Given my close encounter with blindness (see previous post for details) it is not a big surprise that throughout my childhood I developed an unusual fascination with medical ailments of any kind. Maybe since my life was so normal and healthy (or as I viewed it – mundane) I felt the need to invent excitment through imagined catastrophe. Maybe I just enjoyed the idea of people feeling sorry for me and bringing me presents. For whatever reason I was hooked and I took my family down with me in my growing addiction to many a pretend health crisis.
One of my earliest memories of this involves a confused babysitter. I mobbed her as soon as she arrived at our house since I rarely had babysitters and was overly eager to play with this teenage girl who, as I understood it, was required to entertain me for the entire three hours of her employ. I took her immediately to my room and suggested that we make believe she was my older sister visiting me in the hospital where I was dying of pneumonia. (At six-years-old pneumonia was the most desperate, romantic, exciting disease I could dream up.) I still remember the confused sarcasm in the girls’ voice as she said “okay, if you really want to pretend you have pneumonia…..” with her eyebrows raised in critical disbelief. Somehow her reaction only served to intensify my need for made-up ailments.
Like any addict, as my need grew so did my efforts to meet that need. Playing pretend with one other person in the privacy of my own home was novice stuff – it lacked the limelight of sympathy and attention I now craved. So at seven-years-old during a period of time when I had taken to fashioning slings for my arm out of white dishtowels, I decided to expand my production to include my church. I quietly boarded our brown station wagon one Wednesday evening, sling on under my pink spring jacket. Once inside the building for our weekly church pot-luck I proudly and prominently showed off my “injured” arm to my friends, and by the end of the meal my mother was horrified when church members began to offer their concern and well wishes for me. “How did it happen?” “I hope she’ll be okay!” After church we had a sobering discussion about when it is and is not appropriate to pretend.
Though my discretion in the area of PDFI (public displays of fake injuries) improved, my obsession with any type of health issue continued and expanded to also include routine medical and dental corrective devices. This time I was not so -“cutting-edge”, lets say – in my fascination. It was all the rage among my friends (and we were not alone, I have learned after talking to some of my adult friends who report similar trends from their childhoods) to wear improvised braces and glasses even if our teeth were not crooked and our eyesight was perfect. We used jelly bracelets and even sometimes tin foil to act as braces and we relied on old glasses with the lenses popped out to correct our imaginary vision impairments. Many retail outlets at the time caught on to this trend and began selling fake reading glasses, which we bought as soon as we could get our hands on our next allowance pay-out.
Fake glasses and plastic “braces” were fun for a time but the pleasure they offered was hollow compared to my next fix. My dad (enabler) came across a pair of used wooden crutches in perfect condition on sale for a quarter a crutch. For the sum of fifty cents my father provided me with hours and hours of unbridled joy and abandon. I took to adjusting and readjusting the height of the crutches, hobbling around the house with my foot wrapped in an old Ace Bandage, and even taking the pair outside for a few test-runs. With the actual, real-life crutches I felt as though I had hit the big-time.
A few months later I knewI had hit the big time when I got to use the crutches…..for real…..in public – not to mention a five-day stay in the hospital (a.k.a. Mecca). I injured my foot in a classic accident that involved running across our wooden deck despite being warned not to. A step into the edge of a rough board led to hundreds of splinters and, eventually, a nasty infection that required IV antibiotics in the hospital. Despite some predictions a real-life hospital stay couldn’t even squelch my affinity for health problems- I got presents and candy, lots of sympathy, a TV in my room that I could watch ALL NIGHT LONG, and an entire children’s room down the hall filled with games and activities. Three pictures exist of me in the hospital, two of which I staged to show me pretending to be asleep so as to portray the desperate nature of my heart-wrenching situation for posterity. The only real downside to my visit was my IV, which seemed to slip out and require needle re-insertion at least once per day. That part of a real medical ailment was a bit of a buzz kill but was quickly forgotten when I got to debut my crutches at school the next week.
Though my interest in ailments continues somewhat to this day, the school debut of my crutches may have sparked the eventual fizzling out of my all-out fascination. Crutches were annoying and really hampered my normal routine. Before the end of the first day with them I was somewhat disillusioned and I abandoned them all together the next day, preferring to just limp instead. A few years later I learned the ugly truth behind braces when it was my turn to have my bite corrected. It was nothing like wearing a fluorescent jelly bracelet in your mouth for a few minutes. It hurt, it made eating harder, and it took up an entire afternoon every month at the orthodontist office.
Gradually since the time of crutches and braces cold, hard reality has been stripping me of most of my positive preconceptions of medical ailments, one first-hand experience at a time. And this process continues even now. I guess I could say that a childhood dream came true for me recently – I actually contracted pneumonia last month. And though the reality of my pneumonia was mundane and annoying (more like a bad cold than a dramatic scene from General Hospital) I have to admit that I couldn’t help feeling a little pride, even a sense of accomplishment upon hearing my diagnosis. I got a little kick out of telling people “I have pneumonia” and watching their reactions.
All of that to say this: I’m sorry I haven’t exactly been prolific with the posts lately – before Christmas I had Mono, then after the new year I got pneumonia, and most recently that nasty flu bug. So please excuse me, I’ve been taking time off to fulfil childhood fantasies.