Review By Tess Tabak
When a slew of mysterious symptoms leaves you terribly ill, how long does it take to have your illness validated, to receive a diagnosis? If you are a woman, especially a young woman of color with patchy health insurance and little money, it can be a very long time.
In Sick, Porochista Khakpour takes us through her journey as she struggles with poor health, drug addiction, and a quest for a diagnosis. She also takes us through her history with Lyme, both in herself and others: a boyfriend’s mother who became seriously ill with it; a dog she adopted that suffered from the disease; the many places she visited where she saw and ignored Tick Check warnings.
Sick is engrossing, reading somewhat like a lurid “it happened to me”-type article, written by a literary master. She spares few details, including raving emails she sent to friends at the height of her desperation about the undiagnosed illness: “I’ve realized my urine is entirely too alkaline.”
The only area where Khakpour held back, to the book’s detriment, is regarding her parents. She notes that they have done some terrible things to her because of her illness, but out of respect she won’t say exactly what they did. However, in the book her mother does some extraordinary things for her: sleeping on the floor of her bedroom many nights in a row, flying to far-off locations when the act of packing up was too much for Khakpour to deal with. Without knowing what exactly the bad deed was, Khakpour at times comes off as bratty in discussing her parents.
However, for the most part, Khakpour has seamlessly preserved her stream of consciousness from her illness, even though doing so, at times, makes her seem unsympathetic, even crazy. Though her flair for the dramatic is high, Khakpour isn’t just targeting our our morbid curiosity the way some tragi-fluff books and articles about illness do.
More than a memoir, Sick is about the complicated ways we treat illness in women. Khakpour is repeatedly complimented for being model-thin after her illness leaves her unable to eat; but she’s also shamed and treated as attention-seeking for asserting that she’s actually sick. Doctors seem to take her less seriously because of her gender. In the opening, Khakpour is mocked by doctors for walking with a cane because of Lyme, even though she’s there for an unrelated reason.
Money, or lack thereof, is also an issue. Her lack of health insurance and sometimes poverty meant she was often forced to neglect her body; and when she finally does go to a hospital, she lands deep in debt.
A word of warning: Don’t read this book if you’re a hypochondriac. There are detailed descriptions of Lyme disease symptoms, and by the time you’re finished reading you’ll probably have diagnosed yourself or someone else with Lyme.
Or maybe do. Khakpour understands deeply what it means to be treated like a hypochondriac, and not have your illness taken seriously. She writes, “Women simply aren’t allowed to be physically sick until they are mentally sick, too, and then it is by some miracle or accident that the two can be separated for proper diagnosis. In the end, every Lyme patient has some psychiatric diagnosis, too, if anything because of the hell of coming to diagnosis.”
Khakpour describes her own reaction to a boyfriend’s mother with Lyme, how she refused to believe the symptoms she described were real, that they could be caused by a tiny tick. “I’d try very hard to recall my coldness to her over a decade later, my inability to channel full empathy, my distance from whatever it was that was happening to her that I felt so far away from, so I could understand better when it all got turned around on me.”
Sick provides a compelling portrait of the anguish that can come not just from being sick, but from not being believed.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.