Survival: IV. Love Sick
The two narratives of my fast fading summer intertwine in a chiasmic knot: Falling in love made me sick, but in a later sickness I learned to love a little more fully.
It starts with this: Shortly after I met Catherine, a rash appeared on my lower back. I had been wandering through the woods of my childhood that morning, reminding myself of its sacred spaces – the cave, the broken dam, the spring. It occurred to me that I could have brushed up against poison ivy, but how would it have touched my lower back alone? A single swath just above my right iliac crest, it resembled a crudely charted island on an otherwise unmapped sea.
Passing through Pittsburgh on my way back to Catherine, I showed my flushed, rough skin to Celeste who nonchalantly diagnosed me with shingles. What triggers shingles, I asked the Internet, embarrassed by my ignorance. Excess cortisol, probably. And what produces excess cortisol? Lots of things, it turned out, but one caught my eye: Falling in love. And I was.
The first flush of a new romance almost always resembles an illness, though it rarely takes the form of a real rash. It should be no surprise, then, that we employ metaphors of sickness to make sense of the otherwise overwhelming sensations that we feel when we are in the thick of it. Think of Sappho, who describes as yet unfulfilled desire in feverish tones. Singing across the multi-millennial divide in Anne Carson’s translation of Fragment 31, Sappho describes “fire… racing under skin” even as she allows that “cold sweat hold me and shaking / grips me all.” Though she speaks of paralysis throughout the poem, the contrapuntal pull of fire and ice most clearly dramatizes her romantic inaction. Shaking grips her precisely because emotion pulls her from the one pole to the other and back again.
These are the conjoined sensations that leave us bedbound when we are ill, unable to comprehend the paradoxes of sensation. Those we love sometimes render us silent and still by evoking similarly contradictory feelings. Like a patient with a fever, and like Fragment 31 itself, we vibrate, vacillating too quickly between one state and the other to move ahead. As Sappho puts it another poem, “Easy to make this understood by all”: Loving desire is nothing but a sickness that we wish would linger.
My rash suggested that the connection between sickness and love might be material as well as metaphorical. I was unwell even before I felt it rubbing up against my shirt. Surely you know what I mean, know that dizzying spiral that curls around your spine, now tensing, now relaxing, only to contract again. And when life resembles a fever dream, the manifestations of a real sickness can come as a kind of relief. The scarlet eruption of shingles confirmed the otherwise intangible fact that something strange was happening in my body. It was a displacement from the first cause, yes, but no less helpful for it. In love, I fell sick, and in sickness I knew that I was falling in love.
If the rash had lasted longer, if it had penetrated any deeper or bloomed more widely, I might not have seen it in such terms. As has so often been the case recently, my prognosis was implausibly positive: I experienced none of the disabling nerve pain that sometimes hobbles others, none of the infection’s lingering effects. The doctor I visited a week or two later shrugged it off, explaining that the worst had already passed. He turned instead to more chronic conditions, wrote out a referral for the endocrinologist who would, a month later, carefully inspect my neck. I did not dwell on shingles any longer than it dwelt on my flesh, too busy coming to know its direct cause.
Our bodies are strangely incapable of distinguishing what is good for them from what is bad. Joy can have the same consequences as anxiety, and love can make us fall ill. Here we find no fault in ourselves, just as we think no less of love when we weaken in its wake. We might, however, think less of ourselves when we come to love our sicknesses. For years before my cancer diagnosis, I had been like a man fumbling through the fog, finding it difficult to write, to read, sometimes even to think. Improbably, cancer cleared the skies, set me into motion again, clothed me in a language I thought I had lost. What was I to make of this newfound energy? Was I only able to enjoy it because my malignancy was “unusually benign”? More simply, should I feel bad that I felt good about something that makes others feel so much worse?
When I mentioned my concerns to a colleague, she nodded conspiratorially. Hedonic adaptation, she said. Hedonic adaptation? Two words, familiar alone, made strange by juxtaposition. It was a term from contemporary psychology, a dispatch from a discipline whose codes are not my own. I looked it up as I had shingles. It was first used to describe the strange experience of prisoners who came to love their cells, or at least those who found something pleasant in confinement. Surveying these studies, I felt the shock of recognition. Cancer had not incarcerated me, but it had become a site of improbable release, a release that came from its menace and not in spite of it.
I suspect that prisoners do not delight in the smallness of their cells so much as in the fact that they have so little control within these confined spaces. When we do not make all of our own choices, every choice that we do make becomes that much more significant, that much more meaningful. This logic grows dangerous when taken to its extremes. Nevertheless, it speaks to the surprising connection between imprisonment and illness: I did not bring my cancer into being any more than the prisoner decides when the lights go out. I can only speak of my cancer’s genesis in the passive voice: It was caused by forces beyond my control. Knowing this, knowing there are things I do not and cannot cause, I began to better understand the power of my own hands.
Let me admit this, then: I loved my cancer, loved it a little, even if I was happy to see it go. Should that love leave me guilty? Would I feel the same if my situation had been different, if my disease had been more terrible? I can’t say. I hope I’ll never have to. And yet I delight in what I can say and in the ways cancer helped me say it.
Small things beget small feelings:
I loved my cancer, but only a little.
I miss my cancer, but only in passing.