I grew up in a household that never really indulged sickness or, to quote my mother, “I don’t believe in sickness!” My mother always found any sort of illness dull, dreary and generally most inconvenient. She had little patience for it after a day or two at the most and by day three, well, why wouldn’t you be in the full of your health as you just had two days lying down! Doctors weren’t called until the very last minute, if at all, and it was generally believed that if you ate well and lived in a clean and warm environment, then bugs and germs couldn’t get you to begin with. I’d have to say that broken limbs were another story altogether. My mum is an excellent support and nurse when your ailment is visible. Crutches, plaster, bandages or cuts on the skin transform her into a regular Florence Nightingale, but illnesses that have few physical indicators other than a pale face are not enough to elicit much sympathy. I think it’s the fact that with a broken limb or a boil you can still be pretty good company, whereas with an illness you tend to be less than perky and I think she always found that pretty boring. She also dislikes hospitals and if you have reason to be there, while she will telephone regularly and is genuinely concerned, she leaves the caring to the professionals. And, as she says, “If you’re in hospital visitors wear you out”.
I have a vivid childhood memory of complaining about not feeling too well and having a sore throat and still being dressed in my school uniform and hunted out the door. Luckily, whatever way I turned as I walked out that morning, the swelling on my neck became visible. It turned out I had Mumps. It wasn’t until I broke out in Chicken Pox that anyone took any notice of me saying I was feeling a little iffy. When the spots did appear I was told that it was good as the worst was over; apparently the sickness is during the incubation stage,a time when I was totally ignored. My brother developed a hacking cough that seemed to go on for weeks. Instead of sympathy he was regularly thrown out of the living room as his coughing was interrupting Coronation Street. He was eventually taken to a doctor and diagnosed with borderline pneumonia. There are plenty more family anecdotes of that variety that we often laugh about today. To be honest it was actually a great training. We never received any proper education in hypochondria and therefore now possess strong beliefs that we are very healthy. The most I would ever get is the odd cold and that just requires over the counter drugs and a few days of sniffles.
Needless to remark my disregard for illness finally caught up with me. About a month ago I started to feel tired and a little sluggish. Since giving up cigarettes in January I have put on weight and so I put it all down to my diet. Generally it didn’t get much better, but instead of slowing down I just continued to get up every morning and push myself to go. I even went on holiday feeling like this, thinking I was just overworked. Eventually I started to wake up in pain, wait for the pain to subside and I would go again. Finally one morning recently I felt a lump in my left side near my ribs and, I have to say, that was the push I needed to go and see a doctor. To cut a long story short I was diagnosed with pleurisy, but I think a little like the chicken pox of my youth, I’d gotten over the worst of it on my feet. However, being able to name your illness is great and having something that sounds so deadly is fantastic. The sympathy rolled in and I soaked it up for a few hours. My significant other even insisted, “You go to bed, I’ll get my own dinner.” How thoughtful! Then my Mum called and with great compassion exclaimed, “Come home for a few days and I’ll look after you”. It sounded so nice. My parents live in a beautiful place and so I conjured images of trays of chicken soup, hours mixed up between relaxing, snoozing, leisurely reading and staring out the window at the lovely views. My significant other was very skeptical. “You’ll get no rest in that place, you’ll be up talking half the night as there’s always people calling in and out”. I ignored his concerns, packed my bags and flew the coup.
When I got there no one was home. I tried the mobile. My parents were at my sister’s and so I made my way there. The house was buzzing. My illness was secondary as they had just been to see some psychic or medium and the excitement of what he had told them both was much more interesting than my ailment. The psychic had a message for me also! He told my mother that I was sick, but that she should take me by the shoulders, shake me vigourously and it would go, my illness was the result of worry and I wasn’t to be worried. (I must stress that the shaking was to be done in a kind way and a non violent one at that.) So she shook me and that was that – all better! Who needs a doctor and a packet of antibiotics, I though to myself, I should have just visited Mystic Jim. “We’ll have a lovely few days now”, my mother announced, “we don’t often get a chance to just kick back and spend time together”. And with that my dreams of trays of steaming chicken soup vanished into the air.
I stayed for four nights and it was great. My illness was largely ignored other than the occasional, “How are you feeling now”. It was also the great excuse for why I looked a bit rough and wrinkled in my dowdy ‘sick’ clothes. “Look at her, she has pleurisy,” my mother would say, “She’s home for a few days so I can look after her”. We had quite a few of these encounters as we went out for lunch every day and also little spurts of shopping. I even babysat while my Mother and my sister went to an Art Exhibition. To be fair I had been invited too, it was a Cinderella situation, but I was genuinely unable for it and I hadn’t packed any clothes for such an event. Indeed it may have required an announcement to the entire room, “Look at her, she has pleurisy, that’s why she’s wearing a tracksuit even though she has no affiliation to any sporting organisation whatsoever and she’s home for a few days so I can look after her!”. I even attended a birthday party for a family member; all in all it was a hectic few days. My brother telephoned from Australia to see how I was. He immediately said, “What the hell are you doing there, you know they don’t do sick” and we both laughed. I put down the phone and repeated the line to my parents and we all laughed again. I was genuinely beginning to feel really better.
I didn’t get one tray of soup. I didn’t even get a proper lie in, as I wanted to get up and go and have coffee with the crowd downstairs. I didn’t even get a chance to sit and read a book, we were too busy doing things and, strangely I started to feel really well.
We laughed loudly at loads of stuff and chatted until we were all exhausted. The days flew by, the food was fantastic and the environment was clean and warm, just like it was in the old days. Some things never change.
I think they should make my mother the head of the HSE. There would be little sympathy or even curiosity about ailments, it’s far too dreary a topic, but there would be plenty of laughter, lots of things to chat about to take your mind off your sickness and the food would be plentiful and good. She’d empty the hospitals in no time and prove to everyone that if you don’t believe in being sick, then you rarely are.