There’s an odd coldness clawing at the back of my throat as I lay down for an uncharacteristic 6 PM nap. By the time I stir to life, it’s four in the morning. I’m drenched in fever-sweat and that tenderness I felt hours ago has become an unmistakable, raw rasp. I down three days' worth of Vitamin C in a vain effort to give myself some peace of mind before splashing water on my face. I scribble a quick note to my girlfriend (“Call in for me. Thanks.”) before turning in again. As my mind falls blank, I balance the pros and cons and think only of tomorrow’s inevitable conclusion:
I’m going to have to take a sick day.
The phrase would ordinarily arouse joy. Almost instantly, a teenager’s ideal vacation pops into my mind. I’m waking up at the crack of noon to a fridge stocked with pizza, tuna fish, and soda. I’m spending hours on the couch, neglecting food and bathroom needs while I vegetate to the tune of a movie or brand new game. Ordinarily, the thought of taking a Saturday afternoon and extending it into the work week is something most people would relish. This could just be the baggage of a Puritan work ethic speaking, but the concept of taking time off to sleep and drink fluids feels like an excessive extravagance to me.
This wasn't always the case. Even as recently as my college years, sick days were framed in my mind as beautiful, luxurious breaks from the monotony of work. They were unscheduled down-time that traded productivity and routine for a binge of intemperance, at the price of mild discomfort. They were interminable affairs punctuated by medication and lazy sleep. The very definition of indulgence, really.
Nothing can quite compare to the days I took off as a child, though. Living in a home without central heating, in the shadow of a 5 story apartment complex, left me at the mercy of chilly Los Angeles winters. Like clockwork, I would develop a case of bronchitis in the days between Halloween and Christmas. For eight years, I received an extra week’s worth of vacation, all thanks to my compromised bronchi. It was like an early, sputum-filled Christmas.
For a child of the pre-internet age, when television was confined to rigid, precise schedules and information was available in glossy pages on a monthly timeline, the extra days meant a lot of games, a lot of syndicated TV sitcoms, and a lot of VHS movies. On one occasion, I ran through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in a bit over two days, with time off for vomiting, fevered napping, and lunch. On another, I marathoned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over three days (total viewings: 9). And then there was the time I plowed through my collection of Nintendo Power and EGM magazines. These wasted days were a Faustian bargain.
Looking back, it feels as though I was doing anything within my power to keep from being bored. The intensity and frequency of my coughing made getting actual rest impossible. The amount of phlegm spewing from my face required constant tissues (or trips to the sink). It was either entertain myself or sit in bed, eyes fixed at the ceiling, while I waited for the next round of coughing spasms to hit. I was sidelined for days on end, sure, but spending almost every waking moment in my tiny, little room left me with a feeling of timelessness that has become very hard to recreate. I was cut off from friends (all at school) and family (all at work) and left to my own devices for interminable hours.
As I grew older, the feeling of having lost time grew more pronounced. Sure, a day off from college to whiz through Kingdom Hearts wasn’t necessarily a life-or-death proposition, but the time I spent on a game could have been more judiciously applied to that month’s term paper. It’s not as though I absolutely HAD to finish the game that afternoon, after all; I was just trading instant gratification for eventual gratification. And keeping myself from being bored.
Now, I’m stuck feeling as though I’m playing hooky, picturing a stack of “TO DO” items growing and growing while I roll about listlessly in bed. I’m no longer cut off; I can call, text or chat with a number of my friends from the comfort of my bed. From the couch, I can connect with a multitude of players around the world—speak with them or play with them silently—and share an entire game’s worth of moments with them. Something about that feels a bit off, messes with my conception of a solitary day of sloth.
Of the sick time I’ve taken this year (a grand total of two and a half days), I’ve played a video game for maybe three whole hours during one of those days. I’ve not watched any movies, save for the television serving faithfully as background-noise while I try to sleep. Of magazines, I have read not a single issue of anything. As for the internet, I muster a good 30-minutes' worth of checking mail and browsing before I’m weary of it all.
All of the changes that have come into life in the last 15 years, such as the convenience of on-demand entertainment or the always-on nature of the internet, mean very little to me when I’m curled up in bed with a bottle of Vicks VapoRub and a bag of cough drops. Nor do they help ease the infuriating tingle at the back of my throat.
It just reminds me that a sick day isn’t a vacation.