Controlling the Common Cold by Melissa Hall


Controlling the Common Cold
by Melissa Hall ( Instagram / Twitter )


Melissa Hall received her MFA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. She currently lives in Austin, Texas where she tutors English and writing to students with learning disabilities. In her spare time, Melissa volunteers as a grant writer for a local nonprofit (Kids In A New Groove), and attends as many concerts as her budget allows.


For the past day and a half, I’ve had a Charley-horse in my right leg. The cramp is so bad that straightening it completely leads to falling awkwardly to the floor. At work, I hobble around, grimacing from the pain. My co-workers give me strange,
unsympathetic looks.

For the past week and a half, I’ve had a cold that’s weakened, twice, to a mild cough and then somehow resurrected itself, thrusting into my lungs a hack surely created in laboratories to torture our enemies. I choke and gasp for minutes at a time—cherry red cheeks. People stare at me with horror and disgust. Stay home, those looks say. Don’t infect the rest of us. But it’s been ten days of this nonsense and I’ve already used two days for rest, and everyone knows that after three days there’s only suspicion and nosiness from coworkers. I just keep hoping it’ll get better on its own.

I need to see a doctor, but that would require time, a luxury I do not have right now. There’s work to do, both at a physically separate place from my home, where I try to create the “engaging” and “innovative” lesson plans my department asks of me –where I get “paid,” — and within the walls of my apartment. Dishes to wash, bathrooms to clean. Library books to drop off, grocery shopping. Bills to pay. Bills to consolidate. Bills to ignore. All of these things and yet I’m also a human being: I need to have a social life so that I don’t slide into depression from my list of never-ending tasks. I need to do all of these things instead of going to the doctor to see if I have a cold or the flu or bronchitis or walking pneumonia or if I’m on the verge of death.

Instead, I research online how to get rid of the coughing. Rest, sleep, avoid talking. Take cough drops, take medication, take a hot shower. Rub your throat with Vick’s, place your head under a blanket with a bowl of hot water, swallow a teaspoon of honey. Drink hot tea, drink hot green tea, drink hot lemon water, drink anything clear and hot. Go to the doctor because it might be something serious, go to the psychiatrist because you might be imagining it, go back to work you lazy fucking bum. Lie on your back, lie with your chest elevated, stuff your face into a pillow and scream as loud as you can. And then get more sleep.


For the past three days, seven loads of clean-but- unfolded laundry have been sitting in my home office. It’s a month’s worth of laundry that only got washed because my boyfriend and I ran out of the hordes of socks and underwear we own. My boyfriend is just as busy as I am—he writes almost the entire newspaper for a small town about 45 minutes south of our home—and neither of us has had time. Turning heaps of towels, shirts, and pants into neat stacks is the last thing I feel like doing but I can’t stand it anymore. I’m about ten minutes in when my mom calls. She wants to know how I am.

I cough, clear my throat, and I tell her that I have a cold and a Charley horse, I have to grade quizzes and work on lesson plans, I’m sick and stressed and overwhelmed, but damn it, I’m getting this laundry folded. I chuckle, but she’s quiet on the other line. Her silence means she’s trying to figure out a way to give me advice I don’t want to listen to.

“You need to take a break,” she says. “Leave the laundry for tomorrow. Then you’ll get double as much done.”
I don’t want to leave the laundry for another day because I’ve already left it for three. What if one more day of leaving it leads to me living like one of those hoarders on TLC? Eventually, dirty clothes and clean clothes will mix into one giant uncontrollable monster that consumes me in my sleep. And then I’ll need to be resurrected first before I can finish anything.

Right now, the laundry is still something I can control—since I can’t shake this cough, or the fact that my students can’t seem to understand topic sentences, or the credit card bill I can’t seem to make smaller, or the sleep that I desperately need.

“It’ll make me feel better if it gets folded,” I tell her. Maybe after completing this task, I can finally do something I want to do, whatever that may be, before another task needs to be completed.
“You need to just chill,” she says. “Sometimes if you take a chill and come back to it things will be better.”

You need to chill. Just relax. Rest for a little bit. Watch some TV. Read a book. Take a hot shower. Take a cold shower. Take a bath. Suffocate yourself with bath soaps. Eat an apple. Eat a banana. Eat something cold. Eat something warm and cold. Eat something sweet and salty. Have yogurt. Have a glass of wine. Have a beer. Stretch your muscles. Dance. Get a massage. Rub your feet. Soak your feet. Go to sleep. Take some NyQuil. Take a sleeping supplement. Relax. Do some yoga. Take a breath. Just breathe. Just dive into the lake and breathe deeply.

“Okay, Mom,” and I end the conversation shortly after.


It’s not that I don’t have time to go to the doctor, but that other things have proven to be of a higher priority than the well-being of my own body. Things that society has deemed more important—work, and pretending that I’m not actually sick and in pain. When you’re sick everyone seems supportive. They say go home. Get better. But if you complain for too long, if you’re sick for too long, if you can’t seem to get back to “normal” soon enough, you’re a time-waster. Lazy. A low life. Someone who can’t take care of themselves. I mean, that’s why you’re sick, right?

But isn’t that how we’re conditioned to feel? Conditioned to feel like losers, that we’re constantly losing time, and therefore losing happiness as well? Because happiness is completing your tasks, your personal list. It means getting your work done quickly and efficiently without interruptions, whether that be sickness or personal reasons. Happiness means figuring it out yourself and then feeling accomplished for doing so, and then getting right back to work. Happiness is having control.


I don’t want to lose happiness by going to the doctor. I’ve decided I can fight off the endless bouts of coughing with Mucinex and Tylenol Cold and Sinus. I can fix the cramp in my leg simply by taking the muscle relaxers I got the last time I pulled my muscle, also from stress, and I can apply a hot washcloth followed by an ice pack to numb the pain. I can do that, and I think I can fix it myself without having to give my precious time over to a doctor.

A doctor at a clinic less than a mile from my home who can fix my problems in less than 15 minutes.
It’s nonsense, and I know it, but I can’t seem to let go of the lack of control in my life right now. I can’t stop a cold or a leg cramp, but I can control the amount of pain I’m in, yet I’m unwilling to give up a few hours of my time to feel better. Maybe one day I’ll relinquish this imaginary hold on control I think I have, and stop breaking down both body and mind every time something goes awry.


The week’s list has been completed and I fall onto the couch exhausted but happy. I drink a beer and turn on the TV for the first time in days. I think about what it would be like ending every day like this.
“I hope I never have to work this hard ever again,” I tell my boyfriend. I keep thinking that eventually I’ll get the hang of this all, this being responsible thing, and that I’ll have fewer things to check off. Soon enough, I’ll finally be happy.

But I’ve been saying that since high school. And through college. And now, again, in the “real world.”

He smiles, a somewhat sad smile, and says that’ll probably never happen.

I sigh and realize he’s was probably right.

I watch a half hour of TV. As the next episode queues, I grab my work bag. I pull out my agenda and start making the list for next week.


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