On Illness and Art
I was recently sick with Covid after eluding it for three years. I felt like I was a fugitive in hiding, living in the shadows (with a mask on), but then Covid caught me, as if I was an anonymous character in a horror movie.
This was a serious matter because I have a condition that puts me in a higher-risk group, but once I realized the throes of Covid weren’t going to kill me, I sunk into it.
The fact is I secretly covet being sick. This is strange, I know, but illness is the rare life event that can cause life to stop, which is a gift. Illness brings me closer to myself in mysterious ways. It declutters my mind. It melts my arrogance. It waters my humility. Suddenly, I can focus all of my attention on the essentials: trying to be well.
Even a vacation doesn’t stop life in such a way because the me that makes me, me tends to march on. It’s hard to make the rhythm of my marching stop.
But sickness has a beautiful way of wreaking havoc with my body while returning me to my soul. It’s a type of drug (which makes it especially appealing to me as one who no longer imbibes). It’s a creative elixir. When I’m ill, I often feel as if I’m a seer. I gain access to a whole new terra incognita of the mind.
It’s interesting to me that illness is often portrayed as being unnatural — that we have to bounce back to “be ourselves again.” The irony is that as I recovered, part of me wanted to stay sick because I felt more myself in that solitary hovel of illness, and I was afraid the real world would take that away. Being out of sorts was preferable to being in sorts (because being “in sorts” in my normal “health” sometimes feels so out of sorts).
I thought about how in the 19th century, tuberculosis was considered a disease of passion, of “inward burning,” of the “consumption” of life force. Sufferers were thought to have superior sensibility. The illness purified them of the dross of everyday life.
I feel such purification when I’m sick. In the wrenching possession of a fever, the violence of a virus, I’m transformed into a supplicant, more humble, more grateful, more connected to others. Somehow the universe opens even as it closes.