Saturday, October 27, 2007

What Za's Food Poisoning Taught Me

My husband never gets sick. He goes years without seeing a doctor, taking a day to rest from a cold, or even take an aspirin. When he returned from his annual exam with a new physician, he delighted in rubbing it in that his doctor was hard pressed to find anything wrong with him. (I am the opposite; I get sick a lot.) When Za does get sick, boy, does he just hit it out of the park.

I awoke at 1:30 am last night to find Za collapsed (yet conscious) on the bathroom floor throwing up every few minutes. It appeared to me that he was suffering from food poisoning. I asked him if he needed to get to the hospital and, to my surprise, he asked, very calmly, if I would call an ambulance since he could not walk. He was very dehydrated and shivering. He had come downstairs to find more blankets and could not move beyond the bucket (which I leave in the bathroom to soak Maddie's clothes), which he clung to for fear another wave of nausea would hit. I had never seen Za this utterly helpless.

I had never called an ambulance before so he had to walk me through it. [I have to say that I was blown away by how utterly calm he was while suffering from this much pain.] The medics got him onto a stretcher and put him in the back of the ambulance. I got Maddie bundled, in her car seat, grabbed some clothes, Za's wallet and followed them to the hospital. While they got him onto a bed, I registered him.

When I walked back to the ER and saw Za lying on a gurney, with warmed blankets barely covering his naked body and groaning in pain. Maddie was just staring at him with perplex. Za intuitively knew that she was upset and whispered to me, with whatever strength he had, to pick up the baby and hold her because she knows something is wrong. Za asked for more blankets since he was shivering and some water. The nurse complied with the first request, but told him he could not have any water since he was nauseous. He did give me a swab and I kept moistening his lips, tongue and cheeks. Eventually they got an IV in him and gave him some anti-nausea medicine.

While they were putting the IV in him, he grabbed my hand and said, "I really don't like being in this hospital." He was as vulnerable as I have ever seen him. He couldn't speak enough to get what he needed. He couldn't keep himself warm. And, he couldn't relax for fear another wave of nausea would hit him.

Seeing Za this way, it finally hit me why most men do whatever they can to avoid seeking any medical help. Being that physically vulnerable is at complete odds with what masculinity demands from men. So, it takes being that ill for Za to finally break down and get himself to the hospital. (I realize now that he probably gets sick more than he admits, but works through it rather than submit himself to medical care.)

It was not 4 months ago that I lay in the same hospital, recovering from my C-section. I too was as vulnerable and pained as he was last night, but for me being in a hospital, surrounded by nurses and family was comforting. Being that vulnerable actually gave me a break from my life, where I have to take care of others and rarely get to be the one who needs tending.

Seeking medical help simply does not threaten my identity in any way. We hear daily the statistics that report how men have higher suicide rates or higher heart attack rates. Both of these, the experts say, follow from men's failure to seek medical attention way before a problem presents itself so that it does not develop into something life threatening. I have heard this stuff and studied this stuff for years. But it took me seeing Za that helpless to really get it emotionally.

Part of the reason I think I got it--if I am honest with myself--is because it was scary for me to see him that vulnerable. I felt uncomfortable by the prospect that he couldn't stand up, walk to the car, or help himself in any way. I too have internalized what men are supposed to be like and when they deviate from this, I get a bit frightened.

I was listening today to a podcast of Fresh Air, where Terry Gross discussed Shalom Auslander's Foreskin Lament: A Memoir, wherein he recounts his attempt to will away the frightening God that he grew up with in his Orthodox home. What hit me, listening to him explain the difference between being religious and being observant, was how similar the effects of a powerful religious upbringing are to gender roles. No matter how much Auslander has renounced theology and the practices of his orthodox upbringing, emotionally he cannot cast out this God from his childhood. He claims to be crippled by his belief in God. Auslander shared with Terry a eerie Jesuit saying: "give me the boy for 7 years and you will see the man." The intensity with which we train children in religion, or gender roles, is such that no matter how much intellectual work we do--for the rest of our lives--we are crippled by these beliefs that have been emotionally, not intellectually, implanted in us.

So, we face a crisis that men generally do not seek help from medical professionals in this country. We throw all sorts of information at men in public service announcements. But, at the end of the day, getting men to put themselves in a position of helplessness is not something to be achieved by intellectual means.

P.S. Za is fine and resting.