When I was 20 years old, I found out that my blood was poisonous. I remember opening up an official-looking letter, informing me that the cord-blood that I had donated after giving birth to my son had tested positive for Hepatitis C. I was told to talk to my doctor for more information.
I would learn from my doctor and from countless books and web searches that I had a disease that attacked the liver. It was passed through blood — needles, unsanitary tattoos, childbirth and blood transfusions (how I had contracted it). I learned that I would likely feel fine for many years, and then, after a while, my liver could start to break down, it would stop cleaning my blood. I would become jaundiced and confused and might die a pretty horrible death. But even then at 20, even with no symptoms, it was still in my blood — waiting. Waiting to make me sick, waiting to make others sick.
For almost two decades I lived like my blood was a ticking timebomb. For almost two decades I had to warn every partner, every doctor, every dentist to stay away from my blood. For almost two decades every sore muscle was a sign that it was getting worse, every forgotten task was a sign the brain fog was setting in. My body was not my body anymore, it was a collection of signs, warnings, dangers. My body was a terrifying place to live in.
In order to live with a body that terrified me I swung back and forth between two extremes. For 6 months I might obsess over control. I would exercise for hours every day, count every calorie. I would hop on the scale each morning knowing that the number would tell me if I was winning this battle against my body. I couldn’t get rid of the poison in my blood, but I could control everything else.
Then, when the control that I sought failed to make my body feel any less terrifying, I would disconnect completely. I would ignore my body altogether. It was no longer mine. Any pains I felt were just my imagination. Any nausea was just nerves. My body wasn’t to be trusted or listened to in any way. This landed me in the emergency room a more than a few times over the years when my body had to quite loudly assert that it was not in the habit of making shit up just to annoy me.
A few years ago I was finally approved for the very expensive new treatment for Hepatitis C. After three months of medication, the poison that had lived in my blood for most of my life was gone. Just like that. My body was just…my body. And I was a complete stranger to it.
It was a strange grieving process when I realized that I had spent almost two decades disconnected from my body. It was shockingly sad to realize that the body I had now — the harmless body free of disease — was the same body it had always been. It had been carrying me, fighting for me, and waiting — just waiting — for me to decide to live in it.
I was just starting to get to know my body when the COVID-19 outbreak happened. Suddenly - when a deadly virus can look like a cough or a headache or a bit of fatigue — my body became a harbinger of doom again. What is that tickle in my throat? No, it’s surely not something as simple as “I’m thirsty” — it is death. What about that headache? Allergies? No, of course not. My body would no longer talk to me about what it needed — what I needed — it was no longer my body. It was either a carrier of COVID-19 or it was waiting until it would be. I would be vigilant — I would stay indoors and I would wash my hands and sterilize my groceries and I would only know that it was working in the end, if I made it through. There was no positive reinforcement to be found in my body.
Desperate for some sense of control I started to dream up workout plans — what if instead of just coming out of this alive I came out ripped? What if I suddenly turned into someone who loved exercise? Could I build a home gym? No? Ok, ok, what if instead I became compeletly cerebral? What if I focused solely on intellectual pursuits and not just finished my current book, but wrote two more? What if I read every single book on feminism I could think of? What if I turned myself into a walking encyclopedia of race studies?
These impulses come and go. This desire to either control my body or ignore my body feels constant, and it feels better than the rising panic of each twitch, ache or cough. But I’m trying to remember what I had just begun to learn when this outbreak started — that my body has always been on my side. My body has always been doing its best. My body has always been talking to me. It has been telling me what I need in the best way it knows how. My body has not been waiting to get me, it’s been actively fighting for me, this whole time.
It doesn’t always help. No matter how many times I try to remind myself that my body loves me, I still feel like I need to be sedated at the slightest headache, lest I start hyperventalating. But I am trying to hold a little space for the idea that my body is likely trying to tell me something else. That my body is trying to tell me that I’m thirsty or tired or that living with the fear of pandemic is fucking exhausting. I’m trying to remember that my existence every day is a gift and the positive reinforcement I need, and that “getting through this” is all that my body wants to do — it doesn’t care if I write two more books or start lifting weights, it is focused on my survival. It always has been.
I don’t know if I’ll get sick. I really hope I won’t. But I do know that if I do, it won’t be because my body failed me. With every heartbeat and every breath my body is working miracles. No matter its size or shape, no matter whether or not I suddenly take up jogging or finish that next book, my body is doing its job. It is holding me to this plane of existence. It is making me happen. I owe it the pleasure of my company once in a while.
I don’t know how relatable this will be to anybody. But if suddenly you feel at war with your body, if suddenly you feel like you must remake your body, if you suddenly feel like your body is a scary place to be: I hope you might hold space for the truth that all your body wants from you is for you to live in it, and that your body is working every day to make that happen.