WARNING: This poem contains disturbing imagery. Highlight to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features graphic descriptions of chronic illnesses and a violent werewolf attack. Hilla's entire top track of self-talk is body-monitoring with a focus on pain levels; Randie is pretty despondent about being a werewolf and biting someone. There's also sort-of-kidnapping, some really messy interpersonal dynamics, and a lot of angst. But becoming a werewolf actually improves Hilla's health by getting rid of her multiple sclerosis, and she's really happy about that, so it ends on a bright note. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
Hilla was walking in the park,
or more accurately limping in the park,
when dusk began to thicken the shadows.
The streetlights blinked on, and
through the trees the moon made
a slightly yellower glint.
It had been a not-too-bad day,
with pain no worse than a toothache,
so Hilla had taken her cane and walked
to the corner park just because she could
and she refused to let her life be constrained
any further than absolutely necessary.
Then she had felt the stabbing, draining ache
as if something was sucking the marrow
out of her bones, and she realized that
her multiple sclerosis was flaring up.
Hilla had dropped her phone when
her right side went tingly-stabby on her,
and didn't dare bend down to pick it up
or she'd never get upright again, so she
couldn't summon help until she reached
the intersection where the park had
a push-button to call a cab.
I can make it that far, she thought.
I have survived worse than this.
Her pain had jumped from
its usual four to a six, and she
could still make forward progress
with anything less than an eight.
Tomorrow her health aide would come,
and they could talk about making
the necessary appointments.
That was when Hilla heard
the snap of twigs and the growls
coming up the trail behind her.
Well, there was no point in
trying to limp any faster.
Hilla turned around and lifted her cane.
A large furry body struck her in the chest,
knocking her flat. She swatted it with her cane.
The movement whacked her head against
the ground. Seven, she thought,
keeping track of the pain.
Jaws snapped at her face, and Hilla
used her half-numb right arm to keep
the teeth away from her throat.
Eight, she thought. Apparently
the nerves hadn't quite given up the ghost.
Whatever it was ripped at her forearm,
muscles shredding in the long muzzle.
Bones snapped. Nine.
Hilla saw the moon and the streetlights
as pale smears overhead. The beast
began dragging her somewhere, using
her broken arm as a handle.
She recognized the splintery darkness
that closed around her. Oh, hello ten,
fancy meeting you again. Buh-bye now.
Hilla woke to the half-light of
very early morning, and realized
that she was no longer in the park
but lying on somebody's bed.
"I'm sorry I bit you," the somebody said.
"The basement door broke and I escaped."
Since Hilla had not expected
to wake up at all, this information
took a minute to process.
"Bit me," she echoed.
Vague memories stirred.
"I bit you and now you've got it too."
A young woman leaned over her,
face lined with worry and pain
that made her look older than
"I am so, so sorry."
"Got what, rabies?" Hilla asked.
That would really suck.
"No, lycanthropy," came the reply.
"That's just a story," said Hilla.
"Werewolves aren't real."
"I'm real. I'm Randie,"
said the other girl, pushing
her shaggy dark hair back
behind her ears. "I've had
lycanthropy for over a year."
"Hilla. I've had multiple sclerosis
for over twenty years," she said.
"Well, now you don't," Randie said.
Yeah, right, Hilla thought, but
didn't want to say that out loud.
"So what happens now?"
"After I got bitten, I was sick
for most of the month -- I can
barely remember it -- and then
the first transformation was
the worst pain ever," said Randie.
"The later ones aren't quite as bad,
but still really bad, and I'm not
good for much afterwards."
That reminded Hilla to check
her pain level. She moved her toes,
her legs -- surprisingly the right side
actually responded -- and then her
hands and arms. Wait, what?
Hilla stared at the wad of white bandages
covering the stump of her right arm.
"Don't worry. It'll grow back after
the first time you shift," Randie said,
rocking a little from side to side.
"Oh. Okay." Hilla filed that pain under ignore.
It was around a five, which was enough
to interfere with everyday activities, and if
she'd been at home she would've sat still and
let her health aide take care of everything.
"Do you have any painkillers?"
"Drugs don't work on us," Randie said.
Well, that sucks, Hilla thought.
She should probably freak out over
being attacked and losing an arm and
all the rest, but she didn't have the energy.
She blinked, and when she opened her eyes,
it was dark and Randie was asleep on
the queen-sized bed beside her.
Hilla hauled herself up and fumbled around
until she found the bathroom, used it,
and limped back to bed.
The month passed in a haze,
with minutes of clear awareness
surrounded by hours or days of fog.
She tried to make notes to keep track
of what happened, like she did when
the pain got so bad she couldn't focus;
but it wasn't pain this time, it was confusion
and exhaustion and her whole body out of whack.
At least Hilla remembered some of the things
to do for digestive issues, which she hadn't had
before this but other people in her support group
had dealt with. If you were smart, you learned
at least the basics of coping with all the crap that
MS could throw at you, because you never knew
when your symptoms might change on you.
