In Hysterics

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Photo by Josh Barney

I’ve been sick. I’m now well-medicated and functioning but I’m still sick-ish after two months—a personal record. It began early this Fall, when in the space of four weeks, I had two colds and one stomping stomach flu. It wasn’t an ordinary bug that razes everything for 24 hours before blowing over. It dragged through an entire week, attacking and then relapsing on all 30 of the people who caught it at our family’s Thanksgiving potluck. My immune system cleared all of that up then opted for something other than its usual return to idling in the bod’s background. Sensing the state of me, maybe—the stress and overwork of preparing for a looming week of PhD qualifying comprehensive exams, my grief at the hard times of some of my loved ones, or tens of thousands of things—my immune system cranked the throttle open, blew me into bedridden bits for weeks.

The world of a sick person is small and terrible. Reading made me feel ill. The to-do list I’d been compiling during the months of exam preparation—catching up on satisfying household projects, overdue time with my kids—all of that was beyond me. Not even my lifelong fix, food, was available. Unable to eat much, I lost about 13% of my weight. (Never congratulate someone on sickness weight loss. It’s just suffering made visible.) But in small worlds, small me, there is still gratitude. As I lay in bed, I was glad to have a bed—a comfortable, warm bed in a safe place. I thought of my ancestors, with the same physical problems I have only trying to rest in cold, damp, crowded cottages without big tubs of running hot water to soak their bones in, and I was grateful.

I was grateful for the kindness of my family, especially my husband, especially when I’m doing nothing to earn it. I wasn’t unkind to him but I wasn’t a very thoughtful partner to him during this illness either, like when I brought him with me to the mother-of-all rounds of blood tests my doctor ordered to rule out every infection he could before putting me on a drug meant to depress my immune system. I forgot that the sound of the vials of blood coming on and off the needle makes my husby woozy, and he didn’t remind me as he stood beside me in the lab, shaky and pale having to hear it all.

Beds and caregivers—in my country, these are considered basic rights of sick people and I’m grateful that these are our collective ideals even though we fall short of them. The next thing I am grateful for is more rare. I’m grateful for spiritual guidance through my illness. While I was sick, we reached out to our faith community and someone arrived at our house with food and treats for my children, friendship, prayer, and what I must acknowledge was true inspiration. I remember our visitor saying in prayer that I needed medical attention. If I was a different kind of person, this advice might have been trite.  But I am this kind of person. I am a rundown middle-aged woman with pain, fatigue, bad digestion. When physicians first coined the word “hysterical”, they were talking about me. The inspiration was at once advice and a warning. If I wanted medical attention, I would only get it through insisting, persisting.

The first doctor I saw told me I likely had bursitis in my elbow from leaning on it while holding books to read. He suggested a fancy drug I might not have thought to try myself yet called “Advil.” I cried and begged and he prescribed a stronger pain killer so at least I could sleep. When I ran out of it, I couldn’t bring myself to beg again and I ate the old pills I hoarded from my sons’ wisdom teeth extractions. The hysterical have learned to be resourceful.

The third doctor I saw told me it was just fine for someone like me to give up eating and phoned a GI specialist, talking extremely loudly, announcing my full name, birth date, and current bathroom habits to an emergency room ward crammed with people. This doctor’s medical attention came with a vague insult about my middle-aged figure and a flagrant lack of regard for my dignity and humanity. But heck, it was nothing more than I deserved for following the advice of my second doctor, my family doctor, and clogging up the ER, desperate to make an end-run around the appointment desk of a specialist’s office by gambling on seeing one in the hospital clinic. The maneuver failed and I was sent home with an assurance someone would call me with an appointment. Still waiting.

By this point, medical attention had been awful and useless. It reduced me to something mewling, dirty, sneaky, superfluous—a noisy waste of time and space. Make way for a baby with a rash, a guy who dropped something on his foot. The hysterical’s fight for medical attention can be hopeless–painful, please stop paying attention to me. I don’t want any more. I’ll go.

Truly, I would have quit and gone home to bed, given up on my the life I used to think I’d have, if it weren’t for the confidence I had in the spiritual guidance I’d received. This kept me hounding the clinic until my family doctor, working outside his professional comfort zone, found the confidence of his own to prescribe the medicine I need right now. Confident is the opposite of hysterical. The spiritual provides a vantage point to see “things as they really are” rather than things as a lifetime of systemic bias against us can dupe us into accepting. Do not accept it. You need medical attention. You are worth it. Carry on.

No PhDread Today

notebook2018I am not going to post a photo of someone else’s writing today.

