A Body on the Fritz: How We’ve Been Conditioned to See Ourselves as Machines
I do not believe in a soul but these past six months of illness, I am guilty of dislocating, of clinging to magic. Of wanting relief. Of being sick of being sick.
In the right room, my illness makes me a celebrity. People want to know what I can and can’t eat. They want to know what I’m taking and what the doctors think. I say, “This is boring,” and apologize for it. They say, “No, it’s interesting,” and want to know whether I’ve done acupuncture, and how I’ve been sleeping. I wonder if they want to know if it will happen to their own bodies. I wonder if they are glad it isn’t happening to them, whether they are storing information for that particular what if. The illness is not life-threatening but has been long.
usThe New York Times
When tech types talk about the singularity, and things like uploading a human consciousness to the internet, they salivate. But in me it strikes an iron hot fear. I do not think I am alone in this. I know that my glitchy body, with my reflux and also my thyroid disease and my spinal issues and my suspicious moles and my stretchmarks and my muscles and my 20/20 vision and my familial features and, and, and—I know that my glitchy working body is my life, is who I am, is the part of me which moves and collects and intersects with the world.
And on the other hand, there’s the fact that I am a writer and that I like to mistake my creative intellect for something apart from my body’s operations. My creative intellect is not ill, apart from the anxiety and the depression that do not usually, these days, disrupt daily activities. And aren’t depression and anxiety part of some writerly mythos? Aren’t they en vogue, even—people exclaiming on social networks about all their minute manifestations, exclamations read and liked by strangers across the globe? Isn’t it part of their brand? (Capitalism, again.) Isn’t social media the consciousnesses of bodies typing away from their own meat?
Some people are less cynical than I am about the community of the internet. Yet cynical, I participate and am under the same thrall of likes and factoids and premium content. And I do acknowledge that I am grateful bodily for the internet’s information, i.e. advice on restrictive diets for reflux sufferers, found on creaky, decade-old message boards. And I acknowledge that sex, or more specifically porn—once or still the internet’s most popular trade—is all about bodies, too. It is the representation of bodies feeling things designed to make other bodies feel things, internet as intermediary to pleasure.
I do recognize that my consciousness is the thing I’m most proud of. I am a writer after all, and appreciate the way my brain processes the world—appears to process the world, separate from my bodily experience—and the way it is able to assemble language. Even so, I am embodied, and enjoy sensory experience as it relates to pleasure and data, with regard to, say, sex and sound and smells and muscular movement and visual art, and also food, if the last less so these days. I do believe that the body is in some regard an instrument of data collection so that I may think and write. Even if fingers can think, they cannot do it alone. And if I regard my consciousness as my most essential self, then I am not myself essentially ill.
Or: I find myself a kind of manager of my body, the type who diligently attends professional development seminars in the hopes that I’ll become a more motivational and efficient supervisor. This involves all manner of appointments and diagnostics and treatment regimens and preparation and always remembering to have water near me when I eat so I won’t choke and not eating anything too tricky, which means too sticky or sharp or hard. When I have been sick for two months, three, four, a GI-referred ENT orders a pH test and a video swallow study to better understand.
When I’m hungry, I do find I gamble on eating, as I do with the nuts on the silver tray in the hotel lounge where my friends are staying. We are talking about Ethan Hawke, of all things, and I eat the nuts and chew slowly and carefully, and swallow with lots of water as my friends debate whether in the ’90s he had a masculine or feminine presence. “What would you have done if you couldn’t swallow?” one friend later asks. Hack and then spit it up in my napkin, I respond, with pride in this potential social transgression of necessity.
In all of this I learn that treatments are for most patients but not for every body always. For instance: It’s true that esophageal cancer has been linked to long term PPI use, my doctor says. But that trial was comprised of old white British men, all war veterans. What a medicine does to someone like that might be different than what it does to a thirty-something woman of Ashkenazic descent. And anyway, they all took that medicine for years, decades, she says. Much later I’ll report this to a rideshare driver. Ulcers, he responds. I heard it causes ulcers. I nod vacantly and then we end up talking about his father, who, in his seventies is losing his teeth but won’t go to the dentist. I remember one grandmother saying: “Once you lose your teeth, it’s over.” Says the driver about his father: “He won’t see his friends. I think he’s depressed.” “Sounds like it,” I say so certainly of this man I’ll never meet.
I am holding the strings of these associations so loosely. But these days I am a magpie for details about failing bodies. I wrote a whole novel about a failing body, or more precisely, a person’s reaction to the failing body of someone they love. My agent and my editor—smart people with far more expertise in publishing than I have—never wanted to include one part of my original query: “Hijinks ensue.” But it’s a book with some humor in it. It’s hard to know where to put humor in proximity to the idea of sickness, to the idea of grief. But sometimes the person dying is funny and sometimes the person grieving is funny and it isn’t a coping mechanism, it’s just a condition of perspective, just a quality of the body’s brain, the self, whatever that is. The uploadable part.
