I’ve heard it said that autistic people, on average, tend to get ill less easily. I don’t know if this is true, but my immune system was definitely on my side last week when it got to my second annual appraisal meeting at work, and I hadn’t had a single sick day since I started a year and a half ago. Well done me, I thought.
Then the following weekend, I came down with a cold. I’ve put up with colds before. No biggie. After three days of trying to function normally with my temperature going up and down, however, I had to admit defeat. So on Tuesday, I swallowed my pride – along with some painkillers and some hot honey and lemon – and rang in sick.
Huddling in my room, too bunged up to catch up on sleep, I realised how out of practise I am at being ill. A clear testament to the privilege of being a very healthy person. What do sick people do all day? I spent most of that morning blearily wondering this, before giving in and making myself just sit quietly and read, or watch stuff on my laptop. In hindsight, that was probably all I needed; while I’m still shaking off the last of this cold, I noticed a marked improvement the next day.
I like to think I’m pretty stoical when it comes to discomfort, but some of my childhood memories imply that I took a while to get there. Namely when I developed a bladder infection aged five. I was notoriously bad at taking medicine at that age, and would gag so dramatically when it was forced upon me, it was actually disturbing. To top that, I was throwing up a lot, refusing to use the toilet, refusing to co-operate for the doctor, and screaming the house down. It got so bad that my poor mother joined in the screaming after a while. How I got better, I’ll never know.
I spent most of my childhood being irrationally worried about illness. You could blame it on my trip to the smallpox museum with my now-stepdad. He found the whole thing fascinating, but the wall of photos of pock-marked children will stay with me forever. More seriously though, it was probably an unfortunate mix of common sense (illness is bad and needs to be avoided) and neuroticism (knowing something is bad and wanting to take EVERY possible measure to avoid it). I panicked if someone in class felt sick. I refused to touch stale food. I was even afraid of going to bed and waking up with a tummy bug. Irrational, I know, but I do remember thinking it.
Having narrowed down these fears to specifically vomiting or deadly illnesses, I got a grip and learned to stop complaining. Unfortunately as a teenager, I even took this too far. I developed what looked like infected insect bites, and put up with them for three weeks. Three lots of antibiotics and several medical appointments later, it turned out I was not only running a fever, but had a rare staphylococcal skin infection and was at risk of blood poisoning. Definitely worth complaining about.
So as you can see, my approach to illness has zigzagged somewhat over the years. I’m still squeamish about vomit, but that aside, my rule of thumb is: eat healthily, rest well, and you’ve got a good fighting chance. And when your immune system does give in? There’s no point in beating yourself up for not functioning at full speed. Make the most of the chance to be quiet, comfortable, and still for a day, and hopefully that’s all you need to get back on track.