Prednisone Problems

The “tell your doctor right away if” list . . .

“It’s 11:25 pm, my cheeks are hot, my heart is racing, and I’m as surly as a caged bear.” That’s the one sentence I wrote last night. I’d forced myself into bed out of a rare sense of nighttime responsibility, because my usual habit is to sit in my chair until I can no longer stay awake. I wanted to think that if I lied down and closed my eyes for a few minutes, the sleep would come easily, as it almost always does. But Prednisone was still working its hateful spell. The steroid was prescribed by a very personable doctor at a walk-in clinic near my house for the previous day’s diagnosis of bronchitis, and if I had been asked my opinion of its effects on Sunday morning, I’d have been mostly satisfied: my sinuses were clear, and I even had a bit of my energy back. I suppose the Prednisone was accomplishing its primary function of alleviating inflammation. But the day would unfold with unpleasant complications.

One of my favorite things to do with my eldest son is play LEGOs. Lately, few opportunities have presented themselves. Yesterday, however, it seemed the time had come. It’s true I was sick, but I was following my Prednisone regimen and feeling pretty okay, so Arthur chose a set, we spread everything out on the kitchen table, and after he built for a little while, he got distracted and I ended up finishing it (which is exactly how I like for it to play out, because I think I’ve actually become a bigger LEGO  fan than he). But something went gradually wrong during this LEGO build. Two-thirds of the way through, as I was searching for pieces in the big pile–a tedious but satisfactory chore, followed by the same pedestrian pleasure that accompanies jigsaw puzzle-piece finding–I realized I wasn’t having any fun, and hadn’t been, nearly the entire time. I knew this wasn’t right, and at first I attributed it to the general anxiety that derails my equanimity from time to time. It wasn’t that, though–it felt different, somehow. It was more hopeless than insecure. In fact, it didn’t seem like anxiety at all but depression. The more I thought about it, the more I felt trapped by it. I could only despair: anything I found frustrating naturally, was now, in my current mental state, always going to be that way. Dreams would never be realized; the work wasn’t worth doing. Sounds were jarring, lights too bright, and life demanded of me nothing but drudgery. My kids didn’t really need me. The only thing I could see was futility.

On WebMD’s Prednisone page, under the “tell your doctor right away if” section, one of the potential side effects listed is “mental/mood changes (such as depression, mood swings, agitation).” I’ve always considered this section of side effects to be things that applied to people who were either already in poor health or were such a small percentage of the population that I need not ever really worry about it. Maybe one person out of a million had a certain awful thing happen, so now it had to be included in the list. Besides, lots of people take Prednisone with little consequence, I assumed. But here I was, experiencing one of those specific things on the bad list. Someone close reminded me of the importance of primary care physicians. Had I made an appointment with my doctor that actually knows me, rather than opting for the convenience of a walk-in clinic, I doubt I would’ve been prescribed this medication. I’m not slamming walk-in clinics–I think they provide a necessary and noble service. But in certain situations, one might do well to remember the benefits of having a PCP. In any case, I’ve sworn off Prednisone.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Virginia Woolf on Sickness

Painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell.

As I sit home from work today sick, I’m feeling a little useless. But the congestion in my chest, which, this morning, caused a sharp pain unlike any I’ve ever felt with this type of sickness, in all my years of sinus and congestion type infections (I’m good for at least two of these illnesses a year, and lately it’s been more, probably because of kids)–this pain and congestion demanded I stay home and rest. So in my forced uselessness, at some point in the morning, I remembered the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” which I read not so long ago in grad school. Though healthy when I read it, nonetheless, her take on the mental state we assume in sickness resonated. She addresses the sort-of limbo we find ourselves in when given permission to do nothing all day. We remove ourselves from society for a day or two, which is an odd situation for a working, fairly responsible adult and parent. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel. Well, rather than try and wrest from my virus-addled brain a substantial blog post, I decided to have Virginia Woolf speak for me. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy one of the greatest writers ever (and my personal favorite!):

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. . . . [The] illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears . . . where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you–is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each. . . . Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed–to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up–to look, for example, at the sky.” (1925)

Virginia Woolf knew much more about illness than I, suffering as she did with extended bouts of depression, but isn’t there something in that passage that anyone who’s ever stayed home sick from work can recognize? I loved it immediately, because I’d never seen anyone write about this type of thing. You’d be doing yourself a favor to read the entire essay, and while you’re at it, read a few more. You simply can’t read too much Virginia Woolf.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist