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
 interesting effects on my imagination, and I experimented with techniques that would not otherwise have occurred to me.
            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 
I was going through a very bad patch indeed – living in one room in flea-infested house with a mad landlady who only ran the central heating for one hour a day in the depths of winter. The moment I sat down at the computer I was somewhere else, and I wrote seventy thousand words in three and half weeks. I was completely obsessed; I’d start work before breakfast, I’d eat my meals there, I’d only pack up when I was just too tired to carry on. I’ve never managed quite that intensity since – but then, I’ve no wish to feel as down as I did then.
            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!


JO said…
Sorry you feel so poorly - I do hope the tinnitus eases soon and your hands get more comfortable. Writing with a broken leg is one thing - but these are making you miserable and that, in my experience, is the greatest obstacle to getting the words down.

And please don't apologise for lack of pictures - surely we are wordsmiths.
Chris Longmuir said…
I feel for you. I get broken and hacked finger tips in the winter with recurring eczema between my fingers (so itchy), and the problems with plasters on the fingertips is insurmountable. I've tried painting on new skin sometimes, it nips like fury, but it can be better than plasters. However, with all the other things combined with it you are really suffering. I'll be thinking of you.
Kathleen Jones said…
I can only admire your courage Elizabeth in the face of such trials. Thinking of you - but sympathy isn't of much use, is it. Made my RSI (the writers' curse) seem very trivial by comparison.
Susan Price said…
Ladies, your courage and persistence makes me feel humble. I will try not to complain too much about my few aches and pains.
Liz, I was hoping that things had improved a bit. Sorry to hear they haven't. It's a - something I can't say on a family-friendly blog!
Bill Kirton said…
Reading your post, Liz, reminds me of how much I take things for granted. I'm so sorry these things have piled up for you and can only say I hope they ease and disappear very soon.
julia jones said…
Agree with Kathleen and Sue - full of admiration for your courage and persistence. Thanks for this impressive post. Real writing committment

Elizabeth Kay said…
Thank you all so much for your lovely comments. Sometimes you just have to laugh when it all piles up - I broke my toe last Sunday! But at least I don't type with my feet...
CallyPhillips said…
Liz, as with everyone else I add commiserations for your current 'state of play.' Interesting juxtaposition to Dan's post yesterday as well!
Tinnitus sounds particularly horrific. Things that interfere with the thought processes are always so much worse than the mere physical ones. Like you, I got some inspiration from Dennis Potter, he had not just psorisis but psoriatic arthritis (which is like having it inside and out). My inspiration came when I was hospitalised and, never having understood 'The Singing Detective' I suddenly was confronted by morphine and fever induced hallucinations after which 'it all made sense'

If I can offer any kind of 'happy' view to all this, its simply to offer personal experience. Illness and chronic conditions are a bit different to my mind. Illness is 'temporary' and a pain (no pun intended) but can be lived through. When one is dealing with chronic conditions you have to take a different tack, I think. People are always 'amazed' by how much 'energy' and work I put in. The secret is that having a chronic condition which can put me in bed for a month at a time unable to do anything (except rush to the toilet) I make sure that in 'the good times' I do as much as I possibly can. And I keep as stress free as possible to keep the good times as good as possible as long as possible. Of course 'stress' management is a unique thing to each person because what stresses one doesn't stress another - and this, I think, means people taking a long hard look at their lives (and lifestyle choices for them wot can afford such things) and committing to live their own life the best way they can for them. For me, this sadly meant giving up drama work and most 'real' work in the 'real' world but that has given me more opportunity to do 'virtual' work. And that folks, is why I'm so committed to it and so 'organised' because I can't afford to leave things till the last minute since at any minute I may be plunged into 'illness' when all goes pear shaped and creativity or even normal functioning is impossible. Am I just saying - find the good times and live for them? Maybe. But I'm also saying - empathy in the extreme and I hope you get into a more settled phase soon.
Lydia Bennet said…
hello Elizabeth, I hope your tinnitus goes, if it's a side effect it should eventually. Chronic health problems do make writing difficult, although it's a job which you can keep doing through all sorts of misadventure more effectively than many other jobs. My physical disability does make a difference though I still travel a lot - as a poet, and even now as a novelist, I find you do have to get out and about, do readings and signings, performances, etc. (and I like doing them!) Illness too is very disabling especially if you have deadlines to beat. I seem to recall once the winner of the booker prize was a disabled person who could only physically write one sentence a day. I've just started Epsom salts baths, another old remedy scorned out of fashion as it makes no money for drug companies, it's supposed to be good for skin conditions though it's chronic three-day migraines I'm trying it for. I find you have to do all your own research and treatment for most conditions, otherwise you get told rubbish, given stuff that makes you ill, or gives you tinnitus! I hope your fingers improve as well, so frustrating.

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