From a young age, I learned that sick is comfort; sick is to be cared for.
When I stayed home with an earache in second grade, my dad didn’t double-check my homework or make me practice piano exercises twice on each hand. He brought me a bell so I could ring him and gave me three M&Ms for every dose of antibiotics that went down without a fuss.
Undoubtedly, my penchant for minor ailments comes from a place of privilege. My physical body is healthy, which is why its occasional maladies have become phenomena that I get to relish. I recognize that chronic illness is another story, of course.
But when I feel a cold coming on, I don’t stir Emergen-C and up my citrus intake, I lean in.
My taste for illness solidified in high school, when I came down with mono. For two weeks, I lay in bed with a high fever while the kissing disease transformed my reputation. Along with the virus, I had contracted an air of mystery — the possibility that I was locking lips with someone my classmates didn’t know about. Though it had been a calendar year since I’d kissed Aiden Proner at the Valentine’s Day dance, my diagnosis said otherwise. In a sophomore class of fewer than 30 people, the allure this conferred was invaluable.
When you’re sick, people applaud you for not failing; the bar is incredibly low. The unflattering truth of the matter is that I want to be the star without having to perform.
At age 6, I fractured my left arm practicing cartwheels in my neighbor’s backyard. The break was severe, and I had to go under anesthesia so a surgeon could reset the bone. Beneath the emergency room’s searing white lights, nurses taped my crooked forearm to a board and attempted to draw blood from the linear one — searching my opaque flesh for any shadow of a vein.
My mom sat next to me, stroking my hair and smiling sympathetically. “You’re being so brave tonight.” In an attempt to distract me, she fished a catalog from her purse and let me pick a new phone for our kitchen. The sedative I’d been told to swallow on arrival was muting any potential pain, and I gleefully picked a silver faux-rotary number to hang from our kitchen wall.
In the operating room, a masked woman asked me to count backward from 10 as I inhaled cherry-flavored anesthetic. Much like the toothpaste offered to a child at a dentist appointment (bubble gum, strawberry shortcake), pediatric anesthesia comes in kid-friendly flavors. This news was to my delight and the disgust of my parents, who were morally opposed to artificial flavoring. I imagined an orchard in a thick red haze and drifted into oblivion.
I woke up in a bright room with a dark window. Outside, it was past my bedtime. Inside, I had no curfew. The smiling faces at my bedside congratulated me for sleeping through surgery.
In here, I was hospital gown-clad royalty. I got to watch TV — something I grew up without. My dad brought me Cocoa Puffs to cheer me up. As if I needed cheering! A whole hospital was calling me brave. Now I had my dad — a man known to lecture my 7-year-old classmates on how the hormones in their chocolate milk and chicken nuggets would induce premature puberty — bringing me sugary breakfast cereal. This was my night. No questions asked, I ate the puffs. And, as any child who had grown up on organic fruit leathers would be, I was enamored. My dad poured himself a bowl and we watched reruns of “The Munsters” until I fell asleep.
My ego is still fueled by ailment. And when it comes to diagnoses — the rarer, the better.
The only ailment I currently host has been a bit of a letdown. Its debut was promising enough: Pink spots began blossoming on my stomach. The polka dots grew in number, until I finally scheduled a doctor’s appointment. The woman I saw thought it might be ringworm. “Like a cat?” I thought. “Gross, but I’ll take it.” She recommended a dermatologist, and when I got home I announced to my Ikea sectional: “She referred me to a specialist.”
The dermatologist was flummoxed, which was a five-course meal for my sense of self-importance. “You’re different from everyone else,” my ego whispered, buttering its fifth Parker House roll. “You’re just as unique as you thought.”
The doctor took a biopsy, which came back inconclusive. I was flattered at first, until he prescribed a generic steroid cream that clears up “all sorts of stuff.”
I treasure being sick because it gives me a tangible reason for feeling like crap. Sickness is name brand — an engraved plaque entitling you to complain, gifting you with a hoop in which to throw each and every one of your ailments. Suddenly, you’re off the hook. Your bad mood isn’t a character flaw, it’s a symptom. A good diagnosis can alleviate the existential hamster wheel for the course of your antibiotics.
Since my immune system is nowhere near as weak as I’d like it to be, I’ve forged some shortcuts. I regularly give blood, which gives me a day pass to the amusement park of ailment. The nurses invariably comment on my obscure veins — a highly anticipated snack for my gluttonous ego. For the rest of the day, I parade my cotton ball and Band-Aided inner elbow around like a martyr. Plus, the facade of altruism is flattering.
Being sick forces me into the moment and it’s the only thing that reliably does so. When I’m sick, I can watch TV with a concentration rarely seen outside of meditation centers in the Himalayas. My to-do list is replaced with: “Stay alive.” I can just be, in the simplest sense of the word.
Of course, I am immensely grateful to house an immune system that lets me view illness as a rarity. A sick day is fun because it’s temporary.
My obsession with ducking under the weather boils down to a child’s desire to go to the nurse’s office: I want permission to excuse myself from life and curl up in a sunspot. I want my friends and family to be proud of me for doing the least, to fetch me wonton soup without sending a reciprocal Venmo charge. I often fantasize about appendicitis. It’s accessible, but Madeline had it so it feels French. Strep is a new lease on life, mono a surprise sabbatical — the physiological gift of time to hit the reset button.
Sickness is a fresh start; one that I will, invariably, squander. But cold season is right around the corner.
Sophia Ortega is a writer living in Los Angeles.