My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Playing host to herpes zoster

It started the weekend before last. I woke up with my right eye slightly swollen and a little irritated. I groaned and worried I was developing conjunctivitis. Every since the half-term, I had been battling an epic cold that just wouldn’t go away, and a few times before, the toll such a cold takes on my hygiene has resulted in a bout of conjunctivitis at the tail end of the illness. I sighed and booked my first appointment with a doctor since I moved here and registered with a surgery, wondering if I would need to take work off on Monday in order to keep it.

Monday came round, and it brought more bad news. When I woke up, the swelling around my eye had turned into a tiny, bumpy white rash. I knew there was no way I could go in to work, so I called in sick, sent in some cover work, and composed myself for my appointment. The doctor saw me promptly, took a look at my eye, and told me I had shingles. Good thing I went to the doctor so quickly after developing the symptoms! He was able to put me on antivirals.

Well, I wasn’t expecting that. I knew what shingles was and of its relationship to chickenpox. I didn’t expect to get it, at least not at this stage in my life. As the doctor observed, it’s not common for someone as young as me to develop it. He wrote me a prescription, and then, he said, “Excuse me, I want to show this to a colleague of mine!”

He returned a moment later with another doctor, who took one look at my eye and said, “Oh, is that ophthalmological shingles?”

“Yes. Fascinating, isn’t it?” my doctor replied, with all the detachment of a medical professional.

I wish I could say I found my situation so fascinating. To be sure, it has given me fresh perspective on the nature of work, life, and suffering (more on that in a moment). But it has also sharpened the issues and internal conflicts I am confronting as a first-year teacher.

Since I would be infective to those who haven’t had chickenpox, the doctor instructed me to take two weeks off work (last week and this work) and furnished me with my first-ever official doctor’s note. I informed my school, accepted the condolences and commiserations from my colleagues, and didn’t go into work the next day. Or the day after. And so on. Having these two weeks to stay home, away from the intensity, stress, and excitement of the classroom while it is still ongoing for others, has given me a new sense of perspective.

I was very lucky with this bout of shingles. In my reading about it, I hear that many people experience terrible, shooting pains in the nerves around the site of the rash. I haven’t had any pain aside from some minor itchiness. Similarly, although my eye didn’t look fantastic for about a week, at least I didn’t have the rash all down my back or on one of my limbs. And I was surprised by how reassured and calm I felt after the doctor diagnosed me. Being certain about what was wrong with me helped me resign myself to the fact that I would have to be off work for two entire weeks. And it definitely could have been worse.

With my lack of pain, and my cold finally departing, I haven’t even spent any time lying in bed. I’ve been reading, watching television and movies, playing Assassin’s Creed III, and programming. Indeed, at the beginning of my absence, I was telling everyone that I didn’t actually feel all that sick. Now, a little more than a week later, I realize I was wrong on that count, because I feel even better now, so the shingles must have been having some effect on me. But the relative mildness of my illness has created its own complications emotionally, because in addition to all those fun activities I listed above, I have also spent time worrying about my classes, my students, my work.

When I learned I would be off work for two weeks, I had mixed feelings. On a base and pecuniary level, I don’t get paid for sick time, so this is a very expensive vacation—it cost me less to fly home and back at Christmas! The timing also sucks—we were at a critical juncture for my Year 11 English class, and I don’t like just up-and-leaving any of my either classes either, especially when we will be going on a term break in two and a half weeks. Finally, there was the fact that I didn’t and don’t actually feel all that sick, which has created a certain amount of guilt, a voice in my head saying, “You’re not really sick. You’re just slacking off. You’re hiding.”

Because, on the other hand, having two weeks off has been nice. It has relaxed me. Yes, I worried about my students and felt bad about the extra work this has created for my colleagues. But I can’t deny how nice it has been to stay home, pursue some of my interests and projects, and not worry as much about work. I’ve made incredible progress on a replacement for this blog, as well as a more general update to my website’s design. I finished Assassin’s Creed III. I’ve caught up on some of the television shows that I hadn’t made time to watch lately. During that one week of work between returning from half-term and my diagnosis, I was constantly looking forward to the two-week break at Easter. Suddenly those two weeks had come all the sooner … and it was nice.

I have tried to rationalize this relaxation as a necessary component of my convalescence. Relaxing and removing stress is good for recovering from any illness, but stress is one of the things that can trigger shingles. (As I understand it, the dormant virus is able to assert itself if the immune system is too rundown to suppress it, which can happen when one is stressed.) Both my doctor and the ophthalmologist whom I saw later in the week asked me if I had been feeling rundown or stressed lately, and I had. The combination of my cold and an intense week at school made me extremely relieved when that first weekend after half-term rolled around—laughably, I had this idea that I would unwind and plan all weekend and be all recovered and ready to take on the rest of the half-term! So obviously I have been stressed, and that was a contributor to my current condition. Hence, I shouldn’t feel bad for relaxing and doing all I can to remove that stress, right? It’s helping me get better faster, right?

Except I still feel bad. I can’t help it. I understand, rationally, that no one is faulting me. I have a legitimate medical reason for my absence. When I return to school on Monday, I am confident that I will be ready to kill it for the next week and a half. None of these reasons assuage my guilt, though.

This is typical of the emotional conflicts I have been experiencing during this first year of my teaching. My job is not like an ordinary 9-to-5. If I’m sick, it’s not a matter of missing some deadlines—it means the students who have been my responsibility for six months are in the hands of someone else now, on short notice. Now, I’m not egotistical enough to think that no one else can help my students (I’m sure many teachers would be much better at it than I am). Nor am I so worried about the duration of my absence—two weeks is a significant part of this half-term, but in the scheme of things, it is not all that long. But as a teacher, unlike many other jobs, I think it is harder to switch off when one is sick—at least as early in my career as I am now. Maybe when I’m older, more experienced (and more cynical?) I’ll be better at decoupling that part of me and not worrying as much when I’m off sick. Or maybe not.

I’m ready to go back to work next week, and I’m going to try to put this all—sickness, stress, worry, guilt, everything—behind me. The focus will be as it always is: teaching well and striving to have a good work–life balance. Some days, that’s easier than others. But I’ll keep going. It’s worth it.

At the very least, I’ve learned how to spell ophthalmological. I count that as a win.