It 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.