On Being Ill
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“To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.” –Virginia Woolf 

I recently read one of Virginia Woolf’s lesser-known essays, “On Being Ill” (1930), which reflects on the issue of illness in literature, society, and in one’s own personal life. Despite being written in the 1920s, many of her thoughts and observations in the essay still hold true today. A lack of “illness” as a literary subject frustrated Woolf, who suffered greatly from chronic illness and pain herself until her death in 1941 at age 59. Nearly a hundred years later, I, too, often find myself frustrated with the lack of engaging, real stories about illness (especially chronic illness) in literature and film.

Writing about illness in the early 20th Century in England (and I assume in the United States) was not popular, nor hardly done, and certainly not published–with a few exceptions, such as Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of An English Opium-Eater” (1821), as cited by Woolf in her essay. Why weren’t people writing about it? Was it a taboo subject? Too boring? Too low-brow to have a place in the prestigious literary world of that place and time? Woolf opens “On Being Ill” with the following observation:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed…what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.1

Reading this, I imagine all of the people of past decades and centuries who must have suffered in silence from chronic illness and disease–those who survived, anyway. Or, maybe they weren’t completely alone in their suffering, hopefully, yet a lack of published material about living with illness would make one think so. Woolf argues against the separation of the mental/spiritual and the body, and asserts that the two are inextricably connected in life and perhaps should also be in literature.

All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June,” says Woolf. She continues to profess that the body must experience everything, health and illness included, and “the whole unending procession of changes until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes”2.

Today we all know that there is a strong, inherent connection between the body, mind, and soul, yet there still exists much stigma surrounding illness in society and especially in popular culture. Of course there are the few token films about a sick or disabled character “rising above it all” to “beat the odds” in some sickeningly heart-wrenching tale. Or books that tell similar stories of lives interrupted by disease (I’m thinking of Lisa Genova’s book Still Alice right now, which is one story that actually does not have the “beating the odds” ending).

There are plenty of memoirs and fiction books written about mental illness and addiction, such as Prozac Nation; Girl, Interrupted; Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia; Lucky; A Million Little Pieces; The Night of the Gun; Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood; The Bell Jar; Mrs. Dalloway; She’s Come Undone–to name several.

But what about literature that focuses on chronic illness such as autoimmune and neurological diseases (and others)? Or books whose characters suffer from physical disabilities? I can only think of four off the top of my head, probably because I’ve read them all: Still Alice (which I already mentioned), Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and My Left Foot. I just started Jojo Moyes’ New York Times bestselling novel, Me Before You, which I’m interested to read based on its controversial subject matter and a couple of reviews I’ve read from others with RA. We’ll see how that goes.

While there is certainly more material published about mental illness in today’s literature compared to during Virginia Woolf’s time, I would argue that there’s still a big void regarding physical illness and pain. The noticeable lack of realistic films about illness and physical disability is also frustrating. However, I must say that Jennifer Aniston in the film “Cake” did an excellent job of depicting the life of someone who suffers from debilitating chronic pain.

Woolf observes in the essay that one particular obstacle or hindrance regarding illness in literature is that there’s a lack of language for it. It’s difficult to find words to accurately describe what illness and pain really feel like and what the true experience is for a person. Woolf points out:

English has no words for the shiver and the headache. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.3

Or, try to describe to a doctor the stabbing burning pain of an ankle seemingly impaled with 20 razor-sharp knives that never release–when that description actually pales in comparison to reality. Doctor, that pain I just feebly tried to describe? Let’s multiply it by 1,000 and we’re still nowhere close to the real thing. 

The limitations of language when trying to get someone to understand how you’re feeling, to understand your pain, can be maddening and isolating. Not only are the physical sensations difficult to explain, but there seems to be no words to adequately describe the mental torment of living with RA. How do you tell someone how it feels to be scared to death that you’ll never be healthy and whole again? How do you describe that heavy, sick feeling in your stomach when you think, once again, about the wasted years and your wasted youth, stolen by this disease? There are no words.

Another aspect of illness that Woolf touches on in her essay is the sympathy (or lack of) from others. She claims those who suffer from illness cannot really have sympathy; people don’t have time to take on others’ burdens and pain, and nothing would get done in life if they did.

“Buildings would cease to rise,” writes Woolf. And “roads would peter out into grassy tracks…”4
Woolf claims that a common “side effect” that results from attempts at sympathy from others often turns into a laundry list of their own illnesses. She writes that a person’s “own suffering serves but to wake memories in his friends’ minds of their influenzas, their aches and pains”5.

How true is this? I can’t count the number of times I’ve begun to tell someone about my RA when I invariably get interrupted with woeful descriptions of his or her creaky knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, or a bout of the flu that was “so bad and painful.” This may be one reason why I don’t generally talk about my RA with others who don’t also have the disease. The lack of true empathy and sympathy from most able-bodied people is disheartening, albeit understandable.

Another part of the essay that stood out to me is Woolf’s declaration that, “Illness is the great confessional.” She adds, There is a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.”6

I love this statement and quote and I can’t agree more. When you’re sick and in extreme pain, you often don’t have the energy or the time to be restrained, polite or “respectable.” There can be a rawness to one’s personality when ill; sensations are heightened, inhibitions are lifted, and walls come down. Life becomes much more real, and small, petty things don’t matter anymore. However, I’d argue that many of us with chronic illnesses often try to conceal our pain, due to others not being very supportive or receptive of those “blurted out” truths.

Despite her self-proclaimed limitations of language, Woolf evokes with impressive accuracy what it’s like to be ill, “a sufferer,” and alone in a world full of healthy, productive people. In illness, “we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters,” she writes. “They [the soldiers] march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn.”7

I, too, often feel like a deserter of life and a dead leaf on the lawn. Or that my life is wildly out of control and “helter-skelter” due to the unpredictable nature of my RA. Yet in the midst of all of this pain and isolation and craziness of living with illness, Woolf pauses to remind us that something good can come from being ill. The sacrifice of not “marching to battle” can enable us “to look round, to look up–to look, for example, at the sky”7 Maybe being ill is a sort of gift that allows us to see and feel things we otherwise might have missed. I like to think of it that way, at least.

If Virginia Woolf were alive today, I would thank her for writing this essay and for having the courage to share her truth on the unpopular topic of illness. I’d also thank her for reminding me that it’s good sometimes to be a “deserter,” floating on the stream, and looking up at the sky.

view references
  1. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Pages 3-4
  2. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Pages 4-5
  3. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Pages 6-7
  4. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Page 9
  5. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Pages 8-9
  6. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Page 11
  7. Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. Ashfield: Paris Press, 2002. Page 12
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