This will be the first non-Sunday in about three weeks that no pictures of big, difficult texts written by the historians, philosophers, and theorists who founded the fields I study will appear on my Instagram and Facebook feeds. I was inspired to begin posting daily titles from my PhD comprehensive exam reading list thanks in part to the encouragement of a friend and colleague, and also by seeing my athlete sisters using social networks to stay involved and accountable for their own crazy goals as long-distance runners. I am not burnt out, and tomorrow, I’ll be posting my PhD reading titles again.

But for today, here is a picture of my writing—notes I began keeping over the Bering Strait on my way back from China last year summer. I turned to them again, late last night. This notebook may never amount to anything publishable, but I see now–weeks into the list of 61 texts I will be examined on this November to prove to the university that I ought to be allowed to continue in my doctoral studies, now that only-book-lovers-will-understand Tumblr memes have me growling “So you think reading is for fun, do you? DO YOU?”–that I need to send something out of my mind and into the universe before the universe can send anything more into my mind through the stack of books in my office. All of this expansion must be answered with a contraction.

Maybe that’s just my Classical Chinese philosophy readings talking. It’s getting harder to tell—and that’s why I suspect this impossible process might be working.

Raising the Dead: Finally Fixing My French

digAs a tiny girl still not able to read much in my native English, I was taught a little French by the short films pasted into the Canadian version of the Sesame Street program my mother dialed us into to give herself an hour of time for something other than childcare every day. This French was mostly just counting to twelve and “Mon ami, mon ami, mon ami pour la vie…”, but it was not nothing.

When I learned to read English, it became clear that half of the words on the sides of the salad dressing bottles and milk cartons on our dinner table were not English. “Agitez bien”, “Sans arômes artificiels.” My oldest son, who worked as grocery stocker, calls this Cereal Box French and every life-long Canadian knows it.

On the east coast of Canada, French was a mandatory part of the school curriculum, taught in elementary schools with wacky rhymes about lonely old men who dress up brooms as women and with games ending in the taunting victory song “Eh, eh, eh, nous avons gagnéeeeeee…”  My teachers were natural Francophones—Acadians who pronounced “oui” more like “weh”, like I still do when I’m in a French situation and I finally start to relax.

My bff was half Acadian herself, with a Francophone dad who raised her almost completely in English. Still, we’d often speak to each other in a Frankenstein-ian abomination of French and English, ingraining mistakes and bad habits. But Nova Scotia Public School Patois was good for when we were babysitting and wanted to tell each other things without the preschool kids understanding. “You’re talkin’ silly,” one of them told us. How right she was.

I didn’t finish high school in Nova Scotia but in western Canada, in a small town where the oral French exam was simply reading a list of words aloud. This was the fizzling end of my formal French education. But at the restaurant where I worked was a boy my age newly emigrated from France. We spent our shifts speaking mostly in French until my new bff—who had a huge crush on French boy—rightly pointed out how rude this was to the rest of the staff. “And what does ‘salut’ mean, anyway? Why does he always say it to you?”

In university, I wanted new things, foreign things, and left French for German, which I studied long enough to know its grammar was not to be taken lightly, and not to be taken any further by me.

My history with French is one of forcing it and faking it. Now, I’ve come to the end of the line of that approach. I’m working on a graduate degree that requires me to read academic texts in at least two languages other than English. I’ve satisfied the requirement for Chinese (on paper, anyways) and the quickest route to a third language is back in time, back to French. In a Canadian modern languages department, it is often very generously assumed that I must have decent French. When I met my thesis supervisor for the first time, she began our conversation in French. I understood, but answered in English. Not good enough, Wannabe-Doctor-Q.

I’ve said elsewhere that relearning French—a language I have never really studied but learned by lazy childish osmosis before setting it aside for decades–has been like trying to summon the dead. It’s an archaeological dig after the bones of something that is still with me but buried in time, disuse, and in a little German and a lot of Chinese. I unearth things, hold them up to the light, and test them out to see if they still work. The results are mixed.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a compartment in my brain for every language I’m using. All I have is an English compartment and a non-English compartment. I go to the non-English area looking for des mots français and come away with a handful of  汉语. It’s my ridiculous Mando-Franc-ösisch, making me sound like a lunatic. I sit blinking, stammering, translating French out of the Chinese that’s tumbled out of the non-English compartment of my brain. When I mentioned it to a linguist friend of mine, she told me it’s normal, and to some extent it will always be a part of my struggle.

One month into my first French course of the old new millennium, I sat in a university stairwell, phone to my ear, listening to my half-Acadian bff asking me in my own accent, “Pourquoi prends-tu le français, mon amie?” I launched into my “Parce-que…” naturally, easily. In that French, she still sounded like herself, and I still sounded like me. Even after I slipped into broken Chinese, and she laughed, and we went back to English—every word was still me. This dusty dig-site, this messy mind, this chaos is really me.