Being in a more or less reasonable state of health, it’s not often that I get Really Sick. But every few years, I get knocked backwards onto my ass by some hideous, lurching, monstrous infestation that will...not...die. This week, I’ve been completely out of commission due to a severe chest and sinus infection, complete with constant headache and fever, coughing up blood, sore, swollen throat, and of course the ever-present full-body aches and muscle weakness. Getting sick this badly is something that only happens to me once every three years or so, but it’s absolutely god-awful when it hits. And it’s usually made worse by the fact that by the time I come of out denial and realize that my body is not going to fight it off on its own, it’s advanced to a dangerous state. I have a long history of ignoring my body’s signals and forcing it to push through illness, arrogantly expecting my immune system to function at full force despite lack of proper care and feeding. This round: Body—1—Kristen—0.
To my intense frustration, I haven’t been able to write. I haven’t been able to clean or grocery shop or work out or think. I’ve pretty much just lain there, staring glaze-eyed at the TV, my fevered, exhausted brain unable to even command my fingers to change the channel during the commercials. (Slacked-mouthed and utterly suggestable, I was an advertiser's dream: I really want that new “Falsies” mascara! I’m definitely signing up for that seminar on how to profit from government foreclosures. And by gosh, I do deserve Dove chocolate, because as a woman I should reward myself with “me-time.”) A few days ago while flopped helplessly in front of the TV, I found “Adventures in Babysitting”, that Elizabeth Shue movie from 1987. I loved the character of Sara, an imaginative, excitable kid completely devoted to her belief in Thor as the embodiment of all things courageous, strong, and heroic. I loved that this tiny, vulnerable girl attached herself so completely to the icon of a huge, thundering, powerful god. Towards the end of movie, she sacrifices her beloved winged helmet--the magic amulet that lends her courage and power--in attempt to "save" her family. It's only in this moment of letting go of her strength and being willing to go unprotected that she is able to negotiate from a place of power.
There is an intense vulnerability in being sick; in losing the power of your body. I was fearful, sad and frustrated when this illness took me over so completely. The more I struggled the worse it got, and the more I felt ashamed about my inability to fight it off, as the very worst thing that you can be in this culture is not in control--emotional, weak; prone to illness. It’s not only a bad reflection on you physically, but on your lack of willpower, your lack of positive thinking, your lack of ability to command your body to function properly. We have very powerful myths about illness in this society, about the power and control we “should” be able to wield over our own bodies. Even during this time that I’ve been so sick I’m barely able to move, I’ve been treated to bragging by certain people about how they “never get sick”; how they need very little sleep, how they thrive on stress, and how their “positive attitude” keeps them well. The message is clearly that not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable makes us superior and morally virtuous. Giving in, being defeated by illness, is akin to some sort of sin. It’s a message that’s inherent in the constant “survivor” talk about cancer, for example—so-and-so “defeated” cancer; “beat” their illness, is “bravely battling” their disease. Illness is always framed as a fight with an outside entity, with a clear victor and a clear loser.
The fact is, I didn’t start healing from this illness until finally gave into it completely, until I stopped fighting, and just let it take me over. Let the fever roar, let the need for sleep take me over, let go of the need to continue like everything was normal. I let my husband take me to the doctor for antibiotics, let the doctor tell me what do, and let the pharmacist boss me around about not taking vitamins while I’m on antibiotics. I didn’t have a choice but give in to it; to let go of the need to control my body and just lie down and let the neutrophils, basophils, monocytes, and invasive bacterium perform their dance of swords.
I know that eventually, if I live long enough, these moments of vulnerability are going to become more and more prevalent. Bodies age and weaken; systems wear out, our physical strength diminishes, we become more dependent, unable to rely on solely on will to get us through. Maybe there is a place within that slowing down, that willingness to open to our bodies vulnerability and not just its power, where we can find something truly beautiful.