So last Saturday I went to a Writing Conference in Newcastle. It was interesting, and I enjoyed myself, but I noticed not long after arriving that I had that itchy, sinus-y feeling behind my nose that usually means hayfever is about to hit me with it’s puffy-faced rhythm stick. This developed into a few sneezes and sniffs over the course of the afternoon, and by the final panel had morphed into a snot-fest so impressive that total strangers in my vicinity were forcing me to take their tissues. But I already had evening plans, which I staggered through (albeit with far more snivelling and considerably less tolerance than usual) and eventually made it, gratefully, to my bed. Here is where it became apparent that this was not hayfever, but a cold. By 5.30am, when I was in the shower attempting to steam the bastard out having had no sleep whatsoever, it became apparent that this was an absolute bitch of a cold.
This pissed me off for several reasons. 1. Being ill sucks. 2. The one thing my body can be relied upon to do well and reliably is sleep, and the cold had taken even this away. 3. I have a chronic disease, which I feel should give me some sort of free pass for minor illnesses. 3. Being genuinely ill on a weekend feels like the universe is giving you the finger.
And it’s this last point I want to talk about today. That labyrinth of guilt, judgement and defiance that is The Sick Day. Now I find that people tend to fall into one of three camps when it comes to Sick Days:
- The person who calls in sick at least once a month for various nebulous reasons relating to headaches, dizziness and other intangible problems. Simultaneously resented and admired by colleagues, who sit around the office giving each other significant side-eye while saying things like, ‘it must have come on so sudden because Janet seemed fine yesterday…’ and wishing they’d made a bigger deal out of that sniffle they had last week.
- The person who will not call in sick even if they are literally dying, and feels the need to point this out at any given opportunity, whilst coughing into their tea round.
- The person who calls in sick only when they feel genuinely lousy, sits at home riddled with guilt all day and spends the next week apologising profusely to everyone they work with.
During school I did my damnedest to be a Type 1, and was usually thwarted by my mother’s cast-iron insistence that I should ‘see how [I] feel when [I] get there’. Real illnesses were few and far between, and padded with a gradual three-day build up to an Oscar-worthy performance of coughing and spluttering that would have put Meryl Streep to shame, but rarely convinced my mum.
These days, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve become a Type 3. Having been diagnosed with an actual disease, I’m constantly telling myself that I shouldn’t use the sick day now – because I might need it later this month. It’s a stupid attitude. The equivalent of saving your favourite part of a huge meal until the last mouthful, only to be so full you can’t actually eat it. Last year during a flare-up of my ulcerative colitis, I told work I only needed the mornings – when my colitis is at its worst – at home, and spent more than one afternoon trapped in the staff bathroom, pretty sure that getting that email sent out could have waited. But what if there had been a day where I really couldn’t leave the house – as opposed to just managing the 20 minute walk to work – and I’d already taken a sick day that week?
That smart attitude would be: well bloody take it anyway.
But it’s so hard to feel that way. During the year prior to my diagnosis, when my symptoms came and went in spectacularly unpredictable swings, I was working in a café and knew that my calling in sick would mean one of my colleagues’ day off was ruined by The Phone Call. So I didn’t do it. Even now I have an office job, and nobody directly bears the brunt of my sick day, the hangover of that guilt still plagues a Sick Day. Even the Sick Days when I’ve been unable to keep any food down, didn’t have the energy to walk to the corner shop and have to physically grit my teeth through the pain in my stomach, I felt guilty. How stupid is that?
So this week, on Monday morning, I called in sick. To be honest, I was feeling much better than I had on Sunday and probably could have staggered through the day if I’d needed to. But that’s not the point. Just because you can force yourself onwards, it doesn’t always mean you should. Sometimes, you need to power through the guilt, and take that bloody Sick Day. Sometimes you need it.
That said, I still felt guilty enough to do an extra day’s work later in the week, to make up for the heinous cheek of being ill. Baby steps.
(In a similar vein, this fantastic The Pool article sings the praises of occasionally having a skive – and I agree with every word of that, too.)