and I were still young.

My mother got her first fracture a few years ago, running around the too-big house and enormous garden as she desperately cleaned up before a birthday celebration – her birthday. It seemed to me on the day I visited that she was trapped in that house, and was now further entrapped by her condition. And I too was similarly trapped in my large rundown flat, which allowed me to spread myself out but was bringing me down with its overactive garden, and the burden of fatigue caused by rising damp, dust and mould.

In a sense, I was both my mother and my father – staying in the house because the part of me that loved to spread out was now free, but burdened by its size and age. And the rent was going up by $50 a week in January.

It all seemed so hopeless, no doubt through the prism of my lingering cold, and I left with an exaggerated determination to hold victory over my own lack of energy, expressed in the chaos of my front garden. So naturally the afternoon hiatus in front of the heater was upsetting, forced as it might have been.

Things got a bit better on Friday – I did an hour and a half of ruthless sawing, sadly paying little heed to the laws of pruning, choosing branches for disposal I could reach on a footstool. I left the mess where it fell, and the next morning sawed and piled the branches neatly.

I’m only now just getting back to normal. Chaos is at bay in both the back and front yards, although the front already needs one more good bout of the clipper and the handsaw, and one of the branches of the plum tree out the back seems to have shot out by two feet in about ten days – I kid you not. But it pains me that all I have the energy to do is keep things at some level of order rather than imposing my own order, and developing or reshaping the garden. On the other hand, I live on a main road, and the untamed bushes give me valuable privacy, not to mention the shade they offer to the armies of joggers, nannies, young families, dedicated dog walkers and iPod-strewn power walkers that pass by every hour of the day.

All is not lost. I spoke to my psyche recently about the feeling of not being able to separate from my mother, or forgive her for her lack of nurturing. ‘It’s your turn now,’ she said. In the context of the discussion, she meant it was my turn to be in life’s spotlight, to be an adult and enjoy myself. But I also read this remark another way – that it was my turn to take over the role of mothering myself.

Sometime in the future I may also have to look after my mother a bit. I say ‘a bit’ because, given the fragility of our relationship and my low energy levels, an intense level of the caring role on my part would be impossible, and because two of my sisters also live in the area and, if necessary, will be able to share the burden. But now at least I can countenance offering some level of care in the next five or ten years, even if it’s just a regular tidy up of the house or a weekly trip to the shops. Now I can stop expecting that one day in the very near future my mother will finally decide to do ‘her job’ and look after me. She won’t – it’s my turn now.

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