Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Family Psych 4

I am a lifelong Democrat--perhaps even a borderline Socialist, though I am more comfortable with the term Social Democrat. One of my earliest memories of this leaning came when, outraged at the expense of color televisions and disappointed that we couldn't afford one, I vowed solemnly to my family that when I grew up, I was going to open a store and sell TVs for $50, so that everyone could afford one.  My family guffawed at me; It doesn't work that way, they insisted.   Their resistance to my scheme only made me dig in my heels. 

Of course, in a way they were right; capitalism sets wide profit margins that forces merchants to collude.  I understand now how it works; but I still don't like it.  Just last night, watching TV with my husband, we caught a commercial for a local men's clothing store running a sale; all blazers and sport coats are half price. In addition, if a customer buys one, another one comes free for the asking: two jackets for the cost of half a regular-priced one.  I turned, indignant, to my husband and snorted, "The only reason they can manage a sale like this is that their prices are so inflated to begin with."

My lens on the world, then, hasn't changed much since I was a kid.  I am aware, though, of one inconsistency in my worldview.  Happy to extend my sympathy to consumers, the unemployed, the poor, the working poor, single parents, pro-choice proponents, juvenile delinquents, addicts--all the usual suspects in Democratic purview--I struggle to find sympathy for illness.  My dedicated convictions have not been able to penetrate the subtle undercurrent of family history.

It took a long time for my younger sister to finally get a diagnosis for the first of her two serious illnesses, diabetes insipidus.  She had developed a ravenous, round-the-clock thirst, had to run to the bathroom all the time. When water was refused, she seemed to shrink and dry up.  She literally couldn't wait for a drink or a bathroom break.  The symptoms seemed real, yet doctors were running out of ideas.  They couldn't find anything wrong with her. When they hit upon the possible condition to explain her symptoms, the test to confirm the diagnosis required my sister  go without water overnight.  By the time the test was performed the next morning, her lips were dry and literally cracked.

It is a serious thing to suspect someone is faking an illness for attention.  Worse, to blame that person, to say it out loud.  Such an accusation could have lifelong reverberations.

My sister told me, when we were both adults, that while visiting my grandmother as a child, a summer routine we all practiced, my grandmother would put her medication on top of the refrigerator, out of reach. She would tell my sister she didn't need it; she should stop pretending to be sick.  She would try to withhold water from my sister. My cousin Kim, who often stayed there at the same time, would get up at night with my sister, sneak past my uncle Maurice in his drunken slumber in a bed near the head of the stairs, quietly move a chair over to the fridge, and help her get her medication.

Doubt begins as a niggling impulse.  Who could doubt that my sister was really ill?  And yet, it had taken so long to figure out what was wrong with her. And yet, she began to require other medications that transformed her into someone always in need of attention: prednisone made her balloon in front of our eyes. And yet, she has remained ill all her life, acquiring several other conditions, a domino chain of breakdown:  histiocytosis, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines.

And yet, the summer before my sister became ill, my brother died. He was three. The two of them had shared a room, two twin beds, two sides of one coin, the younger two of four children, half a family now suddenly less than half.  One bed emptied suddenly.  One companion gone. How long did it remain in that room, a siren wail, a visible reminder that she was now singled out, alone?

When I was only thirty-eight, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my neck.  For six months, I walked around stiff as a dry sponge, unable to turn my head from side to side.  Among the most frustrating aspects of this condition was the fact that doctors were unable to tell me what had caused it.  I was a runner, a volleyball player, a softball player. I gardened, I landscaped, I hiked.  I hadn't injured myself. There wasn't supposed to be any opening in my life for an injury like this.

Once, venting about the unexplained onset to a friend, I recoiled in recognition when she said, "Think about what is causing you a pain in the neck in your life."

Ten years later, I am symptom-free, a bona fide miracle.  I don't even have the residual pain under my left shoulder blade that dogged me after the majority of the neck pain subsided.  I am also blessedly free of the man I was with then, whose neuroses and passive-aggressive tendencies nearly broke me.  He was paranoid, depressed, unhealthy in a legion of ways; prime among them was his refusal to get consistent treatment.  He hated dogs and I think my children and I think, eventually, me. My life with him was a constant struggle I eventually shrugged out from under. 

My relationship with him is the one thing for which I harbor guilt.   It unfurls endlessly, fabric off a bolt, whenever I think of him.  If only I would have avoided it, I think, and then I chastise myself for not avoiding it.  There is nothing positive--not a thing--I took from our 6 years together. Nothing I am grateful for or miss.  In addition, I believe I brought on the irritation in my neck from the stress I invited into my life through him.  It is my fault; in a way, I made myself sick.

There. I said it.  I do believe that there is a mind/body connection, perhaps psychosomatic.  Sometimes, people's illnesses do reflect in a metaphorical way their condition in life, their needs or neuroses or quirks or unacknowledged fears.

But I do not believe my sister made herself ill.  But I do believe my brother's death shook her to the core, more than I can ever know.  But I do wonder:  does illness shape lives or do lives shape illnesses?  But I do know:  we can become, literally, our worst fears.

I was terrified of my herniated disc, of redefining myself as an inactive person, a person whose condition forced changes:  I couldn't carry the laundry basket up the stairs, I had to take muscle relaxants to sleep,  I had to have a special neck roll for my pillow, I had to work out with a neck weight each day, I had to stretch my neck 3 times a day, I couldn't run or bike or play volleyball.  My life was not my own during that six months; I wriggled under the discomfort a shifting identity brought me. I wanted control back; I wanted to preserve my well-developed sense of agency and control.

If that makes me neurotic, I will have to live with it.

The other thing for which I harbor guilt is a subtle, gut reaction of skepticism whenever I hear about an illness, especially a prolonged or chronic one.  I despise the part of me that despises weakness and analyzes other people's lives, looking for clues to their vulnerabilities.  A person who looks at others that way, it seems, must feel superior, above the pale.  I don't want to be that person, riding on a wave of arrogance that is bound to crash into sand pounded hard by its own settling.