Working through illness - Elizabeth Kay
When I was thirteen, I was off school with flu. I had quite a high temperature, but otherwise I didn’t feel too bad. I spent the time painting, and I did a picture of a cat which won a competition. (This one was done several decades later!) I'm firmly of the opinion that the fever had
Unfortunately, not all illnesses are so productive, and although writing is one of the best professions to pursue under difficult circumstances the indispositions that fell you aren’t always the obvious ones. Writing is good because it doesn’t require the constitution of an ox in all weathers out of doors. You don’t need perfect hearing, or perfect sight. Terry Pratchett now dictates everything, as he can no longer see the screen properly. You don’t have to appear in public if you don’t want to, so disfigurements or voice problems aren’t crucial either. You don’t have to go to an office every day, so travel isn’t an issue, and you can usually re-schedule your work so that you can have time off if you’re having a bad day. Lots of pluses, then.
The big negative is that your brain has to be functioning well, and you need to be able to concentrate. Although depression can interfere with concentration, it’s not always the case. Writing is the most wonderful escape if you can use it that way. When I was writing The Divide
More recently, I’ve had a number of health problems which have impacted in different ways. None of them are life-threatening, but all of them affect quality of life. Backache can be very disabling – but there are painkillers, and a change of position or a walk can help. There are three conditions, however, that have been very hard to deal with. The first is psoriasis, and getting it on your fingertips is a nightmare. The topical ointments leave your fingers greasy and unusable – try typing in cotton gloves! And when it’s really bad your skin cracks and plasters are the last resort, but they’re never very effective because of the origami you have to master to enclose the ends of your fingers. You can actually do very little. I’ve yet to find inspiration in it, I’m afraid, although Dennis Potter suffered very badly from the same condition and that resulted in The Singing Detective, one of the most innovative television productions of all. And if psoriasis wasn’t bad enough, I now have a ganglion on my left hand in what a rather unsympathetic GP calls “a difficult place” – and guess what, I’m left-handed. Thank goodness for computers, as holding pen can be agony.
And now it looks as though a tablet I was taking for it has given me the other condition I dreaded above all others – tinnitus. It was at its worst when it first came on, very suddenly, on the way back from a Scattered Authors conference. I became desperate very quickly, and saw a doctor. She had no problem with giving me an emergency appointment, as she said suicide was always a risk with tinnitus. And before the week was out I understood that perfectly. There’s no escape. It’s with you the moment you wake up, and there until you go to sleep. Mine is like the sound of a pressure cooker inside my head. As I have no hearing loss and the timing of it was significant it really does look as though it was the medication, so there’s still a chance it will go. And it has improved, although I do get relapses every so often when it’s very difficult to remember that it’s not going to stay like that. The brain learns to filter some of it out; it’s tiredness and stress that tend to exacerbate it. It’s at its worst when there’s no extraneous noise. That means when you wake up in the middle of the night – or when you sit down to write. Some people can work with music playing; I can’t. I’m gradually learning to cope – I think. But sometimes I just want to hit my head against wall.
When you’re not feeling on top of the world, the prospect of writing a whole book can be daunting. Short stories provide a good alternative, and I write one every month for Magnet Magazine, which is also published both online and in magazine format, and is one of the best examples I have ever seen of online magazine publication. Magnet Magazine - see here:There are many writers who have shared their experiences of horrendous illnesses that can only have one outcome. People who spring to mind are John Diamond, who wrote a devastatingly honest column about throat cancer, and Oscar Moore, who did something similar with AIDS and died at the appallingly young age of thirty-six. Both of them contributed a great deal to both to the medical profession, by their acute observations, and to people in the same position, who may not have felt quite so alone as a consequence. And then there’s Melanie Reid’s Spinal Column, which appears in the Times each Saturday, about her ongoing battle with paralysis after a fall from a horse. The old adage is true you know – there’s always someone worse off than you are.
PS I shan't apologise for the lack of pictures - I'm quite sure you don't want photographs of psoriatic fingers or ganglions!