On Being Ill, with Rachael and Virginia

While on the subject of chronic pain, it appears I might have an even newer, funner type. :/

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been feeling pretty terrible for the past ~5 weeks at this point. I’ve been having a ton of painful sinus pressure, headaches, and fatigue, along with fun spats of dizziness, lightheadness, blurry vision, and nausea. I’ve seen my general practitioner twice in the past month; he said my sinuses were inflamed, so we assumed it was a sinus infection. I’ve tried three different antibiotics and a course of oral steroids.

This photo meme of my cat wearing a tie has nothing to do with this post but look how charming he is!

This photo meme of my cat wearing a tie has nothing to do with this post but look how charming he is!

I still feel awful, so I went to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor yesterday. Dr. Sharma looked around in my nose with a scope and told me that there’s actually no sign of a sinus infection at all, or any sign of what is actually causing the pain. He posited that it might be a side effect from one of my medicines, so he started looking around online for those, but didn’t find anything that seemed to fit. His next suggestion was to wait a few weeks before I get a head CT, but it’s been so long and this is really affecting me so badly at this point, that I just asked if we could do the CT now. I’ve got an appointment next Wednesday.

This constant pain in my maxillary sinuses and head is really starting to take a toll. I’ve had way more trouble this month focusing on work than I usually do. I’ve taken off more sick days than I have in years (although of course not as much as I’d like, because I can’t actually afford to take off that many days), and I haven’t been writing as much on my short stories or on this blog as I’d like. And now on top of that, I’m worried about what it might be that’s causing all this. It might be like, sinus headaches or something simple I can treat relatively easily and quickly. Or it might be something more serious (my mother helpfully informed me shortly after I relayed this information to her that two members of my family have died from brain aneurysms in the past. So comforting, right?).

I’m rather nervous about it all, and my nerves are already frayed from ~35 days of sinus pain and headaches, but I’m trying not to google symptoms any more and just be patient. I may need to meditate and read a lot more over the next couple days to keep my mind off of it. Because even if the CT doesn’t give me a definitive diagnosis, it will at least be helpful for ruling out options.

It all makes me think of Virginia Woolf. In 1925, when she was in bed recovering from suffering a nervous breakdown, she wrote “On Being Ill, a beautiful essay on the nature of illness that was published by T.S. Eliot in The Criterion. In it, she asks, how can something so common and universal be so little written about?

Her opening sentence can be a little hard to read, as it just keeps going and going, but it is so beautiful when you actually parse it out and examine it [line breaks mine]:

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 light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in 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 an infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Then she continues:

Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.

But no; with a few exceptions De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust—literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.

And so she continues. You should go read the whole thing, it’s great.

I would like to write such wonderful odes to sickness. I think I will at some point. I feel I am getting better at writing all the time; already, just looking at stories from a few months ago, I see the things I would change or phrase differently now. I see how I would tighten a chapter or make a story beginning more interesting. I will write such things soon, but for now, I am behind on a short story I wanted to have finished, polished, and published online by now, so I should go work on that. But yet my head aches so, even with loads of ibuprofen and sudafed, and it is difficult for me to remember from moment to moment what I should be doing.

The “On Being Ill” essay was actually the first one to really get me to understand “creative nonfiction” as a concept. I learned about it from “Reading Like a Writer,” by Francine Prose, which helped me really start to think about the craft of my writing. That section actually helped “Estate Sale,” which was my first real attempt at creative nonfiction. I tried to emulate a lot of the imagery filed sentences and careless grammar that Woolf uses. This book also fed into my short story “The Caterer,” as it was what inspired the first and second person POV.

I don’t exactly know where I’m going with this post. I’m essentially saying I plan to write something epic and beautiful about illness someday, but not right now. This is but a Tribute .