I probably shouldn’t be writing this. Not because I’m about to say something controversial. But because I’m sick.
On Monday morning I went to the dermatologist who diagnosed me with an allergy and prescribed a six-week course of antibiotics and ointments to rub on my face. On Monday afternoon I went to the dentist who told me that after months of trying, it looked like our attempts to save my very back upper left cracked molar had failed. So I agreed to have it pulled.
It hurt. Not the extraction, thanks to local anaesthesia. But the aftermath. I couldn’t eat or drink anything but that didn’t matter because I had no appetite.
On Tuesday morning I took Tabitha, the cat I am fostering along with her five kittens, to the vet to be desexed. I went home and went back to bed with a bag of frozen beans to soothe the incredible heat coming off my face and hopefully help reduce the swelling. On Tuesday afternoon the vet called to say the operation had gone well and I could come pick up Tabitha when it was convenient. I went straight away because the sooner I picked her up, the sooner I could go back to bed with some sort of frozen vegetables.
Tabitha was returned to me with a plastic collar around her neck and I was told I had to keep her separated from her kittens. Fat chance, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I was in so much pain, I just wanted to go home. When I got there, I took the maximum amount of painkillers allowed and went back to bed. I still couldn’t eat.
On Wednesday I received a call from the dermatologist. He’d given me a blood test after I’d told him about a family history of autoimmune conditions and while I wasn’t positive for anything, one of the tests suggested I could be in the future. The antibiotics he’d prescribed had the potential to bring on autoimmune conditions so I couldn’t take them. I’d have to stay on the antibiotics prescribed by my GP. But I didn’t have any left.
So I trudged off to the pharmacy to get the old prescription refilled. I could barely talk or smile and when a friend called to chat while I was waiting, I had to cut her off and hang up. I stocked up on paracetamol and ibuprofen, got my antibiotics and went home. I ate mashed potato and gravy but in the past three days I’d had more pills than actual food.
To add insult to injury, the ointments the dermatologist had prescribed to soothe my allergic rash had the unfortunate side effect of making my face unbelievably itchy. When I didn’t have an ice pack on my face, I was using a hair brush with plastic tipped bristles to scratch my cheeks and forehead.
The pain should have started to let up on Thursday but it didn’t. I dosed up on pills and went to my mum’s to spend the day cooking with my sister. She likes the company but I could barely talk. I ate dinner with her – slowly – but left much earlier than I normally would. I dropped in to see my father on the way home to return a cooler I had borrowed. I tried to chat but I had to ask for a glass of water to talk more pain pills. I left shortly after.
The pain continued on Friday. And Saturday. And Sunday. Monday, one week after having the tooth pulled, I called the dentist who said she could see me in the afternoon. I went in, she numbed me up again and she poked and prodded until she pulled out a piece of bone or tooth the size of a sesame seed but with a very sharp point at one end. With every movement of my jaw, she explained, it had poked gums already sensitive from the extraction. Every time I drank, ate, swallowed pills, yawned, talked or involuntarily moved my mouth, I was causing myself pain.
It probably won’t come as any surprise when I tell you I didn’t write a thing all week. Although it feels like a wasted week, if I’d been working a full-time office job, I wouldn’t have worked all week either. I wouldn’t have begrudged not working. So why do I begrudge not being able to write?
I suppose when it’s something we want to be doing, then anything that prevents us from doing it is bemoaned. But writing, especially when you do it full time, is a job like any other. Sometimes you need to take physical health breaks and sometimes you need to take mental health breaks. All the platitudes about work-life balance apply to writing as well.
And even though it sounds strange, injuries can be sustained while writing as well.
“Work as a serious writer involves spending much time in a chair and in solitude,” says novelist Lynette McClenaghan. “At times I’ve relied heavily on physiotherapy and ensure that I include exercise to deal with and prevent back problems.”
Stress is just as much of an issue.
“Burnout is an occupational hazard,” according to writer Alison Croggon. “There’s no doubt that artists face particular issues, which are largely to do with the fact that so many work outside institutions, often alone, and have no structures to assist them or any kind of financial stability.”
Whatever your health issue – physical or mental – don’t ignore it. Don’t think you can just push through it. The quality – or lack thereof – of your writing will often reflect this if you do. Instead, take a break, get better and then get back into it in good health. An enforced timeout could be the best thing for you and you writing.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing