The Joy of Sickness

Originally published as ‘The Anatomy of the Man Cold’ in Playboy.

I recently spent four days in bed with the ‘flu. I say ‘flu but I have no idea what it was. It may have been a dodgy breakfast. It may have been some kind of voodoo inflicted by one of my enemies. I’m not sure. But something made me spend four days in bed, and it wasn’t such a bad deal.

On the evening of the first day of my man cold, my girlfriend’s brother came over. He was wearing a tuxedo, on his way to an awards ceremony. I answered the door in my pajamas and dressing gown, eyes rolling around in my head from the ibuprofen. “I’m jealous,” he said, “I’ve not been ill for ages.”

I’ll say this from the get-go: I don’t like being ill. I prefer to be in control, to feel healthy, and for my biology to remain silently functioning without bothering my conscious mind whatsoever. There are things to be getting on with. Plus, I’m frightened of pain and death. But my girlfriend’s brother raises a good point. There’s a silver lining in illness.

To start with, there’s pleasure to be found in complaining. When life is otherwise good, it can be fun to adopt the role of a moaner when you get ill. “Oh, my poor head!” “Oh, my ovaries!” “Oh, my self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot!” Damn you, world!

You also have an honest-to-goodness Get Out of Jail Free card. For once, you don’t need to fabricate an excuse to get out of parties or baptisms or pagan volcano ceremonies. You can’t come to Eleanor’s long-anticipated shoe swap because you’re tucked into bed with a touch of the plague. Sorry, Eleanor.

As has so frequently been documented (William S. Burroughs, Keith Richards, others) drugs can be fun. Take some cough syrup and watch your consciousness stretch out and distort like the title sequence of The Outer Limits. Smear some VapoRub beneath your nostrils and pretend you’re “Menthol Chaplin.” When I was little, my parents were into homeopathic medicine; given that homeopathic tablets are mostly sugar, they’re actually rather tasty and very pleasing to crunch between your milk teeth.

There’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about an unproductive day when you’re sick. Maybe you’ve spent the whole day reading Sherlock Holmes stories in bed. But so what? You’re unable to do anything else. You owe nobody anything. You’re ill. Relax into it.

Your most coldhearted friends and relatives are duty-bound to be sympathetic when you’re ill. It’s the law. If they don’t bring their kind words, homemade soup and bunches of grapes to your bedside, you’re legally permitted to give them an Indian burn the moment you get well.

A good rattly cough is a wonderful thing. As are the sensations of picking at a scab, hocking up oysters of intriguingly colored phlegm, doing farts that smell like airplane fuel. And then there’s the finest of all malady sensations: post-puke euphoria.

The main silver lining of illness, however, is that it acts as a contrast to health. How wonderful it is to be healthy. To run without wheezing, to breathe without coughing, to be able to concentrate, to feel uneczematous, uncongested, laryngeally lubricated and generally able to soldier on without ailment, discomfort or psychological distraction. Santé!

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