Last winter, I was forced to take time off work because my asshole was under attack. I’d gotten shingles — an appropriately medieval-sounding illness which presents as a skin rash but is really an infection of the nerves beneath that skin. The typical shingles sufferer is in their sixties or seventies (I’m in my twenties), and the typical course for a case of shingles is this: first it flares, then it weeps, then it scabs off in gritty chunks. Fun stuff. In most cases it takes about six weeks to go through the cycle, depending on how early you start antivirals. For me, it was three weeks — and the unlikely patch of skin to figure in this battle of dark age proportions was the better half of my left butt cheek, crack, and hole. Bottoms up.
In those three weeks I learnt a lot about shingles. About pain. And about bumholes. But I also learnt a lot about myself and my body and shyness and home-life, and other important lessons for the whole of humanity. The experience was 100% harrowing, yes — but also vaguely enlightening, to the point that I attribute decisions I’ve made since to the bout of shingles I suffered then.
But first, how I got it.
“Flight VA840 to Sydney is now boarding,” the gate called, “rows 10 through 25.” I’d spent the week in Melbourne, part of a crew filming the ballet. I’d been on my feet for twelve hour days, advising on the script, tippytoeing around huffy staff (the ballerinas were much less precious). Each night I’d come back to a beige hotel room, zonked but excited by the city around me. I caught up with old colleagues, went drinking and eating through the cold Melbournian dark. Then slept.
One night I shot up at 3am blindsided by loneliness and shit feelings. Work had been chaos for weeks prior, I was nervous about interviewing the dancers, and I just wanted to be back in Sydney with my girlfriend and my family and my head hid beneath bedsheets. I seriously contemplated how to break the news to the crew, “Sorry there’s been a family emergency. I have to go back.”, “Apologies, there’s a personal issue in Sydney.”, “Please forgive me, I must go…”
Turns out depression, especially short intense bursts of it, can be an odd indicator of shingles to come. It’s a bit chicken-before-the-egg — practitioners cite physical or psychological stress as a likely pre-condition for the illness to take hold, and a sure-fire sign that you’re stressed is depression. At the same time, depression can be a symptom of the shingles virus proper, especially when it drags on and causes chronic pain. Either way, being overworked, overstimulated or sincerely homesick is enough to wrack the nervous system and give shingles its stage. Doctors call it being ‘run down’.
I pushed on regardless, and now the week was done. “Attention customers. Flight VA840 to Sydney is now boarding, all rows.”
We flew. I crashed. Home sweet home.
The next morning there’s almost unnoteworthy fleabite-sized patches of pain running down my left leg. You know the pain I’m talking about — when your skin feels randomly sore to the touch, despite the fact there are no abrasions or bruises or anything? Like there’s an itchy nerve just beneath the surface. Technically it’s called hyperaesthesia, and typically it sticks around for a half-day at most. No biggie. I pushed on regardless.
Next day the hyperaesthesia is still there, accompanied by a slight burning sensation around my ass-crack. Inopportune. Must’ve shat too hard? I rubbed in some Japanese baby cream and again, pushed on regardless.
It’s never a proud moment in one’s life to squat over a mirror — but after two days of an itchy bum and a dud leg, my girlfriend thought I should at least see what was going on. I go into this next detail not to gross you out, dear reader, but rather so you know what signs to look for and expedite your next move if need be. I went to the bathroom and dropped my drawers. My jaw dropped too, as suddenly I surveyed a significant portion of my left butt cheek bright-red and mauled up like mooshed strawberries. “You were right,” I reported back to my girlfriend, “maybe we should see the doctor.”
Shyness has always been second nature to me. During school I’d never put my hand up and always sweat during speeches. I’d cringe at compliments and be coy around crushes. Around strangers I’d shrink, so much so that mum’s ‘big word’ for me was always “try.” Understandably, this next sentence was tough.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” I told my GP, “I have a rash on my bum.”
“OK… let’s… take a look,” she said. Her follow-up questions put the fear of god into me.
“How long have you had this?”
