At this writing, I have been coughing for 72 days. Not on and off coughing, but continuously, every day and every night, for two and a half months. And not just coughing, but whooping: doubled over, body clenched, sucking violently for air, my face reddening and my eyes watering. Sometimes, I cough so hard, I vomit. Other times, I pee myself.
Both of these symptoms have become blessedly less frequent, and I have yet to break a rib coughing—also a common side effect. Nor do I still have the fatigue that felled me, often, at my desk and made me sleep for 16 hours a night on the weekends. Now I rarely choke on things like water, though it turns out laughing, which I do a lot of, is an easy trigger for a violent, paralysing cough that doctors refer to not as a cough, but a paroxysm.
Since I came down with pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough – waking up with it on Saturday, August 31, it felt like a light fever and a tightness in my chest – I’ve since celebrated the Jewish high holidays, covered Washington’s response to the crisis in Syria, hosted several out of town friends and a dinner party or two, attended the funeral of a close relative and the wedding celebration of a close friend.
I have also given a lighter strain of the whoop to my mother, and, somewhere in there, managed to turn 31, all the while whooping. I even spent a long weekend on a beach in north Florida, where a friend commented on my now killer abs—odd since, because of my illness, I had not been to the gym at that point for 35 days. “The coughing,” she said cheerfully, “must’ve helped!”
My friends have gotten used to the whoop, and so, it seems, have my colleagues. When they hear it waft across the cubicle walls, that hacking cough melting into a high-pitched, desperate gasping, they now just say, “There’s the whoop!” Which is good because, given that pertussis’s other name is the “100 day cough,” they have a good month, of my hackery left to joke about.
It’s funny having the whooping cough at 31 in 2013. Sometimes, you’re at the kind of nice restaurant you can now afford at 31, when the audacity of saying “Mm-hmm” as you chew, ends with your choking—actually choking—on a shred of grilled scallion. Sometimes, you’re waiting to go on television to comment on world events, and the producers, (having seen how hard it was for you in make-up, because of your constant, violent coughing), decide to keep you in the hallway until the very last minute so that you don’t interrupt the show with your paroxysms. And sometimes, you’ll start coughing so hard in that hallway that sound engineers peek out and flaccidly offer you some useless cough drops.
Sometimes, you’re interviewing a source and the whoop gets you. When it lets go, you look up and see your source staring at you with eyes squared by horror, and you, still catching your breath, have to soothe and reassure them that you are, after two Z-packs, no longer contagious.