Psychosomatic symptoms; or, destroy your life for better health
As a child, I had an uncanny way of making myself sick. I wasn’t trying to; I didn’t even like staying home from school when I was actually ill, and I’d fake getting better so my mom would relent. Which, all in all, gives you a pretty accurate image of the kind of child I was.
But I guess I suffered from what the Brontes’ physician might have called “nervous complaints.” For nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve had the kind of worry and existential angst generally reserved for philosophy majors and Catholic novitiates. I would worry about people dying, and the meaninglessness of existence, and the inexorable, horrible transience of everything. And that was all before my tenth birthday. I had headaches and stomachaches and muscle pain, and a lot of “malaise” – a convenient catch-all word for the proprioceptive sense of being unwell. And how could I be well if everything was both meaningless and fleeting? (I hadn’t even seen a Woody Allen movie yet, you guys.)
These symptoms seemed to come on especially strong around holidays. It wasn’t a holiday if I didn’t have some nagging unidentified infirmity. At a certain point my father grew quite fed up with it and refused to ever believe I was sick. Around that time my mother, a nurse, taught me the word psychosomatic.
Psychosomatic is an adjective formed from the Greek words for mind and body, generally used to inform people that they’re index-finger-circling-the-ear-while-whistling sick, not *cough cough* sick. Which can either signify the reasonable idea that mental factors can influence physical health, or that it’s all in your head, Cray Z. McGillicutty, and you should just get over it.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t just get over it. My psychosomatic tendencies lasted long into my 20s – apparently.
I’d say I had at least one headache every day for the last year or so of my relationship with my ex Ibrahim. And not some pitiful metaphorical headache. An actual ache of the head, replete with squinting and nausea, et al. If it ever turns out that naproxen sodium (better known as Aleve) turns you purple or makes your mouth fall off, we’ll all know what my real drug of choice was.
As a card-carrying member of the unbalanced and unwell, it took me a while to even notice it was happening. I’m prone to headaches – always have been. When I was teenager I got nasty migraines – the very few times I’d agree with mum that school wasn’t in the cards. Me with a headache is kind of like a plumber with visible ass crack: it isn’t the glamorous side of things, but it comes with the territory.
At some point, though, even a fraught little nervous fey thing like me starts to notice. One headache or more every day is actually kind of a lot of headaches when you think about it. Sure, I’d get headaches for normal reasons like caffeine withdrawal or, well, whiskey, but even I can’t be under-caffeinated and hungover every day.
At some point I started joking that I’d probably have TMJ if I ever slept. Hardy-har-har, right? By the by, nervous faggots don’t make excellent sleepers; I’ve had insomnia since MTV still showed music videos. The point is, I’d probably make the masseur cry if I ever tried to work out my “tension.”
Except, here’s the wild thing: my headaches went away when I moved to Ann Arbor. It takes a second to notice the absence of something terrible, but at some point I realized I hadn’t taken even one of the Aleve I had squirreled away in Grand Rapids. I made extra sure to bring headache medicine with me, because surely I was going to need it now more than ever, right?
The spring storms came and I’d still get my pressure change headaches, and my pollen headaches. I don’t mean to imply that I never had a headache again. With the dissolute, neurotic life I lead, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to get headaches. But, whatever vise my head had been in for the past year, it wasn’t there anymore.
By any objective measure, my life had gotten more, not less stressful. There was the job search, on top of moving twice in 45 days. I had had my life torn away from me – husband, job, house, cat – and it seemed to have fixed my headaches.
Sure, maybe I was no longer being exposed to some allergen. And there’s undeniably the argument to be made that you can’t stress out about losing everything when you have nothing. I think there was some of that. But suddenly I didn’t have to live someone else’ life anymore. It was a very nice life, and I guess they came back to claim it.
I didn’t have to freak out about my inability to randomly fly to New Zealand for a month. I didn’t have to explain why $200 bar tabs were untenable.
I didn’t have to feel like a traitor for not having a beard anymore. I didn’t have to convince anyone that wanting to be intimate with my husband didn’t make me some kind of sex-crazed maniac. I didn’t have to look at myself in the mirror and wonder what I had done to become so unlovable. And I no longer had to wonder when the other shoe was going to drop. It had dropped right down on my face, and I was free.
You see, the other thing that happened at about this time was that I started to like my body again. My psyche and my soma were linking back up, and saying a nice how do ya do? to each other.
You can know in all the ways you should that one person not being attracted to you doesn’t make you unattractive. But when that one person is the person who has pledged to spend their life with you, all the body positivity and Tumblr GIFs in the world can’t save you.
I hated my tits. Yes, I have tits. Others might call them man boobs or “moobs,” but I have a C cup – I have tits. I had them as a fat child, I had them as an anorexic teenager, and I had them as an adult of many sizes. When I was fucking my way through the Ann Arbor hipster Rolodex, nobody minded them, and I didn’t either. But I was getting some. No, actually, I was getting plenty. But when you’re not getting any, you start eyeing your body suspiciously, casting aspersions on anything out of the ordinary.
I hated the way gravity was starting to take my gut not just out, but down. I hated my arms when Ibrahim pointed out I was getting bat wings. I hated my ankles for their dark patches of spider veins. I hated my ass for being practically nonexistent, and yet somehow also droopy. I hated my eyes for being small, and my eyelids for being hooded. (Yes, in case you’re unfamiliar with this, you can even be insecure about your eyelids.)
I hated myself for shaving and dyeing my hair red and taking off my eyebrows, even though that’s a very practical thing for a drag queen to do. I asked Ibrahim more than once if he wanted me to stop doing drag, the implicit message being: give me two months and I can be a pretty good facsimile of who I was when we met. Is that what you want? He always said no, that he wanted me to be happy. But fucking me somehow didn’t figure into that equation for him.
I lost 250 pounds of insecure nonsense when I moved to Ann Arbor. I also lost some actual weight, being forced back into the A2 MO of walking several miles a day. My feet got wrecked up, but they adjusted. And, if you’ll pardon the pat wordplay, my eyes adjusted to a new version of me in the mirror.
My tits didn’t seem so saggy and obtrusive anymore. I lifted my arms up in the mirror, looking at the shapes and angles. I smiled at myself when I tried to flex. Being happy with my body felt like a fun new game. My eyes didn’t seem so narrow and droopy anymore, and, I swear to god, I think I was even filling out my briefs better, ya know?
To state the obvious in an effort to close out this chapter, my body might have changed a little, but it didn’t change that much. Not in two months. What changed was my mind, the mind I was using to look at my body. I was no longer examining myself through the eyes of a lover who had lost interest; I was looking at it with my eyes. Narrowish, fine, a little droopy, yes – but alive and freed from so much bullshit.