After the cold

spectacled owl on eggsIt was a strange virus, not only in its intensity, but in its effects, as well. One writer at the New York Observer referred to it as the emo flu, because of the unaccountable feelings that lingered for a week or more after all other symptoms went away.

It was the strangest [flu] I’ve ever gotten, and I’m not alone in thinking it was weird. Indeed, I feel compelled to alert the world, or at least this city, about the extraordinarily subtle and insidious sequelae of this contagion going around.

When I call it the “emo flu,” it’s not a metaphor. I don’t know if it’s medically an influenza virus, but whatever the nature of this melancholy microbe, it’s worth a warning.

It begins with familiar-seeming mild flu-like symptoms (mild in my case, more severe in others), but then tails off into a long, etiolated fugue state in which something more than flu-like lethargy, lassitude and inanition paralyzes you. It’s not just a neutral world weariness, it’s Weltschmerz–world-historical sadness: Some mournful, emotional, deeply despairing, unremittingly sad and despondent sense of life seizes you and won’t let go for at least a week afterward.

That’s not been my experience at all. For me, the only noticeable depression was right at the beginning, which is hardly unusual — in fact, I can often tell when I’m about to get sick by such departures from my otherwise generally cheerful mood (though granted, given my general worldview, mine is the kind of cheer associated with whistling past graveyards). I was impressed by the tenacity of the virus, its ability to plug or irritate sinuses, ears and throat at the same time. What I have now, though, a week and a half after I blew my nose for the last time, is far from depression. It’s more like a heightened state of well being, accompanying a profound reconfiguration of my habits and interests.

It began innocuously enough. With everything blocked up, sleeping was difficult, so I began to keep odd hours, sleeping from midnight to three, reading until seven, then going back to sleep until ten or eleven. Whereas before I had been an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy, within a few days after contracting the virus, I had become a total night owl.

Nothing out of the ordinary in that, surely. But I also began to notice that strong light was painful to me. I had always turned on an incandescent lamp on my writing table after it got dark, in order to avoid eyestrain from the computer monitor, but now I found I preferred to read in the dark. Fortunately, a lot of my favorite blogs use templates — skins, as the cool kids call them — with black or dark gray backgrounds, and I found these much easier on my eyes. I created a new category within my Bloglines subscriptions just for dark-skinned blogs. I also reset the background color of my word processing program to midnight blue with white text; it looked just like the WordPerfect default screen from twenty years ago.

My house has always had a certain cave-like ambience, which I’ve enhanced by planting trees in front of several of the windows. Now I found myself installing shades and curtains in addition — a needless luxury if you live as far out in the woods as I do, at the dead end of a mile-and-a-half-long, gated driveway. The problem is, ever since coming down with the “emo flu,” I’ve developed an extreme sensitivity to sunlight. If I spend more than fifteen minutes in it, I actually begin to feel nauseous and have to scurry back inside if I want to avoid throwing up.

I’ve never been a fan of sunglasses; I don’t even really own a pair, and for a couple days I managed to get by with squinting and pulling my hat down as low as I could on the rare occasions when I had to leave the house during the day. Then I remembered that there was a pair of sunglasses in the corner of a small, shrine-like arrangement of odds and ends that I keep in a disemboweled cabinet television set in my living room. A guest left them behind ten years ago, a couple weeks before his death from a heroin overdose. I remember how skeletal he had looked on that cold, January day, and how he had retreated to an upstairs room to sleep until the sun went down, while another friend and I huddled around the wood stove.

I retrieved Ben’s sunglasses from the television shrine and began wearing them, but I find it only affords a limited amount of relief. The best thing is simply to stay indoors with the shades drawn until after dark, if at all possible. It helps that we’re now over a month past the autumn solstice, and the hours of daylight are outnumbered by the hours of darkness.

The good news, though, is that aside from this realignment in my sleep cycle, I feel better than ever. As evening comes on, I find myself filling with the same kind of creative energy that I used to feel first thing in the morning. Often, I get too excited to sit still and work, and I go off on long jogs through the woods. Fortunately, there are over ten miles of trails on the property, and the hunters and I keep them mostly clear of fallen logs and branches, though my night vision is so good, it hardly matters. Vitamin A, you know.

