how do you have a minor illness during a pandemic?

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Dec 28, 2022   —   5 min read


I didn’t write to you last Friday as I had planned. I was busy reenacting this scene:

I had my first really bad migraine in several years. For me, it starts with sparkles at the edge of my vision, like a column of dancing dust motes is hovering just out of sight. Gradually, the sparkles spread all the way around until I can only see clearly out of a small circle in the middle. That area gets smaller and smaller until I can’t see anything at all that isn’t bright, fizzy light.

This phenomenon is called “aura” and I understand that around of 20 per cent of migraine sufferers experience it. Last Friday morning, I caught my first glimpse of it while I was busy writing something that was due by 5pm, a deadline that couldn’t be postponed without annoying some other people. Instead of stopping, drawing the curtains, texting an apology and then turning my phone off, I started typing faster. I started racing the sparkles in my vision, trying to finish the piece before they closed in entirely.

I made it, but only just. It was like Indiana Jones just grabbing his hat in time, except not at all fun or silly. I paid for that extra half an hour that I ignored the aura and kept staring at a screen in defiance of the rising feelings of nausea and pain, too. Instead of waking up the next morning feeling drained but better, the migraine’s aftermath lingered all weekend. I spent a lot of time lying down in the dark with the window open.

With hindsight, I can see that this was not a good exchange: thirty minutes of work is not worth two extra days of stabbing pains to the head. I’ve never been very good at assessing these equations in the moment, even when I had a job that provided sick pay. Now that I’m freelance, I’m even worse at knowing when to stop.

While I was keeping my eyes closed, a memory floated to the surface of another time when I had a migraine like this. It was the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, 17 April 2013, and the blinding pains started very early in the morning. I worked at a political magazine at the time; the death of Thatcher was an event we had, necessarily, been preparing for for quite some time. I was supposed to run the day’s coverage on the website, co-ordinating dispatches from writers out in the crowds and editing reactions by commentators. That time, I sent the text and went back to bed.

I’m not an opinion writer or columnist, so I didn’t miss out on the chance to have my One Big Take about the Iron Lady’s legacy. I did feel horribly guilty about leaving my colleagues one short on such a day, though. Especially since we had already been through several “Thatcher death” hoaxes in recent months, including one when a plausible-seeming anonymous Twitter account had managed to hoodwink several high profile journalists with an unsourced report of her death.

I remember that one particularly because of how absurdly inconsequential it seems in these days of QAnon and Pizzagate and all the rest. This account racked up about 50,000 followers in two hours as politicos boosted it with their “huge if true” retweets before it suddenly pivoted to pushing protein powder or mushroom supplements or something like that. By accident or design, the whole thing played out in the late afternoon period when the top hacks are just settling down to write whatever will actually run in the next day’s paper. This timing lent the whole incident added drama.

One of my friends spent her day out in the crowds, following the funeral procession to St Paul’s Cathedral and texting me updates that I squinted at quickly in the darkness of my sickroom. She told me about how people stood in silence and turned their backs as the cortège passed them. About how the airwaves were full of talking heads shouting about an era ending, or beginning. How angry and defensive everyone was, even those who were mourning a friend.

That day, I eventually fell asleep and had one of those feverish, waking nightmares where life continues in your head, subtly altered for horror. In the dream I kept getting texts from my friend about what was happening out in the streets. People were becoming violent, and through the open window of my bedroom I could hear them rioting three miles away in Parliament Square. I heard the roar of the crowd when the coffin vanished behind the doors of St Paul’s and the thud as the wave of people broke upon the cathedral’s walls.

When I woke up, it was dark outside and there had been no civilisation-endangering guerrilla war on the streets of London. The funeral of a controversial but undoubtedly influential politician had passed off in relative peace and my absence from work had been only a minor inconvenience. But the guilt that I had let people down on a big day lingered; last Friday, years later, I still let that feeling take priority over what was sensible or healthy.

It’s not hard to work out why, either. How do you have a minor illness during a pandemic? Taking to my bed with a splitting headache and sparkly eyes seemed absurd while the news is full of reports of rising infection rates and new lockdowns. It doesn’t matter how many times I try and disconnect my migraine from the societal-level trends of illness and health. The sickness and the anxiety about the sickness will not be separated.

Twelve things I’m reading, watching and listening to:

If you read this far, I would very much appreciate it if you listened to my latest murder mystery podcast episode, which is all about locked rooms. If you like it, follow the show in your app so you get the next one automatically.

There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I do daily podcast recommendations at The Listener, I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter and Instagram. My book is now out in paperback, find the links to purchase a copy here.

Until next time,


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