Friday, 9 August 2013

Dropping out for the race: A review of 'On Being Ill' & 'Love and Other Drugs' by Amanda McDonald

Ladies and Gentlemen. 

I am so excited to bring you - ahead of time for once - a review of this months Migraine Monologues Book Club reading/viewing courtesy of the lovely Amanda McDonald. Do join us for an on-line discussion this Tuesday 13th. Details below. 

This month we've been reading 'On Being Ill' by the illustrious novelist Virginia Woolf, herself a sufferer of migraines, and watching the film 'Love and Other Drugs' - a love story about a young girl with early onset Parkinson's (which is less depressing than it sounds). 

Over to Amanda:

Dropping out from the race:
A review of Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’ and ‘Love and Other Drugs’ by Amanda McDonald

The lovely Amanda

As a former English literature student and having written my thesis on Woolf, I was quite excited to be reviewing one of her essays for the Migraine Monologues Book Club. As someone who also indulges heavily in fluffy movie viewing, I thought it was going to be an interesting challenge to compare lightweight ‘Love and Other Drugs’ to migraineur, Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘On Being Ill.’

In fact, despite the extreme intellectual contrast between the film and the book, one a little trashy and glossy version of illness, the other an intense and heavyweight treatise, I was struck by some commonalities between the two.

Most notably, both referred to the complete alienation of suffering from a chronic condition, and whilst Anne Hathaway’s Maggie Murdock treats her exile from the ‘normal folk’ of society with acerbic humour and breezy acceptance, Woolf succumbs to hers with increasing frustration and nihilism. When in the throes of a migraine, I am sorry to admit that I am definitely more of the ilk of the latter than the former. Woolf’s powerful language, describing the “wastes and deserts of the soul” that are brought into view by illness and her description of the way that ill people go “down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads”, certainly struck more than one chord with me. As a migraine sufferer for nearly twenty years, I have experienced the waters of annihilation on many an occasion (normally an occasion that required me to be alert, intelligible and on top form), and on a few, deeply memorable occasions, I have genuinely thought, without exaggeration that I was entering the “pit of death”. Horrifying my friends and husband, I have felt, most recently on a flight to Spain, that the migraine I was currently engulfed in, was such a powerful one, that it must surely end in death (it didn’t!). I was interested to read in the last book we reviewed ‘A Brain Wider than the Sky’ by Andrew Levy, that migraines can trigger this sensation, and that it is simply part of the bizarre brain manoeuvres that occur during the headache, and not some indication that I am a bit of a creepy drama queen.

Interestingly, Woolf talks about death as a state in which “the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes”. To me, my migraines have always felt like an assault from within. My body is doing its best to smash me to smithereens and all I can do is look on hopelessly. When I describe my migraines, I do often see them as separate from me, a murderous part of me that delights in attacking my head, my muscles, my nervous system and my digestive system and unleashes an arsenal of symptoms to try to destroy me (or in fact, just make that holiday more of a trauma than a retreat, and that business meeting a superhuman challenge). I therefore understood Woolf’s description of “those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it” as representative of the almost daily battles that me and my head are engaged in. In fact, many of the holistic practitioners I have seen in my endless pursuit of a cure have tried to get me to embrace that part of me, to see migraines as a way of protecting me (but I don’t need to be protected from parties or holidays I protest!), or railing against my lifestyle (I have been living the moderate, routine-focused life of a ‘migraine nun’ for twenty years I complain!). One even asked me to personify the migraine as a dog that needed to be nurtured, fed and looked after. (I tried really hard, but during the first migraine, ended up sub-consciously beating the migraine dog to a bloody pulp, so not sure that worked!). Note: no real dogs were harmed in that psychological experiment. Anyway, I digress…

On reflecting on both the film and the essay, I would love to be able to relate to the cool, frank and accepting Maggie, and tackle my condition with sardonic humour whilst remaining effortlessly beautiful and admirably stoic. However, truthfully, I tend to feel more like Woolf, that I’ve “dropped out of the race” and am no “longer a soldier in the army of the upright”. And, sadly, when in the throes of migraine-induced misery, I don’t really find myself blessed with a superb and intuitive grasp of Shakespeare and poetic talent like Woolf, nor do I take solace, like Maggie does, in self-expression through art. Instead I find myself groggy, my instincts dulled and my brain capacity diminished (and that’s without the delightful Topamax). I find that ordinary tasks turn into Krypton Factor-style challenges, and that my battered brain is swimming in treacle whilst being repeatedly battered with a claw-hammer. (Woolf wasn’t wrong when she said that the “poverty of language” can’t describe our condition – we need a new language – “more primitive, more sensual, more obscene”). And, once you invite someone into the world of a migraineur, you do feel guilty – like you’re showing them a side of life that even you would rather not be privy to. Like Jake Gyllenhaal’s shallow-as-a-teaspoon Jamie Randall, you have to show them a darker, more shadowy world that at best gives them depth and compassion, at worst makes you look like a complete freak (anyone else puked in front of a date, or been found collapsed in a pool of your own vomit, still with sunglasses and a Kool headpatch on by the side of the road by your boss?)

So did I learn anything from the book and film? Probably not. However, what I did get from them was the sense that I am not alone. Although migraine is not a terminal or degenerative disease like Parkinson’s, it does sledgehammer its way through your life in a similar, unwelcome and often terrifying manner. It also creates the same, alienating feeling that Woolf so eloquently describes in her essay. And, if Virginia Woolf feels that language is inadequate to describe what she feels, then I certainly won’t feel bad when I try to describe my migraine like “one of those teddy-grabbing machines in an arcade gone rogue”. So, all that’s left for me to do now is take up a creative hobby…Wish me luck!

Amanda is the director of an advertising agency and lives with her husband in Stoke-on-Trent. She has been a migraineur for twenty years, latterly lapsing into chronic.
Thank you Amanda for such a personal, thoughtful and insightful review. I'm looking forward to picking your brains more about Woolf's life! 

I must confess I haven't yet finished 'On Being Ill' but so far I'm finding it incredibly resonate and moving. I'm now dying to re-read some of Woolf's work looking for clues of her chronic illness that she so beautifully, and explicitly, writes about in this short essay. I'm also slightly haunted by the continual image of water, which Amanda highlights above, as we all know that Woolf drowned herself. If you're not sure the essay is for you - let me share (again) the passage that I shall be pinning above my desk: 

"English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare of Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and langauge at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. " p.g 6

We'll be 'meeting to discuss the film and essay on 
Tuesday 13th August at 6pm (UK) and 1pm (USA). 
To join in: 

1. Click here to enter the chat room: MMBook Club (will open in a new window)
2. Enter Password: mmbookclub
3. Join in our incredible, life changing discussion! 

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