Andromeda: "A citizen of that other place" — on sick-lit

Sick-lit, I discover today while net-surfing, is an entire misery-memoir subgenre. Its mainstay is the cancer memoir, and it relies on healthy doses of humor, as one can guess from titles like Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, by Miriam Engelberg, and Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting, by Meredith Norton.

No, I don’t have cancer. Nor am I a humorist, unfortunately. I’m just sick. And really, really bored with being sick. And not at all interested in writing about being sick, though I will try it today mostly as a stalling mechanism for avoiding other scheduled writing tasks, and also because I feel the need to explain a recent change in our organizational structure.

While I am continuing to be an active volunteer and supporter, I am no longer involved in day-to-day writing center administration, a job once shared with and now fully and capably handled by Deb Vanasse, with the help of our wonderful and energetic nonprofit board. Those who don’t often peek behind the administrative curtain may notice little difference, and I’ll still be co-running this blog, as I have since late 2008, but writing center titles and duties have shifted. Because we are a community-based organization and it is the community and volunteers that matter most, we hope that people continue to consider 49 Writers as it was always meant to be: an organization created for, supported and guided by all of us.

Formal explanation finished, I will return to the more personal issue, explored from the writer’s perspective – because that’s who I am, and what you as a faithful reader most likely are, and why this blog exists.

For the first time in my life, I have spent months dedicated to something about which I did not plan to write, ignoring the wonderful Henry James dictum to be someone upon whom “nothing is lost.”

Sorry, Mr. James, but at present, most of this seems lost on me: The years of low-grade facial discomfort and headaches, which became daily occurrences about six months ago; the two years of pelvic pain, diagnosed two years ago as adenomyosis and rediagnosed last week as a case of adenomyosis plus endometriosis with a side dish of uterine fibroids; the general abdominal throb and lower back aches. (A new symptom! But still dull…)

I have nothing interesting to say about any of it, except perhaps this, in the form of advice for other writers: If you plan to be sick for any length of time, choose one illness. One acute, definable, well-known illness – maybe – is a good story. Two perhaps unrelated illnesses that have progressed slowly and resisted both clear diagnosis and clear treatment are not a good story, whether in book form, or even as a quick email to people who may or may not have started noticing one’s absence, publicly or socially.

Were I a character in a movie, any screenwriter would know better than to divide audience sympathies by inflicting me with a long-term, lower-stakes condition above the neck (a jaw problem that goes back twenty years, for which I was treated surgically and retain small screws and wires in my face, and expected to be treated for again this June – alas, a plan that has changed recently, prompting anxiety about continuing headaches) and a newer condition, common enough to be extremely dull, below the waist, which millions of other women also have, and which I neglected to treat until recently because I was trying to get the first above-the-neck problem wrapped up (and paid for — naturally, I am among the resentfully uninsured, still awaiting and willing to fight for national health care).

Divided sympathies are not good. It is also narratively confusing (not only to the reader or listener, but most significantly, to oneself), when one realizes that recent weeks of treatment may be causing more distress than the original, ill-defined ailments. The prescription meds and hormones I’m currently taking have induced nausea, dizziness, bloating, weight gain, intense fatigue, and a new and different kind of headache. Are they doing any good or only making daily life worse? It’s too early to tell. Bad story.

As narratively unacceptable as multiple ailments or cause-and-effect confusion is invisibility. If you are going to feel like crap and risk a loss of both creative productivity and income, a cast on the leg or a bald head can go a long way and even work as a sassy message to the world – sure, I’m not well, but I’m not going to hide it; in fact, I’ll adorn it! Daily headaches, sharp pelvic pains that feel like childbirth contractions, fatigue and general brain fog do not communicate well. There is nothing to show off and nothing to tattoo. People will say, “But you look fine,” or “I didn’t know,” or “It’s so private, no need to talk about it,” “Well, it’s not a life-threatening condition, at least.”

That “life-threatening” phrase isn’t helpful when you’re on pins and needles, awaiting second opinions, as I was last month. But this month I can say: That’s right. Most likely not. Just getting older like everyone else, and getting older often includes sudden entropic accelerations that feel, if not “life-threatening,” at least “life-changing.”

I have much more to say about this, darker and less-bloggy things to say, with reference to Virginia Woolf and William Styron and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kate Chopin and other writers who were unwell or wrote brilliantly in fiction form about unwellness in others, but I’ll save it for an essay, to be written when I have more information, more retrospective clarity, and a longer allowable wordcount.

But this isn’t funny, is it? It’s certainly not the acerbic, sharply focused, character- and incident-rich fodder of sick-lit. So I won’t likely be authoring anything to compete with Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman, or My One-Night Stand with Cancer by Tania Katan.

But maybe I’m still seeing illness, and writing about illness, as something rare and separate from life. Perhaps the life and writing lesson I most need to learn is that feeling seriously unwell, by various and unpredictable degrees, is something that becomes an essential part of all of our stories, whether we like it or not.

That is the message from a passage from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a work published in 1979, long before the memoir craze – a passage I received in the mail, completely by chance, the other day. No humor or hyberbole here, just some great writing: “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, for at least a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

5 thoughts on “Andromeda: "A citizen of that other place" — on sick-lit”

  1. What a powerful piece, Andromeda. I hope you can feel the healing thoughts of all the Alaskan writing community supporting you and here for you!

  2. I hadn't heard the term "sick-lit," but it makes sense. Serious or chronic illness can be very isolating and alienating; it is difficult to discuss with others whose responses may be awkward, insensitive, or just not helpful even if well-intended.
    As a sub-genre, sick-lit serves to normalize the experience of illness and to create a place for the "citizens of that other place" to feel at home and known.

  3. I'd never heard of "sick-lit" either (and I don't love those designations) but as a kid, especially, I found such narratives endlessly fascinating. It's true that that is a world of which we're all citizens, and I think that aside from the almost voyeuristic fascination with the paraphernalia of illness, these stories are fertile ground for inspiration. I think I went to them over and over again for the story of 'ordinary' people prevailing, being brave, being loving, suddenly discovering what their true priorities were.

    Andromeda, your post is not funny, but it is deeply thought-provoking, which is just as valuable. It's so interesting that you point out that what you're undergoing isn't a neat story, between the divided attention and general invisibility of it. (I can relate: I have some chronic health problems as a result of having had an extreme eating disorder in the past: now that I'm not emaciated, it doesn't make sense from the outside.)

    And I think that nowadays with environmental pollution playing such a greater role, more and more people's illnesses are taking on the morphology that you describe: debilitating, incapacitating, invisible, sometimes idiopathic, lacking in fanfare. I think that writing about it is actually going to be a great service in fostering understanding of it.

    Warm wishes to you and thank you for being so brave and wise.

  4. Thanks for this candid post, it can't be easy to write about. I wanted to point you toward a blog of a friend,–he's suffered from Lyme disease for years and was for a long time undiagnosed. You can go to the blog sidebar and click on "Being Undiagnoseable" –it's in several installments, but reads like one long essay. I think he has some of the most perceptive and nuanced thoughts about being chronically ill and how it affects who a person is–or becomes.
    Best wishes for your healing.

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for the wonderful and thoughtful comments, and thanks also for the many emails I have received, nearly all from people who have been or are currently "citizens of that other place." If anything unites us, besides a passion for reading and writing, it's mortality.

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