A week after I turned 51, I got shingles. I didn’t know I had shingles, mind you. I assumed the rash was poison oak, though I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how it had bloomed on my upper thigh, around my side and back, and into my groin.
I’d taken my daughter the previous week to Orr Hot Springs in northern California. I paraded around naked for three days, still feeling pretty, somehow. Knowing I’m old, of course, but knowing also that, as old as I am, I was blessed with a body that used to be “good.” So, sagging though they may be, my breasts are still reasonably pretty. But more than that, I don’t really care anymore. It feels good to be sans swimsuit at the hot spring, and so I was. My daughter, at 17, was more demure.
After we got home, an itchy rash appeared on the top of my right thigh. We’d hiked in the beautiful Montgomery Woods State Park. We’d traipsed in and out of diminutive meadows between and among pristine, soaring redwoods. I thought I’d picked up poison oak there.
As the week wore on, though, I became dubious. The rash spread along my right side. The skin became oddly numb and a bit tingly. After several days of this, I discovered the lymph node in my right groin had grown as big as a golf ball and was exceedingly tender to the touch.
I immediately assumed it was a tumor pressing on a nerve. That would explain the tingliness. With my heart in my throat, I made an appointment at Kaiser the next day.
I had barely moved the blue paper drape aside when my new doctor, whom I’ve decided I don’t like, said, “Yep. Shingles.”
“Shingles?” I said. I don’t get things like shingles, I thought.
Later that day, my friend Ira said, “Shingles? That’s what old people get.”
I must say I’ve heard that trope more than once in the three weeks since.
My new doctor, whom I saw again today, says this just isn’t so. She said shingles is pretty random, attacks all kinds of people. One in three people get it, apparently — one in three, that is, who had chicken pox once upon a time. You see, it’s the chicken pox virus revived. Chicken pox lies dormant in the nerve tissue near the brain, evidently.
No one knows for sure why it suddenly rears its head, but it’s said, and it stands to reason, that it’s stress, a weakened immune system, etc., which is why elders, AIDS and cancer patients — and stressed-out people tend to get it.
But others too… I’ve met several people in the three weeks since my diagnosis who had shingles in high school, in college, in their late 20s and early 30s. My doctor again insisted today that I don’t need to panic about my immune system.
I wonder if she’s wrong.
I think I can afford to reduce my stress. To do less, to feel less haunted, to relax and take care of myself instead of running around taking care of everyone else. To rest. To afford time. To not run late. To remember to breathe. To not insist on doing everything, all the time. Because that’s what I do. It’s compulsive. And sick. And I’m done.
But that’s not what this article is about.
What is this article about?
It’s, at least in part, about how shingles feels. How humbling it is to be in pain for weeks. How it feels to have crushed glass coursing under one’s skin. How strange it is to have nerves on fire, ganglia exploding in paroxysms of pain, strange flares erupting in surprising places when I least expect it. How painful it is to have inflamed nerves wrapped around and through my right hip, tightening, throbbing, causing me to limp, causing me to whimper like a child, causing me to wince when I stand.
How strange and unnerving (no pun intended) it is to have shocks of pain reverberate across my skin when I pull on my underwear. When I fasten my skirt. When I turn in bed. When I accidentally let the sheet slip across my thigh.
There’s a mental component too. I don’t know if pain is distracting me from all else, and that’s why I’m losing my phone, leaving things in strange places, spelling words I’ve known forever wrong. Why I drop things. Why I can’t be bothered. Why I left my sister’s plant in the back of the car for a week.
Either the pain has taken up residence in my brain, blocking out all else, or it’s simply fatigue from waking up in shock every time I attempt to turn in bed, or from the inevitable ache in my sacrum that arises from resisting said turning for hours and hours.
My son’s cat is stationed on the left arm of the yellow chenille chair I’m seated in. My dog, Daisy, is lying on the floor four feet away. Both pets are busy cleaning themselves. The cat purrs incessantly. Now and then, she tries to step into my lap. I lean forward slightly, blocking her. She retreats. I can tolerate her beside me, but I can’t touch her. If I touch her, my eyes will be inflamed for 48 hours.
My 17-year-old daughter just got out of the shower, where she sang for half an hour. She is now playing Abba in her room. She calls down, “Mom! I’m cleaning my room! Aren’t you happy?”
Yes, I’m happy. I’m happy.
I’m happy my 21-year-old son flew the nest five weeks ago, that he boarded a plane to China on a one-way ticket, that he’s finding his way, working for an artist creating a cooperative in Kunming, going wake-boarding in Phuket, Thailand, meeting friends in Hanoi, in Korea, in Japan.
I’m elated my daughter is killing it at Berkeley High’s International Baccalaureate program. I couldn’t be more proud and excited for her. That she was accepted in a competitive, month-long film school over the summer, that she’s preparing to take her SAT, make her list of colleges to apply to, begin to taste the new life hurtling toward her.
I’m reading Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The first chapter is shocking. But why? What did I expect? I’m reading this important book I should have read long ago and thinking about race relations and restitution and personal responsibility and white privilege. Even as I get ready to try to invest in property in Oakland before it’s too late. Even as I jump on the gentrification bandwagon.
