On being ill - Virginia Woolf
In bed - Joan Didion
"English," says Virginia Woolf, "which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache... Let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry."
Woolf's brief meditation is much sunnier than one might expect. (Perhaps a headache was a minor inconvenience, compared to the sufferings of her bipolar disorder - diagnoses courtesy of Kay Redfield Jamison). She seems almost cheerful as she reports on the luxury of lying in bed with no responsibility other than to observe the sky: "this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows... This, then, has been going on without our knowing it?"
Woolf shares her joy, but dismisses sympathy altogether. No one else has experienced your unique pain, and it is "...better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable." Surprising, isn't it, how this most social of women should reject others in this circumstance?
"The body smashes itself into smithereens," she says. Joan Didion's migraines smash her world into smithereens, as well. "The physiological error called migraine is, in brief, central to the given of my life... Almost anything can trigger a specific attack of migraine: stress, pressure, allergy, fatigue, an abrupt change in barometric pressure, a contretemps over a parking ticket..."
Always the reporter, Didion reminds us that LSD was developed, originally, as a treatment for migraine. How amusing! My own visual, olfactory, and sensory aura manifestations are hallucinatory enough! Wouldn't LSD be like the hair of the dog that bit you?
Where Woolf basks in the beauty outside her window, Didion hides from the light behind closed shades. Where visitors offer Woolf unwanted sympathy, those in Didion's world offer no sympathy whatsoever: "I'd have a headache, too, spending a beautiful day like this inside with all the shades drawn."
Two women, two headaches -- the passionate sensualist and the reserved observer. Can you tell where this migraineur's sympathies lie? I can't describe the experience as Didion can, but maybe a fellow American will, since, according to Woolf, "the Americans, whose genius is so much happier in the making of new wards than in disposition of the old, will come to our help and set the springs aflow."