Sick in Bangkok: Old Habits Die Hard…Until They Kill You

My first professional publication was an essay about how I am unable to ask for help even when I need it. In the essay, I took a 12-hour long ferry from the city of Lerwick on the Shetland Islands to Aberdeen, Scotland. A typhoon had just passed over the North Sea, creating waves so large that it felt like our boat was at a ninety degree angle. Every time we hit the water it sounded like an airstrike. I had accidentally overdosed on medication and spent five hours locked in a bathroom throwing up constantly every half hour. I felt certain I was going to die either from a shipwreck or my body would just give out. Eleven of my friends were on the boat, too. I wanted to get one of them and ask if they’d sit with me, but doing so felt silly. Why ask someone to keep me company just because I was scared, sick, and exhausted?

The essay ended with me (obviously) surviving and coming to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask others for help. Then I wrote an essay about another illness (years after the North Sea experience), which also concluded: admitting you need help is not a weakness.

It turns out that the ending of both essays are fictional. Here I am, almost exactly one decade later from crossing the North Sea, and I find myself in the exact same position, making the exact same choices.

Five days ago my throat became horse. By Thursday it was hard to project loud enough to talk to my classes so I took a sick day on Friday. I spent the whole day in bed intermittently watching Modern Family and napping. I took some pills I’d gotten from a pharmacist, but my voice kept getting quieter and quieter.

During the night I woke up constantly with a choking cough. It felt like someone had shoved a wet washcloth into my sternum. I jolted awake with nightmares of being in that Grey’s Anatomy episode where a woman learns a surgical rag was left in her chest after a surgery. In the morning I emailed my doctor’s office. They said to come in at 10:30.

And here is where this event starts to feel like a tragicomedy.

After two Grab bikes cancelled on me (because in Bangkok, asking a taxi driver to drive more than two kilometers is such an inconvenience) I booked it to the train station. I made it to the clinic five minutes after my appointment time. Drenched in sweat and out of breath, I ran into the waiting room and stopped dead when I saw the receptionist was someone I had one matched with on Bumble. I think he recognized me, too, because his head jerked a little, like when something takes you by surprise (or maybe I just looked horrendous–we’ll never know). I couldn’t remember if we’d mutually stopped talking to each other via the app or if he was one of the guys I stopped responding to once I started dating someone exclusively.

Like the coward that I am, I acted like I didn’t know him, gave my appointment time, and filled out the patient information sheet. When the doctor saw me she asked if I had a history of asthma. I don’t. She listened to my lungs and tutted. “You might want to consider an inhaler,” she said.


“Until your lungs are cleared. You’re full of fluid.”

She checked my blood pressure. “Your pulse is high.”

“I ran here.”

“It’s still too high.”

She said my tonsils were swollen and I had a severe upper respiratory infection. I ended up passing on the inhaler and took two types of antibiotics instead. The doctor wasn’t sure which method would be better, but I questioned my ability to inhale something. The few times I’ve smoked I’ve just let the smoke hang in my mouth before blowing it out.

In bed and on the meds, I felt even worse. My fever climbed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, I kept shaking, and felt like I needed to vomit. My heart raced and my chest felt tight, but I chalked it up to panic rather than illness. Right before my dad passed away, he had what he, my mum, and I thought was a bad flu. He was achy, ill, weak, and hot. On the day he passed away, I urged him and my mum to go to the doctor, but Dad refused saying he was too sick to go, and he would go the next day if he didn’t feel better. He passed away suddenly that evening. Movies and pop culture have lied about the cliche of someone’s left arm hurting and then they collapse. In reality, a heart attack can also look like a flu or indigestion.

I think a lot about how my dad was sick and didn’t ask for help. I wonder what would have happened had my mum and I been more forceful about going to the doctor. Then again, I get my stubborn resoluteness and feeling of “I’ll just handle it on my own” from somewhere, so who knows if we could have done anything at all.

