Invisible Illness
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Invisible Illness

Bookworm and the Bulb

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A runcing light spoils my book, the bulb decaying to orange and split-crackling for attention. Discharge throes of the silent electrical world around me. We’re deep in the night, the bulb, the novel and I, with no shops open. We persist, nosing closer to the page. My glasses make no difference at this range, so off they come and of course there’s a thumb print to find in the morning. A coffee ring on the cover, which wasn’t me, fifty years old if it’s a second’s error. Why do so many things go wrong? This is too hard. Make a long arm, switch down the light. I was nearly at the end of that anyway.

I’m trying to break the habit of checking my phone instinctively, especially at night, too bright, never expecting actual living messages because I don’t give out my number at the drop of a… of a smile replaces that. I set the brightness to maximum because my eyesight is deeply screwed, the fear in my story.

In faraway news (everything outside my flat is spreading farther) there’s the story that some people have been asked to self-isolate for 14 days after a trip to China. The Editor is asking, how can people cope with stepping out of the modern rush? Big deal. I’ve been functionally self-isolating for a couple of years now. How many months, I’m not sure, as it took over gradually. I don’t need the world, my body and brain said, which is parity in a way since the world has made it apparent it doesn’t need any of my silly contributions. Except… for when I image search some old pics from my online profile, from when I used to care about attention and complexion, only to see my face is now being used by a dozen different people. Confirmation that some women are more fractured than I? Do they also forget, like I forget to eat enough until my unseen clock reminds me it’s dizzy time? I’m young and don’t really think it should be like this until you’re eighty.

There’s a dead sparrow on my doorstep today. Did someone put it there or do things like that just happen? I haven’t seen a sparrow in ages and wondered if they might be extinct. That’s reassuring.

I hold down my job in publishing because I’m good at it, with no unruly addictions or attachments. I’m conscientious, careful now and no longer refer to myself in the third person. They want me to take my smile up a positivity notch to host visitors, but falsely portraying an emotion I don’t feel should be irrelevant to my performance evaluation (I assumed. The request to work at an overseas office was meant to be a shoe-in). I have the sense I’m the only one here who has read the first definition of positivism, which I think presents an irony:

“A philosophical system recognising only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof.”

They don’t ask the men to fake smiles like Cheshire cats. Okay, I’ll play the cute card on clients, but that’s just professionalism. In my opinion, they walk out wondering what just happened. There’s precious little mental stimulation found in this workspace, it’s not what the market wants, although I could supply it. They want me to play skittles on office away days. Fancy that. Join in! You have to because you’re not drinking.

My only dependency is books, which I interpret as escapism from… from this, from having escaped what I could already. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing with my time on this planet. Probably not being cyclically inspired or miserable. Existing, settling bills. I help other people fix their books, sometimes, but have a nasty habit of deleting friendship circles when my mood tips. Autumn leaves have no reattachments.

There’s another article on the BBC tonight about this Day Game thing, where strange men approach you on the street and are interested in your life, ask how you feel and talk to you politely. I need an extra pillow. The piece says there are complaints, accusations, pressure around it being hard to ask them to leave because they are being polite and saying nothing inappropriate. I feel somehow that might not be my reaction, if someone stopped me on the street and they were also alone, if they took a real interest in me and I didn’t think it was superficial.

Frisson (FRISS-en; French: shiver), also known as aesthetic chills or musical chills, is a psychophysiological response to auditory and/or visual stimuli that often induces a pleasurable or otherwise positively-valenced affective state and transient paresthesia (skin tingling or chills).”

I hope he’d be bookish too; and I’d be demure, not desperate. Who am I kidding? No one wants to take on a partner with a significant sight problem, not for more than about two weekends in my experience, where every day you know that could be the last. Beyond the five day threshold, it’s harder to find the words as there’s an unspoken expectation on the browser to commit. Politeness is pressuring someone, nowadays, so it’s impolite to corner people and use it as a weapon.

It’s safer to stay well out of the games played against you, or by you. I can smell people’s thinking when they go silent, that if the sight thing is genetic, a responsible person wouldn’t pass that on. I take this line of reasoning quite badly, as I only have one life to pursue irresponsibly. We’re all so careful not to say things we think or justify the calculations we’ve made and that’s the reason it’s so hard for me to accept connections ending. I reach for one possible future, then plausibility drifts into impossibility without the coup de grace I need of a note and pencil diagram telling me where I can stick it.

The world constrains me to fit a plan that suits no individual living thing’s expectations. A whale goes through its entire life on Earth without ever meeting a jackfruit. They are both viable. Question: Should the world be optimised for the whale or for the jackfruit or for the hypothetical median composite form between both, a creature that cannot breathe air or water, eats sunshine, weighs fifteen tons and struggles to move? Or should conformism just leave us all alone?

It’s clearly unreasonable, untenable for me to join in and be a team player. Who wants someone like me on their team, when getting in busy people’s A-to-B way is my normal? “I am what I am” quipped Descartes, possibly Popeye, so I have learned to stop bothering the uncomplaining void with status updates. I have a physical diagnosis, sight degeneration, but there’s something else too; something I left out of the first draft when I wrote this.

I could talk to someone who used to act like an older friend, but now she’s just bossy. “You’re such a snowflake,” she said. “Your assault was nothing. You think what they did to you is horror? My Nan was a prostitute in the Second World War” — she likes to shock me — “and did her own abortions with coat hangers”. “You were what, nineteen, twenty? Then you were old enough to take it. They’re called homo erectus for a reason.”

What’s wrong with me? I read a J.G. Farrell book which had a man in India, in 1852, who bought a copy of Blackwood’s Medical Encyclopaedia and self-diagnosed from his symptoms that that he had about 240 different conditions, then died of despair, perhaps without having any of them.

The physical threat has ended, so what is this damage of the mind and can you consciously over-rule it? Only soldiers get PTSD, don’t they? You almost have to apply for it, make a deliberate effort, join up and travel around the world to where you collect it. People don’t get that by answering the wrong ad on Craigslist.

Then again, John Sessions once said that people don’t go spare like King Lear, where cataracts and hurricanoes spout, they break down doing the most ordinary of things, like bringing in the milk.

Just like the man in India, I know my own symptoms well: too anxious, so defensive, snappy sometimes with no reason, thinking I won’t keep my job or a relationship, seeing ordinary things that take me back. Waking suddenly.

I find I’ve lost a couple of hours to sleep, nodded off through thinking which has got me nowhere. My circadian rhythms aren’t right, I’ve slept on the phone and at least one of our batteries needs charging. It will be morning soon so I’ll be good and go back to the office and smile like a peach and answer “I’m fine, how are you? Yeah, I know, weekends are manic”, then on the way home, I’ll pick up a book and a bulb.

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We don't talk enough about mental health.

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Faith Jones

Faith Jones

Reviewer, Editor, Mars colony volunteer

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