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When “Sick” Isn’t Straightforward

By Mir Kamin

A few days ago I stumbled across this piece by Eilene Zimmerman about how she nursed her college freshman daughter through a bad illness. Although I know better than to read the comments, I clicked to read them with some trepidation—after a lovely story about a mother and daughter finding their footing again after a fraught separation post-high-school, surely someone would be there to ruin it and accuse her of babying her grown child. But on the whole, the author was congratulated for following her gut and being loving.

I understand that the early years of kids-who-are-technically-no-longer-kids-but-hey-they’re-still-teens bring a kind of push-pull dynamic to even the most normal and stable of relationships. And although Zimmerman’s tale was lovely—and I hope I would behave with as much grace as she did in a similar situation, and that my child would be as grateful for it—when I finished reading I was mostly filled with a sense of dread. As I sat in a doctor’s office with my son this morning, my first thought after “Here we go again,” was “ugh, that article.”

I’ll try to explain: There was a time when we didn’t know if one or both kids would be capable of living away from home for college on the traditional timetable. At this point we’re just about a year from high school graduation for my oldest, and her brother will follow the next year, and it looks like both of them are leaning towards not venturing too far away, but yes, going to college and not living at home. Due to their various special needs, there’s all kinds of additional worries we’re wrestling, but most of the time I’m able to convince myself that it’ll all work out just fine. This morning, though, my son came downstairs for breakfast and he just looked… off.

“You okay?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him. I tried to remember how many days ago his allergies started acting up. “Are you still feeling congested?”

“Yeah. But I’m fine,” he said, pouring himself some milk and grabbing a banana. He sat down at his spot at the table. “I’m just tired, I think.” He peeled the banana and took a bite. “Also,” he added, “my ear feels a little weird. Probably nothing.”

I felt his head. I asked him if he wanted to stay home. He didn’t want to miss school, so I made him a deal: I would send him to school and call the doctor for an appointment, then come pick him up. He agreed. I refrained from shaking him and saying, “You are sick! You are very, very sick!” Even though I knew that was true, because the most fascinating (to me) facet of my son’s autism is that he almost never seems to realize he’s unwell until he’s right on death’s doorstep. He’s 15, and saying “my ear feels a little weird” is actually a huge triumph in our world. When he was a toddler, I would figure out he was sick either because he was burning up with fever or vomiting, and either way, he would insist he was fine.

A few hours later, his long, hairy legs dangling off the edge of the exam table in a room with Disney decals on the walls, he answered the pediatrician’s questions as best he could, identifying his right ear as the one that was affected. I can only guess what the ped sees on a daily basis, but the first remark upon peering through the otoscope was “Ohhhh, gross!” So, yes, infection in the right ear: confirmed. Then a quick check of the left ear… which was also infected. Because of course it was. “But it’s not as bad as the right!” Consolation, I guess.

So we fetched antibiotics and snacks and I convinced him to come home and rest a while. And I can’t help wondering what this scenario would look like if he was operating without someone who’s known him all his life to say, “Hey, dude, you’re sick.” If he was away at college, would he take himself to the health center if his ear “felt a little weird?” Would he even text me to mention it? I don’t know.

On the other side of the spectrum (pun intended), we have my other child, whose every ache and pain is imminent death. A cold is debilitating. She suffers from migraines, which can be legitimately debilitating, but even then, she doesn’t always possess the common sense to tend to her needs in a reasonable way mid-headache. I mean, I suppose simply going to sleep on the floor of the classroom rather than telling anyone you’re getting a migraine could be a reasonable choice in some situations… but… ummmm… yeah. Sussing out which of her issues require immediate medical attention and which do not is a not-so-fun game of roulette, complicated by the number of times we’ve either overestimated or underestimated the severity of her ailments.

If she was away at college and had a medical issue, would she take herself to the health center? Or would she just lie down somewhere? Or would she always be there, for every ache and pain, until a true crisis might end up overlooked because, hey, you only get to cry wolf so many times before people start to wonder.

I remember going to college and being amused by kids who didn’t know how to do their own laundry or cook. That basically just made for a lot of freshmen wearing a lot of shrunken, pink clothes and spending a lot of time in the dining halls. I don’t remember anyone not being able to figure out what to do when they got sick. And while my teens can both launder and prepare food, I have no idea how to teach them to tend to their physical health without me right there to either point out that they’re sicker than they think or not actually dying. Is this a teachable skill? Can I make them sign an oath that they understand they have to take care of themselves??

Whose idea was it that helpless humans possessing not-yet-fully-formed-frontal-lobes would be able to navigate the world without their parents, anyway? I find it highly suspect.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] even unpacked before it became clear that my son’s welcome home gift to me was… well, you can read about it on Alpha Mom, but you should probably bring some hand sanitizer and vitamin […]

  • The Domestic Goddess

    April 15, 2015 at 9:47 am

    Clearly I missed out on something by commuting to college. I could have been hanging out at the health center or throwing myself on the floor in the middle of the classroom when sick. College, I did it wrong.

