Healing, fast and slow

Time to recover: Today’s convalescents are expected to dive straight back into normal life   -  ISTOCK.COM

In the age of quick-fix medication and overprescribed antibiotics, the practice of convalescence has never been more essential

This monsoon, I’m struck down by rainy season illness. I wake up early one morning, burning up, head splitting and my body aching as though I’m burdened by a thousand boulders. Should we wait and see how I feel in the evening? No. These are the days of impatience — and dengue — so we rush to the hospital. My doctor is a gentle, salt-and-pepper haired lady — “old school”, some might say — who is in no hurry to do, well, anything. “Keep taking paracetamol every four to six hours; if you’re not better in three days, we’ll get tests done.” Three days? In that time I could be dead, or caught in the painful throes of something dreadful such as chikungunya. “Beta,” she says calmly. “It’s most likely something viral, don’t worry.”

But worry I do, in between waking and sleeping, and changing my sweat-drenched clothes whenever the fever breaks. It wavers between 99 and 102 for three days, and then doesn’t rise but persists. When I visit the GP again for a follow-up, she’s unalarmed but prescribes antibiotics for my cough, advising — and this is unusual given how eager doctors usually are to dispense antibiotics of any kind — that I begin the dose only If I’m not better by the next evening. In all honesty, I don’t wait, and begin the medication that afternoon. It’s quite the potent combination: The depletion and debilitation of recurring fever coupled with strong antibiotics. I cannot sleep enough; my appetite fades. Only after almost a week, does the fever subside. The medication is done. Okay, I say, to work! To writing! I hop out of bed — only to collapse straight back into it. I haven’t been this ill, for this long, in a while (touch wood) and I must undertake something I thought belonged squarely back in the Victorian Age — convalescence.

It sounds old-fashioned. Like a pale Romantic poet in a white flannel overshirt un-recovering from consumption. It’s a mid-17th-century word, from the Latin convalescere, meaning “to grow fully strong”. It’s also a word we don’t hear too often anymore. In these days of quick-fix medication, we aren’t used to long illnesses (and yes, in many ways this is a good thing) but we aren’t accustomed to slow recuperation. To being stuck in this strange grey phase between acutely ill and healthy again. Between all right but not quite. Unlike the historical practice of viewing convalescence as a separate and important stage of illness recovery, today’s convalescents are expected to dive straight back into normal life.

But what does one do with the “after-life” of illness? This is when you and the people around you, require most compassion and tenderness. As writer and philosopher Alain de Botton writes, “People can accept you sick or well. What’s lacking is patience for the convalescent.” It’s true — and to convalesce is to grow stronger in many ways, because it forces you to be patient with yourself. And so I learn to lie there, shifted during the day, like a theatre prop, from the bedroom to the living room divan, from where I can look out into our lush little garden, and the rain, and the small dramas of animal (cat, bird, dog) lives. I cannot stare at a screen, it hurts my head, so I read, intermittently, listen to music, or an audio book.

At times, I’m impatient, dismayed, I try stepping out for lunch with a friend; when I return, I sleep for five hours. I realise I need to learn to do nothing. It’s hardest of all — and easier perhaps when I was younger. I’m reminded of a similar convalescence while I was in boarding school — quiet days in the dormitory, emptied of schoolgirls, where everything around me, the bed, linen, cupboards, walls, the light through the windows, was white. Once, in a period such as this one, recovering from viral fever, I read all of Graham Greene — requesting friends to return and issue two books a day from the school library. Another time, everything by the Bronte sisters. Younger still, at home, I’d sleep with my mother, after being ill with the mumps, and be allowed to eat all and anything I wanted to.

In a description from a book about recovery — historical, personal, political — Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, the young protagonist has suffered a bout of hepatitis: “These are hours without sleep, which is not to say they’re sleepless, because on the contrary, they’re not about lack of anything, they’re rich and full. Desires, memories, fears, passions form labyrinths in which we lose and find and then lose ourselves again.” My days convalescing begin to take this turn into a dreamy, out-of-time state, where the hours drip by slowly. There are stories of writers who wrote their bestselling books during periods such as these — famously, Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind — but I have no taste, or attention, for literary production. To recover, I learn, is to recuperare, to “get again”, and so you must give away these hours, this time, in order to get yourself back again, changed, and stronger.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart; Tweet to her at @janicepariat

Published on August 09, 2019


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