February 10, 2010

On Being Sick

Two weeks ago, it was my son coughing all night. Last week, it was my daughter. I’d had the sneezes and nothing more until Sunday night. Then I got the full-blown body aches, chills and fever, headache, sinus hell. I felt awful for two days, and it was yesterday afternoon, as if a switch were thrown, that I felt better.

What is it about being sick that feels like you’re looking into the maw of hell? The physical symptoms are the least of it. There is always a sense of impending doom, like all that you’ve built and strived for all these years will come crashing down around your ears. Everything seems hopeless ~ why try? The world’s ugly, you’re ugly, and humanity is nothing more than its most base instinct, like the final panel on a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

In better times, I tell myself these dark times build contrast. Without the lows, how do you know the highs? But that’s only when I’m on an even keel. When I’m in the middle of it, it’s hard to take the long view.

Lack of sleep will have the same effect on me. After the twins were born, I had a much better sense of postpartum depression. For me, it had more to do with lack of sleep than anything else.

My family believes that sleep is optional, that it’s sort of a weakness. As a consequence, I grew up without a schedule or regular sleep. In high school, I’d attend school all day, work as a waitress all evening, see my boyfriend, drive the 25 miles home, sleep a few hours, and then up for school the next day. It’s amazing I didn’t wreck on one of those trips home. This is one of the many reasons I was such a basket case in high school and college.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, first of all, I understand that our mental and emotional health is intimately tied to our physical health ~ a useful thing when building a character. Also, I have access to experiences that help with the darker characters, the ones who aren’t much bothered by social convention. I’m ever the good girl, but I can understand why someone would have delusions. And, finally, I think writers need to train like athletes ~ they need to be aware that if their physical health declines too much, if they don’t eat right or get enough sleep, their work will suffer, both in quantity and quality. Not that I always practice what I preach.

What I’m Reading Today: I started Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag. Oh my gosh! I’m loving it. It shows all those little tensions and games and pressures within a stressed marriage from both points of view. It makes my heart hurt. I hope to write something as good.

PS It may seem like I’m shouting to the rooftops about a bunch of books and movies lately ~ and I have been ~ but these have all been so so good! I can’t believe my good fortune in finding such exquisite art: the Erdrich, Alyson Hagy’s Ghosts of Wyoming, the movies District 9 and The Hurt Locker, and for heaven’s sake Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. I am blessed.

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