Bodies just keep being unavoidable. Bodies only sometimes in a sexual way. Bodies that break down dramatically. Bodies that break down in new manners enough to worry but not enough to alarm. Not enough to prompt care. Minor bruises of unknown origins. A toothache. A cut on the hand that makes washing dishes smart. I think: This is what life is like when you’re old enough to pay attention to your body, to have to pay attention to your body, to your unignorable, decaying body. This is what your life will be like from now on. A loss of one kind of innocence. Though as I say to my current therapist: Mortality is my most profound fear but I have never believed I wouldn’t die—not even privately, not even as a secret.
Recently I was talking on the phone with an old mentor whose beloved was confronting a cancer’s insistent return. It was intolerably sad to hear and to think about and, listening, to calculate the emotional pain for them both. This was true even though I’d spent the last eight years working on my novel, in which the father character is assailed, over and over, by cancer, and in which the narrator leaves her life so as not to deal with a body—her father’s body. I don’t know why I expected this would inoculate me from reality. As if writing the book should have been a vaccination or charm against the inexorable decay of all bodies—I was talking on the phone, slightly crying and circulating tentatively as if drunk around the transit station where I was to take a bus to a lab attached to the hospital for further testing.
As I say to someone I’ve just met: I have always expected any illness and injury of youth to come back and linger sinister. I do recall always thinking this. Or, sometimes I believe that how I think now is the way I’ve secretly always thought, the way a small kid has developed buds for all the teeth they’ll ever have. I am not lying but I am perhaps overstating. “An unhealthy awareness of decay and mortality,” is how I put it, talking to someone at a party. That must be part of your book pitch, says my interlocutor. I say, “It’s the opposite,” but don’t really mean it. I just mean my narrator pursues ignorance in order to avoid grief, and in doing so courts a studied callousness. She throws her body around, a corporeal nihilist, a cruel boss of it, watching with cool interest its new marks. This is the closest I get to wish fulfillment in my writing—the closest to fantasy. Not immortality but a working acceptance of the fallibility of the body. An ambition to watch it all go down.
Sick, my fantasies are different, complacent, imagistic. As I worked on the novel’s final edits, as I taught and escorted my body through its days, I endured the acid splashing like surf on sharp coastal rocks. I ran lyric and hopeless. Then I sharpened the language to near-uncomfortable points. Ill, drawn inside myself to soothe and irk simultaneously, I ideated wild landscapes where the components of the planet experienced great friction. Tectonia. Volcanoes were broad kids’ stuff, a pat figuration for rageaholics. I was floods and taigas and high tide and swamp, sulfuric water that ran at too high a temp. Polluted lakes, a six-pack ring choking a bird, an acidic dying reef. I could be a whole unknowable planet, ruined. The way we’ve ruined.
When I can’t sleep I listen to diverting podcasts to try and fall back; on a podcast about reality television the host reports how the cranio sacral therapy she got at a luxury wellness spa has frayed the nerves in her neck forever. I am thirty-six, but have been lucky. Here’s where I learn that damage and decay are often uncorrectable, something with which you must cope. But isn’t that something I already knew? I forget it and relearn it and forget it and relearn it: a most human ritual unto death.
My father’s cancer diagnosis came in the spring of 2010; I was a year out of grad school and had fallen in love, was doing long-distance. I can no longer remember how my parents told me. I imagine it was on the phone, me lying on my mattress on the floor in the last apartment I’d live in alone, little kids squalling on the other side of the wall, the undergrad above with her once-a-week sex date, and me, in pajamas, lying below an open window, a tide of prompted brain chemicals cresting over my gray matter, making me feel electrocuted and half-asleep at once.
On the train home from seeing my friends, a man walks through the car asking for eight dollars: “It would be such a blessing to take a shower and sleep in the bed.” He reports he has been sleeping on the cold concrete on a piece of cardboard or in the hard train seats. I think what an execrable thing it is to have a body to have to take care of, the body not like an employee or an institution or a machine but a body now somehow like a child. But then the second thing I think is how execrable our society is for not taking care of our bodies, for not even working to prop us up to work healthfully through a life of contribution, how execrable, how—When he comes back through, eating an apple, I pay the man for writing this with what cash I have. This comes from guilt and disgust in society. It does not come strictly from empathy like I wish it had.
I wrote my novel through my father’s treatments and surgery. It had started as an apocalyptic novel, the way many went in the early 2010s: A woman convinces herself that because her father has died, the world will come to an end. But as I wrote and was pinned by everyday apocalypses—also known as panic attacks, born of shock and depression and anxiety and the acrid expectation of grief and loss—I got bored of that, and scrapped it, just as my father began to tool toward remission.
On top of all my body’s disarray, it has been an ill winter: everyone sniveling with their raw noses. My students come to class in face masks or with makeshift TP tissues dragging behind them like germy streamers. I worry even a cold will compound my trouble; my doctor has cautioned as much. Even though I feel conflicted about antibacterial lotion—superbugs—I use it twice or three times a day now. Outside, though it’s been two weeks since any precipitation, ice veins the gutters and sidewalk seams. The campus grass is a dull beige scrub. I wash my hands until they’re parched and cracking. I am guarding myself imperfectly, and damaging myself in the attempt. I am fierce in the defense of my body because I want to avoid pain but also because it is the thing that carries my brain, which is to say my consciousness, which is to say (incorrectly, persistently) myself. Things, for a while, improve.
