The ecstasy of illness

I just got back from a 5-day trip to London, the first since late 2019, before coronavirus ravaged us all. It was chaotic and hectic and joyous and exhausting and smutty and grounding, everything I wanted and more. The day before I went home, I woke up with a mildly sore throat, and the day I left, it had graduated to stonking. By the time I’d got back to Devon, conked out, and slept deeply, it was clear that this was a proper illness.

Of course, I was haunted by the regular trifecta of modern health: did I suck too much cock and pick up gonorrhea, AGAIN? Did I contract coronavirus despite being double-vaxxed? Have I got something nasty like tonsillitis that will require a trip to the hospital?

Fortunately, it seems like none of these are the case, and I simply have a good old-fashioned Ailment. The first I’ve had in about five or six years, very much to my chagrin, given that I’m much healthier now than before.

And yet, due to this lengthy absence from ill health, I managed to forget the joys of it.

As a self-employed writer, any kind of mental health crisis, emotional breakdown or unexpected holiday has been tempered by the anxiety Should I be squeezing some work in? It seems impossible to exist today and not be obsessing over our work quota. At first, during this illness, I was met with the same thoughts—sure, I can’t do recording work, but I don’t type with my larynx! But a few hours into Monday morning, upon realising how rotten I felt, I just gave in and accepted that I wouldn’t work.

About eight years ago, I got a nasty case of the flu. I was staying at my parents’ house, between rueful bouts at university, and my boyfriend at the time was visiting. It was one of those soul-crushing flus, the kind that makes you regret taking life for granted before, although it seems self-indulgent to describe it that way given the current pandemic. Either way, I was confined horizontally to the sofa for several days, vomitting up anything other than ice or sips of water that I tried to ingest.

That didn’t stop my boyfriend from trying to express his love for me through cooking, and that was one of his loveliest traits. He made me a ginger-and-something soup that I threw up very quickly, and I couldn’t eat anything ginger-flavoured for months afterwards. Still, I have oddly fond memories of lying catatonic on that sofa, consuming the autistic comfort food of Aladdin dubbed into French on the television, murmuring to my boyfriend how much I loved him.

Or perhaps I made that last part up. My memory is a bit shit, and I was quite delirious. But there is something touching about how a serious illness—at least, ‘serious’ enough to grind the cogs of capitalist productivity to a halt—can revert us to our basest instincts.

Suddenly, cuddling up in bed with a stuffed animal and sucking on Strepsils, or breaking a day-long fast with a bowl of Heinz tomato soup and buttered toast seems gorgeous, vital even. It is in this weakness, this powerlessness, that our true self is revealed, and we are committed to loving it until it is strong enough to face the pummeling vagaries of everyday existence.

Of course, not all do. Some of us soldier cowardly on, pouring our fevered sweat into the machine in a desperate attempt to lubricate it. Not all of us can rest. Many must labour until our muscles fail and our eyelids shutter. Some of us live with sickness every day, its severity being gradually chipped away by carers who do not care for us.

Nevertheless, when we can feel it, I think there is an ecstasy in illness. There is a nakedness to our needs, desire, our reliance on other people. We are flayed open, bugs without exoskeletons, and we cannot put the pieces back on by ourselves.

Perhaps it is just that: in a world that insists we must be independent, illness reminds us that we cannot. We are all inextricably linked.

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