I spent two days last week in hell. I don’t know if Hieronymus Bosch’s complex and lurid depictions of hell include a person with their head in a bucket while being variously tormented by a fish-headed demon, but for me, hell is nausea.
I’d never had labyrinthitis before. The sudden onset of extreme dizziness frightened me into calling the doctor. I could hardly make it to the bathroom. I careened into walls and hung my head over the kitchen sink. At first, returning to bed brought some relief, and then it didn’t.
The kind doctor arranged for the pharmacist to drop off some Stemetil on his way home. I considered, from the depths of my suffering, ordering some fizzy drinks via Deliveroo, but that would require looking at a screen and thinking in a linear fashion. I made do with water and the three minibar cans of tonic water in my fridge.
There is nothing to be done for a person afflicted with nausea. You are immured in your own private hell. Fitful dozing brings some relief. Death would not be unwelcome. Interaction of any kind is a superfluous imposition.
Lying on my back seemed to help, for a while. I watched the clouds form different patterns out my bedroom window, which overlooks the communal drying green. I noted that the peace lily on my dresser was beginning to droop and needed water.
Turning my head in the other direction, I was acutely aware of the finger marks on the mirror door of my IKEA wardrobe and a single finger mark, foundation-coloured, on the matte white opposing door.
Being set apart from the world by illness, I had no care for the news, but when my nausea abated slightly, I became briefly fascinated by tabloid accounts, on my iPad, of the imploding marriage of an actor I had once fancied. The golden couple moved from London to LA but his film career had never quite taken off and he’d found his place in TV dramas. The latest required long periods of filming in Australia, where he had taken up with a younger woman. Her Instagram page, according to the internet tabloids, features ‘scorching’ bikini shots and ‘profound’ quotes from The Secret. The actor’s wife, who had ‘sacrificed’ her own career for his, is publicly melting down on Twitter and YouTube. She can’t win him back so she is trying to trash his reputation. As if leaving an older, and obviously unbalanced and vindictive, wife for a younger woman has ever damaged any man’s career. The actor looks better in his late 40s than he did in his late 20s. The wife, now in her early 50s, has put on weight. Her formerly sleek face is now an aggrieved pink moon.
When nausea set in hard, I had to abandon my iPad and all forms of visual distraction. Around and below me, my neighbours continued their lives, oblivious to my stricken presence. I considered asking my neighbour, a young man, to buy me some Coke, but that would require (1) standing up, (2) making myself minimally presentable, (3) opening my door, and (4) attempting coherent interaction. The bar was simply too high.
My bedroom wall backs onto the communal stairs. I heard distant voices, along with banging and slamming. The street door sticks in the cold weather. When I hear slamming, I often worry that someone is trying to force the lock on the street door or kick it in. This has happened on several occasions. In my floating, semi-conscious state, unmoored from the possibility of action, behind a locked door on the top floor, I was released from care.
On Friday, the haze parted. I ate toast and had my first cup of tea in three days. Later, growing bold, I had a shower, then went back to bed, where I drifted in and out of a tranquil liminal state. It was like a beach holiday in my bedroom.
On Saturday morning, feeling almost normal, I excused myself from the usual obligation to launch the day. Instead, I sat up in bed and read the Guardian on my iPad with a cup of tea. I got up to eat a piece of toast and then returned—the decadence!—to bed.
Recovery from illness is a kind of rebirth. Having been removed from the world for several days, my mind felt rinsed clean. Creative thoughts crept in sideways, in the space liberated from the treadmill of work and the usual worries and obligations. I began to wonder if a few days’ bed rest now and then might not be a valuable restorative. Those famously neurasthenic Victorian ladies knew what they were about. I should take to my bed more often.
When I eventually got up, properly, on Saturday afternoon, I watered my peace lily. I washed my lank, dead-woman hair, loaded my sick bowl into the dishwasher, changed the sweated-in sheets and took a microfibre cloth to my wardrobe doors.