At eleven, I self-diagnosed Alzheimer’s. I was possibly (how could anyone know this for sure, I reasoned) the youngest-ever sufferer. I was bed-ridden at the time – nauseous, concrete-limbed, alarmingly thin, even for me – with what would later be diagnosed as Epstein-Barr virus, in the wave-breaking process of morphing into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I couldn’t think. Sitting alone in the car outside the supermarket, I’d test myself by trying to follow the threads of thoughts and sentences, then to think of words. The thing you used to scrape out bowls? The bottom of a shoe? My mind squelched around in there. Searching. Each time, the diagnosis was confirmed and my heart would hammer at the cataclysmic truth of it, my hands shimmering sweat. Alzheimer’s. I told no one. Who could bear such a tragic – and unusual, it must be said – fate for a child?
I think of this now because of my recent visitations. Two months ago, I arched my head back – a movement that a neck should be willing to do – and when I righted it, something somewhere sent a SodaStream of tingling and prickling down my neck and back, into my arms and hands, and across the surface of my face. This was, I realised – with the steady certainty, and if I may say so, calm resolve, of an ED doctor – quite likely the beginning of a stroke. The tingling persisted, but nothing more happened. I waited. Everything kept pulsing, in its ordinary busyness. Then I waited for the symptoms to go. They didn’t.
Today, at one of my now frequent appointments with my osteopath, I reel off my list of ongoing symptoms. My osteopath’s apparent lack of concern for my ailments is strangely reassuring. I list them to him – the tingling, the headaches, the pinprick pains in my legs, numb fingers when I wake at night – as he sits forward in his ergonomic chair, his hands slotted together.
‘When will these go away?’ I ask him.
‘You want the honest answer?’ he says, to which I nod, optimistically. He squints one eye at me. He says, ‘I’ve got no idea.’
‘I never understood hypochondria,’ my sister, Loren, recently said, ‘until I got symptoms.’ What she really means is until she got cancer. A lump on her chest like one of those small hard-rubber child’s balls. A seemingly innocuous little thing that led to a mastectomy, then all the bodily-fluid-collecting tubes of post-surgery. My mother and I learnt to empty the accordion-shaped fluid bag, measuring the contents – as we’d been instructed to do – in a pyrex jug usually reserved for flour and rice. Bodies, and the uncomfortable intrigues they could create, were not new to us by any means. Surgery was.
Loren – impressively sanguine in the wake of having lost a breast at thirty-six – came to me the other day with her fingertips pressed just below her cheekbone. Above them, a barely perceptible smudge of what could be freckles. Or, as my mother tactfully pointed out, the beginnings of an age spot.
‘Could this be a melanoma?’ she said, palpating the skin with her fingertip.
This doesn’t have to be all about bodies. It could also be about the house, which right now has power cords lying in the middle of floors, and vinyl record sleeves spilling out of the genre-ordered record boxes my husband built four years ago. It could be about the washing on the line – a tea towel that, at the harrying persistence of the wind, has folded itself round and round the cords of the line so that it is facing backwards, its pegs askew. The poppy by the window, covered in closed-beak buds.
At the age of two – twenty years ago – my cousin developed a phobia of leaves. Big ones, to be exact. And there were big leaves everywhere, bordering the path that led from their driveway up to the house. Walking past them on his own two legs was not an option. But even being carried, the trip to and from the house would be punctuated by the slur of his dummy-in-the-mouth speech.
‘Leaf!’ he would exclaim, pointing them out to us, since clearly we were oblivious to the threat.
In 2014, two-year-old Leo stands at a safe distance from a book containing a drawing of a crashed – but not bad crashed, it must be said – light airplane. The safe distance is because this picture, with the slightly buckled wing and broken propeller, reveals the unendurable fact of broken things to even a nappy-wearing toddler.
‘Fix it,’ he says, with the tremulous authority of a politician, ‘fix it now.’
Lying on the treatment table, while my osteopath plucks at the cords of muscle in my back, I remember one more worrying symptom. In an attempt to veil neurosis with humour, I try to turn it into a joke. ‘I forgot a symptom!’ I say. ‘No more after this, I promise. One more symptom? Can you handle it?’ He gives me the one-nod go-ahead. I describe it, trying to steer clear of emotive language. I’m lying with my fingers and toes splayed outwards, as if I’ve just landed there.
‘What would you do,’ I say, a little while later, casually, ‘if you were me?’ I mean about the symptoms, of course. Ways forward. Ways out.
He rattles off a few suggestions; options. Then he pauses.
‘Meditate,’ he says.
The ceiling light lets off a faint hum, and even though I don’t think he necessarily means right now I close my eyes, sending the current of my breath right down to my toes.
The room smells of a day’s worth of too-tight, joint-out, muscle-strained bodies.
My osteopath takes hold of the bones of my skull where they meet my neck, and tugs on them as one tugs on a deep-rooted weed, trying to get the clusters of earth it clings to, to let go of it, to let it go.