His head is filled with pain, like a bowl brimful of scalding water. It is a strange, confusing kind of pain – it drives out all thought, all sense of action. It saturates his head, spreading itself to the muscles and focus of his eyes; it tinkers with the roots of his teeth, with the byways of his ears, the paths of his nose, the very shafts of his hair. It feels enormous, significant, bigger than him.from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
This description of an anxiety attack in Sally Rooney’s Normal People is particularly accurate for a specific sort of anxiety and, especially as it proceeds, becomes exceptionally detailed and therefore very helpful to anyone trying to understand what a sufferer of such an attack goes through.
His anxiety, which was previously chronic and low-level, serving as a kind of all-purpose inhibiting impulse, has become severe. His hands start tingling when he has to perform minor interactions like ordering coffee or answering a question in class. Once or twice he’s had major panic attacks: hyperventilation, chest pain, pins and needles all over his body. A feeling of dissociation from his senses, an inability to think straight or interpret what he sees and hears. Things begin to look and sound different, slower, artificial, unreal. The first time it happened he thought he was losing his mind, that the whole cognitive framework by which he made sense of the world had disintegrated for good, and everything from then on would just be undifferentiated sound and colour. Then within a couple of minutes it passed, and left him lying on his mattress coated in sweat.Sally Rooney, Normal People (Faber & Faber, 2018), p. 206.
It took two epidurals to deliver John. My husband asked me whether I had noticed the obstetrician stroking my thigh during labour. I hadn’t, but I knew I had hugged his arm for comfort. When he placed John at my breast he said, ‘No more babies, you have one of each now and you’ve done enough.’ It was strangely reassuring to hear him say that. He restricted my visitors and arranged that I get an extra night’s rest in my overheated hospital room that smelled of rotting grapes and wilting lilies.
The essay, which was reproduced in full by RTÉ Culture (here), is quite the indictment of how our society was/is constructed when it comes to supporting parenthood, particularly pregnancy, labour and early motherhood, and especially in relation to women’s careers. There is a very revealing flashback scene in which the author is confronted by a classmate on her first day as a law student:
‘Look around at all the women,’ he said. ‘For every one of you, there’s a man sitting home right now that didn’t get in. Most of you are going to get married and have children anyway. What a waste.’
‘In their secret being, dignity and hopelessness clasp, to emerge vacantly, as inscrutable amnesia, or, sometimes, as an unknown actor or actress, a weeping or a laughing clown. Tears and laughter in such conditions are true, yet unrelated often to the experienced primeval instincts. There is an obvious emotional numbness, but it is often a mask or disguise, assumed, that precludes questioning. One becomes aware of all the defence mechanisms, the pathetic remains, of human dignity. To the stranger they appear odd, aloof, unfriendly and unapproachable. To the initiated, their eccentric behaviour merely demonstrates, in many guises, their own pent-up emotions and disappointments.’ (Hanna Greally, Birds’ Nest Soup)
Dr Grene: ‘For the first time I have noticed the effrontery, I think that is the word, the effrontery of my profession. The come-around-the-back-of-the-house of it, the deviousness.’ (The Secret Scripture)
Contemplating the idea of writing about her child’s cancer, the Mother, in Lorrie Moore’s story ‘People Like That…’, says to her husband ‘This is irony at its most gaudy and careless. This is a Hieronymus Bosch of facts and figures and blood and graphs. This is a nightmare of narrative slop. This cannot be designed. This cannot even be noted in preparation for a design –‘
Reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, from which:
“the overwhelming spell that we continue to cast on one another, right down to the end, with the body’s surface, which turns out to be … about as serious a thing as there is in life. The body, from which one cannot strip oneself however one tries, from which one is not to be freed this side of death.”
“[Jerry:] The operating room turns you into somebody who’s never wrong. Much like writing’. [Nathan:] ‘Writing turns you into someone who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.'”
As a young doctor, Sassall “had no patience with anything except emergencies or serious illness… He dealt only with crises in which he was the central character: or to put another way, in which the patient was simplified by the degree of his physical dependence on the doctor. He was also simplified himself, because the chosen pace of his life made it impossible and unnecessary for him to examine his own motives.”
As he matured as a doctor, Sassall exchanged that obsession with the “life-and-death emergency for the intimation that the patient should be treated as a total personality, that illness is frequently a form of expression rather than a surrender to natural hazards.”
From Follies & Fallacies in Medicine by James McCormick, Peter Skrabanek:
“The aim of our book is to reach inquisitive minds, particular those who are still young and uncorrupted by dogma. We offer no solutions to the problems we raise because we do not pretend to know of any. Both of us have been thought to suffer from scepticaemia* but are happy to regard this affliction, paradoxically, as a health promoting state. Should we succeed in infecting others we will be well content.
*Scepticaemia: An uncommon generalised disorder of low infectivity. Medical school education is likely to confer life-long immunity.”
(Thank for reminding me, Colman.)