January can be a tough month. With the holidays over and temperatures dipping to a deep freeze, the horizon can look as bleak as frozen tundra. This time of year is difficult for many people, not just those with chronic illness. The antidote I propose, humor, works universally.
Humor is known to reduce stress and anxiety. It’s said to help boost the immune system. In a 2005 Reader’s Digest article, Dr. Oz wrote, “When people use humor, the autonomic nervous system just tones down a bit to take it off high gear, and that allows the heart to relax.” Some hospitals now have “humor rooms”, and more and more “Laughing Clubs” are popping up around the nation.
That’s all well and good, I can hear you saying, but there’s nothing funny about chronic tick borne disease.
Fifteen-plus years with this insidious condition has taught me otherwise. Or rather, friends on the outside have taught me that it’s possible to look at my situation from a humorous perspective. At crucial low points in my journey, these friends put a twist on Lyme that turned my despair to laughter.
I’ve written before about the medical student I met in a bar who asked me quite seriously, “Are you sure you don’t have lemon disease?” When I heard the clause “Are you sure…”, I was prepared to battle with yet another doctor who, knowing nothing of my medical history, was about to question my diagnosis. What he actually said caught me so off-guard that I was, at first, stunned into silence. And then I burst out laughing.
As I often tell my writing students, humor opens people up, giving a writer the chance to then hit readers with something more serious. In this case, the joke about lemon disease let me know that this medical student appreciated the frustration of what I was expecting to hear, and recognized that taking a humorous approach to that expectation would open the possibility of a more serious discussion. I’d like to think the student and I both learned something that night: he about the patient’s perspective of tick borne disease, and I about humor’s power to disarm.
Another example happened many years earlier, when I had to step away from friends who were visiting, to take a nap. I hated missing any time with them, and felt silly and childish for needing to lie down. Ever the comic, my friend Pete diffused the situation by asking, “Do deer take naps, too?” Suddenly we were all laughing uproarously at the thought of tick-hosting animals settling down on the side of the road, tucking their front legs under their bodies like pillows. I traipsed off for my own nap with a smile on my face, which certainly helped me to rest easier.
My favorite example is from the eve of emergency gallbladder surgery in 2005. My intravenous antibiotics had unknowingly created gallstones as big as rolls of duct tape, causing excruciating pain and the dangerous possibility that my bile duct could burst. I was terrified. My dear college friend Elise listened to me cry on the phone, and tried everything to calm me down. Despite her best efforts, I was not soothed. Finally, Elise hung up and called her husband Mark, apparently telling him, “We need humor here.”
An hour later the following email appeared in my inbox:
The Top Ten Reasons Having Lyme Disease is Cool
By Mark Wilson
10. Arthritis, depression, organ failure, and insomnia—All For One Low Price!
9. You share something uniquely in common with Darryl Hall and John Oates (and now, updated version, Avril Lavigne)
8. Free research for your book about Lyme disease
7. “Finally! An excuse to quit work and live in my parents’ basement!”
6. Getting out of doing the dishes, because you can’t get your PICC line wet
5. Having people say, “Lyme disease—that’s the thing you get when you drink too many margaritas, right?”
4. Getting to hear people tell you, “Ohhh no, you don’t have a horribly debilitating disease! You’re just feeling a little sad right now.”
3. “Oh my God, sleep is sooooo overrated!”
2. It’s the official disease of the British Navy! (Limeys)
And the Number One Reason Why Having Lyme Disease is Cool:
1. If Jen Crystal has it, it must be cool!
That list was written over a decade ago, and it still makes me smile. Not only did it calm me down, it told me that my friends really got what I was going through. They understood my pain, frustration, and isolation enough to be able to make light of the situation. I felt reassured on so many levels, and went into surgery with a newfound calm.
While these examples helped me to poke fun at Lyme itself, humor of any sort can really be great medicine. When I was living back at my parents’ house and too sick to do anything on New Year’s Eve, my college friends started visiting me on New Year’s Day. They’d caravan to Connecticut from whereever they’d partied the night before, bringing hugs, smiles, and funny stories. They regaled me with tales that left me clutching my sides. I remember after they left the first time, my mother remarked, “I can’t remember the last time I heard you laugh like that.” The joy from those visits was perhaps the greatest tonic I got all year.
I recommend bottlefuls of this same “medicine” for everyone, especially during the dark days of January. Go ahead—laugh in the face of winter. All the cool kids are doing it!