‘I have never been comfortable in my own body. Rather, I’ve felt my whole life that I was born in the wrong body. A slight woman, femme in appearance, olive skin, thick black curly hair, large eyes, hands and feet too big, of somewhat more than average height and somewhat less than average weight – I’ve tried my whole life to understand what it is that seems off to me’.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Porochista Khakpour’s latest book, which tracks her long and difficult journey to diagnosis and management of late-stage Lyme disease, and with good reason. Chronic illness in women has a long history of misdiagnosis and marginalisation. As Bitch Media reported last week, as part of their weeklong series on the topic, though 70 percent of those impacted by chronic illness are women, 80 percent of pain studies are conducted on males. In the environment of paternalism and sexism within the field of medicine, doctors have a reputation for dismissing and disbelieving women with chronic pain, instead diagnosing them with mental illnesses. Khakpour seeks to redress this imbalance through an honest and searing account of her own personal story. Not just a clinical analysis of her diagnosis, Sick delves into how Khakpour’s chronic illness has affected her relationships with family, friends and lovers as well as what it means to be female, particularly a woman of colour, with patchy healthcare insurance in America.
Not feeling right in her own body since the age of five, Khakpour journeys back through time trying to find the root cause of her illness. Early symptoms, which included insomnia and hand tremors, were initially put down to PTSD. Having been born in Tehran during the late 1970s revolution, her family fled to America and settled in LA. Her parents assumed her symptoms would disappear the older she got. However, they only increased in number and severity. From chronic insomnia, fainting, hallucinations and extremely high fevers, Khakpour’s symptoms would often incapacitate her. Constantly branded a hypochondriac by the medical profession and family alike, Khakpour struggled with her mental health as a young woman, falling into numerous drug addictions. With the clarity of post-diagnosis and reflection in Sick, Khakpour realises that ‘Women simply aren’t allowed to be physically sick until they are mentally sick, too, and then it is by some miracle or accident that the two can be separated for proper diagnosis. In the end, every Lyme patient has some psychiatric diagnosis, too, if anything because of the hell of coming to diagnosis’.
Even Khakpour herself struggles to believe other people with Lyme disease. Making a note of all the people – and animals – close to her who have suffered with the disease, Khakpour recalls the mother of one of her past boyfriends. She remembers not believing that her symptoms could be caused from a tiny tick and then, later – after her own diagnosis, Khakpour tries to remember the coldness and the disbelief she felt towards this woman so she could better empathise with her loved ones when the diagnosis was turned on her.
Brutally honest in its depictions of chronic illness, medical encounters, drug addiction and strained relationships Porochista Khakpour’s memoir captures not just the anguish of living with a chronic illness, but also the anguish that comes with not being believed by those you love and respect. Sick: A Memoir tries to dispel the myth of hysterical, hypochondriacal women whilst at the same time encouraging us to better empathise and be kinder to others and ourselves.
‘Sick: A Memoir’ by Porochista Khakpour was published on 5th June. Thank you to HarperCollins, via Edelweiss+, for the review copy.