Thinking about my dad, I texted a few friends. I asked if they’d be home in the evening. When a few responded yes and why, I couldn’t think of a response. I’m sick and scared and want to make sure someone will notice if I stop responding to text? I’m sick and scared and just want to be around someone? The two people I’m closest to in Bangkok are gone and I feel totally alone? 

Instead I went with the pathetic: This is going to sound really silly and I am mortified for even bringing up, but this is easily the sickest I’ve been in years. I’m trying to see who is around tonight in case I actually need help? 

I could hear the ghost of my twenty-year-old self on that North Sea ferry, sitting pinched between the wall and toilet. You’re an imbecile, she said before cough out more bile and unknowingly straining her pectoral muscles.

Two of my friends immediately offered to help. They asked if they could bring anything, do anything, or just stay in my apartment with me. The small amount of courage I had in initially reaching out vanished. I said I didn’t need anything and that I’d let them know if I got any worse. One friend offered to let me stay in her spare bedroom. While I wanted to jump on the offer, I thought of the inconvenience I’d put her and her husband through and said I’d be fine at home.

In truth, I wanted to be with someone. When you’re sick and live alone, your isolation seems to amplify. Liz Lemon said she feared choking on something in her apartment and not being able to give herself the Heimlich maneuver. A part of me had that same fear, except I thought I’d faint and hit my head. Or just plain pass out. Either way, when we’re super sick, we all just want someone around, don’t we? And when you’re in a foreign country, don’t you especially want to be with someone?

Around 10 p.m. I still coughed out chunks of my lungs and irritated my throat so much that there were tiny specks of blood. I felt both nauseous from the antibiotics and ravenous because I hadn’t eaten since ten a.m. Friends had offered to bring food, but did I accept? Of course not. My mouth tasted like rust.

My fever had gone down 0.2 degrees. It seemed hopeful, but I could still barely talk. I turned on another episode of Modern Family. A scuttling noise behind my closet made me pause the show. It was followed by a hiss that sounded like a pot boiling over onto a hot burner. For years I have had this weird fear that I am going to leave a burner on and engulf my entire home in flames. I ran into my living room, partially convinced I’d started a fire and the hissing was the sound of the sprinklers going off (despite the fact that a) I hadn’t used my burner for hours and b) there’s a sprinkler in my bedroom, which I would have noticed had it gone off).

The hissing came from my bathroom, where the toilet hose spurted water like an open fire hydrant.

I know a certain amount of plumbing from working in hotels, but when I tried to cut off the water the lever wouldn’t budge. My addled, fever-infected brain told me to pick up the hose and try to stop the water with my hands. Obviously this did nothing except spray water everywhere and make the hose fly out of my grasp (I guess I can’t complain about low water pressure in my building).

I threw the hose in my shower, removed everything that was getting wet, and ran into the hallway to get a neighbor. When no one answered their door (thanks a lot, jerks) I texted my landlord for help. She said maintenance should be around on the ground floor.

I found the maintenance guy as he headed out for a smoke. At this point it didn’t matter whether he spoke English (which he didn’t) or I spoke Thai (which I don’t) because my voice was so shot that I could barely reach the decibel of a whisper (for those who have read the Shetland essay, doesn’t this sound eerily familiar?). I showed him a video of the hose erupting. He lackadaisically picked up a tool bag and ambled behind me like I’d asked him to replace a light bulb. In the elevator he talked to me and asked questions in Thai. I shrugged and pointed at my phone and throat: “I don’t know what happened. I was in my bedroom and it went WHOOSH. I have no voice. Sick. Very sick. I don’t speak Thai.”

In my bathroom, the man tried to turn off the water switch just like I had. “I did that,” I said. “It won’t budge.” He said something in Thai and held the still gushing hose in his hand. He pointed to the hose and the toilet tank, which I had removed when the off switch wouldn’t work, hoping I could stop the water from inside the tank.

I shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”

He said some stuff and pointed to the sink. “Cold water.”

“Is there cold water?”

“Cold water.” He gestured to the hose.

“Is there cold water coming out of the hose? Yes?”

