“On Being Ill”

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

–Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”

So opens V.W.’s lovely little essay, which G gave me a couple of years ago when I was convalescing from a particularly dramatic attack of carpal tunnel syndrome. 
In the essay, V.W. explores some of the reasons and consequences of the fact that illness has not become a theme of (Western) literature on the par of, say, love, or evil.  Perhaps readers would revolt, she says.  Perhaps we’d rather dwell in the dramas of the mind than admit we have a body.   And then, there isn’t very good language for it:  


The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.

I’ve been noticing this lack of language, myself.  What language there is sounds rather mundane, and doesn’t in any case communicate the actual experience to someone who hasn’t had it.  “I’m still pretty sick,” for example, is a rather dull way to describe how I’m feeling today, but I’m quite sure it’s preferable to a detailed version of my day, which would be mostly a very tedious account of various states of congestion and phlegmaticness and the various remedies and efforts and decisions I made to attempt to alter these states.  Really, who cares?  I certainly wouldn’t, if it weren’t my very own body.
Another reason there’s probably not so much writing about illness is that it makes you too tired to write.  I’m starting to feel better (relatively), which I can tell by the fact that this morning I was able to sit up for half an hour and write in my journal with tea this morning, which I haven’t been able to concentrate enough to do.  (Somehow blogging, in bits, is easier.)  
I’m very relieved by this, since on Friday I was coughing up blood, which was rather scary.  
(We interrupt this story with a brief bitch session about the health-care bureacracy.  So, since I was coughing up blood, I called my regular doctor’s office to speak to the Advice Nurse to see what I should do.  The Advice Nurse herself is a money-saving device to prevent people who don’t need to see a doctor from taking up valuable time, so I felt rather like a virtuous Model Patient as I did this.  However, the person who answered the phone took my health-card number and then told me I couldn’t speak to the Advice Nurse because I’d been dropped as a patient.  Why?  Because I hadn’t been to see my doctor in more than three years, and now they aren’t taking “new” patients.  What?  Yes, basically I had been TOO HEALTHY to be a patient.  So, with no notification, I was dumped.
Now,  if you’ve ever been in managed care, you know that without a designated Primary Care Provider, you are … SCREWED.  You may have insurance, but you have no access to the system.  So after some prolonged bitching, during which I actually had to say something like, “Look, I really don’t care, my issue is that I’m coughing up blood and I’m calling my doctor’s office about it, and you need to either connect me with the nurse or find me a number where I can talk to someone,” this gatekeeper actually *did* connect me to the Advice Nurse.  Which sort of made me even more mad, because then I realized, “Oh, you CAN do it, you just have to HASSLE me first!”  Anyway, the advice of the Advice Nurse was to go in to the urgent care clinic.  And now, back to our regular scheduled drama.)  
So the medium-nice doctor in the urgent care clinic (not quite as nice as the previous one, but still fine) listened to my lungs and said they sounded fine but ordered a chest X-ray just to be sure.  He put a little face mask on me to wear through the hallways “because sometimes we send people up there who are coughing who have something infectious.”  He didn’t say, but I took this to mean tuberculosis.
Walking through the various wings of the hospital with my “just in case” mask did give me a healthy (ha) sense of perspective.  I was fairly confident I didn’t have pneumonia or tuberculosis, let alone something more tragic like emphysema or lung cancer; or even a relatively benign but still pain-in-the-ass condition like asthma.  And here I was walking past doors marked with things like Fetal Intensive Care and Advanced Radiology and Spinal Surgery Center.  So although this is probably the sickest I’ve ever been, in the larger scope of things I’ve spent my 37+ years thus far in remarkably good health.  
And even though I was feeling sicker rather than better, I also had full faith that I would recover.   Suffering through something that I fully trust will eventually go away, although not as quickly as I’d like, is a completely different experience than it must be to have either a chronic or fatal illness.  This alone puts me in a totally fortunate and privileged position, and I feel more grateful than ever for the resilience and good grace of my body.  As I’ve been sick, I’ve also been meditating from time to time, and just feeling grateful for each breath as it comes and goes has been an excellent practice.
Anyway, the x-ray showed my lungs to be perfectly clear, so the blood was probably just from my trachea being inflamed from several days of violent coughing.  I spent the weekend re-calibrating my various medications, taking them on a schedule that felt right according to what was going on in my body, rather than what I’d been originally told to do, and that has started to work better.
And so, that is probably way more detail than anyone wants to know about my health right now.  I do understand why (some) old people get tedious with their health complaints; when you’re not well, it’s hard to focus on anything or anyone else.  And yet, there is a kind of relaxation in it, stepping out of the huzzah and busy-ness of (at least my) everyday life.  To quote V.W. one more time:


Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we r
aise 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 … 

Meanwhile, with the heroism of the ant of the bee, however indifferent the sky or disdainful the flowers, the army of the upright marches to battle. Mrs. Jones catches her train. Mr. Smith mends his motor. The cows are driven home to be milked. Men thatch the roof. The dog barks. The rooks, rising in a net, fall in a net upon the elm trees. The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably…