by Joan Harvey
Let’s face it, I’m tired. A phrase completely knotted up in the rather damaged circuitry that is my brain with Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles who managed to out-Dietrich Dietrich while being her own amazing self (if you haven’t watched this in at least the past few days you probably should). But, for better or worse, unlike Kahn, my tiredness is not from thousands of lovers coming and going and going and coming and always too soon.
But I digress. Tiredness is a digression from normal life. Repeated rounds of tiredness have been one of the leftovers people have reported experiencing from Covid-19, and, as I looked into it, from other viruses as well. I doubt I had Covid-19, but I did get very ill after flying back from NYC in late January and I’ve been struggling with recovery ever since. The tricky thing, the thing that really sucks, is that whereas with most bouts of tiredness one can recover relatively quickly and start normal physical activity, with this post-viral business, even tiny amounts of exercise can deplete one so much that only days of total rest really help. And, though I have past experience with this, I’m still not particularly well trained for it. The bigger problem, for me as well as others with this type of fatigue, is that one can feel fine during exercise, and then afterward become, as I have been, completely exhausted and shaky for days. As a pamphlet describing post-viral fatigue puts it, “Doing too much on a good day will often lead to an exacerbation of fatigue and any other symptoms the following day. This characteristic delay in symptom exacerbation is known as post-exertional malaise (PEM).”
People’s ability to rest seems to be in part genetic. My father was insomniac, but as a doctor he had sleeping pills, and my son (even as a baby) was always lively and alert until late in the evening, never much of a napper. I don’t think I present as a particularly restless person, and I’m certainly not a Type A (more probably Type O, like my blood), but I do have a certain kind of hyperalertness, and I don’t nap. I startle easily. Instead of nerves of steel I’ve been told I have nerves of frayed cotton. And, though I’m in no way a jock, it is hard not to push myself. I grew up skiing and hiking, was on the ski team and went to mountaineering school, and when I lived in a city, dancing and sex and ashtanga yoga provided their own pleasures of motion and exertion. Plus, as a big fan of butter and cream, and with a desire to still fit into my decades-old clothes, there’s also the drawback that when one moves less, one must eat less. A friend in her seventies, who has never had any illness or physical ailments and is always doing Zumba and yoga and cross-country skiing and hiking, says she can’t imagine living without this ability. I’ve had to work through bouts of this exhaustion over the years, so it isn’t so unimaginable for me.
In normal circumstances, a certain amount of physical exertion can actually help bring rest. But when exertion becomes destructive, the new problem is how to gauge oneself. I have to go against all my training and behave in a way that contradicts what used to be both healthy and pleasurable. With deep exhaustion, the habitual desire of the mind to act is in conflict with the refusal of the body to cooperate. There is a dissonance in oneself, a weird variant on “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” People with chronic fatigue, of course, have suffered this way for years. And, of course, my tiredness is not the same as having some really terrible disease, and I’m not suffering nearly as much as are some people recovering from Covid-19.
Tiredness without actual illness (though like illness) requires an adjustment of the conception of oneself. I want to get things done; I can’t get things done. I can read Trollope or Simenon or scroll on my phone but Judith Butler will have to wait. All my puritanical roots spring up; all those ancestors in graveyards on Cape Cod shake their fingers at me. But then again they didn’t like dancing either.
Nine years ago my mother came to visit. We went out to dinner, and she said, “I’m not supposed to have alcohol or dairy, but it’s okay for me” (which reminded me that, when flying, my grandmother often washed several valium down with a good dose of vodka, and, when I questioned the safety of this, answered, “It’s okay for me.”). Therefore, in spite of the stated alcohol prohibition, my mother proceeded to have a drink. I thought she might be going to have some medical tests, so I asked her, “Why these restrictions?” She replied, “I’m going to do ayahuasca for my 80th birthday.” I’d actually been the one to tell her about ayahuasca, as I thought it might help someone she knew, but I hadn’t done it at that point, and I’d had no suspicion that she’d beat me to the psychedelic punch.
(Once more I digress. This is not meant to be about my mom, nor about ayahuasca (though good drug stories always hijack other stories), but only to get me to the point.)
I got the name of my mom’s shaman, participated in some ceremonies in the States, and then went to Peru. I was ill, with an undefined illness. I’d been diagnosed with Lyme disease, though I wasn’t sure it was an accurate diagnosis, and I’d also been sent to the cancer center for blood work, where it was suspected I might have something called Wegener’s granulomatosis—which, fortunately, I did not have, as I’d also have had to learn how to spell it. But unfortunately, to this day, my blood work continues to be extremely weird, including the fact that my B cells don’t mature properly (I’m immature even at the cellular level).
