Arthur Frank, in his wonderful book, The Wounded Storyteller, describes three “narratives” that ill people use to navigate their illnesses. There is the restitution narrative, which is the story that one will be restored to the previous state of health; there is the chaos narrative, which can not be written, only lived, as it is so traumatic can not be formulated into words; and finally,there is the quest narrative, which seeks to find meaning in the experience of illness.
Frank says that people cannot and should not be rushed out of their chaos narrative. As health care workers, we often seek to formulate people’s experience for them, because we are uncomfortable with the formlessness of chaos, the incoherency of it. I’m thinking of this because I’m only now beginning to emerge from a small taste of dissolution, from my own chaos narrative.
I was recovering pretty well from my fractured thoracic spine, walking, beginning to take showers and getting into the pool for 20 minutes of hydrotherapy. I was still in pain and exhausted, but feeling as if I was getting a grip on the situation. Then my son brought home a summer cold, which quickly passed to me and morphed into a severe bronchitis. I was shaken from fits of coughing, each spasm seemed to threaten break a rib or shatter my already broken spine. The bone pain returned. I had been slated to start on a strong antibiotic therapy to fight my C.pneumonia Igg titers, so I went ahead and took that. Then the trouble really started. The vertigo was so bad I couldn’t even move my head lying down without the room spinning; I was queasy and my skin itched. All the side effects of a hangover without the fun of a party. Still, I thought these would pass and stuck with it for three days out of fear of having pneumonia again (I had walking pneumonia for four months this spring). Finally, I got to my doctor and he changed the antibiotic and upped my breathing treatments.
For almost two weeks I couldn’t think. I couldn’t find a metaphor, naw, not me. There was no pulling me out of the experience, no distancing. I lay in bed watching the pecans ripening on the tree, watching the graceful dance of the trees and the distant white clouds in the blue Renaissance sky. The lace curtains billowed, the breeze was mercifully cool, and there was no I, only the sensations of distress or the abatement of distress. Out on the edges of consciousness I knew there were things I needed to attend to, but I had to let them go, let them drift off and trust that when I finally came ashore there would be a coherent self to deal with them.
When I was well enough, I dragged my poor ruin of a body out to the back porch. I sat and looked at my garden–the cone flowers and bee balm prematurely dead from drought and neglect. Was everything in and around me blighted? Just then, there was a flash of brilliant yellow in herb garden. I squinted. There it was, a goldfinch alighted on the dried bee balm. I had tried for years to attract goldfinches, and yet, without even trying, here it was. I held my breath. It was as if God had sent down this most beautiful emissary to tell me–“I am bigger than your dissolution,than your pain.” And that was the beginning. The beginning of the end of my chaos narrative. Yes, I have gone to seed. But look, there are worse things.
I sent Todd out to buy what he considered a ridiculously expensive goldfinch feeder. The goldfinch pair stick around. I’m feeling better.