Shingle Bells

(Writing from December 30, 2010.)

Christmas is over. I find myself very relieved this year, rather than feeling the disappointment of childhood days. This is because it’s the first year in many that nobody in my immediate family of husband, boy child and self was sick. It’s a damned Christmas miracle.

My son was ill two weeks ago, and I was pessimistically certain that Santa would be gifting the same illness to my husband or me this year, but so far, so good.

Last year, in December, I developed shingles on the left side of my face and head. These disgusting lesions and goose egg-sized bumps on my scalp were possibly from the stress of college finals week, but most likely from the unbearable lightness of being me. I’m a pretty neurotic lass. And becoming a mother has only cranked that particular knob to eleven.

Shingles are caused by the chickenpox virus. If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you also have the potential to develop shingles. What happens is that during times of severe stress or immune system suppression (such as chemotherapy, or being over 65), the virus that has been waiting in your nerve endings since your childhood chickenpox acquisition decides to flare up, causing unbelievably painful, itchy sores throughout the affected nerve group. Because what does a really stressed out person need more than painful, itchy sores, right? Thanks, body.

My dermatologist made the catch. I thought I was breaking out, because they were in the early stage, but she took one look at them and told me I had shingles. It was the placement of the lesions that convinced her. She explained to me that there is a branch of nerves that runs from the scalp down on each side of the face, across the forehead, and wraps around the upper side of the head. This entire bundle of nerves was flared up on my left side. You could draw a line down the middle of my forehead, and the sores were all to the left, like the branch of nerves.

This is how they looked at first. Like a rash or something.

She also explained to me that shingles on the head and face are extremely, exquisitely painful, and prescribed a gigantic bottle of hydrocodone. I remember thinking that was an odd word to use for pain. Exquisitely painful. We usually use the word exquisite to describe beautiful things, so the word nerd in me found her choice interesting. And scary. What the fuck does that mean anyhow? I’ve experienced childbirth, after all, and there was nothing exquisite about it. Nothing at all.

(Side rant: Friends who say things to me like “remember that pain makes you feel alive” when I’m in pain make me want to hurt them. And after I’ve hurt them, I would yell, “Hey, isn’t this great? Do you feel alive now, too? Invigorating, isn’t it?!” Because you know what, you carpe diem-spewing, wannabe hardcore dumb-asses? Pain sucks. Period. And when I hurt, I don’t want to seize the day, I want to go back to bed and try to be unconscious for as much of it as possible.)

The reason shingles hurt so much is because it is your nerves – those little reasons we all feel physical pain – that are inflamed. The nerves themselves are what are being affected, so you’re absolutely fucked pain-wise. (Yes, “absolutely fucked” is a technical term. Exquisitely absolutely fucked, even.)

After my shingles fully developed a few days later, I couldn’t even touch my head. To do so sent hundreds of flaming knives up into my brain.

To make it even worse, the sores start to itch like chickenpox after a few days too, causing you to scratch your head in your sleep, only to be awakened by the searing pain. I wore calamine lotion over the entire left side of my face, which helped with the itching, and entertained my husband by giving him ample opportunity to make Phantom of the Opera jokes at my expense. So you know. Win-win.

The Phantom of the Opera thinks you’re hilarious. No, really.

The shingles were on my eyelid, so I was sent immediately to an eye doctor for the first eye exam of my 20/10 hawk vision-having life, to make sure I didn’t have shingles in my left eye, because that could cause blindness. It was there that I experienced one of the few uplifting moments of my shingles experience, when the incredibly hot doctor read the age on my chart and exclaimed, “Wow! You do not look your age! You don’t have any wrinkles at all!” YES.

They apparently do Botox injections at this eye office, because there were ads in the waiting room about them, so maybe that was what made him study my face for wrinkles? I don’t know or care, really. At my age, when an attractive guy says I look young, it makes me really happy. Even if I am all gross and shingle-y and wearing no make-up because I thought I was only going to the dermatologist for a weird break out. Yes, even then. I’m not made of stone, people.

It got worse very quickly. I was soon having post C-section flashbacks as I constantly watched the clock for the four-hour mark to take my next hydrocodone pain pill:

This is my official “Fuck My Life” face. In case you were wondering.

I didn’t get pictures, but this was right before my left eyelid swelled halfway shut. I looked so hideous.

As my family doctor later explained it to me, there are different levels of shingles on the spectrum. For some people, it only involves the skin. But at the other end, some people get what feels like the adult chickenpox virus, so of course that’s the version I got. I was nauseated, weak, and felt like I had the flu for a few weeks.

Every day, I sat on the couch with a puke bucket between my legs, letting my toddler watch too much television, praying my husband would get home from work as soon as possible. It was a month before I felt human again.

They were finally starting to stop itching so much and heal when I took this picture. My head and face hurt to the touch for weeks after the sores went away. So weird.

My son also got H1N1 for Christmas that year. Joy to the world, the flu has come.

The Christmas before last, I had pneumonia for two months, and in the middle of the x-rays of my lungs for that, they discovered that my lungs are covered in calcifications from previous untreated pneumonias (I haven’t had health insurance for much of my adult/broke musician life). I had to get an MRI to determine whether or not the calcifications were lung cancer. So that was marvelous. Not stressful at all.