“Um, it must be about two days? Two and a half days?”
“Have you had sexual intercourse in the past week?”
“Have you had chicken pox?”
“Yes when I was a baby.”
She grabbed a swab kit. “I’m going to take a sample of this for you to give to the pathologists across the road.”
“Why, what is it?”
“At this point, I think it may be shingles, which is the herpes zoster virus. But I want to make sure.”
“Isn’t herpes an STI?”
“This is different. Hold please, darling.”
“I haven’t had sex with anyone but my current partner.”
“That’s good, dear. I need you to take this swab to pathology and get a blood test there, but in the meantime I’m going to start you on Famciclovir which is an antiviral. One tablet three times a day. And rest up. Do you have trackpants?” She pointed to the skinny jeans around my ankles.
“Wear trackpants dear. Or better, nothing. You can pull your pants up now.”
Here’s where I sit you down, just like my GP did, to clear up what shingles is and isn’t. Shingles is an infection of two or three nerves beneath a particular patch of skin, caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus (also called varicella-zoster virus (VZV), also called herpes zoster virus (HZV)— this is different from the virus which causes genital herpes and coldsores).
You see, your childhood chickenpox never really goes away. Particles of it stay dormant in your spinal nerves for years, ready to come back with a vengeance like some shitty straight-to-VHS sequel (“Get ready kids! Your ganglia are about to go gangbusters!”). When your immune system is run down, bits of HZV get shot out from your spine through to a random nerve and its neighbours. The infected nerves then affect the skin above them, their dermatome, with common sites being the torso and neck. Interesting sidenote: Because your nervous system splits symmetrically down your spine, shingles appears on only one side of your body. Within 72 hours of HZV reactivation, the affected skin flares up into a red, blistery rash topped with delightful pustules. These pustules are contagious, but once those suckers start crusting you’re out of the danger zone — well, kind of. Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is nerve pain which can persist or recur for months or years after the rash clears up, developing in roughly 1 out of 5 shingles sufferers over 60, and rarely in those below 40 unless they’re sufficiently immunocompromised. The sooner you treat the shingles rash, the quicker it clears and the lower your chance of PHN. Antivirals work best, coupled with air, sunlight and bedrest. Painkillers if the pain gets too much. And if you’re as unfortunate as me to get shingles on your asshole, you stand the risk of a secondary bacterial infection — that’s when poo gets on pustules, and is no fun for anyone involved. Keep that shit clean.
On that note, nature calls whether you have shingles rimjobbing your anus or not. Each and every shit I took was terrifying. Too forceful and I’d crinkle the tissue around the rash. So by the end of the first week I’d perfected a technique for taking a dump and wiping my ass. Plenty of fibre. Controlled pushes. One square of toilet paper at a time, folded neatly into quarters. Hands like a HAZMAT team. Gentle dabs of the site in question, all while humming John Legend’s ‘Ordinary People’ — “this time we’ll take it slow, take it slow-oh… This time we’ll take it slow...”
And because it’s in my nature to be anxious, the fear of secondary bacterial infection would eat away at me until I did something about it. I ended up showering after every single shit. All up, shitting with shingles consumed the better part of six to seven hours a day. I shit you not.
“I’ve been showering whenever I go to the toilet,” I confided in my GP.
“Hmm OK, dear. Let’s take another look.”
“Oh dear, this is a lot worse.”
“Did you say ‘not worse’?”
“No, a LOT worse,” I suppose when a bum is out you can be a bit blunter with folk. “Have you been wearing trackpants?”
Pain brings out the strangeness in us all. Your mind fixates on it, which only makes it feel worse. You can’t relax. You can’t sleep. You clench up.
The pain of shingles felt like nothing I’ve ever felt before — as though a crater of white-hot lava had split open on the surface of my ass and was now just bubbling and popping and trickling invisibly down into my crack and into my hole. I’d lie on the bed ass-up in a dark room to let the volcano vent. I was sleepless. I’d cry sometimes. My girlfriend lit candles for company, giving the whole scene a wonderfully medieval vibe — but I was far away. I was a Roman beneath Vesuvius, and each pustule popping was a vortex through time sending me back further and further. I grazed one and entered light-speed. Eyes pierced by a thousand blue stars. Body flung back to the Big Bang itself.