At least there was plenty to eat;
werewolves needed extra calories.
Randie took care of her, more or less --
certainly Hilla had met health aides who
were not as attentive -- and explained that
there was no going back to her old life.
On the last day of the month, Hilla
found herself awake and restless
while Randie paced back and forth
around the locked basement, its door
repaired and reinforced after the escape.
Cramps rippled through Hilla in
waves of sharp and dull pain,
but no more than a four, really.
As long as she didn't give in
to the temptation to move,
she was okay, and she had
plenty of practice not moving.
It was more alarming when Randie
flopped to the floor and started screaming.
Hilla moved then, all right, hauling herself
to the other woman to make sure that
Randie was able to breathe.
"Talk to me, tell me what you're feeling,"
Hilla urged. "How bad is the pain? Where is it?
If you can figure out what's wrong, then
maybe we can make it better."
Randie just wailed and thrashed.
Trying to talk with normal people
about pain is so pointless, Hilla thought.
They get the experience, but they
have no framework for it.
By then her own misery was ramping up,
unfamiliar aches and popping joints plus
familiar prickling tingles racing over her skin
and making all the hairs stand up.
Then Hilla noticed that the hairs weren't
just standing up, they were growing.
The tingling started to feel like she was
getting attacked by hedgehogs, and
the sensation in her joints was bizarre --
even her jaw ached strangely.
The pain abruptly jumped to eight,
and then her body tore itself apart,
skin and muscle peeling away from bone.
The next time Hilla woke,
she was naked on the floor
of the basement, and she felt ...
Her head was clear now,
though she had only muzzy memories
of spending the night as a wolf.
Her body ached, but only
with that after-exercise soreness
that she had almost forgotten.
From where she lay,
she could see both hands
stretched in front of her.
Hi, fingers, she thought happily.
Welcome back. I sure missed you!
The happiness fizzed all through her,
making her believe for the first time
that maybe all the things Randie
had said were true after all.
Her right arm had grown back,
so that meant the multiple sclerosis
wasn't eating her brain anymore.
It was something Hilla had accepted
so long ago that letting go of it now left her
dizzy with relief, disoriented from
the sudden change of pace.
Against all odds,
she had found a way
to escape her fate,
or at least exchange it
for another that was
I guess miracles do happen,
Hilla thought, smiling.
A soft whimper made her
turn her head to find Randie
curled in a miserable ball.
"Hey, good morning," said Hilla.
"Let's try this again. How bad is
your pain and what does it feel like?
It is more stabby or achy?"
"Like I got hit by a truck," Randie moaned.
They both looked at the door.
It was still locked.
"I'm sorry you're not feeling well,"
Hilla said. "I'm basically fine."
"Don't you feel anything?" said Randie.
Hilla wiggled her fingers, then her toes,
carefully stretched her arms and legs,
observing everything through the body-check.
"Yeah, this is about a three, not even worth
taking over-the-counter pills. I'm good."
"You are so full of shit."
"I haven't felt this good in years,"
Hilla said quietly. "Not since
the last three or four flare-ups."
She sat up in slow motion, giving her body
time to adjust, but she didn't even feel dizzy.
Just tired, kind of stiff and sore, functional
as long as she didn't rush too much.
Today is a good day, Hilla thought,
breathing deeply to oxygenate her brain.
She patted over Randie's body
to make sure there were no injuries.
"Okay, you're not hurt," Hilla said.
"Let's get upstairs now."
Hilla got them both on their feet,
unlocked the door, and rambled
up the stairs. They only had to rest
once, although Randie whimpered
the whole way, even in the bathroom.
Hilla poured the other werewolf into bed.
"Here, put a pillow under your knees
to take the strain off your legs. Cover up
because heat is soothing," she said, helping
Randie get situated. "Now close your eyes
and take some deep breaths. Imagine
the pain flowing down your body
and out through your feet."
"What are you doing?" Randie asked.
"Teaching you to cope with chronic pain,"
Hilla said. "It's a skill set. You'll get the hang of it
with some practice. I've just been doing it so long
that it's second nature for me by now. Lie there
and work on your breathing while I get breakfast."
Hilla couldn't remember much about Randie's place,
but it wasn't hard to find the kitchen, and there
was cream-of-wheat in a cabinet that was
easy to fix for the two of them.
Nice place, she mused, looking around
at the cozy kitchen with its sunflower wallpaper.
"Eat as much as you can," said Hilla.
"Stop and rest if you get queasy."
"Do you know other werewolves?"
Randie said. "It seems like you know
more about this than I do."
"No, just a lot of people whose bodies
misbehave most of the time," Hilla said.
"Though I have to admit, I'm having a hard time
convincing myself to wait until next month
to call all my friends, so I'll have more idea
what a normal cycle is like before I tell them."
Randie stared at her. "What?"
