One Shingular Sensation

by Alison Friedman in Mommy's Musings, The Sick

At first, I thought it was a feast of bug bites. Just above the ribcage/under boobage, I had an itchy spot. It didn’t look like anything more than skin irritation, and last Friday, during our parent-teacher conference, it took everything in me not to rip off my shirt and scratch away at the itchy, tingly area. I might have even zoned out around the part about Madelyn… something blending words… something under a minute… something sight words. I don’t know. At the end, when she asked if we had any questions, I didn’t really ask any because I just needed to get out of there and satisfy the itch. That’s how you know it’s bad — I didn’t ask questions. The teacher could have told us that Madelyn was ready to skip grades and go to high school next year, and I wouldn’t have known because all I could think about was “Don’t scratch your boob in front of the teacher. Don’t scratch your boob in front of the teacher. Don’t scratch your boob in front of the teacher.”

At dinner that night, I had a few more itchy spots and felt like a dog in the summer. Therefore, I was suddenly convinced I had fleas. Or bed bugs! We had just gotten back from New York after all. But then it dawned on me that Bryan and Princeton, the two men I sleep with nightly, were not itching.

Later that night, Bryan and I binged some TV and I couldn’t get comfy on the couch. My back was painful. It felt sore, like I needed a massage in only one area. By the time I got into bed, I was super annoyed by both the itching and the back pain that I barely slept a wink.

I went a whole other day and by Sunday, I noticed that the itchy areas were more pronounced spots that definitely looked like bug bites or hives. The welts were even bigger as the morning went on. I had scheduled a massage to take care of that sore spot on my back, but quickly canceled it so I could go to urgent care instead. I just didn’t feel right.

Despite feeling worse and worse, I had put off going to urgent care because I knew what the doc would say: “Here’s a prescription for hydrocortisone cream. Put it on. Voila!” and two copays later, I’d apply cream I already had in the cabinet that I’d forgotten about from the last two skin-related urgent care visits.

Also, P.S., why do these things always happen on the weekends?

So imagine my shock when the doctor announced I had shingles! She explained it to me, which I will now do here, because prior to this appointment, I thought shingles was a dirty old disease for geriatric folks. Now I am properly educated. So, shingles is in the same family as chicken pox. Anyone who’s had chicken pox, has shingles! After chicken pox, the virus settles in on a nerve and then goes to sleep. It lies dormant for a period of time… or even maybe forever (if you’re lucky!). But when immunocompromised or if there’s lots of stress, the virus unlocks itself from the nerve, goes crazy, and disturbs that entire line or panel on which that nerve lives.

I am glad to say that shingles is not contagious unless I rub my rash on a person who has either not had chicken pox ever or has not had the chicken pox vaccine (and that’s just ridiculous because who goes rubbing their rashes on infants?). And it would not transmit shingles; it would transmit chicken pox! It is not airborne like the cold or flu so you can’t get it by being in the same room as me. If you have shingles, you cannot give shingles to anyone. It’s more like a delayed party favor virus you give yourself. In my case… about 30 years after having chicken pox!

Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about shingles. I can take ibuprofen/acetaminophen for pain. And because I went to the doctor within 72 hours after spots appeared, I was eligible to take an antiviral, which is also prescribed for genital herpes. If you heard a lady at the Walgreen’s window speaking loudly to the pharmacist, “Thank you so much for my AHEM SHINGLES medication!” that was me.

The most awful part about shingles is that it’s a slow burn with no sign it’s going in the right direction. On Sunday, I was itchy and had some back pain, but it wasn’t anything horrific. Five days later, I can now barely stand up straight because it feels like both the Astros and the Dodgers are taking batting practice on my back. My few spots that looked like bug bites are now angry and bright red, multiplying in a band across my ribcage and side. I’m basically a walking lava lamp. It is absolute agony and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

The saddest part is that Bryan is out of town in San Francisco this week for work. He planned his trip so I could meet him on Friday and spend the weekend with our friends for his college roommate’s wedding. I also had big plans to see a couple other girlfriends who live in the city during the free non-wedding time. As each day went on with shingles, I kept trying to convince myself that I’d still go; we’d just take it easy and I’d travel lightly and I wouldn’t even dance that much. But late on Thursday, after keeling over in pain and also realizing there was no dress or bra or pair of shoes in my closet that I could force onto my body for the wedding, I waved my white flag, super reluctantly, and canceled my plane ticket. It was not an easy decision. If the shingles had stayed the same as they were the first day or two, I still think I could have made it. But even now, they are getting worse before they get better, and I’m pretty worthless. I moved in with my parents for the week because I can barely drive or get the girls dressed or lift Arielle. I’m just so sad to miss the weekend and celebrating our friend who was part of our wedding day. It’s really not fair and I don’t care how childish I appear as I cross my arms and scowl.

Fortunately, Bryan is staying in San Francisco and will go stag to the wedding to be with the gang and celebrate his buddy, and no matter how many pictures or videos he sends me, my FOMO game is strong and I am devastated to be away from all the fun.

Instead, my weekend looks like lots of cuddling up with painkillers as I try to get comfortable. I’ve heard many different ways this could finish up — 10 day or 30 days; open, oozy sores or dried up rash; tingly twinges of back pain to long term nerve damage. It runs the gamut, and I truly hate not knowing what the next course is on the shingles menu. If my antivirals are helping, well I’d hate to know how this would feel if I didn’t have meds.

I honestly didn’t know that anyone my age could have shingles. I feel so advanced and mature, like the next thing I get to enjoy is cataract surgery or a hip replacement. I’m just so glad that my kids will never know first hand about this horrible virus. Since they both had the chicken pox vaccine, they will never have chicken pox and shingles. Thank you, science, for coming through for our kids. If only I was young like them instead of a little old lady and with shingles. Maybe I’ll start playing BINGO. Or eating a steak dinner from Denny’s at 4 p.m. Just call me Gertrude.