Whenever I go to the doctor, no matter the reason, one of the first things they ask me is, “Have you been under any stress lately?” I have always had a great deal of difficulty answering that question. The fact is that I don’t know what stress feels like, or more accurately I don’t know what the absence of stress feels like. As a business owner, I have never worked for a guaranteed paycheck in my entire adult life. What I earn is always a direct reflection of how successful or unsuccessful I have been at doing my job, which means that I never know what it’s going to be until I get it. That’s the sort of “stress” that most people couldn’t tolerate, which explains why there are so many more employees than there are owners. But since it is the only life I have ever known, I simply accept it as the price I pay for being my own boss. So, how do you answer that stress question? I usually end up saying, “Why, sure. Isn’t everybody?”
A couple of mornings ago I woke up coughing, a dry, hacking cough which produced nothing. It began as a tickle in the middle of my chest, and it brought back a flood of truly horrible memories of a time eleven years ago when the exact same type of cough ended up being the canary in the coal mine for open heart surgery. I must admit that I panicked and before the day was out I had had an echocardiogram done to make sure there was nothing wrong with my heart. Thankfully, the ticker is in great shape, but the cough persists and yesterday was joined by body aches and a sore throat. Lovely.
But, with the aid of Ambien, healthy doses of Ibuprofen and Zyrtec, I wake up this morning with less body aches, much subdued but still frustrating coughing, and zero voice. That’s not actually true, since I do have a voice, it just sounds like that guy who sang bass for the Temptations.
My doctor suggested that all of this was brought on by “excessive stress.” But how does that work? I suppose with the addition of dealing with my Dad’s issues over the last weeks, my stress quotient has risen over normal levels, but why does that mean that I am suddenly more susceptible to body aches and coughing? My two sisters have been equally stressed out over Dad and they haven’t started coughing their insides out. Why me? I can think of plenty of times when I was under huge amounts of stress but never got sick…like the time me and my buddies got caught trying to fly “Tiny” Lipscomb’s pants and underwear up the flagpole during gym class at Liberty Junior High, or the time my 11th grade English teacher called my name to give my oral report on Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, and I realized that I had read The Birth Mark instead. Talk about high levels of stress!
But I was younger then and didn’t know any better. Perhaps there is a level of acceptable stress over which we aren’t allowed to cross without negative health consequences. If so, I have apparently reached it.