He left and walked down the hall. I heard a door open and then a giant bang sounded above my head. It sounded like that pop when fuse blows, but times ten. The guy came back into my apartment, looking as surprised as I was.

The water finally stopped. He took the nozzle off the hose. He talked as he examined it. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the hose. I turned the voice recorder on in my Google translate app. It said: comfortable smile period. Big help.

He shook the nozzle at me. He pointed at the hose. “Cold water,” he said again. He pointed at my shower head.

“Cold water,” I repeated.

He shook the nozzle. “Cold water.”

“It only uses cold water?”

He pointed at the sink. I turned the faucet. Nothing came out. “Oh. You shut off the water?” He nodded. “So no cold water?” He nodded. “But also no hot water?”

He pointed at a tear in the rubber lining of the hose. “When will the water come back?,” I asked. He moved the handle of the faucet and shook his head. I typed tomorrow or tonight? into Google translate. He stared at the screen, looked at me and said, “Office.”

“I go to the office?”

Something in Thai–office.”

“I go to office tomorrow?”

“Something in Thai–tomorrow.”

“Water tomorrow?”

He shook the nozzle and picked up the hose.

“I need a new one? New?”

He held the nozzle and hose, lifting them up and down like a balance.

“I need a new hose, nozzle, or both?” I intertwined to fingers (like an idiot).

“Tomorrow,” he said. He threw the nozzle into my sink and pointed at it. Then he pointed at the hose and then back to the nozzle, pointing specifically at the small tear.

“I’ll go to the office tomorrow, you’ll replace that, and then water?”

Something in Thai.

“I’ll just go to the office tomorrow.”

He pointed to the nozzle one last time and repeated the same Thai word three times. When he left, I repeated the word into Google translate. Google said: era and comfortable (again).

The next morning I awoke with my fever broken, but my throat, chest, and voice feeling exactly the same (my chest is a bit worse, but I think it’s just sore from all the coughing). I went down to the main office, where they told me I needed to go to the store and buy a new hose. Of course, I couldn’t just go to the Big C across the street, they said. I needed to go to the HomePro three kilometers away because “they have high quality hoses that can handle our high water pressure.” I asked if I could just refit the pipe to not need the hose because, let’s be honest, I’m western and I do not use the hose. The office people looked at me in disgust and said no.

I put on normal clothes, threw a hat over my horrendous, un-showered hair, and trekked to HomePro. Google said it opened at 8:30 a.m. I arrived at 9:30 and the security guard said nothing opened until 10 a.m. Google and I are apparently no longer friends.

When the store did open, I learned that toilet hoses come in many lengths and sizes. I showed a clerk the video of the hose spewing water. He asked me something in Thai and pointed at the side with just hoses and the side with hose and nozzle sets. I suddenly realized why the maintenance man had been shaking the nozzle at me–I only needed the hose. My nozzle was fine.

I left with the hose in hand, scheduled a 3 p.m. appointment with my apartment’s maintenance, texted my landlord that this should all be deducted from my rent (because, again, I don’t use the hose so how is it my fault that it broke?), and went back to my apartment to relax.

Once in my apartment I looked at the nozzle in my sink. Then I remembered the hole in the rubber lining of the nozzle. Kill me. I didn’t need to replace the hose; I needed to replace the nozzle. Are. You. KIDDING ME? I went back down to the office and they said that yes, I needed to buy the full set and not just the hose.

What’s going on with my upper respiratory-ness during all of this? Soreness, feeling winded just from walking up a flight of stairs, and still speaking so softly that I have to repeat things in order to be semi-understood. So going to and from HomePro twice = an unhappy, wheezing Georgia.

Even though I had purchased the hose just one hour before, and the same clerk helped me, I couldn’t just exchange the item for something else. Who knows why, but a single hose is more expensive than a hose and nozzle set, and when the total came to -40Baht the cashier said I had to find something in the store to make up the difference. I wanted to scream at her. DO YOU NOT HEAR HOW BAD MY VOICE IS? DO YOU THINK I WANT TO OR EVEN CARE ABOUT 40 BAHT? I WANT TO BE IN BED. KEEP THE STUPID MONEY.

