The benefits of chronic illness | Daily News

The benefits of chronic illness

In my early twenties, along with an obsessive but largely un-acted-upon desire to become a writer, I was afflicted by an enduring physical malaise. It is hard now for me to separate these two dominant features of my life at that time, perhaps with good reason. I was always exhausted. I had a constant sore throat. I had headaches that went on for days. My mind was often foggy, dulled. I was checked for everything and I saw everyone—doctors, specialists, homeopaths, nutritionists, hypnotists, Reiki healers.

When my acupuncturist felt she was making no progress she referred me to her mentor and he interviewed me about my symptoms in front of a lecture theater of trainees, who discussed the enigma of my case and took turns drawing my tongue. Eventually I was diagnosed with ME/chronic fatigue syndrome by a consultant, but this brought no hope of treatment except for a handful of sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. I was struggling at work and when my temporary contract came to an end I left London and went to South America for six months, during which I felt no better. On my return home, anxious about the future and unsure how I would cope with the demands of a more orthodox job or career, I began a graduate course in creative writing. I hoped—but didn’t really believe—that writing would save me.

Consumptive writer

The sickly writer is a staple, a cliché, of literary history, enduring and strangely compelling. Thomas De Quincey and the neuralgia, digestive issues, and visual problems he numbed with opium. Charlotte Brontë with her headaches, bodily pains, and hypochondria. Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet and syphilis. James Joyce and his failing eyes. Flannery O’Connor and lupus. And perhaps most notoriously, the consumptive writer—John Keats, Robert Walser, Katherine Mansfield, George Orwell, and many, many others. In some cases, illness, particularly mental illness, has become a key part of the writer’s literary iconography, near impossible to disentangle from the work: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Robert Lowell, David Foster Wallace.

In many of these cases their sickness seems to have added to their authenticity as writers, that they were too cerebral or too sensitive for the demands of the world, that their suffering brought to their work depth and insight that were unavailable to others, the humdrum well.

Marcel Proust is the archetypal writer in this tradition. Troubled by chronic asthma since childhood, at the age of thirty-eight, in 1909, he withdrew into the bedroom of his apartment on the boulevard Haussmann to work uninterrupted on À la recherche du temps perdu. He lay in bed in semidarkness, the windows closed and heavily draped, writing at night and sleeping during the day, waited on by servants schooled in the strict routine and habits he followed in order not to further upset the delicate balance of his health. The asthma, which had nearly killed him several times, had evolved into a more general sensitivity to the physical world. Smells, in particular, were regarded as a severe threat. Visitors were forbidden to bring flowers or wear perfume. Cloth handkerchiefs were used for one wipe of his nose then discarded. Likewise, towels were dabbed on his body once, and then a new one was needed. As he told his servant: “My dear Celeste, you don’t realize that if I use a towel twice it gets too damp and chaps my skin.” The walls of the room were lined with cork to protect his inflamed senses from the noises of the street.

Heightened sensation

It is not hard to make the link between Proust’s health and his creative work. À la recherche is, famously, a novel of heightened sensation, with pages devoted to the elucidation of a particular smell or noise. However, in his book Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives, Brian Dillon makes the case that Proust’s health played a more subtle role in the facilitation of his creative work. At that time, asthma was regarded as a nervous illness and Proust was attracted to the idea that this was a necessary element of the artistic persona.

In À la recherche, Dr. du Boulbon claims, “Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics. It is they and they alone who found religions and create great works of art.” From his childhood onward, Proust’s frailty had lead to him being spoiled, indulged, and protected. As he grew older, these habits became a structure through which he could legitimize his desire to withdraw from the world and give himself only to his work. The compulsions of creativity and of illness become inseparable. As Dillon says, “At once crippled and cosseted by fear, the hypochondriac suffered in order to work, to write or to discover in solitude.”

When I began writing and being ill, I, too, submitted to a kind of Proustian regime. I took long, groggy naps in the afternoons and frequent, morose walks around the park. In the evenings, I took boiling hot, energy-sapping baths. I went to endless appointments, took homeopathic remedies and nutritional supplements, began diets that cut out one thing or another, stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine entirely. I tried yoga, Pilates, and the Alexander Technique. And in between all this—which, after all, was not much—I wrote. I wrote seriously, with a joyless determination that reflected my sense that most other options for life and work were now closed to me.

-  Paris Review


Add new comment