Right now, the place I want to get back to is health. I have a miserable cold, the nastiest I’ve had in years. Karyn had it first and now Eli and I are down for the count. There’s coughing, sneezing, excessive snot, a headache, runny eyes, and a burning pain in my nostrils. My awareness is completely rooted in how awful I feel. It has telescoped all else.
I’m struck by how such a simple thing—a cold—can cut me off from my sense of well-being, my sense of self, my connection to those around me, any sense of efficacy or purpose or identity. I am simply sick. And this is just a cold. It isn’t life-threatening. It isn’t chronic. It isn’t cancer. It’s just a run-of-the-mill back-to-school cold. Nothing compared to what I’ve been through in the past or what my friends with chronic, uncurable conditions live with on a daily basis.
No wonder sickness and depression go hand in hand. The sick are exorcised from the world of the healthy, from the flow of daily life, from productivity and connection. From the world as we know it. It’s shocking really, how completely disconnected sickness can make us feel. In my sick fog, no one can reach me. I am checked out. Yet sickness is not talked about freely in our culture. It is viewed as an inconvenience, a state of “non-health,” rather than a state worthy of exploring in and of itself.
One of my students, Cecily, sent me a quote from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill” a few weeks ago. I found myself contemplating it today:
“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 … it is strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
I have my own theory about why illness has not taken its place in the canons of literature. Although it is universal, we do not want to see it or acknowledge it. Sickness is perceived as an aberration, health the norm we will return to. Yet we all know this is a fallacy; sickness is a part of life, so is decline and death. Yet we fool ourselves into believing that with the right pill, the right treatment, the right diet, we will overcome illness and be healthy again.
And once we rise from our sickbed, we return to our lives as if it never even happened. The whole episode fades from awareness and we carry on as if we will never get sick again—until the next time.
Another reason there is so little written about illness is that the experience of sickness is too compelling—when sick, we do not have the mental agility, the energy or the capacity to think, reflect, or put words on the page. We feel shitty, period, and how many ways are there to say that you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck?
And by the time we are well again, we can’t remember how truly altered we felt.
With this cold, all I can think is that I want it to go away. I want to hike my 18 miles tomorrow and my 15 on Sunday. I want to take Eli and Lizzy to deliver their entries in the County Fair. I want to see my grandson and enjoy the long weekend. I want to get back to “my life.” Yet when I had cancer and the sickness was prolonged and “regular life” was out of the question, I entered sickness in a different way. I surrendered to it, I explored its parameters, I opened up to what I could learn from it. Cancer was not a temporary illness; I embraced it as a teacher. How quickly I have forgotten.