Cartography 6: Six Of Hearts
On Sickness and On Health
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system and this is plausible because when an individual doesn't fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system.
Theodore Kaczynski, “Industrial Society and Its Future”
There was a time in my life when I planned dates with a person who wasn’t there. We would look at local movie times, hundreds of miles apart, pick out the closest approximate showings, and go into the darkness alone. Each of us would sit in silence, watching, and then we would reconvene to discuss it all together. It was a reminder for me that every experience is individual, that the reconstitution of reality required another viewpoint. With only one vantage, the darkness of the cave and the projections on the wall remained just that.
Love brings its own color to everything, even the movies. It makes dynamics hit harder, the endorphin surges feel more pointed and erotic. It creates a binary mind; the immediate question is raised of how the other person will see it, what they will think of this scene where a mute woman liberates the fish man she has fallen in love with. Critical theory and contextual discourse take the backseat when you’re mirroring the emotions on screen and looking for them to play out in your own life. Who doesn’t feel liberated by love? Who doesn’t see it as a sweet release?
Phantom Thread is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film about the love affair between a megalomaniacal fashion designer and the poor rural waitress he’s ensnared to be his muse. Over time, Vicky Krieps (playing Alma, the rural waitress) learns to subvert this structure, to make Daniel Day-Lewis (playing Reynolds Woodcock, the fashion designer) depend on her care, to make herself necessary if not loved in the way she wants. She poisons him. She makes him ill, but not ill enough to die This leads, for better or worse, to the two of them redesigning their relationship, creating a psychosexual power fantasy where their daily lives are inverted and the act of caring for a sick person becomes the most tender of all acts.
Who doesn’t want to be loved at their weakest? Who doesn’t want to be loved at their most vulnerable?
I had terrible asthma as a child. Unable to breathe if I overexerted myself, unable to breathe if I laughed too hard (what child has to fear laughter?), hacking up phlegm every time the breeze changed my body reacted to the pollen in the air. I kept an albuterol nebulizer with me, the sickly medicinal flavor coating the back of my throat whenever I took a hit. It opened up my airways, but left me gagging nonetheless.
Somedays, it was bad enough to keep me home from school. Sick days as a child are a calm memory for most; chicken soup and daytime television. I certainly had those days, but the asthmatic episodes felt instead like a prison. No chance to move too fast, coughing up wads of viscous snot every half hour, barely able to breathe when sitting still unless my body was perfectly upright. I dreaded these episodes; i always felt my infirmity right there, waiting for me around the corner the moment I leaned too far into joy or the outside world.
On one of these occasions, my mother split the day with my father. She came home and he went to school to teach the last two classes of the day. And we spent the afternoon on the couch, with the gray October sky building outside.
She had picked up a book on her way home, by Stephen King. It was already very clear where my interests lay; ghouls, monsters, vampires and devils. It’s one of the associations of a birthday near Halloween. Once the creeps come out, it’s time for cake and candy. My tendency towards fear notwithstanding, I always sought out the worst material I could. So my mother, in all of her infinite wisdom, spent the afternoon reading Cycle Of The Werewolf to me, spending plenty of time on the pages where Bernie Wrightson had illustrated the werewolf’s claw ripping through the face of a police officer.
I remember sitting there with her, feeling the flow and ebb of the story wash over me. I remember seeing the images, vivid and clean, like technicolor dreams on the pages. I remember realizing she was cutting out half of the words in the barbershop dialogue, and pointing to the page and reminding her she had skipped a word, spelled out F-U-C-K.
I don't remember feeling sick that day. I know I must have been, and I know the reason, but for that day, I don’t think about the grip on my lungs or the vicious cough.
I was too curious, too enraptured, too loved in that moment to remember my illness.
I was fresh to Philadelphia. I had spent the weekend at a friend’s place while one roommate had a party. One of my roommate’s friends crashed in my bed. No harm, no foul, these were halcyon days. Mi cama es su cama.
A few days later, a show with some friends, Tragedy with Woe and Plague Dogs. It was one of my first proper shows, only living in the city for two months. I caught a ride back home with some friends and joked about my sore throat, and another friend joked that I should be careful I don’t get Scarlet Fever.
