I just finished reading, The Two Kinds Of Decay by Sarah Manguso and wanted to share some of her thoughts on illness. When Sarah was 21 years old she was diagnosed with a rare form of Guillain-Barre syndrome, CIDP, an auto-immune disease that poisons the blood. Sarah is a poet and this memoir is written in brief chapters with headings that describe different stages of the time in her life when she was very sick. Unlike me and my illness, Sarah was close to death at times but like me, her life was changed, re-defined, altered as a result of being sick.
In Two Kinds Of Decay, Sarah writes about the “Causation” of illness. This chapter spoke to me because it’s something I’ve wondered about often in my own life. Why me, where did diabetes come from? (Cow’s milk, genetics, eating too much sugar in a former life?) What made my body’s immune system confused, and begin to attack itself, myself? Why did my body stop producing insulin? And even, as a type 1 who is free from the blame so often heaped upon type 2’s…..what role did I play in this breakdown? It’s been proven that there is a close connection between our bodies and our minds. Certain illnesses are often psych-somatic, for example, when you get a stomach ache before a big test you can usually blame it on nerves, or when you get a canker sore when you’re stressed about something. We know that when we eat right and exercise, we feel more positive about ourselves and we continue the circle of good health. So what about when we feel bad, when we worry about finances or a bad relationship, do we then take worse care of ourselves and become more prone to illness, to catching a cold? Or do we take our worries, our bad feelings another level? How much power do we really have?
Of her disease, Sarah asks, “Was the CIDP a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness? Did the medication trigger the depression, or did the depression trigger the CIDP? What about those yogis who can lie down on a bed of nails, then arise, streaming blood, then stop the flow of blood from each wound individually with the power of their minds? Isn’t frailty often a choice? And if frailty is a choice, then isn’t autoimmune disease a semi-intentional suicide?”
There are people who will read this and be offended and think, rightly so, having diabetes or any other type of chronic illness, is not my fault. And I’m sorry for these disturbing thoughts. Many people don’t want to accept responsibility for a disease, don’t want to admit being different, feeling different or even that disease is a life altering event. Until recently, I folded diabetes under my skirt and went on about my life as if nothing had changed. I wasn’t going to let diabetes define me, or stop me from doing anything my friends could do because that’s what I needed at the time. But now it’s different, now I’m at a place in my life where it’s okay to accept my differences, I’m not afraid anymore. Now I want to look at my illness and see how it has changed me. And when I read this chapter, (the book is on my assigned reading list for my MFA program but I’d been wanting to read it ever since I read the interview with Sarah Manguso in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers.) I had to put the book down. The author’s words frightened me, but they made me think too, about ownership and the mind body connection. Why am I sick, how did I become sick and what role do I play in my disease?
The Two Kinds Of Decay is a beautiful, honest book full of questions about how illness that until now, I’ve been to scared to ask. “I don’t know if I changed because of my disease or in spite of it.”