I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like returning to normal — it makes one appreciate all the things we otherwise take for granted. For the first few days after getting over a cold, one takes special delight simply in being able to smell and taste and hear things clearly again. This time — due, I’m sure, to the unusual severity of the cold — that illusion of heightened perception has persisted for close to two weeks. My newly nocturnal habits doubtless play a role: without bright lights and colors to distract me, after the noise from the valley has subsided, it’s amazing, some of the things I’ve been able to detect. Last night, for example, I heard a porcupine waddling through the leaves from a hundred yards away. I had a sudden vision of rushing up to it with a stick, flipping it over, and killing it with a fast bite to the jugular, though I have no idea why I’d want to do that. Three nights ago, the heavy footfalls of a gravid female black bear were not quite the first thing to alert me to her presence. I had caught a whiff of something sharp and dangerous and stopped dead in my tracks. I felt a degree of fear and a desire to flee that I’ve never felt around black bears before. When she whuffled in my direction, I nearly shat myself.

It’s funny how the virus seemed to contain the seeds of its own destruction. I feel so much healthier and more alive now, I’ll be surprised if I contract another cold for a very long time. Before, I was in serious danger of becoming a mouse potato, but now, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than go outside, with no other goal than to slake my thirst for contact! Contact! as Thoreau put it.

I mean that quite literally. For example, despite the lowering temperatures, I often find myself leaving shoes and socks behind. My feet are toughening by the day — or rather, by the night. I’m seriously considering dispensing with other articles of clothing, too. I mean, why not? When you run, you hardly feel the cold. It’s not like there are neighbors to complain, and besides, it’s dark out. I’ve never been interested in nudism before, in part because I am hairy in parts of my body where most folks seem to find hairiness a positive affront. But now I’m beginning to think of a thick pelt as a good thing, particularly with winter coming on. It may be just my imagination, but it even seems as if it’s been getting a little thicker in recent weeks. There’s been a lot less hair in the bathtub drain, though, so probably what’s happening is that I’m just not shedding as quickly as I had been before.

It’s hard to say. Another luxury of living alone is that I don’t have to spend much time in front of the bathroom mirror. Even when I brush my teeth, I barely give my reflection a passing glance, though I probably should. Lately my teeth have begun feeling different, somehow, and they seem to require a lot more brushing to get rid of the stench from an ordinary meal. I may even take up flossing. It seems like such a civilized thing to do.

self-portrait as lunatic

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

25 Comments


  1. Happy Halloween, all!

    I highly recommend the New York Observer article linked to at the top of Dave’s post. Much of it is an introduction to the excellent and morally complex noir novels of Philip Kerr.

    Dave, reading your Halloween post was an interesting experience, as I progressively attempted to fit the narrative into some version of reality. I always did think that things are different near the East Coast….

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  2. MB – Thanks!

    twitches – I’ll have to take your word for that. (I have read some of Atwood’s poetry, though, and found it excellent.)

    Bill – I can’t take credit for “mouse potato,” I’m afraid.

    I hadn’t seen the article you link to; thanks. Not only is it up my alley, the information on brewsters and their demonization jibes with what I’ve read. I never thought of the connection with Halloween witches before, but I think he’s on to something.

    Larry – I think I got that link from 3quarksdaily. I’m glad to hear you found the review worthwhile.

    I progressively attempted to fit the narrative into some version of reality

    Heh. That’s one of the things I like about self-publishing: I don’t have to put things into little boxes marked “fiction” and “nonfiction.”

    The East Coast is dull as dishwater and twice as polluted. It’s here in the mountains that things are different!

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  3. I like the idea of night runs in bare, toughened feet, and I like your description of the return to wellness. I leave here feeling my own senses and appetite for life sharpened.

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  4. What a great Halloween story! You had me there, nodding as you describe a flu so like what I had, then building up to a transformation to werewolf!! Hehee.

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  5. Hot damn. I was worried about you there for a while.

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  6. patry – I’m glad to hear it! I wanted this to stand as a valid piece of nature writing, too.

    marja-leena – Thanks. I guess I’ve played with Native American transformation-into-animal myths enough; it was time to go back to the Old World.

    rr – And you’re not worried now?

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  7. Well I thought about mentioning that I was still worried. Then I decided against it. Didn’t want to worry you. But now that you’ve brought it up…

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  8. The imagery is, as always, wonderful. This “emo flu” business is odd and a little alarming… I’ve certainly heard of, and experienced, illnesses affecting emotional state, but a semi-consistent version suggests a possible new development. As if we didn’t have enough crises on the table!

