I got sick when I was twenty-five. Actually, the story must begin differently. I want to tell about the time I went to Pipeline, my first summer in Hawaii, with my family and some of our friends. I’d swum out maybe twenty feet when a wave rolled me, and held me under. I came up in time to be nailed and pinned by another. Over and over. I’d fight up in time to be taken down again. How long this went on, I’m no judge. Finally, I realized I’d have to go down rather than up. I swam down, against every instinct, felt the sand, dug in, and dragged myself out. I might have been six feet from the beach. No one had noticed I’d been gone. No one had noticed anything.
So, I’m twenty-five, explaining symptoms to doctors, who tell me that it’s probably just stress, but they’ll run some tests. Then I’m sent to specialists for more conversation, more tests, different drugs. The dialogue always begins with, “It’s probably just stress.” I hear them, of course, saying that it’s my head that’s sick and not my body. But even as they’re saying this, the tests and procedures keep finding blood where it shouldn’t be. Ulcerations. Spasms. Faulty mechanisms. This kind of thing.
I see an acupuncturist. Practice yoga. Meditation. Search for my calm. I read an article in the New Yorker about hypochondriacs. Worry I am one of these. Vegan, I have given up alcohol, and for a time, gluten. I have kept food diaries.
When I am twenty-eight, my anger is volcanic. My mutinous body. This thing must have a name. This thing must be named. And I go to a specialist on my own. He listens very quietly, and then, as he begins his examination, he talks to me about Kurt Vonnegut. I am instantly calm. We are discussing literature. Everything is new.
A month later I have had a surgery that is painful beyond expression. A recovery that will require months. I will lose weight I cannot spare. It will be weeks before I can sit without trembling, sweating. By January, three months after the surgery, I can walk the dogs for forty minutes, only pausing once to catch my breath.
In February, I return to my regular doctor. Tell her that I am sleeping twelve hours a day, have dropped back to part-time at work. I ask for a blood test. She has my file in her hands, knows all they have found, and what has happened to me medically. An intern is in the room with her: tall, blond, too young. My doctor looks up from my file, to smile at me, and say, “Tiredness is the number one complaint among young women.”
And it is clear to me, as instantly as that day at Pipeline when I knew to swim down. The doctor orders a blood test, though the test misses what I know. What I am certain of. On the way home, I stop at the grocers. Buy a test.
My mutinous body. Oh, my marvelous mutinous body. My son was born in October of that year.