Seriously though, let’s have a quick aside–what the hell is with Thailand and returns? I bought a book for someone two weeks ago and immediately realized I’d purchased the wrong one. I went back two days later with the book, receipt, and original bag. This wasn’t a tiny independent bookshop with limited stock. This was a major chain bookstore inside a gigantic mall. Yet still, the cashier had to get a manager and then I had to sign several forms in order to exchange a book for another book that was the exact same price. Now, I try to exchange something just one hour later and the store can’t refund me forty Baht? I’m sorry, but honestly, Thailand, what the hell?

The cashier took me around the store looking for something that was exactly 40Baht because apparently purchasing anything above 40Baht was just not an option. I signed three forms and left the store with the stupid toilet hose set and a box of Ziploc bags. (Seriously, Thailand, WHY?)

As I trekked back home, one of my friends checked in. I told her about the hose debacle. “You should have said something! I could have gone for you!”

Again, my twenty-year-old self, who thought she would die in the North Sea, cursed me. I had thought about asking someone to help get the hose. My chest still felt like there’s a wet rag inside and I felt I had to lean close and shout just for people to hear me. Asking some to get the hose, though, felt like a huge imposition. If I wasn’t dying, shouldn’t I just do it myself?

Apparently I’ve learned nothing in the past decade. Four years after my North Sea adventure I got a horrible eye infection that left me unable to see in daylight and I’d scarred my eyes so badly I can never wear contacts again. That time, too, I lay in my apartment, which I shared with two other girls, and panicked alone instead of reaching out to someone for comfort. My sister lived in the same city as me at the time. Did I contact her? Not until I’d already spent a terrifying hour with the eye surgeon. When my graduate school dissolved my assistantship, and I thought I would have to drop out, I spent days crying on my living room floor rather than asking a friend to come over. In fact, the only time I started reaching out was when my dad passed away. I reached out mostly to my longterm boyfriend, and when he too left unexpectedly I reached out to friends.

Asking for help does not come naturally to me. After two straight years of grieving and seeking comfort, I felt exhausted. I wanted to go back to some semblance of normalcy, and dealing with things on my own was one of the easiest things reclaim. I know this is not a great trait. You don’t always have to be staunchly independent. I wanted someone with me in Bangkok while I was sick and kind of scared. I felt alone, but I wasn’t, or at least I didn’t have to be. I reached out a tiny bit, but then took it all back and amplified my suffering. I had no one to blame but myself (and my student, who I think got me sick).

When I returned home after my second trip to HomePro, I finally asked my friend for Tom Yum soup. She brought it over and said to call her whenever I needed something. “It’s okay to ask for help,” she said, like a mind reader. “You don’t have to do everything yourself.” I told her I would and, this time, I meant it. For the next half hour I fretted over whether to text the guy I’ve been dating and ask if he could come over for a bit when he’s back in town. Honestly–I should be institutionalized because I am a crazy person.

I would love to end this post the same way my North Sea essay ended and say that I’ll be better at asking for help from now on. That, however, would only be half true. I’m still stubborn, uneasy about imposing, and often resolutely independent to a fault. I’m still the person who, when my vision went black during a class, I didn’t tell anyone and simply drove to the doctor’s office, which is a fantastic decision when your eye sight is inexplicably giving out (turns out it was the warning sign of a debilitating migraine–so FYI).

I am definitely not going to say I’ll turn a new leaf, stop being a coward, and start reaching out to people. I will, however, try. That’s something, right?

The precious new hose whose only function seems to be preventing my water from being shut off.

Also, just so no one thinks I’m here in Bangkok constantly feeling sad and lonely (I’m not–it was just a crap weekend), stay tuned for posts about my short trip to Jaipur and how maybe I don’t hate camping as much as I thought.

Also an update so that no one (Mum) is worried about my health–my throat feels fine, but I still have no voice and I cough a lot. I’m less nauseous now that I realized I should eat something with the antibiotics…

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