    Of course, any effect to the brain/nervous system would be modulated by what’s already there… from your comments above and the general tenor of your blog, you may be a “well-compensated depressive”, which would certainly represent “something different” for the virus to affect. I’ve several times had a remission from my own depression, while affected by severe illness. (Thinking about it, most of those illnesses were presumptively viral.)

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  9. rr – No, quite the opposite. If you said you weren’t worried, I’d find that worrisome. So thanks for reassuring me.

    bev – Thanks so much!

    David – “Well-compensated depressive,” eh? Sounds like something I should look into. But I’d probably just get depressed. (What, me worry?)

    A new theory is gaining ground that proposes a viral origin for schizophrenia, and possibly other mental illnesses. Housecats might be an alternate host. I swear I’m not making this up. Brain-damaging viruses among other species are well documented, so why should humans be immune?

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  10. This one is just classic! The knife edge brink between reality and fantasy is a thin one, though. The heightened sensitivity to light is a characteristic of Lupus. The disease is real. The name derivitive. There is also photosensitivity as a side effect from some antibiotics…so you really had me there..for a moment. (grin)

    Interestingly enough, just finished reading Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, watched the movie version for Halloween, and hubby is reading Oryx and Crake. oooooeeeeeoooooo!! muuuhahaha!

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  11. I had forgotten all about Halloween when I started to read this. I was feeling so bad for you, and your post-flu hairiness and night-time, bare-footed walks. Poor Dave, what a mess. Then of course, it all made sense, in that werewolf Halloween way. Whew. A great read.

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  12. Joan – Lupus, right. I do know one lady with the disease, but she’s managed to battle it into remission through lots of exercise of a better diet. She walks five miles or more a day now, so I can’t think the sun bothers her any more. I hadn’t thought about the derivation of the name “Lupus” — fascinating!

    One drug that induces photosensitivity is the active ingredient in St. John’s wort (speaking of depression), a good reason not to take it, in my view.

    robin andrea – You too, eh? You’re the last person I would’ve thought might fall for that yarn! Glad you liked it, though.

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  13. You had me, right up to the swift dispatching of the porcupine! great post, and the most entertaining read I’ve had today. Thanks, Dave.

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  14. right up to the swift dispatching of the porcupine

    Good catch! Were I to kill my totem animal for real, it would bring seven years of bad luck.

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  15. Most of the SSRIs such as Prozac and Zoloft (and related drugs, such as the Effexor I take) can produce photosensitivity. On a sunny day without sunglasses, I’m pretty much blinded, and have tears streaming down my face! While I haven’t researched St. John’s Wort deeply, what I’ve heard about its effects and side-effects sounds like it’s a weak member of the same group. The thing about antidepressants in general is, even the newer sorts have enough obnoxious side effects that you really don’t want to mess with them unless you *need* them.

    And of course if you tried to *bite* a porcupine, you’d have more immediate problems than “bad luck”! ;-) (Interesting that your fantasy mixed human and lupine attacks!) Porcs are cool critters — I’ve never had the chance to “hang out” with one, but I’m told they can be socialized well enough to live in a house with humans. (Of course, “socialized” isn’t “domesticated”, so I assume there would be a few hitches….)

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  16. Well, I always have at least one, sometimes two porcupines living under my house, and consorting with the oil furnace and heating pipes in unholy union. (That’s along with a shifting assortment of woodchucks, rabbits, raccoons and skunks. No bears yet.) I like porkies because they are cute but unpettable, solitary, slow-moving, and as fond of trees as I am.

    Thanks for the info on antidepressants. I hope I won’t have a direct use for it any time soon. I’m sorry to hear about your photosensitivity, but on the positive side, I guess you won’t have to worry about skin cancer.

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  17. Coming to this late, as I am, and from your subsequent post, I was already pretty suspicious early on. But yes, the sudden urge to eviscerate the porcupine made it. This was very fun to read.

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  18. Thanks, leslee. Something tells me, though, that you’d be pretty hard to fool in any case.

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  19. Dave,

    I was so disappointed to find out this was a tall tale. I thought you were finally coming into your own.

    Chris

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