Life came to a standstill.
I was off work — had been for the past week. If I tried to go out either the carseat would rock my rash or I’d chafe and itch — so I just kinda hung out at home. Intense pain has a way of focusing your attention on the thing that’s wrong, but also on the things that are right in front of you. In those dark days, I spoke more to my brother, my mum, my dad. I saw how they’d rinse and repeat each day. I saw how I did the same in my 9–5 job. And I grew stupidly happy whenever my girlfriend would come home. I began to feel itchy in another sense — claustrophobic, but also optimistic about escape. First, life shrinks down to the size of a rash, then back up to a bedroom, then a house, then gradually to the quiet winter breeze outside.
I was on the up.
“This is looking much better now,” my GP examined. “Less like strawberries. More like raspberries.”
Over the next two weeks I made a simple but lasting observation — life is best embraced ass-out and bare-bummed. I started to air my shingles in sunny spots I’d chase around the house, nude from the waist down. My pustules started crusting over. I wore pads on my pyjama-pants to capture pus in my sleep (sorry not sorry). The lava cooled into blackcurrants. My bowel movements grew less scary, and I stopped seeing the need to shower after each one (a damp towel and hairdryer did the trick less dramatically). Scabs formed. Pain lessened. Figuratively and literally, I unclenched my cheeks. “Yeah I have no pants on, what’s it to you?”
I also started drawing and writing to occupy the hours — some of the pictures and words you see here. The ultimate therapy is to process one’s pain on paper, for it’s there you can truly make sense of it. In and of itself, life, like shingles, has no meaning. But you are a meaning-making machine, and being able to take the plotpoints of your life and see them as part of a broader narrative arc is a hidden superpower of the human race. It’s helped Cro-Magnons through the ice age and holocaust survivors through Hitler. Whether it’s shingles, or depression, or cancer, or heartbreak, grab a pen and start with the question — “what have I learnt so far?”
I learnt that to kill shingles, you have to kick the quiet kid and bring out your inner-child-with-a-magnifying-glass-over-an-anthill. The final scabs were falling and I was resolved to sunbake those motherfuckers off once and for all.
“You don’t have to come back anymore,” my GP said, snapping off her rubber gloves.
“They’re all gone?”
“They’re all gone.”
My shingles had gone.
The experience had been medieval, primeval, even primal. I’d been to hell and come back alive. It was a journey across pain and paranoia and oddly, pride. For in a neat piece of symmetry, the return of a childhood virus had tamed another childhood tendency — shingles calmed my shyness.
You see, in the past few weeks I’d shown my ass to more people than I care to remember. GPs. Pathologists. Family. And I’ve gotta say, there’s something about baring your ass to the world that makes you feel absolutely bulletproof. Perhaps that’s why nudists live forever.
Now, I assert myself a little more and am much less fazed by strangers. When I feel shy about speaking my mind, I force myself to speak my mind. And when I look back at the big plotpoints of my life, I’ve learnt that whenever I stop worrying and bare all it has always been a liberating and transformative experience.
I’ve also learnt to enforce the separation of work and home. I used to work overtime and weekends often. But do that long enough and it takes a quiet toll — you aren’t as young as you used to be. Suffice it to say, now I go home at a reasonable hour (actually I quit my job, but that’s another story).
I’ve learnt that when you feel your ugliest, beauty is its easiest to find in those around you.
That suffering is stronger than all other teaching.
That there is always light at the end of your asshole.
And finally, I’ve learnt that shingles is your body’s secret kill-switch. Shingles is in us all (well, unless you missed chickenpox or have had the shingles vaccine — but you get my point). If you routinely worry or stress or work yourself into the ground, you’re stirring the dragon asleep in your spine. If you don’t stop working, sooner or later your body will.
So take care.