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Nonfiction

Nonfiction Issue #54

Mr. Sick by Rhiannon Catherwood

July, 2014

A strong, sharp cough jerked me awake, grabbing me by the throat and wringing it so hard my whole body shook with it. I tried my best to keep quiet, the abrupt KHOH-KHOH tearing away the stillness of the bedroom at four in the morning. My partner, as far as I could tell, was still sleeping across the bed. When I stopped shaking, I pushed myself up and groped for the bedside table. I’d had the cold for a few weeks already, so supplies were close at hand. I popped a decongestant and blew my thoroughly chapped nose. I took a shot of cough syrup straight from the bottle and chased it with a spoon of honey, washing it all down with a bit of lukewarm tea left in the mug I’d been nursing several hours earlier. Then I laid my head back on the pillow. A few moments passed. KHOH-KHOH.

Still hoping I could avoid waking my partner, I tried, for a while, to wrestle with it. I’d spend the few seconds after a cough focusing all my will as the pressure built in my throat, the itchy pain that could only be momentarily assuaged with a satisfying KHOH-KHOH. I tried to ignore it, thinking that maybe if I could just forget about it, it might stop bothering me, like a mosquito bite. KHOH-KHOH. I tried to adjust my breathing, drawing in air through my clogged nose, opening my mouth to different degrees, angling my neck. KHOH-KHOH.

It was about six when a loud, annoyed, angry huff finally came from the other side of the bed, “Rhi, just take some cough syrup already.”

Maybe she didn’t sound that annoyed.

Maybe she wasn’t that angry.

Nevertheless I sprang from the mattress, crying yelling rasping, “I already did! It won’t stop! I’m sorry!” as I stomped into the bathroom to weep and wonder why.

Not long ago, I read an essay written by a rape survivor. Her date had forced himself onto her, and, unable to accept that she had been betrayed and assaulted, she tried to deny the truth and make herself believe she had simply had sex with him. Desperate to change the narrative, she allowed him to spend the night, and in the morning, she made him breakfast. Eggs, bacon, toast. For a long time afterward, the sight of this meal, even the mention of it, conjured up all the agonizing memories of what she had been through. And such a common thing. I imagined her eating at diners, watching commercials, even being served the dreaded meal, wanting to cry and knowing that no one would understand. Like the small-town soldier given a homecoming parade complete with flashing, crackling fireworks that bring him straight back to the front lines.

Maybe we are all emotional minefields who should post signs at the grassy perimeter of our lives – trespassers beware, trained defense mechanisms on premises – warning, PTSD testing site caution, unexploded drama buried just beneath the surface.

My partner dragged herself out of bed to shuffle groggily after me. I saw the blurry shape of her standing in the doorway, watching as I sniffled naked on the tile floor with a slightly louder, wetter KHOH-KHOH. She crossed her arms and appeared to wait for some explanation of precisely what live artillery she had stepped on in the darkness of our bedroom and why it had been left there.

But the answer was complicated. No, I had not been assaulted by a man with strep throat. No, I had not gone to war and witnessed atrocities in a middle-eastern Nyquil factory. But this moment did bring something back.

When I was in elementary school, I had a cough for four years.

I couldn’t tell you when or how it started. I imagine that one day, I woke up with a cold. My nose was probably runny, head achy, throat sore. My mother might have taken my temperature and decided I should stay home from school, so maybe I did, or maybe I toughed it out and went anyway. And maybe a few days after that, my runny nose and my achy head and even my sore throat had all gone away, but the cough – the cough just decided to stick around.

It stuck around as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. Every thirty or sixty seconds – KHOH-KHOH. I don’t remember thinking much of it at first. Like those poor suckers who develop hiccups that last for decades – I doubt that they remember the very moment it began. At the first hiccup, would any of them stop and think, “This is it. This will be the rest of my life. This is my new reality.” No, the cough so smoothly insinuated itself into my life that after a while, it didn’t feel like the symptom of an illness. It was simply a part of me as much as my arms and legs and laugh and fondness of video games and deficiency in cursive. I had blonde hair, I had freckles, and I had a cough.

