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Sick & tired

May 1st, 2011

BY LANE BROWNING

Emily Dickinson was lucky. Not because she had writing chops, but because she had a cool kind of sick. I’d like to have a cool kind of sick.

browningchained.jpgEmily had Bright’s disease. Maybe not a picnic to navigate, but what a charming name! So much nicer to be Bright than… er, Banal. So much prettier than “chronic idiopathic neuropathy,” one of my longtime physiological partners. Frederic Chopin and D.H. Lawrence were really lucky; they had tuberculosis! They could wheeze and cough and nearly faint from breathy malaise, their pale faces flushed with weariness and froth. They could wilt and swoon. Poets, artists, and musicians claimed that TB conferred heightened sensitivity — spiritual purity and temporal wealth. The Greeks named it phithisis — how cool would it be to tell someone you had that, to pronounce your ailment sounding like Sylvester the Cat’s “Thuffering Thuccotash”?

But with my crummy gift, chronic fatigue syndrome, I get a smorgasbord of unpredictable symptoms and systemic assaults, decade upon decade, and even though viral agents have finally been implicated, there are still those who think CFS is the apex for the “indefatigably” hypochondriacal. With tuberculosis, I could lie abed with ruffled collar, and serfs would rush to amp up the humidifier.

And Horace Walpole, such a wit, had gout. Monosyllabic! You can do so much with that kernel of a word! A sonnet or haiku or even doggerel, because gout rhymes with almost everything! I get, instead, fibromyalgia, a multi-character asymmetrical pain-central affliction that sounds concocted and rhymes, cleanly, with nothing at all.

Even modern day celebrities can have it damned good. Michael J. Fox gets to talk about Parkinson’s disease. Granted, it’s a nasty condition and I don’t envy the tremors, but it sounds so tony: Parkinson. Almost like “Park Avenue.” Park. In. Son. He called his autobiography Lucky Man; try to conjure the title for someone with severe athlete’s foot (technically, tinea pedis), which bedeviled me when I was a youngster. Nothing athletic about it; it’s inedible fungus! I wasn’t allowed to wear shoes and I kept my feet in vats of malodorous glop for hours a day. Lepers gave me a wide berth.

Another “lucky” celebrity: George Clooney, who got malaria! Talk about exotic! Almost as alluring as monkeypox! And malaria is treatable! Consider my little pal, Raynaud’s disease, also known as RD (to distinguish it from Raynaud’s Syndrome and Raynaud’s Phenomenon). RD does not stand for Reader’s Digest, Radial Diaspora or Radical Dudette. And the device they used to test for it, the plethysmograph, is the same device attached to the genitalia of accused rapists and child molesters, to monitor penile blood flow. Now can you imagine the prim Emily Dickinson’s submitting to such a test? No, but I did, after plunging my hands into a tub of ice cubes and suffering excruciating pain just so I could have a written diagnosis.

I also had a test called a hysterosalpingogram. Beethoven never had to endure such humiliation, nor learn (as a result) that some of his parts were awry and disconnected and wrongly sized and that one internal organ was shaped not like a funnel (which would have been normal) but rather like a banana. Oh, how fruitful yet fruitless! Maybe it isn’t fair to complain about being told I have “unicollis,” because at least it does sound a little like “unicorn,” which is sort of mythical (although too hooved for my preferences, and “collis” sounds too much like colon, which is fine as punctuation but kind of icky as a body part).

I had cancer, which makes me about as original as cheese on pizza. It’s an astrological sign, too, and I don’t believe in astrology (nor was I born in those cancerous months). I guess I believe in cancer, but I hate those yellow rubber bracelet things and the pink ribbons and visors and car magnets and races for the cure. I’d probably rather race for prevention, or at least for relief from pink ribbons. Or from almost anything pink. Or the term “cancer survivor.” Yuck. Anyone alive is surviving something, malignant or not.

