To this day, I don’t know if misery started a reaction in my body or if it was simply coincidental; the slow, almost casual shift of hormones from normal to abnormal, natural as the waxing and waning of the moon. Is the opposite of sanity really lunacy, or are all women damned to the ebb and flow of the body’s chemical whims? One day I woke and couldn’t swallow. The afflicted area felt as if it was one entire side of my throat: icy, as if what had been there was removed, what was left exposed to the elements. I couldn’t eat because I would choke. When I drank, the trickle down my throat was like a mountain stream trying to pass through the narrow of tight rocks. In the mirror’s reflection, where I was already a stranger, I saw a swelling which I knew could be nothing but a goiter.
I thought of Madonnas in paintings with same odd physicality and the images I had been fascinated by when young. Not understanding what I saw yet tracing it with a small finger, the female instinct in illness to reach out and explore; unconsciously mapping the future body. I now wondered if she too, could not swallow, thinking instead that it was divine. Choked by the love of God, the miracle of motherhood she had not asked for. Unable to swallow because she was blessed, the body gripped by holy rapture. I was not choked by either—not even simple love, for I was not one of the blessed ones. What was happening inside me was chemical but not alchemical. A transformation whose end creation was neither magical nor sane in the eyes of others; haloed but unholy.
The doctors swiftly diagnosed thyroiditis, sending me for further tests. I felt that the goiter was a strange herald of an Annunciation without knowing what it was I was intended to conceive. What followed was an ultrasound of the neck, the strangeness of a procedure mostly thought of for the pregnant being done to me rushing through my head. The uncanny sensation of the cold jelly and gentle touch of the specialist tilting my neck one way then the other, as if it were precious. You might have to have it destroyed, she said, her cheerfulness at odds with the violence of the statement. Within the limited scope of my sight I looked around at the metal-enveloped room that glared but reflected nothing. And then I rose; out of myself but not completely, still tethered to shock by that hateful ring-like swelling—a reminder that one does not escape the body until the body itself is ready to release you, a combative relationship from the first gasps of birth to the last ones of death.
Some days later I was in an oncology department, having had a radioactive tracker injected prior to a scan. In the waiting room I swallowed cups of water as directed, staring at the distracting words of Shakespeare in front of me, changed because I now saw myself within them:
Have patience, madam: there’s no doubt her majesty / Will soon recover her accustom'd health.
I tried to imagine the tracker racing through my body as I lay on the table, the halo of the searching cylinder peering into my body. What exactly was it following? A light, a color in the blood, the herald’s words. Do not be afraid. In the end, they said it was viral, but could not say more: what virus, why or how seemingly nothing developed into something of such presence and disruption. It crept in like Gabriel, and like the Annunciation, I was to have faith in the mysterious origins of my affliction and its fruit, which I could not pluck. They placed me on medication to see if it would regulate my hormone levels. A cause, an effect, a remedy; a holy trinity of its own. I wondered when the Madonna started to develop her goiter.
The cold substance on my neck in the luminous metal room triggered a memory. Twenty-one, pregnant, the pregnancy divined: I had never taken a test. I felt a strange gnawing ache in my stomach, an undertow of retching dread, a wakefulness like a voice where the message was already forgotten but whose tone remained, sonorous and echoing. I simply knew. The jelly was now on my stomach instead: a room as dark as the other was bright; confirmation. The voice now in my head almost breathless with fear, for it was mine: you might have to have it destroyed. Might. It is a divine math indeed that allows a person to continue to calculate their possible futures even while paths disappear in front of them. A gentle hand wipes the jelly off my skin, and with it, might. I do not remember the faces of these technicians, both women. I only recall their hands, treating me like a sacred object in their sacristies.
With the rapt fascination that accompanies the novel, I pressed the tender fleshiness of my newly swollen neck and imagined a chrysalis; the place the sleeper lies before it emerges. The thyroid gland is said to be shaped like a butterfly. I thought if they destroyed it, whatever dormant version of me that was inside would be gone forever. A womb for a dreamer. How reluctant I was for this destruction to take place—a long-delayed, too-late reaction to the years of sleeping through an unhappy life. Is madness the state of imagining too many futures and having only one?