I spent ten days in Peru, living in an extremely funky little isolation hut in the jungle, pretty much being starved except for an occasional meal of unbelievably bony (and sometimes rotten) fish and cardboard-tasting plantains (a tall man there fainted from lack of food), and when (at 5’9”) I weighed about 103 pounds, the instruction I remember most giving myself was “Rest!” This was my eye-opening revelation. Of course I was up all night tripping, and weak with hunger. But rest was suddenly a clear answer to everything. Actually, after a long night spent communicating with various hallucinations, there wasn’t much else to do in the day in the hut but lie in the hammock, although in the afternoon there was usually a bath, in which water brewed with flowers was dumped over your head (and, happily for the guys, a Victoria’s Secret supermodel showed up a couple of times in her bathing suit).
The ayahuasca did not cure me, but shortly afterwards I found one of the top acupuncturists in the world who, through a specially designed and frequently altered prescription of Chinese herbs, brought me back to the land of the living. He died last year, when, fortunately for me, I felt very much cured. But this new fatigue seems a relapse, perhaps brought on by whatever I contracted on that ill-starred plane ride.
When does tiredness become illness? I don’t consider myself exactly ill, though Oblomov’s laziness comes to mind. There are of course writers who wrote while ill, or famously, like Virginia Woolf, wrote about being ill. Laura Hillenbrand of Sea Biscuit fame had chronic fatigue, and in an essay in the New Yorker she wrote, “I was growing much stronger, but whenever I overextended myself my health disintegrated. One mistake could land me in bed for weeks, so the potential cost of even the most trivial activities, from showering to walking to the mailbox, had to be painstakingly considered.”
During this time that I’ve been so exhausted, David Markson’s Vanishing Point has been the only book I recall in which the author (or Author as he calls himself) very occasionally mentions just how tired he is while he writes. How his tiredness is keeping him from getting his work done. I believe Markson had cancer at the time he wrote it, though at that stage probably undiagnosed. Early in the book he writes:
One reason for Author’s procrastination is that he seems not to have had much energy lately, to tell the truth.
For work, or for much of anything else.
It’s unusual for a writer, not writing a memoir, to be this frank about his physical state. And the book, which is funny and weird, full of great two- or three-line stories about racism and writers and musicians and artists and the whole odd business that is life, illuminates the sometimes funny, sometimes tragic strangeness that is reality. It is also a lot about death. And, Author’s very occasional mentions of himself give the book an even more moving quality.
Toward the end Author has developed some difficulty moving his body in the way he’s used to as well.
Actually, more than his persistent tiredness, what has started to distress Author lately is the way he has found himself scuffing his feet when he walks.
Markson suspects some neurological issue. Or just age. There is the “damnable obstinate weariness.”
In the last few pages of the book there is a section comprised only of dates and locations. Some are easy to recognize:
Fireplace Road, East Hampton. 10:15 P.M. August 11, 1956.
Ketchum, Idaho. Soon after dawn. July 2, 1961.
Others I’d have to look up. But obviously all are the times and locations of singular deaths. Death is the Vanishing Point.
While fortunately my own mood remains good, and fortunately the people I know who contracted Covid-19 have all recovered, I’ve also noticed that recently I’ve been reading (in a lax and weary way) about ghouls and crypts and mourning and melancholia. Because states of deep tiredness do naturally lead to thoughts of death. My own fatigue has made me more cognizant of the phrase dead tired. Whether or not this is how one would feel when close to death, certainly there is a sense that this is how it might be. When exhaustion forbids almost all activity, death leaps (crawls?) to mind. I found myself going back to those two great poems: Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, and Dylan Thomas’s A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London. Forbid. Refuse. It is possible I can’t let myself feel all my grief about the world, the unnecessary and terrible deaths from Covid, the unnecessary and terrible deaths from racism, the unnecessary and terrible death of the planet, and so I transfer my feelings about death to my reading. And though I think my fatigue has a pretty clear physical basis, I don’t discount the possibility of some somatization; after all, many people who don’t have immune issues and have not been exposed to the virus are also tired.
Near the end of Vanishing Point, Markson brings up the term Selah.
Selah, which marks the ends of verses in the Psalms, but the Hebrew meaning of which is unknown.
And probably indicates no more than pause or rest.
Why does Author wish it implied more—or might stand for some ultimate effacement, even?
While I’m not yet ready for ultimate effacement, I am looking forward to a time when rest rejuvenates and I can stop rattling shakily around in my skin.
Pause. Rest. With Markson, Selah.