But others most certainly took notice, and over time their pity turned to concern and later to frustration. The doctor couldn’t find a physical cause for my cough, and so my parents, my siblings, my teachers, reached their own diagnosis – I had developed a “nervous habit.” It sounded like an accusation leveled against me, and sure enough, my coughing over time was met with less sympathy and more sighs and huffs and sideways glares. My cough wasn’t a physical sickness, and that meant it was a lie. It meant I must have been pretending. It meant that I should cut it out right the fuck now because I was getting on everyone’s nerves.

KHOH-KHOH.

But what could I do? It was as though some strange alien being had grabbed hold of me, the idea of illness given form, given personality. Mr. Sick was a nasty character, faceless with clammy hands and skin the color of pale phlegm. Sneaky, devious, and impossibly strong. A ghostly static in the air that you can only perceive in those brief moments when he turns everything fuzzy, like when someone bumps into the rabbit ear antenna on top of your television. I imagined him latching onto me, becoming me, and dragging me out of sync and out of focus from the rest of the world once or twice per minute. KHOH-KHOH.

And the knowledge that my cough was somehow fundamentally unreal, a problem with my mind rather than my body, only made it worse. I fought the urge, I lost, and I felt ashamed. I could know that my throat was not irritated, that I had no infection, that I needed no medicine, but I also knew that god damn it, I had to cough.

Then, one day, I didn’t. I don’t remember the day it stopped any more than I remember the day that it started. I only know that it did stop, and for a long time, I almost forgot that it had ever happened.

It wasn’t until much later – probably in some Psych 101 course – that I would learn the word “psychosomatic.”

Psy·cho·so·mat·ic. [saikosəmætik]. Adjective.

  1. of, relating to, concerned with, or involving both mind and body.
  2. of, relating to, involving, or concerned with bodily symptoms caused by mental or emotional disturbance.
  3. of, relating to, involving, or concerning real discomfort that you aren’t making up and can’t just turn off, so there.

I’m sure it’s a frustrating thing for the doctors. A patient complains of neck pain, but it isn’t a neck injury. He feels sick to his stomach, but it isn’t about his stomach. She has a sore throat, but the real trouble is something else. But there was, nevertheless, something real, and in that I was validated. As memories of my long cough, all the anger and frustration, all the judgment and condemnation I perceived, came rushing back, this new word was comforting. It meant that even if the doctors couldn’t find the cause of it, it didn’t mean I was making it up.

The tricky thing about a psychosomatic condition is that while it does have a cause, that cause could be many things, though most often, it is simply Stress. In my childhood, it likely had a great deal to do with the stress of being transgender and not knowing the word for it, of feeling alienated and alone as a result. In retrospect, my cough didn’t just stop. It eased when I made friends in high school and began showing hints of who I really was. It stopped when I came out in my freshman year of college and took my first tentative steps into letting friends see my true self.

However, my college years were also years when I believed that those first tentative steps would be my only ones, when I believed that I would need to choose between transitioning and teaching, between being a woman and being loved by one, between living my truth and having a family. The relief I felt was polluted by the pain of those choices, and though I smiled looking at myself in the mirror, Mr. Sick began to appear standing behind me.

I settled into a cycle of illness which would occur three to four times per year, lasting around a few weeks each time. My limbs would grow weak and my flesh pale. My throat would become red and raw. I would expel what felt like gallons of thick mucous in ghastly yellows and greens. I would heave vomit and spray diarrhea. I would stay awake nights and pass out for days.

This continued throughout college and into my years of teaching junior high school, and on the rare occasions when I could be convinced to visit a doctor, they would find no explanation and have little help to offer. And yet, sadly, just because I knew about psychosomatic sickness, even understanding my childhood cough in that light, didn’t mean I would readily suspect it. Somehow it would not occur to me in those years that my condition came from stress. Rather, I would explain with some frustration to anyone who suggested that my pattern of illness was unusual – this was just how I was. I just get sick.

