With one week until my 28th birthday, I have officially become an old woman: I’ve got shingles.
I watch a lot of reruns on channels that play the same five commercials on a loop, and tend to target an older demographic. My exposure to the ‘Shingles virus is already inside you’ PSA is right up there with the ads for erectile dysfunction and pills to cure psoriasis, and as someone who isn’t even old enough to get the vaccine, I continually laughed at the notion that I’d buy anything they were selling on Lifetime or Ion.
I ain’t laughing now.
My untimely reunion with the reactivated chicken pox virus that causes shingles (i.e. localized nerve pain, skin irritation, and general malaise) is just more evidence, if I needed it, that I’m actually eighty years old. On the outside, I look like a normal woman in my late-twenties, but I can’t stand for long periods of time, I don’t run, I watch Golden Girls and Law and Order: Criminal Intent in syndication. Between my hereditary bone condition and my perpetual habit of injuring myself through clumsiness, physical pain and I are old frenemies. But, like shingles, it’s pain I’m supposed to be too young to have.
As with most of my illnesses and injuries, the most frustrating part of having shingles is its invisibility. I was fortunate not to get the rash on my face, so just looking at me, you’d never know anything was wrong. Story of my life: since my first surgery at age thirteen, I’ve felt like the world at large was denying me the right to feel pain because there wasn’t exterior evidence. I didn’t spend all my days in a wheelchair, or on crutches; my procedures were out-patient so there were no long hospital stays. I was supposed to be made of rubber, able to bounce back with no ill after effects. After all, I’m young. And for the young, pain is meant to be temporary.
To talk about it is to complain about it, and whatever I’ve felt, it’s never on the level of cancer, or chronic spine pain, or anything that required heavy drugs and hospitalization. What right do I have to whine? Comparatively, I’m in good shape.
But the problem’s in the comparison. There’s no reason one person’s suffering has to erase another’s. We have an overwhelming impulse to tell each other, ‘At least you -‘ as if knowing there’s greater tragedy in the world magically erases a person’s pain. Rather than turning pain into a competition, we should strive to make empathy our first response. Yes, too much self-pity is a dangerous thing, but so is making someone feel guilty for not suffering enough. Everyone’s pain should be valid, no matter what age, no matter what condition. I shouldn’t have to feel bad for saying I feel bad.
I’m almost twenty-eight, and I have shingles. I realize, I’m young, and atypical, and it’s not the worst thing in the world. It hurts, and it could go on hurting for a long time, but I’ll live, so at least there’s that. I just wish scientists would hurry up and figure out how to download brains into humanoid robots because I could really use an upgrade.