There were no parties for me last night. In fact, yesterday was the day I finally conceded that I was seriously ill and needed to rest, rather than fight to keep up my workouts, my work shifts at Running Room, and my social plans. For me, 2013 ended with coughs, croaks, and YET—an inextinguishable spark, my love and gratitude for being alive.
A few days ago I listened to a TED talk by Andrew Solomon about depression. His definition struck me: “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.” How true, I thought. Vitality is the energy and the attitude we bring to all aspects of our lives, both positive and negative. And during this time (almost two weeks now) of being sick with a virus that is giving me all the classic cold symptoms but especially laryngitis, I’ve been aware of how fiercely I cling to all my sources of vitality. Paradoxically, when I’m sick I’m even more aware of simple things (workouts, walks in wild places, spontaneous conversations with friends and customers at the store) that normally make me happy. I long to be able to enjoy my normal routines fully again.
Being sick is a huge challenge for me because I love to be active: I’m too dependent on my body’s integrity and health being the root of my contentment. As I get older, I’m more aware of how tenuous health can be. My three foes are injury (which I’ve written about candidly in many posts, especially “My knee is an Alien” and “How I really feel about not being able to run”), insomnia (a chronic problem), and sickness.
When any (or all) of these foes assault me, I am susceptible to depression.
One way I fight that depression is to remind myself of special moments when I recognize that my inner vitality cannot be quenched no matter how bad I feel physically. Over the past few days I’ve had many moments like that:
- Sitting in the peaceful community garden of my apartment building, reading a Christmas letter from my favourite aunt.
- Walking home from the Rec Centre past Burrard Inlet, reveling in the view of the water and shorebirds, feeling a sense of wellbeing after doing a workout (even though I probably shouldn’t have done it).
- Coming out of the Running Room at 9:30 into a wonderfully mild, fresh night, feeling enormous relief that I was finished a long shift and could finally rest (I shouldn’t have been at work, either, but being the holidays there was no staff member to replace me).
- Being with Keith on New Year’s Eve…feeling his warmth and comfort, and knowing that he honestly wanted to be with me “in sickness and in health” even if it meant watching episodes of Breaking Bad rather than going to a celebration at his favourite pub, The Raven.
Another essential tool for me in fighting depression is books. Books pull me away from my self-absorbed, narrow little world. They remind me that I know almost nothing of suffering. Any physical pain I’ve felt, or any tormented thought that’s run through my brain, has been experienced by others. I’m inspired when I read about how bravely others have dealt with the same foes as mine. So many writers have, through the prism of their talent, turned the most banal or horrifying experiences of illness into great works of art.
Illness is part of the human condition. I just finished reading Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor, and her introduction is so apt and so well-written that I quote part of it here:
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, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
Sontag’s 1977 book is actually not about illness itself, but about the “punitive or sentimental fantasies” associated with illness. In particular she discusses attitudes towards tuberculosis (TB) and cancer. In the late 19th century and early 20th century it was not recognized that TB was a bacterial illness. A prevalent attitude was that artistic, sensitive people were particularly susceptible to the disease. They might be passionate but they were more characteristically lacking vitality. In literature, those suffering from TB were often depicted as becoming more spiritual and enlightened, even as their physical symptoms became more horrible with the approach of death.
I absolutely agree with Sontag that there is nothing romantic or spiritual about illness. Many great writers of the 19th and early 20th century were consumptives. Sontag mentions several of them: Franz Kafka, John Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson, Katherine Mansfield, Percy Bysshe Shelley, D. H. Lawrence. They were romanticized, as were many consumptive heroes and heroines from the literature of that period. How could it be romantic to literally cough your lungs out? TB patients were also notorious for their awful breath: how could it be otherwise when their lungs were rotting, when they were drowning in the toxic effluvia of their bacterial invaders?
In reading about these famous writers, I was astounded, awed, at the great work they were able to accomplish, sick as they were. And what hope did they have? TB almost always killed in those pre-antibiotic days.
The most common advice given to TB patients was to travel to a drier, warmer climate in the hope of drying out their fluid-filled lungs. Sontag’s book quotes an entry from writer Katherine Mansfield’s journal, written about a year before her death. Like many other TB patients, Mansfield had been advised to travel. She describes a common experience of hers:
I seem to spend half of my life arriving at strange hotels…Waiting for the shadows to come out of the corners and spin their slow, slow web over the Ugliest Wallpaper of All…The man in the room next to mine has the same complaint as I. When I wake in the night I hear him turning. And then he coughs. And after a silence I cough. And he coughs again. This goes on for a long time. Until I feel we are like two roosters calling each other at false dawns.
What have I to complain about compared to that? At least I can suffer my insomnia in my own, comfortable bedroom with its view of Burrard Inlet, without interference from the coughing of a stranger (although maybe Mansfield derived some faint comfort from knowing she was not alone in her suffering?).
At least my illness will go away. Though I chafe because I’ve had to skip workouts I wanted to do—my little sprints on the soccer field, some long hilly bike rides on these days of exceptionally mild temperatures—it’s only temporary.
Already, after a couple days of rest, I think I might be turning a corner and getting better. On this first day of 2014, I didn’t do a workout. But I got outside with Keith and we went to Buntzen Lake. I didn’t run; I didn’t even walk briskly. But we spent an hour on the trails. We saw all that beauty, took photos, and shared in the celebratory mood of New Year’s Day as we said hello to a hundred strangers.