"Because it seems like I'm jumping the gun,
but my arm grew back and the rest of me
feels way better, so if someone else waited
a whole month to tell me, I'd be pretty pissed,"
Hilla went on. "Like that time Lucille got into
a special trial and didn't mention it until the drug
came on the market, only it turned out that
half a dozen other people would've qualified
for compassionate use earlier than that, and it
was two weeks before anyone spoke to her again."
"Tell your friends ... so you can what,
curse them too?" Randie said.
"You can't just do that! It's wrong."
"Of course not," Hilla said. "I'll explain
the pros and cons and let them decide.
Bet you Lucille won't go for it, she's a cat person,
but some of the others would jump on this."
"It's still a curse," Randie argued.
Normal people are so weird.
"You're entitled to your opinion,"
Hilla said. "To me, this is a blessing."
She realized, though, that Randie
was one of the dispossessed, and
didn't enjoy the kind of support network
that Hilla did. That changed things.
Hilla stretched, slowly and carefully,
trying to see if the kinks would work out,
and noticed gradual improvement.
As Hilla moved, she could see
the cobwebs in the bedroom corners
and the dirty clothes thrown over
the backs of the chairs.
She stood up, and didn't feel worse,
so she picked up the breakfast tray.
Success! Hilla thought.
"Where are you going?"
"To do some housework," Hilla said.
"No offense, but this place is a mess.
I'll check back in on you every few minutes,
but I'm having a good day and I
really don't want to waste it."
Randie groaned and sank further
into the pile of pillows and comforters.
Hilla strolled out of the room,
tray in hand, trying to remember
all the lines to "Whistle While You Work."
* * *
Hilla has pale skin, dark blue eyes, and short white-blonde hair.
Randie has tinted skin, brown eyes, and long shaggy black hair.
* * *
Chronic disease is any condition which negatively impacts a person's life for a long time, variously described as three months or a year. It tends to cause personality changes and lifestyle changes. Coping can be difficult, especially if alleged support services do not recognize the true nature of disability from chronic illness. A home health aide and other coping methods can greatly improve quality of life.
Multiple sclerosis is a severe degenerative disease that attacks the nervous system and thus impacts other body parts.
Signs and symptoms may differ greatly from person to person and over the course of the disease depending on the location of affected nerve fibers. (Hilla's typical symptoms are italicized.) They may include:
• Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs that typically occurs on one side of your body at a time, or the legs and trunk
• Partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement
• Prolonged double vision
• Tingling or pain in parts of your body
• Electric-shock sensations that occur with certain neck movements, especially bending the neck forward (Lhermitte sign)
• Tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait
• Slurred speech
• Problems with bowel and bladder function
Hilla has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). The most common disease course, it produces sharply defined attacks of sinking neurologic function. These flare-ups are followed by remissions in which the symptoms get better for a while. About 85% percent of people with MS have this version at first, but it can worsen to permanent damage. Hilla's version is the kind that never quite regains full function after a flare-up, so the overall trend is worse over time.
Pain scales help describe the subjective and objective impact of discomfort. This comparative pain scale covers both, with the incredibly useful feature of defining 10 not as "worst pain ever" (subjective feeling) but "about to pass out" (objective event). The Mankoski scale includes practical features but also levels of pain medications. This one gives terrific illustration of how pain feels.
Werewolves and other shapeshifters have been described around the world. Werewolves may have different forms, traits, and origins according to mythology. There are pros and cons to becoming a werewolf, and that perception can vary when compared to the person's previous health. This type of lycanthropy colonizes the body and thus replaces the original immune and repair systems, which is why it cures most diseases and the person can't get sick again. Werewolf depictions also appear in fanfic.
Many portrayals include painful transformation and body horror. These experiences may be totally different for someone who was healthy before being bitten, compared to someone who already had a chronic illness.
Pain management options include a variety of drugs and other solutions. This chart shows some different interventions for treating pain. Tips for living with chronic pain include imagery for control.
MS can often be improved or worsened with diet. Swank and OMS are diets that helps some people. Here are some recipes.
Observing pain in another person requires identifying and interpreting their signals, especially if they are nonverbal or just not good at description. Almost everyone feels pain, but not everyone is as sensitive to it. Hilla is not only inured but also has excellent coping skills, so for her being a werewolf just isn't that bad. Her pain scale is shifted about two places downward; she can keep going at a considerably higher amount of pain than most people could handle. Randie is hypersensitized and lacks the knowledge buffer, so she feels worse.
Hangovers are typically associated with alcohol but can happen with other stressors. They come in different types. There are simple and detailed scales for measuring them. A hangover makes a good description for post-transformation malaise. This is often described as debilitating for werewolves. But for Hilla, it's considerably less unpleasant and limiting than her previous level -- she's feeling better on a bad werewolf day than she did on a good MS day.
"Whistle While Your Work" is a song from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You can listen to it online.