I'm going to continue posting on the subject of illness this week, not only because it's been a personal preoccupation in the last few months, but also because this side of life, too, has its myths, its folklore, its cycles and seasons; and even the healthiest among us will come to know its terrain as the story of our lives unfolds. It's a subject, however, that I'm well aware makes some people deeply uncomfortable, and if you're one of them and prefer to return to Myth & Moor next week, you have my blessing.
One of the most interesting books I've read on this subject (and I've read many) is The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff, who shares my own interest in the folkloric, philosophic, and cultural ideas that quietly inform our daily lives, whether we're consciously aware of them or not; and who also finds parallels between illness and tales of descent into the Underworld of myth.
"Illness," Duff writes, "is an upside-down world, a mirror image reversing the assumptions of our normal daily lives. I think of it as the underside of life itself, the night to our days, the roots to our trees. The first thing that happens when I get sick, even before physical symptoms appear, is that I lose my normal interests. A kind of existential ennui rises in my bones like floodwater, and nothing seems worth doing: making breakfast, getting to work on time, or making love. That is when I know I am succumbing to the influence of illness, whether it is a minor cold or a life-threatening case of dysentery. I slip, like fluid, through a porous membrane, into the nightshade of my solar self, where I am tired of my friends, I hate my work, the weather stinks, and I am a failure."
"Under the sway of illness," Duff continues, "people, like food, lose their appeal. Simple tasks, such as getting dressed, making meals, or returning phone calls, become difficult, onerous duties we avoid whenever possible. Our tolerances shrink to a narrow span; the juice is too sweet, the refrigerator too loud, the sheets too cold. I used to enjoy listening to the radio while working at my desk, but once I got sick, I could not stand the noise; I felt crowded and exhausted by it. That is why sick people spin cocoons around themselves; I often imagine myself wrapped like a mummy in a thick, fluffy blanket that filters out the invasive noise and smells of daily life.
"We shut the door, pull the shades, and unplug the phone when illness strikes, slipping away from the outer world and its material seductions like a boat drifting out to sea. The detailed terrain of our usual lives fades into a thin line between the vast indifference of sea and sky in the underworld of illness. We have nothing to say or do and want only to be left alone."
"There is, perhaps rightly so, an invisible rope that separates the sick from the well, so that each is repelled by the other, like magnets reversed. The well venture forth to accomplish great deeds in the world, while the sick turn back into themselves and commune with the dead; neither can face the other very comfortably, without intrusions of envy, resentment, fear, or horror. Frankly, from the viewpoint of illness, healthy people seem ridiculous, even a touch dangerous, in their blinded busyness, marching like soldiers to the drumbeat of duty and desire.
"Their world, to which we once belonged and will again, seems unreal, like some great board game that could fold up at any minute. Carl Jung reported that when he was recovering from a heart attack, the view from his window seemed 'like a painted curtain with black holes in it, or a tattered sheet of newspaper full of photographs meaning nothing.' He despaired of getting well and having to 'convince myself all over again that this was important.' We drop out of the game when we get sick, leave the field, and desert the cause. I often feel like a ghost, the slight shade of a person, floating through the world, but not of it. The rules and parameters of my world are different altogether.
"Space and time lose their customary definitions and distinctions. We drift in a daze and wake with a start to wonder: Where am I? On a train to San Francisco or at Grandmother's house? Maybe both, for opposites coexist in the underworld of illness. We are hot and cold at once, unable to decide whether to throw off the blankets or pile more on, while something tells us our lives are at stake. Sometimes I feel heavy as a sinking ship, and other times light as a spirit rising from the wreckage. Our worlds shrink down to the four walls of the sick room, then entire universes unfurl themselves in the dust.
"Time stretches and collapses, warping like a record left in the sun. After living with epilepsy for several years, Margiad Evans wrote, 'Time has come to mean nothing to me: in certain moods it seems I slip in and out of its meshes as a sardine through a herring net.' Ten seconds seems like an hour of torture in acute pain, while a whole lifetime can be squeezed into a few moments as we wake from sleep or fall in a faint. Past and future inhabit the present, like threads so tangled the ends cannot be found. There have been times, in that liminal realm between waking and sleeping, when my life appeared before me in the shifting patterns of a weaving pulled by the corners, or the flickering reflections in an oil slick. What has been and what could be stand side by side without distinction; strange things seem connected."
"Defying the rules of ordinary reality, illness shares in the hidden logic of dreams, fairy tales, and the spirit realms mystics and shamans describe. There is often the feeling of exile, wandering, searching, facing dangers, finding treasures. Familiar faces take on the appearance of archetypal allies and enemies, 'some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed into the squatness of toads,' as Virginia Woolf noted. Dreams assume a momentous authority, while small ordinary things, like aspirin, sunshine, or a glass of water, become charged with potency, the magical ability to cure or poison."
Later in her wise book, Duff notes: "The traditions of white Western civilization have taught us to ignore and deny the sensations, instincts, dreams, and revelations our bodies continually generate to maintain a life-sustaining equilibrium. Now that I am sick, I am appalled to think that I used to respond to tiredness by pushing through it like a bulldozer to get my work done, or swim the full mile no matter what. Our determined efforts to pursue abstract goals and ideals, be it success, enlightenment, social responsibility, or even health, lead us dangerously astray, producing an intoxicating high and false pride that immediately collapse under the onslaught of illness. 'Insidious thing, pride,' wrote Laura Chester during the throws of lupus, 'to assume you are better, better, better...putting down others in order to feel secure, better than, more righteous, but what a fragile security we build for ourselves, out of sticks and straw, for the first and second little pigs.'
"There is nothing like a serious illness to blow down our fragile houses of sticks and straws. Standing amid the rubble of their lives and thoughts, people with serious illnesses undertake the task of building a new house, a new way of living, one that holds closer to the ground of being, the feedback and teachings of their bodies and souls."
"Illness is the shadow of Western civilization, the antithesis of the rampant extraversion and productivity it so values. As we attempt to exile disease from our world, it persists to haunt us with an ever-menacing guise, and we need it all the more to be whole, to save us from the curse of perfectionism.
"So certain realities remain to plague us. The best of people get sick, and many of those who do all the 'right' things stay sick or die, while others recover for no apparent reason. Epidemics come and go. As soon as we find the cure for one, another arises. We would like to think we can banish disease with rest, exercise, diet, medicine, prayer, or positive attitudes, but few so-called cures are reliable enough to trust, as anyone who has been sick a while can tell you. They're good ways to live, in sickness or health."
The passage above is from The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993), all rights reserved by the author. The paintings are by the great Golden Age illustrator Edmund Dulac (1882 - 1953).
On Illness, Part 3 is here.