When I was twenty-one, I lived in Paris for a semester and worked as an au pair. One day, the three children I looked after spiked fevers and cried and wiggled and complained and broke out in angry red spots. “Have you had chickenpox?” their mother asked me, as we stuck them in oatmeal baths and fetched washcloths for their heads and popsicles for their throats. I told her I must have, at some point, though I didn’t remember. “You must have, though I don’t remember,” my mother said, in a letter that arrived three weeks later, just as the children’s last scabs were falling off.
The very day her letter came I started feeling woozy. Twenty-four hours later I was a mess. Chickenpox as an adult is no fun. I had horrible sores all over my face, in my throat, on my scalp, behind my ears, in the creases of my elbows, under my arms, between my fingers, on the palms of my hands. I couldn’t eat, and my glands swelled up so much it looked like I had mumps. The boyfriend I was living with (secretly, in my tiny chambre de bonne on the ninth floor) taped newspapers over both our mirrors so I couldn’t wail about how freakish I looked, and walked all over Paris looking for Cream of Wheat, for which I developed an insatiable craving. (He never found it, alas, not even in the American grocery store.) Even after the worst had passed, I had hideous scabs for weeks. (The French, when I boarded the métro, avoided me as if I were a leper, which I suppose I was, in a way.)
“Well, at least you won’t get shingles when you’re old,” my boyfriend told me. His father was a doctor. “People who get la varicelle when they’re grown-ups seldom do.”
When I was thirty-five, my older son was seven and my younger son was a year and a half old. The baby was easy-going and cheerful and gorgeous, but he never, ever, ever slept. And then one day I woke up with a bad headache and swollen glands and a weird rash on my right ear.
“Shingles,” the doctor told me. “Ramsey-Hunt syndrome, actually. You might have some facial paralysis, or chronic pain, or hearing loss, or vertigo, or all of those.” I went home a little baffled, for surely I was not under undue stress? I didn’t feel stressed. (I took antivirals right away, and the rash faded and I was basically fine, barring a little bit of deafness in the affected ear, and a little bit of tinnitus that comes and goes.)
“The good news, though, is that you can’t get shingles twice,” the doctor said. “It almost never comes back again, after you’ve had it once.”
A month ago, I got a headache. A terrible headache, a spike of pain lodged behind my right eye, which seemed to be having trouble focusing. I spent a lot of time putting a hand over my left eye, then my right, then my left again, trying to figure out what was going on. Things were blurry in a strange way–a kind of fishbowl effect, actually–and the headache laughed in the face of painkillers. I was tired, and sad, and I slept a lot. Maybe crying is making my eyes feel weird, I thought. Maybe this is some somatic manifestation of grief.
And then I got a bump–a familiar feeling bump, accompanied by a familiar burning feeling–on the side of my nose.
Shingles. “It’s the fifth cranial nerve,” the GP told me, as he wrote the prescription for antivirals. “Luckily, that’s not the nerve that affects your eye.” I went home and googled “fifth cranial nerve.” (My ex-husband is, after all, a neuroscientist, and he teaches Human Brain Anatomy to med students every fall. We’d looked up all the cranial nerves on one of his cool brain imaging programs when I’d had shingles the first time. I was pretty sure the fifth cranial nerve did affect the eye, and both Google and the ophthalmologist I called that afternoon confirmed I was right.)
“You might have damage to your cornea or retina, facial paralysis, encephalitis, or a stroke,” my mother said, reading from the internet in a panicky voice. “Oh my god! This is serious! You have to get acupuncture! I’ll pay!”
The rash never quite took off. The headache retreated. The ophthalmologist dilated my eyes, looked inside, and proclaimed my cornea and retina in perfect shape. A month later my glands are still swollen, though, and I’m tired and grumpy and my right eye still feels a little wonky. “The good news is that you can get the shingles vaccination,” the ophthalmologist said. “You might have to pay for it out of pocket, though. Insurance won’t pay if you’re under 50, because most people under 50 don’t get shingles.”
I’m forty-five. “Get the vaccine! I’ll pay!” my father said.
I’ve got an appointment with an acupuncturist next week. I’ll get vaccinated, I guess, when I feel fully myself again. It’s all quite mysterious. Has anyone else had shingles?