I always imagined that it was my lifetime of poor health that left me so alienated from my body, living instead fully in my anxious and loquacious mind. But now, in the midst of my most profound period illness, I find I have taken on a new intimacy with my body.
There is something strangely beautiful about the body unraveling, something that brings the invisible warp and woof of our most microscopic fibers and the pistons and gears of our very cellular functions into a kind of brilliant relief— tactile and electric. At night, as strange currents run through my arms and legs, I feel as if I have been granted a kind of x-ray vision through which images of the inner workings of my veins and nerves appear one after another behind my closed eyelids. As they misfire and short-circuit, my nerves light up my darkest recesses—here a kidney, there a spleen—and seem to grant insight into biochemical processes no scientist had yet envisioned.
Yet even as my body seems to turn itself inside-out before my mind’s eye, my mind itself has suddenly gone dark. It is as if, after a half-century of constant dialogue with the frenetic commands of a mind informing me in tedious detail about the intricacies of every thought, every anxiety, every fear and fantasy, a switch has been thrown by which all my currents suddenly flow in the opposite direction—lighting up circuits I had never before contemplated and snuffing out those which had occupied my every waking and sleeping moment for decades.
So sudden and complete is the effect that I now find myself doubting that I ever indeed suffered through all those years of anxious interior monologues. The sound of my mind’s voice has receded so completely that I have difficulty summoning its memory. What little I remember from the reams of mental commentary which I had been forced for my entire life to read, memorize and repeat—like a nineteenth-century schoolboy—seems now profoundly insipid and pointless.
But what my body has to say… well, it doesn’t “say” anything. It communicates in flashes of sensation—needles and flushes, electric currents and luminous tracers across the eyes. It is a sensory laser show, one that even at its most painful and crippling is fascinating and even dazzling in the patterns it draws across my flesh and the chords it thrums across my nerves. But it is mute. Blissfully, painfully silent, requiring me to sit—for once, at last—silent in return, observing and wondering like a newborn babe seeing her mother’s face for the very first time.
Jared Gardner is a professor and patient at the Ohio State University.