I rationalized that this was normal. People did get sick, after all, didn’t they? And if I got sick a little more often than others, was it any wonder? I hardly slept as I tried to live two lives – a man working a tiring career as a junior high school teacher and a woman who only existed in the moonlight and was determined to make the most of those hours. I smoked and drank and did drugs for two.

Even considering all of this, everyone but me recognized that the frequency of my illness was strange. My girlfriend at the time, always understanding when I cancelled dates, she knew. Friends in my department to whom I would e-mail lesson plans to pass on to the substitute teachers along with vivid accounts of my symptoms – “imagine lifting a bag of potting soil and finding that it has a tear in the bottom; I am the bag” – they knew. Even my students, who got to observe my creative efforts at teaching without a voice – on several occasions, I taught by typing instructions and questions on a projector screen – they knew.

I imagine that in addition to my reputations as the teacher students could talk to about anything and the teacher who once turned Social Studies class into a disco party (despite that I taught Language Arts), I may have also developed quite a reputation as the teacher who was always suffering from some illness or another. That rail-thin, funny, bone-pale, kind, gaunt, caring teacher at the end of the hall. Mr. Sick. Yearbook quote: KHOH-KHOH.

As far as I was concerned, I would live in this endless cycle of sickness forever. Never recognizing the problem for what it was, I couldn’t envision a solution. I would only find it by accident. 

The one thing every doctor will tell you if you complain of a sore throat is to rest your voice. For me, the only thing that really helped was finally speaking up, telling the truth of who I was and who I wanted to be. The year I did so, I entered the winter fully prepared, anticipating Mr. Sick’s regular visit – lesson plans set up for substitute teachers, cabinets stocked with cough syrup and honey and echinacea tea and Vicks Vaporub and several varieties of decongestants, Kleenex purchased in bulk. But all of it would sit unused as the weeks and months went by and I went on breathing easy and smiling through my days.

I didn’t get sick that winter, or the winter after, or the one after that, or any season in-between, at least not like I had grown accustomed to, not for more than a day or two at a time. Only after years of relative health did I come to understand my illness. The only way to stop being Mr. Sick had been to stop being Mr. anything at all.

December, 2019

While sifting through an old portable hard drive, I find this piece I wrote in 2014, and I ask myself, what happened here? Did I finish writing this? Was that supposed to be an ending? It had a certain cadence of conclusion about it – I know my own voice, and it sounds the way I sound when I wrap things up – but it still doesn’t feel complete to me, and I don’t think it ever really did. Five years later, I recall this essay that I abandoned because as important as it felt, as compelled as I was to write it, I couldn’t figure out what it meant, what it was really about, why it mattered, or where the hell I was trying to go with it.

What was the point of this dense, mucousy stream of consciousness? It couldn’t seem to decide on just one, and worse, it feels at odds with itself, masking its own contradictions in complexity and prose. Looking back to that opening scene with my partner (ex partner now) – was this supposed to be a story about a moment when I acted crazy, about how our past traumas could cause us to behave in irrational ways? It certainly seems to begin that way. But if this were simply a long explanation for a pointless emotional outburst, why does the narrative of childhood illness feel like a desperate plea to be taken seriously, to recognize an unspoken suffering underlying a seemingly unrelated symptom? The two themes feel in conflict with each other in a way I can’t rectify.

The whole thing would feel a lot more focused, a lot more cohesive, if I just got rid of the opening and started with childhood, but as soon I consider that, I know I can’t, because the better question, the key to it all, really, isn’t why did I write this, but why did I write it then? I listen again to the victorious tone of that closing sentence pointing out that I don’t get sick like this anymore. And yet, at the start, I wrote it plainly as anything… in July of 2014, I had been sick for nearly a month.

