You know how you know something, but you don’t really know something? For years, I have worked with people who life has hit hard — or even slightly hard. Tragedy, trauma, addictions, illness, and coping with all of them are my stock-in-trade. And while I would say I had it rough during various times in my life, for the past few years my life has been getting better — not by leaps and bounds, but on an uphill trajectory. My business is going well or at least getting better. My agency work comes and goes, but pays for insurance and brings in some income. My ministry standing is officially back. Family life is stable and my kids are growing up to be good people. In short, I visit the problems in other people’s lives most days and come home to my relatively problem-free life. And if you had asked me a few days ago, “Is illness a good or a bad thing?” I would have said, “That’s easy. Of course illness is bad. No duh.” But what did I know?
Two days ago (Tuesday) , I was having lunch with my pastor and I said I was coming down with something — I was a little achy in the ribs. Later that day, I felt worse, and had a 101 degree temp. But I had plans — a little Airborne, extra Vitamin C, and I was off to a fabulous day of relatively good-paying, hard-work. And, as a special bonus, I’d further my career even more by going to a conference in Boston for a couple hours and CEUs on Assessment in Family Court. That was Tuesday night. I paid for the conference and planned to go to work, thinking, “What would I do at home? Sit. I can go to work and get paid for the same thing. As long as I use hand sanitizer and sit a few feet away (which I already do), what could possibly happen?”.
The next day, I woke up with a bit higher fever having had the chills and sweats all night. The generic Tylenol seemed to help. Both my wife and our housemate (a camp nurse) said I should see the doctor or stay home. Inside, I thought, “Great, I’ll go see the doctor, he’ll say I have a virus, and I can continue off to work. Or — depending on the schedule — I can see clients, then see the doctor then see a new client and go home. Sure I had a headache, but so what? I had plans — and there was money to be made.
None of this worked out — not a single thing — the way I had planned. The doctor got me in mid-morning, so I had to cancel two appointments. He said my temperature was pretty high for a guy who’d had Tylenol 3 hours before, and that I should drink plenty of liquids and take some time off of work — probably the next three days. Ok. now I’d had enough. I was going to get something out of this day, so I drove to my office (10 minutes away) to get a “guaranteed going-to-get-there” check. It wasn’t there. What was there was a man I know who asked me for a referral to a detox. I made one phone call after talking to the man for five minutes — and didn’t get through. I think the Brattleboro Retreat (a good detox nearby) is still inaccessible from the recent hurricane. I was starting to feel ill at this point, and headed home. By the end of the day, I had a 103 degree temperature, was shivering under blankets in September, alternating with Tylenol and massive sweats. I took a shower to feel human again, and nearly could climb the stairs back to bed.
Today (Thursday), I cancelled my clients at the agency and — just to be on the safe side, cancelled my first client for Friday. You see, my health insurance (the health insurance for my family) is based on how many clients I see. If I don’t see enough, I’d lose the insurance. I’m not in any danger, mind you, but I’m aware that I can’t afford to take too much time off and it’s a fine line, juggling jobs. But at four o’clock this morning — fresh from worrying, fever, chills, sweats, and a shower (upstairs this time) — it occurred to me. I could picture was an image from my dream — a corn field that a tornado had ripped through. That was my life during this flu/bug/virus thing I have! It was as though the illness had (or would) pages of dreams and plans right off of my calendar! Then I realized I wasn’t the only one.
When I was a kid, my grandparents introduced me to a girl, long lost in the family tree now, who had migraines. They came, they went, and she didn’t have any clue when — or why. I have had friends since then with migraines as well and I never thought much about it, except “that stinks” and “how can I help?”. I have a friend who, last year had mini-strokes or something like them. I knew it was a bad thing to happen — she makes her living with her brain — but I didn’t get how disruptive it is. How does she plan anything? And I have a family. What if some kind of long-running illness strikes you and you don’t have family? Now what do you do? It’s a scary world in my brain at 4am with the flu.
Why hadn’t this occurred to me before? When I was in the parish, preaching every week, I got sick and/or had laryngitis maybe three times in five years. A hymn sing or some other back up plan was ok for that week, but I was expected to preach the next week. Further, there was always somebody who thought I took too much time off and wanted to consider this my “vacation time”. After dealing with that minor annoyance, I went back to work, good as new. I never had to cancel a wedding or a funeral because of it, so I guess it never occurred to me.
But what do you do if you get this flu on your wedding day? Do you cancel and reschedule and have to re-plan the reception? And what do you do if — like some of my clients — you end up with a long-term illness? What if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t miss a day at work? I teach my clients that work (even a little bit, even volunteering) brings meaning to your life — plus it gives you some freedom to choose your own destiny. Paid work means you don’t have to live in that place, you don’t have to wait for the bus, you can choose where you go, etc. That — in itself — gives them hope.
Suddenly, Mr. Obama looked smarter than he first appeared. (He’s been on my doo-doo list lately). I was all for the health-care proposal — but not because people needed catastrophic care so much as they needed care they could afford on their meager salaries. The poor folks I serve at the agency can see me because they qualify for state insurance or medicare. And make no mistake about it, their lives are tough. Not everyone will take those cases and — whatever got them to qualify is usually God-awful-no one-should-have-to-deal-with-it. Yes, there are cases I know where people work the system and qualify, but they are few and far between, and they are fools because the money they get is barely enough to live on, and their options are so very limited, so they settle for less than life offers.
But that shrinking middle-class you hear so much about lately? Those people — what few of them there are — are in deep trouble if an illness strikes. At some point, their insurance will run out, and their company will not pay for it because they – of course — are no longer employed. Then they will be able to access the same kind of limited options that the poor have now — provided the poor still have them, and they are willing to get rid of all of their assets and/or humble themselves to complain about how hard this is — to people like myself, who don’t have the experience of having their lives ripped apart by some weird quirk of fate.
If you’re able to, make financial plans, buy catastrophic insurance, take care of yourself, put money aside, do all the right healthy things. Know, though, that it doesn’t matter. Illness — any serious illness — will cut a swath from your life. That part of the experience no insurance can cover. And try to have compassion on people who are disabled — physically or mentally — whatever it is that caused it, this swath cuts through their whole lives. Even try to have compassion for people who have made bad choices. We’ve all been stupid or taken risks at some point and the wrong stupid choice or risky behavior on the wrong day would have put us in the same position as well.
I noticed in Mr. Obama’s speech tonight, by the way, that he talked about the old American formula of “work hard, make a decent living, you deserve to have a good life”. I remember hearing stories of little old ladies who never missed a day of work in … let’s say thirty years… and thinking “that’s not a standard I could live up to, but it is cool, I guess”. Most of us will never be that little old lady. Apparently, I won’t anyway. But, on the other side of the spectrum, there are people out there who don’t even get talked about when we talk about the American dream, because they can’t work — not because they don’t want to, because they can’t. Let’s try to have some compassion on them, even while we don’t stop hoping a better future for them. I have believed for years what Richard Bach once wrote: “Here’s a test to see if your mission in life is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t.” I still think that about most people. Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes make no sense to me. but that’s about all, using that philosophy. Dang, though, this illness stuff is hard.
On Saturday, I plan to be back at work. This stupid bug will have passed. I will have drank enough fluids to drown somebody and rested enough for the week by then. Antibiotics will kill any secondary infection, and I’ll be good as new, with the knowledge that a few days have been ripped from my plans for an upwardly mobile life, and I’ll go back to being relatively stable at it. But I hope that I never forget just what kind of damage an illness does — especially to my clients, with and without insurance.