It wasn’t the best news of our lives or the best news we’d had in a while or any kind of good news at all.
We didn’t know it yet, but a late stage Lyme disease diagnosis was only the slightest bit better than no diagnosis at all.
Undiagnosed disease carries a profound social stigma, especially if you’re a grown man. The breadwinner for your family. But Susan Sontag tackles another highly stigmatized illness sub-category — the misunderstood and, therefore, metaphorical sickness. According to Sontag, people tend to use Illness as Metaphor when they don’t understand the illness, when there is no cure, or when the causes are mostly unknown. As a disease becomes more fully understood, it naturally becomes less metaphorical and less stigmatized.
In the Romantic era, for example, Consumption became widely aestheticized as the literary disease. The Romantic disease. The disease that took the young, the beautiful, the genius who burned too brightly. That’s how it got its name — to have Consumption was to waste away, to be consumed from the inside out. To be consumed, physically, by the strength of your passion, the inferno of your mind and your soul.
More recently, Cancer has been figured as a disease of repression. Not of burning out like Consumption but of holding back — holding back emotion, desire, your life energies. Until all that you’ve held back begins to grow, malignantly, inside you.
As an English person, I’m reluctant to ever question metaphor — except when metaphor does real damage to real people. The biggest problem with these sickness metaphors we create is that they’re invented to comfort the well, not to comfort the sick. We invent them to reassure ourselves. To pretend that we’re above sickness. To pretend that sickness is something that issues from the sick instead of something that happens to them. Something about her personality caused the sickness. Some poor choice he made — a choice that I’ve never made and never would make — that’s what caused the sickness. Though we’d never put it this way, though we like to think we’ve progressed past this point, we all still have a tendency, in the face of inexplicable, frightening illnesses, to say: Well, someone really messed up here. To ask: Who sinned?