  • kimmie

    April 15, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Good gawd.  My kids are “normal” and the thought of them not living at home scares the pee out of me!!!

  • Flea

    April 15, 2015 at 9:56 am

    I sure hope someone who’s been in your shoes responds. I remember being in college and maiming myself several times. As I recall, it was good friends who took me to the ER. Never intentional maiming. Do your children have good friend-making abilities? That might keep them alive. It will certainly make for better lives long-term.

  • Samantha

    April 15, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Hopefully they will make some good friends. In college I was the friend who said, “yeeeeaaah, that’s not normal. You need medical attention,” and then badgered my friends until they went. In return, they noticed my developing depression. Yay friends! 

  • RL Julia

    April 15, 2015 at 10:36 am

    For what it is worth, “normal” son seems to also possesses no sense about his own well-being. He often feels sick but refuses to actually take care of himself by eating, sleeping or taking appropriate over the counter medication that might make him feel better. Crazy!

  • Carolyn Allen Russell

    April 15, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    My cousin was across the country at college and came down with appendicitis (but of course didn’t realize that. He just thought he was sick and was determined to stay home). His girlfriend ended up having to call an ambulance when it ruptured. I’m a grown woman with kids and I nearly didn’t go to the hospital when I ended up having appendicitis, either (because I felt SO AWFUL, how was I supposed to get there??) I think it’s a wonder anyone survives those early “learning to be an adult” years at all, so I guess we all just have to hope the power of community can help take the place of the parent (at least to SOME extent!). Good luck with both of your children!

  • Becky

    April 15, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    I find college health centers very suspect. Of course, that is based on my own experience with my college’s health center. MAYBE other health centers are great! That could be a thing. Perhaps. I could…reliably pick up prescriptions there? Otherwise, they were always very convinced that you were pregnant.

    During my first semester, I went in with a stomach bug, and their advice was to eat nothing but crackers until I felt like I could hold something down. Cue me showing up again in three-ish days, and them freaking out about the cracker diet and putting me in a bed where I was instructed to eat a bowl of soup. And then, the after hours nurse tried to keep me captive there even though no one told me that they wanted me to stay overnight. But, hey, maybe I should be grateful I graduated before they started closing the health center at night and during the weekend?

  • Nancy

    April 15, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    I concur, never trust the student health center. Ours handed out blue pills whatever your ailment.

    Never underestimate the value of a good roommate. I remember calling roomies’ parents when something was wrong, and we even took one friend to the ER. We were repaid with cookies. If your kiddos are in band, they will likely have friends and roommates that will help. Get to know them and send cookies.

  • Chuck

    April 15, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    I had one incident in college where I waited to go to the health center with a bad ingrown toenail. After they tried prescribing me some antibiotics and I said that I’d already taken some (prescribed by my family doc when I was at home over spring break) and they didn’t work, I was referred downtown to a doctor who took one look and said I needed to get it removed, which he did, along with prescribing me some rather fancy antibiotics. So even for neurotypical kids it’s a challenge sometimes. All ended fine, though, I was just limping around for a few days until I could start wearing regular shoes again.

  • Bobbie

    April 15, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    When my older son was a freshman (living in a dorm but only 30 minutes away!) he called me – “Mom, I’m sick.” He had the stomach bug that was going around campus; hadn’t eaten in a couple of days (couldn’t keep anything down, either). Being local made it so easy to go grab him (he really was miserable), but I don’t think he would have called us after freshman year. My younger son (asthma, nut allergy) is 6 hours away, and when he TEXTS me (“I ate something that didn’t SAY it had nuts in it, but my lips are swollen….”) all I can do is offer advice (and hope he takes it).

  • Julie Walker

    April 15, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    My panic at the rapidly-approaching departure of my one and only is growing daily.  Is it possible that I will not sleep another wink until August?  Or maybe forever??

  • April

    April 15, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Ugh, that is scary! How funny to have two opposite kids. Can you put them in charge of monitoring each OTHER’s health? Help them exchange perspectives?
    Try to get them in a dorm with a good resident advisor! My current nanny was a RA, and she is fantastic. I am convinced that all the students who lived in her dorm were of perfect health and wellbeing 😉

  • Aska

    April 16, 2015 at 1:54 am

    They’ll have to figure it out, so they will. 🙂 My mother was similarly trepidating before I left for college. And I messed up so many things when I was left on my own. But if I hadn’t, I would never have become my own person. They’ll have to learn from their own mistakes, but they’re smart kids and it’ll be fine.

  • meri

    April 16, 2015 at 3:20 am

    the student health centers at both my undergrad and grad schools were quite good, although I doubt they still give out codeine for ear infections + migraines.

    Does your health insurance have an on-call nurse? I use that a lot when I’m not sure if I should go in, it might be useful for your daughter.

  • ML

    April 16, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    I found the health center at Big State U in graduate school to be much better than at the tiny rural college I attended for undergraduate. I had an unusual problem in college that I mentioned regularly and kept being dismissed until it was Oh Crap Surgery Has To Happen Now. I think they might have been more responsive at a big health center that does not assume that they won’t see unusual things.