In the Ashmolean museum there is a curious object which, only being able to recall from a fragment of memory, takes on a meaning that perhaps it never possessed. A flat piece of golden metalwork in what was unmistakably the physical outline of the Madonna holding the Child, but the faces removed. The starkness of the vacant black holes drew me in with horror: why, when the shapes could belong to no others, were the faces left gaping, blank? I could look nowhere else but the abyss, looking for some recognition of its erasure. It was only after I forced myself to turn my eyes away to move on that I saw, next to it, a separate colour panel of their faces, apparently meant to slide in from behind. I laughed with the slight hysteria of relief, for it reminded me of those wooden life-size panels of couples at the beach in old-fashioned costume or lifting comical weights, the faces cut out for passersby to have their photo taken within them. The jovial fantasy lightheartedly made real. What fantasy then, was this? It seemed cruel that those spaces both in imagination and reality were the same. Was it a test of the faithful, to not let their thoughts and visions stray from the same narrow lines of holiness? In On Longing, Susan Stewart writes:
‘Since we know our body only in parts, the image is what constitutes the self for us; it is what constitutes our subjectivity.
‘Apprehending the face’s image becomes a mode of possession. We are surrounded by the image of the woman’s face … The face is what belongs to the other; it is unavailable to the woman herself.’
Unconsciously, in my youngest years the Madonna became the ur-woman. Unable to find an identity in the mirror’s image on the day my unknown illness started to metamorphosise, I reached into the recesses of my memory and replaced mine with hers. The complexity of women’s bodily subjectivity is enmeshed in solidarity, a solidarity that can become homogeneity when viewed by others outside of their gender or sympathies. What the Mary/Madonna was to the rest of humanity was not who she was to me; I longed to creep into what lay beyond the calm of her face and stillness of her hands and know what it was she dreamt of.
When I typed fragment above I must have erred, for it appeared corrected on the screen as garment. A garment of memory. How apt—how human—to drape one’s recollections in the garments of fantasy, a dress-up box for the fully grown, no longer with any other games to play. The Madonna, a woman unable to change, unable to dream: another’s vision thrust upon her. I have been fascinated by this for years, leafing through books of art; no matter who has painted her, what scenes she resides in, she remains the same: a woman of another’s purpose. And yet, the Annunciation—the acceptance of a fate which has thus far, remained eternal, whether you believe in it or not. I looked at that black hole and wondered what dreams had disappeared, swallowed by that nothingness. What garments would she have chosen for herself were she not predestined? I am the fantasy and the reality. The blasphemy and audacity of that thought, which has remained unchanged despite religion and secularism. How many of us can be both, and how many of us find ourselves at the moment of our own Annunciations, brave enough to reject the destinies of others?
The feeling of uncanniness from the neck ultrasound sank to the empty nest of my stomach. Rising, but not completely out of myself. Thinking of another room, this time white in the peripheries of my vision; it is mostly fixed on the ceiling where a lone postcard is tacked—palm trees and a beach. Something for me and every woman who has lain here before and will lie here after me to escape into. It must be the hand of a nurse who has seen too many women’s eyes roll upward in terror only to find white nothingness, the way I would later see that black nothingness. It must be a nurse who in a desperate moment, thinks anything must be better than that blank space for the eye to catch and hold on to. She is not wrong. We need an escape, something that gives us hope. That although this is no longer a path, there will be others.
On the morning of the procedure I felt the dread weight again, holding me down in my bed. It was not courage or willpower that dragged me out into the cold, only the nagging, unknown future that remained if I did not. Outside the clinic, a man jumps in front of me. Save me, mommy, he says. I am pulled away and into the building by a friend and a clinic worker in a colored vest. And for a moment, I am full of confused hilarity, no doubt the result of near-uncontrollable anxiety despite my blank expression. I say to myself, Gabriel? For someone not raised with any deliberate religion, I nevertheless find myself transposing moments of my life onto those paintings from long ago. Is it to remove myself from my own, or to ascribe a meaning to it I am so desperate for? A short while later, after the bland and comforting rites of administration, a doctor says, you’ll feel something like the snapping of several rubber bands, in an equally bland, even tone. It is November 1996, and RU-486 is not yet available in the United States. Despite—or perhaps because of—the deliberate calm of these rituals and voices, something breaks inside of me. I clutch my friend’s hand and howl; beside the procedure table, she weeps with me. We are mourning choice, for it is so often loss. I will not howl like that again until my thyroid days. Letting go of the expectations of womanhood where there is nothing but instinct and pain, I realise that leaving myself is the same as being.
Afterwards, in the near-empty rest area where we take the first of our antibiotics and they monitor us for a brief period, a woman across from me is lying on her cot, laughing and joking with the nurse. It is her fourth time. There is a melancholy to letting go of the possible. Watching her, I almost wish that I, too, were able to treat it with such lightness of heart, instead of looking backwards at the path that with every step forward, disappears in my wake, along with those gentle hands. Looking back, I remember this day and the similar days of other women as if they were paintings; the capturing of our trials, fears, and suffering a perfect illustration of the golden ratio.
