I am unwell. Not the kind of unwell that comes with sneezes or spots or buckets of sick, but that general sort of unwell that doesn’t really have any particular symptoms, apart from generally feeling quite crap. This is known in common parlance as being “a bit under the weather” or “washed out,” and in medical terms I think it is called malaise. It’s the kind of thing that, were I the kind of person that ever goes to doctors, would probably result in me being sent for blood tests that would all come back inconclusive. I don’t really know what feels wrong, except that something doesn’t feel right.
For clarity (or should that be confusion?), I ought to point out that this feeling of “something isn’t quite right” could mean I’m very tired, or it could mean I’m coming down with the flu, or I suppose it could potentially mean I’ve got something hideous like blood poisoning. Most other people, so I’m led to believe, tend to know what feels wrong with them, even when they don’t have any visible signs like a rash or a cough. I, on the other hand, consistently have trouble distinguishing between a sore knee, a bit of a cold and raging toothache. For some reason, I just don’t seem to be able to read the signals from my own body.
As if that weren’t bad enough, I also struggle to distinguish illness from other bodily sensations, like emotion, hunger or even just needing to pee. All of these signals seem to land in my brain as the same muzzy feeling of something being a bit ‘off.’ I quite often report to my friend that I feel ill, or sad, or hungry; but to be honest, they all feel the same to me, and I’m really just playing roulette and choosing the word that might be right, rather than having any sense of which one it actually is.
So why, you might be wondering, can I say with certainly that I’m unwell? Why not hungry or sad or anxious or premenstrual?
It’s because I’m taking sugar in my tea.
Yeah, I don’t understand it either. But sometimes (maybe twice or three times a year), I’ll just go suddenly from not taking any sugar in my tea to taking three heaped spoonfuls. At any other time, nothing in the world could entice me into drinking sweet tea; but then, all of a sudden, something completely changes, and it seems as impossible to drink tea without sugar as it normally is to drink it with sugar. When I’m in the sugar phase, I literally cannot imagine taking my tea without sugar, any more than I can imagine what it would be like to be a dinosaur or a fish.
This has been going on for a number of years, but up until recently, I never have been able to work out what it meant. (Who says autistics are good at pattern recognition?) It was my friend who finally spotted that my sudden cries of “But I always take three sugars!” often happened a day or two before I came down with a nasty cold or collapsed into that level of fatigue that actually makes it impossible to get out of bed or use my brain in any meaningful way.
I’d love to know whether there’s actually any biological basis for my sudden need for sugar, in the same way that pregnant women often crave the food items which will give them exactly nutrients they need. As a general rule, I don’t really experience hunger, and my default position is that the thought of all food turns my stomach, so the only times I take the initiative to eat without being prompted are when I have a strong craving for something or the other. But the sugar thing is different – I never actually crave sweet tea; but if I’m given a cup of tea while I’m in this phase, then I literally cannot drink it without three sugars. Whenever this happens, I’m always reminded of that old fashioned idea that if someone has had a shock or a grief, you should give them hot sweet tea. As far as I can tell, everyone now thinks this is complete rubbish; but I wonder whether our grannies weren’t onto something after all.
I realise that it’s not exactly healthy to take three sugars in your tea (especially if you drink as much tea as I do); but now that I’ve got wise to what it means, I’m very grateful for this warning system, which tells me that something is going on which is a bit more than just being a bit tired or sad or hungry. I now know that when the sugar thing happens, I need to cancel all my non-essential appointments and spend the day in my PJs if possible, because I am (or am about to be) really not very well.
Musing on the sugar thing reminded me that there used to be a BBC radio programme about disability called “Does he take sugar?” The title was a wry reference to the way abled people often equate disability with incapacity and address their questions to a disabled person’s companion or carer rather than to the person themselves. This attitude was, of course, extremely prevalent in the late seventies when the programme first started, but it’s not a whole lot better today. A few years ago, I ended up having to use a wheelchair for a little while, and I was genuinely amazed and appalled by the number of people who simply talked over my head, literally and metaphorically. But there is also a little irony for me in the title, because although I’m perfectly able to answer questions about vertical eschatology or Early Modern attitudes to witchcraft, questions like “what do you want for lunch?” and “are you in pain?” leave me genuinely stumped. I actually do need somebody else to tell me that I’ve got a headache or that I’m feeling a bit blue.
Book learning, I get. Physical sensations, not so much. In fact, the only thing I really know for certain is that today, I definitely do take sugar.