In spring 2015, I was diagnosed with valley fever and pneumonia. I was on bed rest for over a month, during which my boyfriend picked up the habit of scrunching up his forehead and saying, “I think you’re losing it, dear.” He would smile, kiss my forehead, and shush me as I rambled on about my blue llamas farm, human-sized carrots wearing sunglasses, and shaping a baby out of belly button lint and then using it as tinder. Yes, I know, I should put my mind to good use and start writing children’s horror stories.
In the three years since, I’ve been constantly foggy and forgetful, slurring words and stumbling when I start getting tired. I naively though that what would soon be labeled “sleep drunkenness” was a consequence of my soul-sucking job. I was wrong.
Moments after explaining that “sleep drunkenness” is the actual medical diagnosis, my sleep specialist noticed the rashes on my ankles and sternly informed me point blank: “I need to test you for valley fever.” I chucked to myself and confidently tilted my head back, responding, “I’ve already had cocci. Can’t get it again.”
“Actually, yes you can.”
His words shook my world. My boyfriend had been telling me for the full three years that I was still acting like when I had valley fever initially, even though I felt better. My doctors told me that, like my childhood chicken pox, I would never have to worry about it again. Each of my doctors up until then led me astray. (I can’t blame them through, as I’m part of a >1% minority whose body does not recover on its own.)
And, in steps Sammy the Saboteur.
During my period of bed-rest in 2015, my boyfriend did everything he could to make me smile. This including blaming my brain’s snail pace on Sammy the Hamster, who had clearly abandoned his post. In a small world powered by a plastic hamster wheel, Sammy was my little friend. I would sleep for 20 hours, wake up to an empty house, and then talk to the imaginary hamster in my head like a crazy person.
When I wasn’t hungry, my boyfriend would remind me that Sammy might take an extended nap if he didn’t get some food. Sammy would sometimes do a half-assed job or go on strike for a couple of days. Sometimes I worried he was dead. Yet, other times, he worked late hours so I could visit with a friend or make it though another episode of Battlestar Galactica.
That little imaginary hamster has been the instrument for my recovery, even in that long stretch when I didn’t realize I had anything to recover from. He was my vehicle for self-care.
Lately, Sammy has been getting feisty and combative. Not only is he failing to show up for work, but he has transformed into a straight up saboteur.
Case in point: my brain can’t process and understand jokes anymore, particularly plays-on-words. I don’t “get” humor anymore, which is both devastating and disconcerting because it’s the means by which I navigate through my own awkwardness. Without the ability to discern or develop one-liners, who am I anymore?
Last night, I made vegetable soup for dinner. When my boyfriend commented that the meal was soup-erb, his emphasis gave away that he was presenting a joke, but several minutes passed and I still couldn’t figure out the punchline. I feel as if I’m standing in the batting cage as the balls come flying, left to dodge the oncoming projectiles because I’ve simply forgotten that I’m holding a bat.
Our relationship is built heavily on a shared sense of humor, so this cerebral processing failure has been a tough blow. However, I’m finally realizing that Scapegoat Sammy has helped us to shape a new humor language by which to communicate. Blaming memory lapses on the naughty behaviors of a lovable, imagined character somehow makes the whole “sick” thing a bit more palatable and humorous.
I really do love Sammy the Hammy, my sweet little saboteur. But, my goodness, everyone’s favorite cranial critter needs to get back to work!