My thyroid was shown to be over-active. Some of the things I had experienced were being incredibly intolerable to heat; unable to lose weight; sleeping constantly; palpitations; mood swings, shaking hands. I could barely get up in the mornings, and when I came home from work I lay on the sofa, physically unable to move except by enormous willpower. My limbs were heavy and thoughts blurred, the physical and mental fatigue that is experienced after the end of a day beginning mine. I went to bed early as if I hadn’t slept in weeks, and on weekends continued sleeping into the afternoon, only getting up because I knew I would be asked what was wrong with me—and that I wouldn’t be able to answer. I didn't have mood swings as much as I was constantly depressed, punctuated with bursts of such violent despair and frustration that I cried in body-racking waves that left me sore and hollow for days. The howling had returned, like a primal memory.
Pain was trapped, amplified and echoing, bouncing off the walls of my body’s cavity, looking for an escape, a silence that did not exist, the calm of that remembered postcard beach with its palm trees. All these things I was aware of as problems, though I was unable to articulate what Chris Thorpe refers to as ‘the shape of the pain’ in a play of the same name, the constants of illness you live with intimately and that have come to define you. Abstractly, I only knew that it was mine; when a doctor did a roll-call of symptoms to see which ones I had, there was not one I could deny. I said simply and not without relief—I just thought I was crazy.
I thought all of it was a punishment for my marriage. That I was going crazy and deserved it. That I was damned to bear and nurture it like a parasitic relationship. When I looked without surprise at the goiter that appeared overnight, it made sense, despite being so detached from the face and body of the reflection. Now marked for the eyes of the world, undeniable proof there was something irrevocably wrong with me. How we have been so marked in the history of our gender: whether divine or not, what has been thrust upon us to bear and separate us; without surprise, but the weariness of a collective memory.
Goiters and brandings, letters and lunacy. How many times had I looked at the moon and asked if this was all, this was completion, this was life. Obsessed with an old book on the mind as a child, as much for the sometimes grotesque images as anything else, one has stayed in my memory all these years. ‘Under a leering moon five women, crazed by moonlight, dance dementedly’. This image sits on a page, that among other things, discusses neuroses such as anxiety and hypochondria. The text evenly distributes ‘him’ and ‘her’ in examples, but what reveals itself is the strange divide of the transformation of mental affliction: men become brutes and still retain a kind of sanity, but women become otherworldly, out-of-body dreamers, no longer human. Not divine; damned. Held down by the moon, when what we longed for was to take wing like the butterflies. Nabokov writes of his early realisation of his passion for these creatures in Speak, Memory, lines which fill me with a parallel sadness:
‘On the honeysuckle, overhanging the carved back of a bench just opposite the main entrance, my guiding angel (whose wings, except for the absence of a Florentine limbus, resemble those of Fra Angelico’s Gabriel) pointed out to me a rare visitor, a splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail. As it probed the inclined flower from which it hung, its powdery body slightly bent, it kept restlessly jerking its great wings, and my desire for it was one of the most intense I have ever experienced.’
To be free, to be restless, to announce the beauty and even the horror of our own destinies. Growing up, the only butterflies I can recall were Monarchs, the colour of Chinese Lantern plants bordered with black and dotted with white spots. They fed on the leaves of the copious milkweed which grew in orphan patches of green in alleyways or beside the railroad tracks that crisscrossed our small city, and as a child I was their constant companion, gathering the plant’s sticky sea-green alien pods to play with. What I never realised was that they were toxic, so we were poison siblings: one emerging from its chrysalis of the same colour, the other to enter later.
I wondered again if the Madonna thought her goiter was a gift. Why was I so preoccupied with this? Because I hoped that it would reveal a glimpse of her humanity—her fallibility—to me, and in turn, show me how to respond to our shared affliction. Her divinity only obscured and erased what kind of woman lay beneath her beatific expression. Were her gentle hands enough to calm what had been thrust upon her as well as taken, forever erasing the paths of the women she might have been? ‘… from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d’ says Shakespeare of Macduff. And for her—what is it to be ripped from everything but the womb, filled and emptied for others, dreams and desires forever untimely, forever removed?
After one violent outburst of tears and anguish he looked at me incredulously—with disgust—what’s wrong with you. Less of a question and more of a statement. Crazy was what he was thinking. Not normal. He, too, thought I was merely depressed. A psychological, not physiological problem, as if these things must necessarily be separate, that my default faults were of the mind. Merely, as if it were an afterthought of one’s behavior that could be conveniently erased with a pill or two, instead of the sensation of being mired in quicksand, physically held down by the mind. The relentless hammering of distress, apathy, anxiety, hopelessness, and black excoriating despair that strips the sky and the very lights of the home of colour. When I said I was having bad palpitations, it was some sort of generic nervous spell, specific to women and deliberately manifested when convenient—a bit like what used to be called the vapours. I was trying to ruin everything, sabotage our lives with my body and mind. What I could not express was that I no longer had control of either, both weighted with an unknown affliction and removed from my reason. Was this the Madonna’s dilemma: laden with the destiny of child, and so torn from her own desires?
