Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Sun Worship

Every summer for years I dreaded vacation.

It always started innocently enough. We would pack up the car, strap in the boys and head for someplace cooler than the pits of Phoenix. On arrival we would check into the motel or set up the tent and play for the rest of the day. Evening would come and supper and bedtime for two exhausted, hyped up little boys.

And I would get sick.

Like clockwork it happened, summer after summer. By bedtime on the first day my husband would find himself with two cranky kids and a wife sporting a fever, headache, body pains and maybe even vomiting.

As you can imagine, my little vacation ritual created more than a small amount of stress.

It wasn't until I was labeled chronic that I realized what was happening to me: I have major photo sensitivity. It can happen to anybody. Chemo patients are likely to be photosensitive. Likewise people taking certain medications. I, and a lot of others, are photo sensitive because our immune systems have gone berserk.

This link will take you to a site that explains the skin reaction to the sun that many people suffer. Rashes, itching, peeling skin. It sucks. But some of us don't just have skin reactions. For some of us, exposure to UV rays can trigger an all out immune system response. When our immune systems find no invaders to attack, they become like hyper, sugared-up preschoolers at a birthday party and attack their hosts. In this case, 'hosts' translates as 'organs'.

I was already chronic back then, I just didn't know it. Hindsight is 20-20 and looking back I can see a pattern of physical conditions that some medical person probably should have looked at all together and realized that I was a very sick woman.

Instead, my medical providers usually told me I needed to lower the stress level in my life, perhaps with meditation or yoga.

Yes, that might have been helpful. But a correct diagnosis would have been even better.

As it happened, the good Dr. B was the first medical provider to connect what happened to my skin out in the sun with my physical misery.

Since my early twenties I have known that being outdoors without sunscreen would result in a face full of ugly, painful 'zits.' OK, call me slow on the uptake, but I never connected the face stuff with the fever, hurting, throwing up stuff.

Then a few months after my original diagnosis I found myself in Dr. B's exam room complaining of a nasty flare of symptoms. While poking and prodding, the good doctor pointed at one of the eruptions on my face and said 'What's that?'

'Um, a zit'

'And why do you have it on your face?'

'Because I was out gardening and forgot to put on sunscreen. It always happens.'

'You mean it always happens when you go out in the sun?'

At this point I was beginning to feel very, very stupid. Sure enough, Dr. B confirmed my lack of connectivity with typical terseness:

'That's not a zit. It's a sore. You're photo sensitive'

Oh goody. Another label.

Dr. B. then went on to explain that the condition of my face just might match the condition of my internal bits and pieces and that was probably why I was sitting in his office waiting for a depo-medrol shot and whining about how bad I hurt.

I got the shot and short term relief. I also got a long term medical order to stay out of the sun. Or more accurately, out of UV rays. If I have to be in an exposed place, then I have to wear sunscreen, a hat, long sleeves and long pants. If those clothes could provide UV protection, so much the better.

These days I don't go out in the lovely, sunshiny part of the day. Walks down by the river are of necessity short. Even dressed right I fatigue quickly when I'm out in the sun.

Or at Costco. Or Home Depot. Or any other big box store with high voltage florescent lights.

You see, those lights save energy and provide great visibility. But they also put out UV in big amounts. That's why when you see me at Costco in December I'm wearing a hat. Or when I'm in Target in July I have on long sleeves and long pants and that damned ugly hat I have to wear all the time. My husband has jokingly suggested a burkha. Sigh.

There is no cure for photo sensitivity, just like with most chronic conditions.

I'm not sure what was worse, really, enduring the misery of feeling so sick on summer vacations or just not having summer vacations any more. We don't go to the beach now. Or camping. My husband and I were serious birdwatchers. But birds mostly get out and about in the sun and that's no good for me.

We don't ride our bikes down on the river loop anymore and long walks, even if I feel up to it, are out of the question. My garden, which I cherish with all my heart, has become my husband's gift to me. He now is the one who plants and tends. He makes the garden thrive and hum with life. And he calls it mine.

On fine summer days he'll call me to the door, pushing that ugly hat firmly on my head, making me put on the long sleeved jacket and then pulling me out to the garden to spend a few precious moments. We admire the new blooms, cluck over the clematis that just never has done well, marvel at the abundance of life.

So it is that one summer ritual has replaced another. The old one was hell. The new one is fleeting and sweet. Just like the burst of sweetness from a honeysuckle bloom. Just like the warmth of the sun that beats steady on my back, just for a moment. Life is good.

I have to smile then, because I realize that along with all the other labels in my life, I am chronically blessed.

Peace be with you.

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