I am ill. I have been ill since 2012. I have a great deal to be thankful for in that my illness is not life threatening. It is, however, prohibitive socially and undiagnosed. Trying to manage my symptoms has been like having a third job, (the first being that of earning money and the second being writing – whilst wishing the order of those two priorities was the other way around.) It is inevitable, then, that such a dominant part of my daily existence would feed into my ruminations on why I personally experience stories as a profound form of communication.
Before seeing an excellent dietician last week, at University College London Hospital, who was frank about how far medical science has still to go in understanding digestive ailments, I attended consultations with many practitioners who, when they could not find the cause of my symptoms, tried to convince me my issues are psychological. Since following the simple advice given me by the UCLH dietician my symptoms have begun gradually to dissipate. Thus disproving, at least to some degree, the assertions my problems are all in my head. Why did other consultants choose to doubt my experiences instead of acknowledging they were stumped? That question warrants its own research project but I believe, in basic terms, medical practitioners like to appear all-knowing. Therefore, it was in these practitioners’ interest to divine the solution to my complaints as being a somewhat subjective process where I myself could be blamed if it did not work – cognitive behavioural therapy. If no positive outcome was produced this could be ascribed to my own mental blocks rather than ignorance on the part of the practitioners’ of the true cause and cure.
As my illness has demonstrated to me, vested interests are oppressive and toxic. When my poor health first manifested and I found myself cancelling more social engagements than I could attend, forced to give up my job, sometimes unable even to go to the shops, supremely grateful for supermarket delivery services, to then be given disingenuous expert advice added stress to my psychological strain. Already isolated the experience of being disbelieved by consultant after consultant, because my symptoms do not perfectly fit any described in a medical textbook, convinced me no support would be forthcoming and my only option was to adjust to a life of almost no contact with others. This prospect was terrifying on a primal level and I became severely depressed.
Out of desperation, and with nothing to lose, I engaged in a series of unpleasant experiments and gradually learnt to control my symptoms to the extent that I was able to regain a semblance of a life. Until this attainment, during that time of independent experimentation, living in relative, necessary, seclusion, battling to maintain the will to persist with my trials, and errors, even when they yielded no immediate results, being warned by the medical profession the diets I was testing were damaging whilst being offered no alternative course of action, there was one place from which I was able to draw comfort. That was stories. In hindsight, I find this fact fascinating. Circumstance forced me to avoid my friends but fiction gave me an emotional substitute; a simulated sense of community. Being drawn into alternate realms in literature, television and film, becoming familiar with characters then following their highs and lows gave me a sense of interaction. That fiction has the capacity to affect people in this way is not a new observation but I want to understand how it is achieved. For, being transported by a story does not, for me anyway, provoke empathy, or sympathy. It induces a different feeling than when someone I care for shares an important life event, or when compassion is triggered by a documentary or the news. To be engrossed in a tale is to have the barriers drop and to quasi feel the experience, even though I myself am not one of the characters. It must be, therefore, that my emotions actually merge a little with the protagonists’. Hence terms like escapism, and suspension of disbelief. The subject of experientiality is vast and it is my intention it will come up again in future posts as I examine literary techniques and their impact.
However absorbed I am by a story though, I am simultaneously observing; communing with the creator, analysing the action for wider meaning, labouring to uncover the author’s intent. What I found in this activity was relief, because, I felt I was being communicated with outside of vested interests. There is plenty of manipulative storytelling art out there but there is also a great deal of work that uses the fictitious as a vehicle for penetrating what is challenging to us, and the potentially socially inappropriate but honest. The condescension of doctors made me feel hopeless. How could a resolution to my problems be found if, due to being inconveniently uncommon, they were being dismissed by the knowledgeable as imagined? But then I would return home, after an excruciating journey of praying my symptoms would not erupt on London public transport, and enter into a dialogue with a creative who had chosen to express his or herself beyond the pernicious influence of an executive decision maker. Not only were stories delivering rest and comfort but they also gave me hope not everyone lets vanity overshadow the quest for objectivity.
This last theme, the search for objective truth, I also intend will reemerge over the course of my blogging as I contemplate storytelling and theory. Exploring the design of a writer or filmmaker was enough during that bleak period of isolation to make me feel I was still in the world, that I was connecting, and that sense was sufficient to prevent my depression from swamping me. Which in turn, enabled me to find sufficient resolve to look for solutions to the inhibiting aspects of my undiagnosed condition. Even before receiving the excellent advice from the UCLH dietician my symptoms had abated enough that I was able to leave my house and re-engage with real people. I thank stories for getting me through that difficult time and I am so grateful.