When my father told me he’d had a nasty bout of shingles, that it was the most excruciating pain he’d ever experienced, I had no idea what he was talking about. The word brought to mind roofing tiles, or, as I sometimes see in deep woods on hot muggy mornings, bright orange clusters of Laetiporus sulphureus, better known as sulphur shelf mushrooms. Neither conjured the slightest association to pain, though I recall bashing my thumb once when helping a friend roof his house.
Maybe I should have paid more attention. About two months ago what felt like a particularly nasty boil below my left shoulder blade began tormenting me. My wife insisted that nothing was visible. Unlike most boils (besides its odd invisibility), this affliction seemed to be not merely beneath the thin sheath of skin but as deep as bones and tendons and nerves. Eventually, I thought, it would make itself known, so I went along with the discomfort for several weeks until during a 15-hour wedding shoot any questions I had about its source were answered with a vengeance.
The “boil” exploded into an excruciating rash that felt as if my skin were on fire. Random lances of white-hot pain shot through me from my core outward like intense solar flares. Nor was the analogy far off: my nerves were going supernova.
By the time I got home I was in agony with a hyper-sensitive area the size of a saucer spreading from beneath my left shoulder blade to my lower spine. The spine was the worst—when it flared the pain blasted through my central nervous system like a freight train. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was shingles, a viral infection related to chicken pox. Sleep was impossible. A quick check on the Internet confirmed my diagnosis and added to the unpleasantness—according to the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control, there is no cure, only a lessening of symptoms after medication and treatment. Even then, relief might take days or weeks, nor does the virus ever fully dissipate. Once you have shingles it’s part of you, like freckles or green eyes.
Nevertheless, I’m a tenacious fool who distrusts the medical establishment and, admittedly, the criminally-expensive medications that are often prescribed. Regardless of the breathtaking suffering, I resolved to ride it out.
Until, that is, the third day. If anything, the pain was even more severe.
Ibuprofen helped but too many and you lose your liver. The rash itched fiercely but was too sensitive and painful to touch. The overall effects were so vicious and debilitating that Torquemada would have been impressed. To call the virus “shingles” is a horrible understatement. Shingles are what you put on your roof to make it waterproof. Varicella-zoster virus makes you wish you were dead. More apt terms might be the Ragnarök Rash, named for the Norse end times, or the Inquisitional Infection. Then again, the Apocalypse Affliction has a nice ring to it.
I was in the doctor’s office early Monday morning. By afternoon I was on medication. There were some immediate improvements within 24 hours, and subsequent improvements in the following week. I was on the mend, the rash drying out and crusting over, the pain lessening. From talking to friends about their own episodes with shingles, I got off pretty lightly. One friend had it spread to her eyes and she nearly lost her vision. Another had it spread over most of his body. I was lucky. And then I wasn’t.
At first I thought my back went out, a common occurrence this time of year. Visits to the chiropractor straightened me out, but never for long. More research led me to believe that I was one of the unlucky seven percent who get nerve damage in the lower back. The damage can be short-term or long-term, depending on a host of variables. About the only treatment available is prescription painkillers, the highly addictive type that you read about in crime reports. I’d rather take my chances on pain.
I’m not sure how this will turn out. Some days are better, some worse. When it’s bad it’s debilitating; when it’s good I’m grateful. I don’t complain and I don’t feel sorry for myself. But I do tell friends who haven’t experienced shingles to get vaccinated. According to the CDC it’s only about 50 percent effective for people over the age of 60, but even then it should reduce the effects. Considering that those who have had chicken pox are susceptible—and that means most of us over the age of 50—the odds are not favorable. I compare the virus to computer hard drives: it’s not a matter of if they will crash, but when. Or, as Clint Eastwood was fond of asking perps in his Dirty Harry movies, “Are you feeling lucky, punk? Well, are you?”
Trust me, you’re not that lucky. Get the shot