photo of mirrored ceiling at diner

I’m still trying to figure out why I, in that medical appointment, responded in the way I did to the doctor’s question: “What from?” You might say that it was an inappropriate response to what might have been an inappropriate question; I didn’t know how else to respond, so I laughed.

There is currently no audio for this piece, due to the pneumonia.

 

I was diagnosed with pneumonia while on a family trip last week to New Orleans. We’d had one lunch at Commander’s Palace — me in my best pink beaded dress, feeling somewhat swoony, but able to hold things together enough to tuck into some shrimp & grits and two sips of a gin martini — and things went awry from there; what I’d thought was a cold, or bad flu, progressed. I began to wheeze and to feel a rattling in my chest. Soon, I was having a hard time breathing at all.

The last time I sought urgent medical care in New Orleans was in 2012, when I was shipped to a most unpleasant psychiatric hospital for ten days, so I was comparatively pleased to be listened to, assessed, and then told that I had pneumonia.

Said the boyishly handsome doctor, “And so I’d like to prescribe, in addition to antibiotics, a steroidal […].” But I’d tuned out after the word “steroidal.”

“Oh, I can’t take anything steroidal,” I said. “I have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. So steroids are something I avoid.”

“Ah,” he said, seeming mildly baffled at the disclosure. “Yes. They can induce mania, in some cases. Well, there’s something else I could put you on instead, but this one does run the risk of hyperviligance as a side effect—”

“NO.” I perhaps said this more loudly than I needed to. “I really don’t need any more hypervigilance than I already have. I also have PTSD.”

At this point I was beginning to feel more like a good ol’-fashioned Mental Patient with Too Many Diagnoses, and not so much like a Pneumonia Patient, which, as far as I know, does not carry significant cultural baggage.

“What from?” he asked, by which he meant, From what did you acquire post-traumatic stress disorder.

I might have paused here for a number of reasons. My PTSD seems to have originated from a number of sources, and I didn’t feel like going into them with this man at the urgent care clinic. And I also wondered why he felt this to be an appropriate question. Who cares why I have PTSD, good sir? You knowing this is not going to improve either your care of my pneumonia or my back-in-California psychiatric treatment.

So even though I could have told him that it was none of his business, I just said, “Rape.”

And then… I burst into giggles.

Obviously, it was not funny. I have a vague memory of Chris’s face, which was completely solemn and perhaps a bit dismayed, and a vague memory of the doctor’s face, which was also very solemn — probably because the only person who’s allowed to crack a smile in this particular situation is the person who’s just disclosed the trauma. I laughed until I began to have a coughing fit. Ah, yes, the pneumonia. Moving right along.

 

jesus figurine behind notebooks and headphone esmewang.com

“Shamanistic cultures view illness and trauma as a problem for the entire community, not just for the individual or individuals who manifest the symptoms.” — Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger, pg. 57

I’m still trying to figure out why I, in that medical appointment, responded in the way I did to the doctor’s question: “What from?” You might say that it was an inappropriate response to what might have been an inappropriate question; I didn’t know how else to respond, so I laughed. At the time I thought of the story of an ill-informed reporter’s questioning of Fiona Apple around Thanksgiving one year; the MTV interviewer asked if she had any “favorite or worst Thanksgiving experiences.” Apple was raped when she was 12, on the day before Thanksgiving. And so she looked at her sister, who was off-camera, and they both started laughing.

But I also cite Levine’s line about illness and trauma as a problem for the entire community (see this post about India, schizophrenia, and the importance of community) because I believe that trauma, and in particular sexual trauma, has profoundly isolating effects in American culture.

The significant traumas in my life have passed, and yet my physiological and psychological response to them have only begun to truly interfere with my life this year. While at times I’ve felt isolated because of the stigma that ensues from depression or psychosis, not to mention the actual conditions themselves, the isolation that comes from feeling unable to discuss trauma — and, often, even with those closest to me — is unlike any previously experienced isolation. There are the symptoms, which are hard to talk about; but there are also the actual traumas, which even the saintliest soul likely finds hard to stomach.

 

The book Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy, came into my life recently as a recommendation during Leslie Jamison’s keynote at BinderCon; it is a book largely about PTSD suffered by veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I bought a copy and began to read it on the flight to New Orleans.

Except that I couldn’t make it past the first fifty pages. This is not to say that I will never finish the book, which is beautifully written and well-researched. Percy, a journalistic nonfiction writer describing excruciating events and their correspondingly excruciating aftermaths, immediately earned my respect.

My inability to continue the book right now may be linked to personal experiences of non-war-related trauma. Or it may simply be because it is difficult to be a human and to read brutal depictions of what other humans are forced to endure. Why read that, after all, when there are so many options for escapist entertainment?

I don’t blame myself, although I do feel guilt. It’s the sort of guilt that I felt when I was younger and would, if I saw a daytime talk show about a person with severe facial deformities, force myself to stare at the screen until I no longer flinched. It’s a useless guilt, and self-serving as an indication to the ego that I’m not a terrible person. I can’t blame too strongly the silence that billows up — has billowed up — around the painful things that I, myself, try not to talk about. I try not to be angry at the turning away. And so one way of coping with this social blanket of silence, both self-imposed and other-imposed, is a sort of absurd humor in which I laugh and don’t expect anyone else to laugh. It’s the sort of bleak silence that erupted when I, in a group of writers who decided to go around the circle and share the hilarious stories of losing their virginity, said, “I was raped.” I may have laughed then, too, because I’d ruined the game — at least for that moment. I can’t say there wasn’t a bit of meanness to my actions.

 

antique apothecary bottle and necklace

One of the things I’ve learned in the past few years is about the limitations of the people who love you. Pain is hard for folks to talk about, let alone look straight into the maw of, and in particular if they love you — in which case your wounds may be deeply felt by them as well. This kind of love may look like ignorance, or sound like silence. Sometimes you don’t get the response you want, and that creates another wound, a blank space, to carry around with your other ones. You might make jokes about it. Laugh about that, too.

Then you wait for something like pneumonia to come along so that you can tell them that you have pneumonia. You don’t have to laugh about pneumonia, which is an infection of one or both of the lungs, and inflames the alveoli. People will come around. They’ll say, I hope you feel better soon.

And you’ll thank them. You will.

P.S. Related mini-essays, in case you’re interested: Reveil, or when we know what we hold most dear (a story about psychosis, Sweden’s national treasure, and things gone bad, good, and beautiful), On Robin Williams, mental health advocacy, and small gestures of comfort (“Later that day I was scheduled to go to a low-income mental health clinic in the city, where I’d give a talk about stigma, survival, and thriving to a group of people with an assortment of struggles, and all with a diagnosis of schizophrenia”).