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The Year I Realized That (Duh!) My Body Isn’t Invincible

The idea of "slowing down" was abhorrent to Jeannie Ralston until she went through 2022, a.k.a. her Year of Living Sickly.

“I never get sick!”

That was my mantra for much of my life. I had a belief that my body was strong, my immune system could fend off most any microscopic invaders, and that, as a last defense, a positive attitude about illness could run rough shod over any weakness of the flesh.

I made it through 2020 and 2021 without getting COVID or as much as a sniffle. But then came January 2022.

Reality Bite No. 1

Like so many people who gathered over the holidays at the end of 2021, I came down with COVID right after New Year’s. But it took me a while to acknowledge this. My throat hurt, my nose was running. But multiple (at-home) COVID tests were negative. I was sure it was allergies, because January in Austin (where I was living at the time) is known as the season for raging Cedar Fever.

As soon as I said those three words—’tastes like cardboard’—the penny dropped.

So how did I recognize I had COVID? A few days into my “allergies,” I got an intense craving for an ice cream sandwich. When I bit into this favorite childhood treat, I was immediately disappointed. I thought that the ice cream sandwich was beyond its expiration date or that the brand had suddenly fallen in quality. “It’s got no flavor,” I told a friend. “It tastes like cardboard.”

As soon as I said those words—”tastes like cardboard”—the penny dropped. I had read articles in which COVID sufferers had described how food tasted to them in just the same way. With that realization, I ran around the house sniffing candles and smelling nothing. I even put my nose in a jar of Vicks VapoRub, an act that would normally singe nostril hairs right off, and was completely unmoved. That’s when I knew coronavirus had snagged me.

Fortunately, I got over the symptoms quickly and got my smell and taste back within a week.

Read More: Time Warp: The Year of Aging Suddenly

Reality Bite No. 2

I lived in Mexico for four years and visit often. I have never, ever gotten even a touch of Montezuma’s Revenge. My stomach has handled anything and everything Mexico could dish out.

But in March 2022, all that changed. Flying back to the U.S. from Mexico, I started feeling queasy. When I got to DFW airport, it turned into full-on nausea. As the plane was taxing on the runway to take me back to Austin, it became more serious. I would have run to the bathroom, but everyone was strapped in. I could go nowhere.

As a last resort I had to do the unthinkable.

As a last resort I had to do the unthinkable. I pulled out the airsickness bag and put it to use four times. I sobbed in between each heave. Partly because I hate throwing up, and partly because I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t imagine what the people around me were thinking. I did hear a man seated at the window on my row taking deep, calming breaths. (This makes me laugh now, but not then.)

The flight attendant jumped out of her seat to help me with some wipes and water. She asked if I needed to get off the plane, and I exclaimed, “No!!” All I wanted was to make it home to my own bed. I spent the rest of the flight with my head on my tray—to rest but also to avoid having to look at anyone around me.

When we got to Austin, a man sitting across the aisle from me asked me if I needed help in the airport. He took my suitcase down from the overhead bin and carried it off the plane for me. I was so grateful to this man, who could have shunned me, but instead was gracious and kind.

I was back to normal after two days, but I’ll always think of that experience with the airbag as one of my lowest moments. (I am proud to report, however, that my aim was completely accurate!)

Reality Bite No. 3

At the end of May, I was preparing to head to Paris for our NextTribe visit there. I was tying up last-minute details, editing stories in advance that I could publish while we were frolicking along the Left Bank, when I got stopped in my tracks.

In the middle of the night, I woke up blazing hot. This was not night-sweat hot. This was full-on fever. I peeled off my pjs and tried to go back to sleep but an hour later I was chilled—teeth-chattering chilled. When I took my temperature it was 102 degrees, but an at-home COVID test came up negative. So I did a PCR test the next day.

This was not night-sweat hot. This was full-on fever.

I couldn’t figure out what it could be because I had no other symptoms besides high fever and weakness. No headache. No sniffles. No cough.

I didn’t go to the doctor at first because my fever would lessen during the day, and I kept thinking my body, which had always been so reliable, would be able to push through this on its own.

After the fourth day, I finally sought professional help and the doctor determined that it was a prolonged urinary tract infection. I was baffled because I didn’t have the symptoms I normally had—including the tell-tale urgency to pee—that would have gotten me begging for meds sooner. But I was incredibly grateful to be rid of the fever and weakness just in time for the start of our Paris tour.

Reality Bite No. 4

From the end of September to the middle of November, I was on the road except for four days (including stretches in Peru to hike the Inca Trail and in Mexico for our Day of the Dead trip). When I returned to my apartment in New York, I planned to catch up with all the friends and goings-on in the city I’d missed over the six weeks.

His willingness to take care of me and his robust immune system were huge checks in his plus column.

But immediately upon returning, I came down sick again. This time it was the flu, with a low-grade temperature, a nasty cough, sore throat, and runny nose. I got through the most severe symptoms in about four days and thought that I’d soon feel back to normal. But I didn’t. For a whole month I was draggy, and my new boyfriend was extremely patient with my continued hacking and sniffling. (By the way, he never got sick even though he visited me during the worst of my sickness. His willingness to take care of me and his robust immune system were huge checks in his plus column.)

In mid-December, I flew to Austin for the concert where we showcased our Sing Out Loud winners. A couple of days after arriving I began to feel worse, and then even worse still after flying back to New York. I finally went to a doctor and was diagnosed with a “severe, acute sinus infection.” (Apparently, flying was what got me in the hole again.)

A round of antibiotics finally cleared up all the gunk—just in time for Christmas.

Reality Adjustment

I was ecstatic to finally feel like myself again—to finally put away the pharmacy of cold and flu medications, the tissues, and the Neti pot, an instrument of sanctioned water-boarding.

I need to change some of the ways I go about this business of life.

But this year of living weakly has dented my bravado a bit. I can no longer say, “I never get sick.” I have to acknowledge that my body may be more vulnerable than I ever thought. I need to change some of the ways I go about this business of life.

I’ve taken up new habits, such as adding immune-boosting zinc, curcumin, and elderberry to my daily supplements, and I’ve reconsidered my schedule. I still plan to work out five or six times a week, but I am setting aside some time each day just to rest and clear my head instead of bombing straight through with work and social events, like I once did.

Plus, I had originally planned to take a year, starting this coming April, to live in various cities around the country in search of the ideal spot to settle. Now, I’ve decided that pace would be too hard on my health and have decided on another, less stressful plan to find my next hometown after leaving New York.

Sometimes I chafe against the idea that I’m “slowing down.” It’s against my nature to do that. But the smarter part of me tells me I’m doing just that—being smarter—to lessen the risk that illness will slow me down to a stop. It’s a wonder it took me 62 years to learn that.

Read More: I’ve Burned Out on Exercise and You Know What? That’s OK

By Jeannie Ralston


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