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Breaking the silence in the kingdom of the sick

  • 09 October 2015

Each time I step into my house, I peel off my clothes and throw them in the laundry pile, then I shower, dry off, and layer on fresh ones. This decadent activity is one of my new strategies for coping with hayfever. Other strategies include taking lots of medication, drinking green tea, trying to clock the allocated eight hours of sleep each night, and not going outside frivolously.

I am basically a sweet-smelling recluse right now.

I developed hayfever and a host of irritating but not life-threatening food allergies as an adult, and I blame environmental desecration for that. Why else would my immune system randomly start mistaking harmless substances like apples and sunny days as threats to my life?

Allergies are on the rise, with 50 per cent of British children being diagnosed each year, and with this is a rise in generalised and chronic illness across the globe. The causes are thought to be a combination of changing food sources, urbanisation (and with it reduced contact with animals), genetics, and changes in hygiene. So basically, being alive in a town or city puts you at risk of developing allergies.

Susan Sontag wrote, 'Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.' And while we prefer to use only one passport, the reality is that every body is precarious, every body will pass through illness, and every body, at some point, will die.

Sontag's thoughts on illness came to her when she was severely ill with breast cancer, which she'd been told would be terminal. In an interview, she said that being very ill had prevented her from thinking about anything else: 'Here you are in a hospital thinking you're going to die, and it would have required an enormous effort of detachment for me to not think about it.' Illness is all consuming, it traps you.

Sontag's analysis is that cancer at the time, much like tuberculosis in the previous century, was shrouded in metaphor, morality, and silence, and that this dishonest language discouraged patients from seeking treatment. As time passed and the AIDS epidemic raged, she expanded her analysis to include that virus, too.

She wrote that 'As long as a particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease, most people with the disease will indeed be demoralised by learning what disease they have.' When causes of illness