“Sometimes it’s harshest, and saddest, when the character has to keep living,” I tell my students every time they want to kill off their main character, which is often. They say they want to make their stories sad, but sometimes I don’t know if they really mean that, or if what they’re reaching for is a distancing, dripping pathos familiar from any weepy flick. I don’t blame them; there’s safety there.
Later in March, despite my efforts, my sinuses stop up and I swim hard to heave and eject the snot. The chlorine dries me out for an hour or two. Later I am gulping hot broth; my throat is coated with acid unto hoarseness, a chemical burn from the inside, harm of my body’s own making. The institution is at unrest.
I wake in the middle of the night and my palate and tongue and gums are coated with acid and it occurs: I no longer have faith in my body. By faith I mean trust. I thought my body was healing but here it is, glitchy again. When walking to the bathroom I imagine for no reason a blood clot in the leg, watch it dislodge and travel toward the lungs. Nothing happens: later, a callous steward, I fall back asleep while listening to a podcast about salad.
My grandmother was called a hypochondriac and suffered from moderate respiratory problems, sucked into a nebulizer and often briefly choked while eating, though it never seemed to bother her. Still, she was very healthy—functional, operable, brilliant—until she was not. At age ninety-six, a middle-of-the-night fall precipitated a stay at a nursing home and another fall sealed it, after which we visited her at the Hebrew Home with its fish tanks and bird cages in the lobby and the orderlies who complained loudly because they were not accustomed to being near those with sharper hearing. Or maybe they didn’t care if we heard. Certainly they were underpaid for and possibly traumatized by the work they did, tending to our aging relatives, some of whom were sweet, and some of whom were jerks and always had been. Most of the staff were people of color, many recent immigrants. Most of the residents were white. There was a system of power, or several systems of power in place, even as the residents’ bodies were increasingly in need, and this included their brains. My grandmother, here, rode into dementia’s squall, lost herself. My other grandmother had a much shorter stay in such a place, once she started dying. In both cases, their organs were simply at the end of their use. It was several years of all of this, though—I don’t mean to make it seem quick. The whole time I was writing the novel.
During Spring Break I undergo the pH test that requires a sensor in my nose for twenty-four hours, at the end of which I chat with the rideshare driver whose father’s teeth are falling out. (Does it alter your original reading of the anecdote, to go back and edit in a tube-like sensor traveling from a small battery-operated module taped to the side of my face and threaded through a nostril, into the back of my throat?) Later that week is the video swallow study in the hospital basement, during which I am required to eat a graham cracker sandwich stuffed with a kind of barium marshmallow fluff. Afterwards the speech therapist walks me to the elevators. Eat hard foods, she says. When you think food is stuck at the back of your throat, it’s just going slowly through your esophagus. Don’t cough it up. Just use water. The vagus nerve can mislead you, she explains. It makes bad reports. If you stop eating hard foods, it’s bound to be more noticeable when you do. Get used to it again. You’ll get better, though these things do tend to return and worsen with age. She says this last thing softly, this revision, this more bleak honesty. It is as if she is purposely materializing what I have always believed to be true. It is vindicating and mollifying both, though it doesn’t feel good to be right. I ride the elevator up to the ground level and go out into cold spring air, take a train, walk, swim, go home.
“Bad reports,” I repeat to myself. I have no illusions about the degree to which my brain, which is to say my anxiety, controls my bodily feeling of well being. It is when the body outstrips these powers, is on its own trip, that it surprises me, the idea of my body, and the fact of having one. Any wonder, with the power of that one organ—the brain—that we mistake its performance—the consciousness—for boss.
The advice of the speech therapist breaks the spell, once I have learned about the vagus nerve. I eat my food with plenty of water. I expand the types of food I can eat. Everything is much better though I am still not cured. When I stop taking my thrice-a-day pills as regularly, the symptoms come back. Things are still bad, just not as bad as they were formerly. At last I allow friends to pity me, which I find I like better than morbid interest or chummy bonhomie: Their pity seems like a realist act.
It wasn’t until both my grandmothers were dead that I could write the end of my novel. The grief removed some cork and the novel found its final shape. The whole time I was writing it, I had been depressed. My mind had bossed my body into an itchy, dim constriction. Eventually, though, I was less depressed. I am less depressed. Swimming the other day I thought to myself, “I am no longer depressed.” That sickness has left me, and will likely return. The other will resolve, then come back, too, some time when I am older and my flesh is yet more vulnerable.
Amanda Goldblatt is a writer and teacher living in Chicago. She is a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, and her fiction and essays have appeared in such journals as The Southern Review, Noon, Fence, Diagram, Hobart, and American Short Fiction. Hard Mouth, published in 2019 by Counterpoint Press, is her debut novel.