Everyone in New York has the same cold right now. Everyone in New York is always coming down with a cold, or getting over a cold, or has a little bit of a cold. This is a place where everyone is always almost, and one of the many almosts is that everyone is always almost sick. But this cold we’ve all come down with is this time not an almost. It is shockingly organized, as though our bodies were staging some collective action in protest of proceeding into the next year.
There are lots of reasons people tend to give for having a cold. A cold always seems to need a reason, in a way that less minor ailments do not. A cold is really just being overworked and overextended, drinking too much and partying too much, generally not taking care of ourselves, the sneaky ways that depression manages to articulate itself as something more comprehensible. Because a cold is non-critical it feels, at least to me when I have one, like it has be about something other than itself, as though stuffed-up sinuses and a leaking face were just the container, just the form. The substance, the content, needs to be something else—not a cold, but an explanation. The cold must be about my flaws, my tendency to say yes to too many things, my eating habits, my laziness. Because a cold is so low-level as to not quite seem medical, it acts instead as a referendum on one’s whole lifestyle. We expect having a cold to have a thesis. There is so little to it that it has to somehow be more than itself.
A friend who has had a head-splittingly bad cold for nearly ten days now describes herself as having “impostor syndrome for having a cold.” “A cold” is a phrase many of us understand to mean “I just don’t feel like it,” familiar from slimly justified cancellation texts. Most of us in places like New York where last-minute cancellations are an epidemic have grown accustomed to dismissing “I’m coming down with a cold” as a mostly harmless but entirely obvious lie. And so when we hear ourselves say that we have a cold, we extend the same default judgment to ourselves. This is of course the problem of crying wolf: If nobody ever pretended to have a cold, we might all be able to take ourselves seriously. But it’s also an unpleasant lesson that whatever judgements we make about others should be things we are prepared to have land in our own front yard in due time; if you assume everyone who says they have a cold is conveniently lying, it becomes very difficult not to turn that assumption on yourself when your face fills up with snot and your throat grows thorns and you feel too tired to peel yourself up off the couch. Colds are a referendum on how kind we can be to ourselves, how much we can let ourselves get away with, how small we can allow ourselves to be. They are also reminders of the large and overwhelming power of the systems that want us to be none of these things.
Every day there is some news story about someone who kept going to work through some horrible sickness, with a broken limb, through labor pains. We are supposed to find these stories inspiring. This particular tendency - to find the human willingness to break ourselves, the desperation that refuses kindness to one’s own body - to be somehow heroic, equated with both physical and moral strength, is not particular to our era. It is older and more insidious than that, deeper and harder to get at than the easy classification of millenial burnout. That burnout, or whatever name you want to give it, is real, but it is part of a vast and ancient idea that by destroying ourselves, by using ourselves up, we become holy and virtuous, guaranteed moral clarity, free from possible accusations of selfishness, clean as a bone and bathed in light. It is silly to think that there is nothing that does not reach back to an old and creaking and claw-fingered religion in our belief in the redemptive beauty of bearing up under suffering, of working through the pain.
A cold doesn’t even do that, though. A cold is not dramatic or saintly. It is not a great suffering to endure; it is just a slightly magnified version of the constant grossness of living in a human body. It is mainly annoying, and part of its annoyance is how hard it is to separate it out from simple self-indulgence. There is a grim satisfaction in seeing the thermometer hit a certain number, in waking up with a face full of firmly non-functional sinuses, in verifiably opening our mouth and not being able to speak in more than a croak, in being finally able to say look I really am sick. It is such a relief to stop arguing with yourself about which side of the line between I feel bad and I am sick you fall on, a negotiation that is the very substance of both having a cold and the whole human condition. At last, something other than one more long day asking ourselves how bad actually counts as bad.
Everybody loves a sick day, even if secretly, even if only a little. Sick Day is its own discrete emotion, that sense of a pure permission to do nothing. It is the squishy luxury of a very bad hangover, the ship-wrecked exhaustion of the total nothing day after a bad breakup, the warm-bed embrace of failure. A cold is not bad enough to keep it from being the tiniest bit enjoyable; with a cold, it isn’t quite possible to say that the people who call a sick day an indulgence are wrong. There is something grand about a long Tuesday home thinking only of warmth with a bad cold, shuffling from the couch to the bed to the bathroom, clutching at the little crumpled aluminum backs of medicine packets discarded around the room. There is even something pleasant about the disgusting couch-nests that a sick day generates out of pill wrappers and juice bottles and used tissues and abandoned mugs of tea. It is both awful and somehow squalidly good, the florid pleasure of giving up, of being useless for once, of contributing nothing, of being someone else’s problem, sunk in the unnavigable swamp of the body. Experiences that are purely about the body are rarely neutral or mild; they are almost always either very good or very bad, and even the bad ones have some weird edge of enjoyment to them. What an indulgence, to just feel bad, to admit to pain, to give up and say that I can’t, I hurt, I’m sick.
Thomas and I both finally got sick around new years. He had felt not great the last few days we were on vacation. After a damp and muddy and over-exerted few hours of getting completely lost hiking around Hampstead Heath, he admitted that he just needed to go to our hotel and get in bed. We were both relieved more than anything else. Three days later, I woke up on January second, perhaps the dullest and most obligated day of the whole year, a living garbage pile topped by a discarded Christmas tree, and couldn’t breathe through my face. I went to the gym because I didn’t believe myself, and it took me nearly a week of dragging my body around the city, leaking and listing to the side like an old ship with a hole in it, to admit that I actually was sick. Surely I must be faking it. Surely I must want this, this excuse from class, this note that says I can stay home today, under the covers, with a mug of something warm, allowed to sit out this round of doing life, excused from getting up and walking myself to the next thing and the next. Surely I must want the sick day. And worse, some part of me did.
The problem with a cold is that we live in a world where everyone is either well or broken, either fine or in crisis, where there are no halfways, no breaks in the marathon, no pauses for breath, where there is nothing in between running at full tilt or lying down to die. In a world like this, of course some part of us longs for a sick day. Colds are small and unimportant and yet if we grind through every small and unimportant thing as though the only things that exist are the ones that might kill us, then having a cold is likely to become our permanent state of being. The cold is where we end up when we refuse to admit anything that isn’t a car crash is an event at all.
I feel mostly better now, which is to say I feel like I’m getting over a cold and might be coming down with another one. I can breathe again; I can heave myself up into a new week and a new year, I can walk out into blinking-bright winter and breathe almost normally. By the last real day of my cold I would have cheerfully chewed off my own arm in order to feel healthy again; now that I feel healthy some small goblin part of me longs back toward the relief of a sick day, not actually wanting a cold, but wanting some way to counter the relentlessly cheerful forward march that exhorts us not to believe ourselves when we get sick, that refuses the small and strange joy of a sick day, the indulgent failure buried under the long winter.
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