Are you starting to understand why I fear December every year?

So while I am nervous about tempting the Fates, or being smited by a god with a dark sense of humor, I have to very quietly say that it is really nice to see Christmas come and go without a major illness. (I will be barfing in a few hours because I dared to type that, I’m pretty sure of it.)

Wow. I was going to write about Christmas, and instead I channeled my grandmother who guilt trips me by nagging, “You never call! You never write!” every time I see her, without realizing that I never call or write because she guilt trips me, and then lists her health ailments for hours every time we communicate.

Sorry. You don’t have to call or write. I won’t guilt trip you.

I thought the shingles were really fascinating, though. What a weird thing to happen. It seemed so alien and trippy that something could live inside my body from childhood, biding its time, waiting for my lowered defenses to strike. And it was creepy how wounds formed all over my face and head, like some sort of pimpled teenager-emulating stigmata, coming from the inside out.

Kids nowadays receive a chickenpox vaccine, so they never have to experience it. I recently read some studies stating that if you receive the chickenpox vaccine as a kid, and never have full-fledged chickenpox, you aren’t susceptible to shingles as an adult. I was relieved to learn my son won’t have to worry about shingles. It makes me want to beg my anti-vaccine mommy friends to please, at least get your kids the chickenpox vaccine, because if they can avoid shingles later in life, trust me; they will want to go ahead and do that.

We had a mellow Christmas this year. I got a leopard skin laptop bag and a matching laptop skin to make my new laptop all leopard-spotted and awesome. I have an animal print fetish. I have since high school. It was cute and funky when I was young and playing in bands, but now it’s just kind of weird and sad. I tell myself it’s sexy in a Mrs. Robinson sort of way, but I’m not fooling anyone. I know I just look like a poorly aging rocker chick, but whatever. The heart wants what it wants, and mine wants leopard, zebra, and giraffe prints.

Tawni’s Happy Fun Time Couch Spot:

My ridiculous: let me show it to you.

I got a laptop table and a thumb drive that will store everything I can ever possibly write. And Dexter: The Fourth Season. And the warmest, most awesome-est gloves without fingers, so I can type and be warm all at the same time.

So as you’ve probably surmised, yes, I recently got a laptop. I feel ridiculously lucky and blessed. I have wanted a laptop for years, and finally got one for my birthday (around Halloween). I am sitting in bed writing this on it, actually. I love it. I’ve been on my own since I was just barely 17, and pretty poor my whole life, so I haven’t been the girl with a lot of technological toys. I still can’t believe it’s mine.

I only got my first personal computer in 2004. My husband forced me to get my first cell phone in 2006. I hate talking on the phone. I am afraid of it, even. (When acquaintances want to talk to me on the phone, I get weird. It stirs up a big, steaming batch of social ineptitude and shy for me.) He often has to nag me to keep the ringer on. I like to be out of touch. There is a lot of peace to be found in out of touch. Not a lot of not-annoyed-spouse, though, it turns out.

We always had really relaxed Christmas eve and Christmas day celebrations in my family. I was born in Phoenix, where we lived until I was seven, when my mom remarried, and we moved to Lawrence, Kansas with my new stepdad. We were completely isolated from my mom’s large Arizona family, so we had our own holidays. No getting in the car and driving from relative to relative’s house. It was awesome.

As we got older, we would all spend Christmas eve and day at my parents’ house, which was eventually in Holden, Missouri, and then Blue Springs, Missouri. Once we were old enough to drink, Kahlua went into coffee, and mimosas happened with the fruity crepes my mom makes on Christmas morning. She had a deli tray with cheese, meat and little rolls for sandwiches. She also kept a fondue pot full of melted chocolate for us to dip the chunks of angel food cake, banana slices, and strawberries into. There was always a port wine cheese ball with crackers. I still feel nostalgic when I look at one of those swirly red and orange, almond-coated little guys. So appropriate that a cheese ball would make me wistful. (I’m such a cheese ball.)

Now my parents have retired to Phoenix, and I ended up in Oklahoma after getting knocked up by an Okie boy in Los Angeles, so I have had to keep these little foodie traditions alive by myself. (Especially the Christmas morning mimosas.) I had the cheese ball, fondue, and little sandwiches this year, but I didn’t make the crepes. I don’t think I could ever make those as well as my mom.

I baked my usual pumpkin pies, and got wacky with my banana bread this year, making banana bread muffins with chocolate chips instead. I even made pecan pies this year for the first time ever. I decided that it is ridiculous that I’ve never made a pecan pie. It’s a classic holiday dessert.

They came out fine, but inadvertently put me off pecan pie for the rest of my life. I used to really like it, but now that I know it is a big pile of corn syrup, eggs and sugar, I’m totally grossed out. Seriously. Hot, baked corn syrup and eggs. Eeeew. How did I not know that?

But despite the pecan pie repulsion, I had the first pleasant holiday season I’ve had in years. No illness. No oozing flesh wounds. No flu-ridden baby. No lung cancer scare. So big props to tha universe for that. One love. Word to your mother. Peace out.

Hope your holidays were awesome, pals.

 

 

 

Miles and me, Christmas 2010.

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