Van Gogh might have snipped his ear, but did he hear a surgeon say “Where the hell is that coming from?” when he was supposed to be deafened by anesthesia? I did. The same surgeon said “Goddammit” more than once as I lay trying to focus on the heart monitor or the tra-la songs I was reciting in my head. Now see, Beethoven would have been OK, because he really was deaf, and deafness is such a stately sensory difference, so elegant in its non-cacophony. So invisible and serenely tragic when associated with the prodigiously gifted.

I have an ear problem, too. No, not something hep enough to earn a cochlear implant (such a great word, cochlear! And the cochlea is “labyrinthine,” swoon). Just a vestibular issue, associated with the fluids in the, er, well, in the vestibule. “Vestibule?” Puts me in mind of those doily-smoothing aunts in that Cary Grant movie, or someone channeling Agatha Christie or Rosalind Russell. “I think Sir Charlton is in the vestibule, shaking out the bumbershoots.” Speaking of Agatha Christie, I wish I had “foreign accent syndrome,” which might be the most exotically sublime rare condition I can conjure. What bliss to wake up sounding properly Brit or sensuously Italian. Even amusia, which would be very frustrating (agonizing!) to endure long term, has the word “amuse” implied in it.

Why couldn’t I have gotten Chagas disease? Doesn’t it sound languid and pastoral? Doesn’t it make you think of Marc Chagall? Never mind that he had nothing to do with it.
And Thomas Wolfe died of meningitis. Isn’t that just the most sultry sounding thing to hear in a post-mortem?

OK, whining aside, I did have pleurisy about six years ago, and I confess I reveled in the medieval theme. “Did you time travel to the Middle Ages?” people would ask, or, “Jeez, not Black Plague?” No, pleurisy. Lovely word, isn’t it, syllabic near-cousin to “heresy.” Pleurisy was, I admit, kind of cool, although it seemed I would cough in perpetuity. When I got mycoplasma last year, it was far less interesting and not at all retro.

At least if I had Lyme disease I could state my affliction with economy of syllables, and lupus sounds so wolfy; but no, instead I have paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, which seems like a Scrabble challenge: “Use all the letters of the alphabet except for z.” You can substitute the acronym, which is appropriate, given that a visitation from PSVT means a heart rate of 250+ beats a minute, so pretty much everything is accelerated. And the non-invasive remedy for PSVT is a thing called the Valsalva maneuver,
a term that for me connotes saliva melded with valor, and I can’t get my mind around an image for that.

But I am really digressing now.

Also cluttering my diagnosis bootlocker are ulnar tunnel syndrome (not carpal, that would be too quotidian), a hernia (which is more amusing than annoying; I should give it a cute name), vulvodynia (fortunately back in the distant cobwebs now), osteoporosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and sinusitis. (Who can write a poem about sinuses? The heart has a sinus rhythm, but I just had high fevers and missed school days, which made me miserable when I was ten.) I think Emily Dickinson (I keep coming back to her wan and wistful self) had Shynessitis.

OK, now that’s just silly.

I do feel lucky to have presbyopia — which has an opulent yet proletarian tenor to it — and garden variety myopia — but what about astigmatism? No romantic poet, classical composer, or impressionistic painter would want a diagnosis with the word “stigma” bracketed within! Why can’t I have a melodic-sounding condition? Why not synesthesia, which my son is lucky enough to count among his fringe gifts? He hears hues! No, instead I have temporomandibular joint disorder, so my jaw pops and snaps when I open wide. Percussion without snare or drumstick.

Ah, to be just a tint of tubercular, just enough to “linger languidly” without quite expiring. So sexy.

But the truth is, I don’t really want to swoon.

I prefer active to sedentary, cardio to couch. The disease I’d dearly love to contract is the one that struck dozens in Strasbourg, France in 1518. Dancing mania. Yes, compulsive and prolonged dancing, and not just in the streets or in the sheets. Dance fever without the fever! Yes! Given that I rock and boogie in car, in parking lots, and in hospital corridors, I’m about halfway there. I just need the label. •

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