And once again, I had tried to rationalize it, tried to narrate it away, the real dilemma that the mind underneath my mind knew would need reckoning. This whole damn story wasn’t about psychosomatic illness. It was about something else, but something I couldn’t bring myself to write, to say, to understand, which was that my emotional outburst came not just after weeks of illness, but after nearly as many weeks of my partner shaming me for my illness, yelling at me for annoying her with my coughing, weeks of scowls and rolling eyes and hostile indifference.

Three years into our relationship, this did not surprise me. They were, after all, three years of working twelve hour days to come home and spend more hours cleaning up after her because despite my frequent and desperate requests for help, ants swarmed the living room floor around the dirty plates she’d left on the carpet, garbage overflowed from the bins, and the sink was so full of dishes there was nothing left on which to cook or eat. She would tell me it was up to me to do these things because I was the one who cared whether they were done.

It was three years of bearing all responsibility for managing household bills, simply letting her know what she owed, which I really didn’t much mind except for the time when she owed thousands of dollars to me and couldn’t pay it because she had lost it in a venture on par with the wisdom of buying magic beans. She lied about where the money went, as she lied often about where she was and what she did when we were apart.

It was three years of being told I was an objectively immoral person for eating meat, and of being called “bitch” when she felt she had won an argument, especially if we were around her friends. I told her I didn’t want to be called that, just as I told her that after my mother’s death, I didn’t find childish insulting jokes about my mother funny. She told me to lighten up. I was too sensitive.

It was three years of being made to feel that I didn’t have the right to my own body. Because I had injured my foot and just wanted it left alone, but she insisted she should rub it – limping away as she pursued me was less painful than her touch. Or because no matter how many times I explained I did not want to be anally penetrated, she would tell me that I should accept it because she wanted to do it, that I was selfish for not allowing it. Or because her friend was considering getting breast augmentation as I had recently done, and she told me I was so very rude for not agreeing to show her friend my breasts to review the work. Or because in bed, after I explained that those breasts were still healing and needed a delicate touch, I screamed and cried when she squeezed and crushed one of them in her grip – I still don’t have quite as much feeling in it as I do in the other one. I would bring this up only once ever again, when pestered about why I didn’t seem to trust her, and I would be told it was cruel of me to make her feel guilty about the “accident.”

But as plain as it is to say it all now, I couldn’t say it then, not even as I found myself following the description of my laughable emotional outburst with the story of bacon, eggs, and toast. Remember? The woman in denial who tried to rewrite her own narrative in breakfast food to try to believe – I wasn’t raped, I just had sex with my boyfriend. And here I was, just acting silly, just acting crazy. Because if I wrote it any other way, first I would have to admit it to myself, and then I would have to risk someone else seeing it, and knowing the truth that I was being abused.

Like so many survivors of abuse before me, I couldn’t do that, because I had come to feel worthless outside of the context of this relationship and desperate to maintain it. In fact, I would not bring myself to say it until well after the relationship had ended. The illusion of a beautiful love story had become worth suffering the day to day reality of my life with her. But buried in this particular story that I thought to write at this particular time, the clues are all there. Just beneath the choppy surface of my consciousness, some part of me knew the truth and knew it had to stop. My story knew. My body knew. Mr. Sick knew.

And now I know that he was there with me, sitting on the bathroom floor, looking up at the doorway where my partner stood with her folded arms and disapproving scowl. Whether I would acknowledge him or not, he had returned and taken hold of me one more time, his strong limbs wrapped around my huddled body. And for the first time now, I recognize the tenderness of that embrace, that maybe he had to come in so close in order to whisper in the only language he knew, the static language of coughs and sniffles and thick tears, that something was wrong and something had to change.

I haven’t seen him since. But I’ll listen if he comes.

Rhiannon Catherwood
By Rhiannon Catherwood

Rhiannon Catherwood lives in Syracuse, NY with her wife and cat. She is a teacher, circus artist, and road tripper. She believes that good fiction should expose truth and good creative nonfiction should prioritize creation.