The next morning, I woke up completely unable to swallow, every drop of saliva like glass against my throat. Turns out my roommate’s friend had also had strep just a few days before.
I had no car, no bike yet, no idea of where to get antibiotics to treat myself. I could just start walking up Broad Street, sure, and hope to find something. I could walk into the hospital around the corner and check myself into the emergency room and hope to foot the bill on my shoddy retail salary.
Instead I began texting the few connections I had in the city, a handful of friends with minimum means of their own.
One of my roommates, a wonderful woman, dropped everything in her day and drove me to the nearest CVS Minute Clinic she could find, deep in Northeast Philadelphia. We sat in the waiting are together, and after the 10 minute examination and subsequent subscription, she drove me to the Shoprite on Oregon Avenue and proceeded to buy me half a dozen cans of soup, Gatorade on Gatorade, and ice pops for my raw throat.
To be a stranger in the city, to already have so many friends, to be so taken in by the people I found, and to have one go to all those lengths just to help in the simplest of ways.
It’s hard not to love a city after that. It’s hard to not feel cared for. It’s hard to feel like your existence is inconsequential.
Mi cama es su cama, still. Mi ciudad es su ciudad, still.
I threw out my knee and made it home after a 3 hour commute. I spent the next week in bed, unable to stand for more than a few moments, and surviving off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lentil soup i was still working through. I didn’t make it down my 5 flights of stairs for days, and when I eventually made my way back into the world, I hobbled like a broken man.
The next week, I came down with one of the worst head colds of my life. Not as gripping as asthma, not as debilitating as Strep, but disorienting in the way few others are. The constant pressure, the inability to think straight, the fatigue and exhaustion of a body fighting an infection while you continue to press on with your day to day responsibilities. I feel worse when I’m at 70% than 30%, because at 30% I know I’m incapable of anything. At 70%, I can reasonably convince myself to tackle a task and proceed to fail miserably at it.
Living in New York, alone, has been one of the most challenging years of my life. I’ve kept my head down most days, focused on my work and not fixated on the alienation and loneliness that everybody warns you about in the city. Even with friends, people you’ve known for over a decade, nearby could be 90 minutes away and the reality of the Metropolis is that it is difficult for anyone to survive on their own. Caring for others can be an added burden, and fully aware of this, I commit to asking nobody for their help.
So I spent two weeks alone in my apartment with my cat as my caretaker.
Dealing with my own illness and temporary invalidity, I had to embrace a new method of healing. When I care for others, it’s rigorous: on the hour hydration, full meals three times a day, regular timed medication. I brook no objections, I take no shit. This is how it is done and you will get better according to schedule. I hate the idea of “softness” as strength. I resist it; I feel like it infects too much of our daily discourse and allows people cop-outs for situations where they should be more strict with themselves and others. I don’t deny its use, but on the whole, I would rather spend my time as a House-esque physician than a new-age faith healer. Even though I have felt its power in my life, even though I was a child who couldn’t breathe and a young adult with a ripe infection cared for by others, I couldn’t bring myself to give myself the same grace.
So I split the difference, and found a middle path. I kept myself on a schedule, but allowed some variance of an hour or two. I fed myself and made tea and read books and let the full experience of illness wash over me. I didn’t resist it, nor did I try to forget it in the fog of care and love. I let the fullness take me for as long as it needed to.
Here’s the thing about illness and myself: I secretly love it.
I love the feeling of coming back to health. I love the deep relaxation in my muscles when sickness leaves my body. I love the stench of my raw garlic and apple cider vinegar tea that I use like my grandmother does. I love the deep rest and the fever dreams and the monstrous visions when I half wake in the world. Even absent of the care others might give me, the greatest recovery I know is just that- recovery.
When I was done with my cold, when the swelling had gone down in my knee, I realized I had truly rested for the first time since I had moved to New York 15 months before. Since the 19 months before when my world had turned on a dime. And I could feel the shift in my axis.
It was like waking up and finding out everything before it was only a dream, melting away like the snot in my head.
In the ending of Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis discovers Vicky Krieps has been poisoning him, and gives in.
I want to be that strong. I want to be willing to let my illness take care of me.
Alma: “I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You're not going to die. You might wish you're going to die, but you're not going to. You need to settle down a little.”
Phantom Thread (2017)