I live in Oakland, California, a city in the throes of terrifyingly rapid change, change run rampant, as real estate that no one would touch for 30 years now flies off the griddle like hotcakes, as families flood the region, seeking a foothold in the cradle of technology 45 minutes south in Silicon Valley, and increasingly across the bay in San Francisco.
I’m 51. I have shingles. I can barely move. I’m waiting to get my body back, to get my mobility back. I’m waiting to resume my life.
At dance a few weeks ago, one of my partners said, “I can feel your vitality and youth. It tingles.”
It was one of the sweetest things ever said to me. It made me happy. I don’t care that it’s relative. That he’s 80 or so. So what. I felt vibrant and alive when he said that. I stopped shrinking away from my own skin. I stepped back into my body. I shrugged off the shame and re-embraced my sexuality. Thank you, Jim.
When I’ve sloughed off this ridiculous shingles thing, I want to re-set something in myself. Since I officially entered menopause only last Thanksgiving, I’ve been… sequestering myself. I’ve been shy, if you want to know the truth.
I’ve felt old.
I know to readers older than me, this will sound ridiculous, even arrogant.
I think it’s something about being a woman. I loved being a woman who could, and did, bear children. That’s what made me feel sexy. I’m a little bit of a naturalist this way. I figure the body is made for pregnancy and birth. Sexuality is expressly for the purpose of encouraging said pregnancy and birth. Who am I to continue to enjoy it once it’s clear that nature has no use for it?
It must be yet another vestige of Catholicism. I seem to have many of them.
I’m also shy because I remember how lush and juicy like a plum I was just a short time ago. I remember when my libido was a force to be reckoned with. My mid-forties were sublime in this regard. I’m not SO changed… yet. But I know it’s coming. It’s like a looming abyss. And I’m shy. I don’t know how to approach men anymore. I don’t know whom I’m allowed to flirt with.
I feel like the rules have changed, and no one gave me the new book. I miss the old days, when men in the room noticed me. Whether or not they were attracted to me was another matter. At least, they noticed me. I felt it, like a wave. It fortified me. Now, I’ve become invisible. I straighten my spine and walk with as much dignity as possible. At least, when I don’t have shingles, I do that. I’ve become demure. And it fits me ill.
I’m transitioning from a beautiful young woman to a beautiful older woman. It’s scary and sad, and it’s going really fast. But, that beautiful older woman part? I don’t really believe it. I know how people my age looked to me not long ago. I remember. I know I look like that to others. It’s not an easy pill to swallow.
Shingles has humbled me. Interestingly, I find that when I get up from my desk, hobble around, manage to pull on my tennis shoes, attach the leash to Daisy’s collar, and get outside, I begin, slowly, to feel better. It takes more than twenty minutes, but then the nerves seem to loosen up, nominally. The ball in my hip moves a little more freely. Every step hurts, but I remember to breathe more deeply. I notice the roses heavy with raindrops.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s walking that’s helping me. It’s a sign from the universe. Walk. Go. Just keep going. Don’t sit too long. Shrug off the chains of work. Take your meetings on the phone, while walking. No more sitting. Change it up. In fact, change everything.
Having shingles has changed things. These last two weeks at work, I’ve been in so much discomfort that I’ve become precise like a scalpel. I use my words sparingly. I don’t hem and haw. I don’t spout niceties. And I’m not over-polite. In a meeting today, I twice interrupted someone who was going on too long — something I never would have done before.
I just don’t have time for nonsense. The pain is making me focus. It’s distracting, but it’s also making me focus. Maybe because it’s distracting, I’m able to focus. I must focus. I’m forced to.
Oddly, I sense I’ve been MORE effective at work these last two or three weeks. I don’t have time or bandwidth for fluff. I can’t entertain insecure thoughts. I don’t have time or patience to question myself. It takes too much energy, frankly. I just barrel ahead. I ask. I go. I do. It’s been good. I’ve been a better employee. I’ve felt more powerful. Because I don’t give a fuck. I’m in pain. Nothing matters.
Shingles has been scary because it’s like a message from the future. Hobbling around is embarrassing. I’m not thrilled to be leaving my youth behind. The pain and hobbling bring with them all sorts of specters.
But there’s nothing I can do about it. Time is inexorable, as they say. I can bitch and moan, or I can make the best of it. As incredible as it seems, we all age. My dear, lithe children will age. The sexy tango instructors I fantasize about will age. Do I want my kids to give up and get discouraged when their energy flags, when their skin sags? When they feel the sap in their veins thinning out? Of course not. So, I must set the example, as always.
And I am. My mid- to late-forties were about making and saving money to the best of my ability. Now I’m learning about investing. The shingles WILL go away, and then I can re-double my exercise, my dance. I can begin swimming as I’ve been meaning to do for years. I can forgive myself, embrace myself, pull myself in from the cold, remember some dreams, make some plans, and have some fun.
Find a man, or a few. Learn about my new body, keep my fantasies alive, write. Love, dance, embrace, and to hell with shingles and every other bizarre thing sure to come in the years hurtling toward me. My kids are almost gone; I have a new life to lead. It’s extending its hand. It’s up to me to take it.