TODAY'S PAPER
Broken Clouds 36° Good Afternoon
Broken Clouds 36° Good Afternoon
OpinionCommentary

I’m afraid of the flu, and if you have it (no offense) I’m afraid of you, too

Flu is serious business.

Cartoon by Joe Heller

Cartoon by Joe Heller

I cannot get the flu. It’s out of the question. I’ll do something else, but not that.

It’s not that I’m so busy and important that the world will stop revolving if I’m out of commission for a few days. In a pinch, my husband can eat canned soup or peanut butter out of the jar. We can have cat litter delivered to the front door.

And it’s not that I can’t endure illness or discomfort. Nobody loves these things, but I can get through bronchitis or a sprained ankle given rest, medicine and a license to complain.

Influenza is different, because I’m afraid of it. If you have it, no offense, but I’m afraid of you, too.

Flu is serious business. A friend whose Christmas holiday was derailed when she got so sick she had to be quarantined is recovering, but the doctor warned her to expect a lingering cough for weeks.

Over the weekend in Dallas, Methodist Hospital’s emergency room became so swamped with flu patients that it had to close its doors to all but the most desperately ill patients. To date, 11 people have died of influenza in Dallas County this season, which typically runs from October to April.

California hospitals, their emergency rooms jammed, are asking flu patients to seek help elsewhere. In Ireland, struggling with a worrisome strain called “Australian flu,” some churches have instigated a handshake ban. A healthcare chain in New York is barring visitors younger than 14 to slow the spread of flu both into and out of its facilities.

So, yes, there’s reason to worry: Flu is easy to catch, hard to get rid of, and it hits you like a sack of wet concrete. Getting vaccinated is a no-brainer for reducing the odds, but it can’t guarantee your protection.

There’s a reason writers of dystopian fiction love flu pandemics as a handy literary device for removing a major chunk of the human population and whittling the cast down to a manageable ensemble of trauma-ridden survivors.

That said, I don’t expect to die of the flu. Yes, it can kill, but most people recover. And at our house, we have come to a prosaic acceptance that sickness sometimes strikes healthy people for no discernible reason. The only option is to cope with it as best you can.

No, the fear isn’t of dying. It’s of feeling like I’m dying.

The last time I had bona fide influenza - the real deal, which is like but not equivalent to a sinus infection, bronchitis, or a really severe cold - was several years back. It was awful: fever, shivering chills, a sense that my entire skeleton was aching.

I went for days without ingesting anything but a handful of microwaved popcorn and a shot of vodka. Reading, talking on the phone, answering the door required too much energy. I holed up in a pile of blankets like an injured woodchuck in an underground den, passively watching bad movies on a tablet.

Unpleasant, yes, but the worst symptom - does this sound crazy? - was in my head: a bleak sense of despair as paralyzing as clinical depression. It was impervious to logic - I thought I would never get well, that it didn’t matter whether I did or not, that there was no source of joy or pleasure I could imagine.

You feel terrible, my sad, numb, nearly-paralyzed brain told me. You’ll never feel better. This is your new reality.

The fact that all this was objectively untrue just made it worse. It made me feel unhinged.

That feeling - that angst - scared me. It still does.

As it turns out, this is an actual thing, a not uncommon symptom of flu and other serious illnesses. Medical journals call it “sickness behavior, “ a cluster of mental adaptations that some researchers believe is actually meant to help us recover more quickly.

As the medical thinking goes (in grossly simplified terms, which are the only kind I can grasp), trying to jump heroically out of bed and do the laundry or take out the trash might delay your physical recovery. Your immune system, which you cannot will into submission, spurs the release of proteins - cytokines - that induce a bundle of sensations to make you feel not just sick, but purely wretched. You feel joyless, lethargic, and entirely unmotivated to take the garbage out.

It’s a “highly organized strategy to fight infection,” according to one medical journal. And it’s not lost on researchers that the “sickness behavior” that keeps you quiet and bedridden feels a great deal like a deep, hopeless, terminal mental funk. Some scientists, in fact, think that severe depression may be a haywire response to this physically beneficial infection-fighting process.

Good to know (our human bodies are just a gosh-darn marvel, aren’t they?), but I’m not sure the knowledge would help if I actually caught influenza again. I can stand being sick, but I don’t know if I’m tough enough for another bout of “sickness behavior.”

So please, I’m asking you nicely: It’s not that I don’t like you, or that we’re not friends, or that I think my personal cooties are any cleaner than yours.

But if you think you’re coming down with the flu, do us all a favor: Keep your distance. Stay home. Sip hot tea and binge-watch something that doesn’t strain your mental apparatus.

Remember that you really will feel better. And try to believe it.

Columns