These things were exacerbated by our exchanges: talking over or shouting at one another, never speaking to—such is the way with relationships already long lost, its earth scorched and salted. Most of all, being unable to shake the idea that I was a problem whose issues required fixing for him and not us or even myself. If I presented as normal, then anything else was not worth considering.
What was happening was both mental and physical—separate but nevertheless intricately bound together, a knot too fine to unpick. I swallowed the small white carbimazole tablets they prescribed three times a day but refused the beta-blockers for my palpitations. Masochistically, I wanted to feel my heart in my throat to remind myself that I wasn’t crazy, once I knew I wasn’t dying. I forced myself to exercise every day, crying in the first weeks at how it exhausted it made me within ten minutes, imagining muscles elongating and wrapping around my bones, daring me to fight and break through their strangulation. A hatred of the lost years became my motivation to get through an hour. Some things started to feel better: I wasn’t tired anymore and my head felt clearer. Clarity is the wind that cuts through the fetid air of such suffering. But while the runaway beat of my heart ebbed, I remembered that the Madonna’s continued, the rise of a tide which never finds rest.
After a few months they took me off medication to see if my hormone levels would continue to recover on their own. Slowly, infinitesimally, they did. At the same time I was miserable, the feelings I had remained captured: wings beating against the mesh of the net where the breeze beyond could be tantalisingly felt. What was in my body was waiting to be fully recognised, brought back and released into life. What became clear was that when my physical self was ‘restored’, there was an expectation that I would be wholly fixed, happy, normal, as if the past was all due to that simple imbalance alone, the wretched years and words forgotten. Tabula rasa. The woman erased and reset, but not free to write and imagine her own future. What if those so-called lunatic women from years past were not mad, their moonlit dancing an attempt at breaking free from the selves they were trapped within, a grasping of another path? A full moon; the dreamer’s womb, pregnant with hysteric possibility.
From a curative standpoint, a positive change of and in the body does not always affect the mind in the same way, although it is attractive to think of them like puzzle pieces snapping into place. Whatever had been insinuated in the past—that a doctor could fix my mood, desire, and weight by pills, or worse, that it was me refusing to let in magical change and so instant happiness, I now knew was wrong. Regardless of a physiological issue to be addressed, it was not just a matter of doctors and drugs or exercise and positivity. It was seeing a woman as a person and not a homogenous problem with an easy solution, fixed and then restored to owner. I was damned to be a contradiction, fixed but unfixable. But is that in fact to be divine, to inhabit those two states of being? I remember Kate Zambreno’s words in Book of Mutter: ‘Any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate. I collect them for my mantle.’
That women like me can be—are—desired for those things fills me with a fractional hope.
I saw the knot that was my life—watched one string loosen itself and detach. And what remained was another string, knotted again and again on itself, so tight to appear almost hateful. I looked in the mirror and felt as fractured as if there were cracks in my reflection. There was no one I recognised, old or new, no herald divine or otherwise, to mark what was to come in my life. What change comes for me, I wanted to scream. When would I hear the beating of its wings, the metamorphosis I was promised in that swollen gland? Even now, when I look the Madonna in her painted multiplicity, I think of what rage trembled in those gentle hands, what furies and contradictions lay beneath the surface of her untroubled skin like a storm heavy in the air which never breaks but passes on, leaving only a soft blush of light.
‘There are many aspects of feminine behavior that should be interpreted as forms of protest’, says Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. My behaviour must have been a protest, but I did not know what against: if it was him, myself, or simply life. I did not know if I was protesting my inability to articulate my unhappiness, or the death of my desire for the person it should have joyfully consumed, who no longer—if ever—saw me as anything but another inanimate, possessed, or marked woman. Olympia, Barbie and her variations, Galatea, the moon-struck women, the metamorphosis from Virgin Mary to the Madonna. It felt like I was drowning. I became afraid of lowering my face to the level of the water in the bath, as if I would not be able to stop myself from breathing it in until I flooded my body into a stillness from which it could not be roused; like Ophelia, ‘incapable of her own distress.’ I did not know I was protesting, until I realised my body had taken control of my unorganised misery. It was then that I knew that my entire being was protesting against me.
Image: by Tomoé Hill taken from personal copy of The Mind (Life Science Library series)