Saturday, November 26, 2005

Festina Lente

I have a love-hate relationship with the phrase above (which translates to "hurry, slowly," should your Latin be rusty). I love its elegance: in two words it sums up a state of grace I've rarely experienced. But I hate the smugness of its brevity. Imagine imparting this wisdom from a vantage point of perfect calm to some poor panicked slob running around in circles--or, better yet, being the poor panicked slob yourself--and I think you'll see what I mean.

I'm finding I have the same relationship with a lot of the terminology floating around to describe my symptoms. Take one of my current favorite phrases, post-exertional malaise. I felt a thunk of recognition when I came across it for the first time. I knew exactly what it meant: the weird and frightening disproportionate exhaustion that appeared without warning, the sick feeling as if my chest had gone hollow and metallic that had nothing to do with normal tiredness. How wonderful to be able to describe it so succinctly! How reassuring to find it has a name!

But, happy as I am to have found the phrase, I do have an uneasy relationship with it. Clinical economy has its price. Saying "I'm experiencing post-exertional malaise," or, even, "I find the post-exertional malaise I'm experiencing distressing," tidies up the messy reality and, alas, sounds more than a bit pretentious. The name transforms the experience, making it less frustrating and scary and pervasive than it is in real life; the phrase describes a discrete phenomenon, but when you know that running for the bus or moving a heavy box or even having a bad day at work might trigger a collapse, the fear of it becomes a constant presence.

Overall, though, I think the benefits outweigh the cost. I recognize the malaise more easily now that I have a name for it. When I first came across post-exertional malaise, I identified it as "that problem I have at the gym." Now I've come to realize that it's also a problem in my everyday life. As my energy dropped over the past year, I cut more and more items from my daily agenda, but continued checking them off at the same fast clip. Rushing out the door to work and pushing through until I came home left me too tired to do much else; cooking and cleaning became luxuries. Slowing down is helping a bit with that, although the apartment is still far from clean.

I also borrow a certain confidence from dealing with a named symptom rather than just my own experience of it. Other people have had this; I'm not just overreacting to a bit of tiredness. Other people have had this; it's probably not fatal. Other people have had this; I can learn from their experience. I'm more willing to talk about it and accommodate it, knowing that the definition is there to back me up.

So love-hate it is, and that's just fine. "Post-exertional malaise" may never come trippingly off my tongue--but it's there if I need it.