Dry skin. Eczema. Staph infection. After a week in Costa Rica, these were just a few of the diagnoses doctors provided as they tried to determine why the skin was beginning to fall off my elbow and chin. After a month of failed treatments and a skin sample sent to the CDC, they finally reached a verdict: cutaneous leishmaniasis. I was the lucky recipient of a parasite, once featured on the show Monsters Inside Me, that affects around a million people worldwide each year. By the time they had pinned down the diagnosis, it had spread to my leg, back, and throat. What followed was four weeks on an extremely expensive medication with debilitating side effects, known as miltefosine.
You might think that was the worst of it, but it wasn’t. The initial sore on my arm developed a secondary staph infection, which worked its way into my finger and went undetected for months. One day I went to the doctor because of swelling and pain, only to find the staph infection got down to the bone – an affliction that resulted in hospitalization, surgery, and 6 weeks of IV antibiotics administered daily through a PICC line.
Aside from the physical turmoil, the emotional burden of stress and uncertainty was nearly as substantial. These were a few of the Stoic principles I employed to get through it all with my sanity intact.
Just keeping an eye out for infected sand flies.
- Negative Visualization
Taken to its logical conclusion, particularly with a serious illness, the practice of negative visualization will inevitably lead you to a lethal outcome. While highly unlikely, there are other forms of leishmaniasis, visceral and mucosal (Google that second one at your own risk), that can absolutely kill you. The virtues of Stoicism enabled me deal with this positively in two ways.
First, I was able to begin each day being thankful to be alive, as many people every morning aren’t afforded that luxury.
Second, after ruminating on the possibility of death (as remote as it might have been), I reached the conclusion that I would still be grateful for the 33 years I got to experience the world with friends and family who loved me. In exercising this practice, I was able to face my illnesses each day with a sense of serenity, rather than the perpetual worry and fear of uncertainty that traditionally accompanies this type of circumstance.
My finger the day I got admitted to the hospital.
- Ta eph’ hêmin? Is it up to me?
To rid myself of the various infections I dealt with, a lot of tasks were incumbent on myself. Frequent visits to multiple specialists. Religious administration of IV antibiotics. Months of dressing changes, blood draws, and caution not to get my PICC line dislodged or infected. Even still, much was beyond my control. I did everything I could do treat the initial outbreak of leishmaniasis, and still got a secondary bone infection.
At first, I spent a lot of time and energy bemoaning my bad luck. After all, .0003% of Americans get leish each year, so poor me, right? It got to the point where my entire mood was driven by things completely out of my control. My inner citadel was built of straw; it had to be reinforced to withstand the emotional torrents of my external circumstances. Like hurling obscenities at a red light, this exercise proved to be a waste of time and energy.
Learning to let go of those things outside of my control, and focus on those within it, proved to be a skill that remained valuable long after the infection had passed.
4 months of this nonsense.
- Turning the Obstacle Upside Down
As Marcus Aurelius once stated: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Thus, once the worst of it was behind me, my focus shifted from “how will I endure this?” to “how can I use this?” Surely there is no upside to an illness that ruined my summer, crippled me for months, and cost me thousands. But when I reflected on it, perhaps there was:
- I gained a new perspective on life. Seniors always tell us “at least you have your health”, but those words tend to ring hollow until it isn’t true. However, once you have it back, what remains is the realization that all the petty bullshit you stressed over on a regular basis really isn’t that big of a deal, and life is actually better than you thought.
- I got to know what type of person my girlfriend was. Even with a nasty open sore on my face, she never hesitated to kiss me. In the hospital, she literally gave me a sponge bath before surgery. In those moments when anxiety rode high, and even stoicism couldn’t bring them back to earth, she could. She’s my fiancé now, by the way.
- I came out stronger on the other side, equipped with the belief that if I could survive this, I could survive anything.
Stoicism views hardship as a gift. An opportunity to test yourself and learn who you are in a way no other life lesson can teach. While it is hard to say I am grateful for all the circumstances I had to endure, I am grateful I had the tools not only to cope with it but to gain a lesson or two and come out the other side a better person.
Smiles: not the only thing that’s contagious!
Nearly a year since contracting leishmaniasis, life is pretty much back to normal. The PICC line is out of my left arm, and the bandages off my right. The sores left scars on my body, but luckily in places obscured by either clothing or facial hair. My love for travel hasn’t diminished, and I still set out to visit two or three new countries each year.
While little has changed externally, battling with this infection fundamentally changed how I perceive life’s challenges. Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” The adversity I faced presented me with the gift of these weapons; now, the general worry and apprehension of whatever the future holds is diminished, knowing I am equipped to overcome it.