Sick: A Memoir by Porochista Khakpour
Published by Harper Perennial on June 5, 2018
my rating: ★★.5
Goodreads avg: 3.41 (as of 2019-09-25)
For as long as author Porochista Khakpour can remember, she has been sick. For most of that time, she didn’t know why. Several drug addictions, some major hospitalizations, and over $100,000 later, she finally had a diagnosis: late-stage Lyme disease.
Sick is Khakpour’s grueling, emotional journey—as a woman, an Iranian-American, a writer, and a lifelong sufferer of undiagnosed health problems—in which she examines her subsequent struggles with mental illness and her addiction to doctor prescribed benzodiazepines, that both aided and eroded her ever-deteriorating physical health. Divided by settings, Khakpour guides the reader through her illness by way of the locations that changed her course—New York, LA, Santa Fe, and a college town in Germany—as she meditates on the physiological and psychological impacts of uncertainty, and the eventual challenge of accepting the diagnosis she had searched for over the course of her adult life.
A story of survival, pain, and transformation, Sick candidly examines the colossal impact of illness on one woman’s life by not just highlighting the failures of a broken medical system but by also boldly challenging our concept of illness narratives.
It seems impossible to separate Khakpour’s life of illness from the remainder of her life. As she details, no one has been able to ascertain for certain when exactly she acquired Lyme. Some doctors have pointed to her health problems in childhood as symptoms, while others have indicated that college seemed like a likely bet. Having gone through one trauma after another, it’s also difficult to disentangle the symptoms of her Lyme from symptoms of primarily unrelated PTSD, depression, and anxiety. As she mentions, women typically struggle more with Lyme because they are often treated as psychiatric cases only and therefore left undiagnosed and untreated longer. As a quick note, there are extensive discussions of both drug abuse and suicide throughout the book, so if you find those triggering it may be best to steer clear.
And there it came: his half smile. And here it followed: my rage.
One thing that bothered me a lot was that she’s somewhat judgmental of one of her friends in Chicago, a wealthy woman who eventually reveals she’s a prostitute. This judgment comes unchallenged by the present Khakpour looking back and it’s clear she was sickened by the thought of her friend making money in this way, and pities her even though she herself is weak and slowly disintegrating while her friend is happy and stable. It was strange reading about someone who can look down so strongly on others when they themselves are struggling even more.
I also kept saying something I had heard some other therapist or doctor say at some point, maybe in the psych ward: Let’s get to the bottom of this once and for all. I was mesmerized by what “the bottom of this” could be, but I knew I wanted it.
Occasionally, the timeline feels mixed up. She’ll jump ahead only to jump immediately back and I forget where we are in the story. There are bits repeated throughout — stories she tells multiple times, to my confusion — that give the whole thing a sense of deja vu. Its meandering nature felt sometimes without purpose and I found myself checking where I was in the book to see if it was close to over. Her story itself is exhausting to read, and god knows how much more exhausting it must have been to live through, but its monotony made it disengaging when combined with the matter-of-fact tone she communicates her experiences in. Having had (much less serious) chronic illnesses of my own, I understand how hopeless the seemingly endless chain of doctors who don’t know what’s wrong with you is, but the negativity also felt like it would drown me without adding much to my experience as a reader.
So many men had tried to fix me; so many men were convinced they could help. What was one more.
Overall, in spite of my criticisms, I think this book is worth reading if you’re interested even if it didn’t quite work for me.