The Invisible World of Illness
An intimate, poetic essay about empathy and mental illness
As a young girl, Nadia de Vries is diagnosed with systemic mastocytosis, a rare disease that can develop into an aggressive form of leukaemia. While doctors line up to examine her in the hospital, she is told she will likely never reach adulthood. Having made peace with death, she spends hours watching TV and on the computer; she never learns how to swim. But, when in her teens, De Vries makes a full recovery, she must find a place in the world in which she has never learned to live. Her resulting depressions and suicidal ‘aspirations’ are diagnosed as a personality disorder – a condition that only arouses scepticism and humiliation.
Why is it that we empathise more with bodily illnesses than with their mental counterparts? How can we explain the glaring divide between the way we romanticise and idolise the suicide stories of famous artists or intellectuals and the pervasive dismissal or even fear of mental illness in everyday life? Writer, poet and academic researcher Nadia de Vries transforms her personal experience into an incisive study on the interplay between illness and identity.
Weaving in figures like Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, she recounts her painful story with elegance and candour, openly addressing her struggle with self-harm, suicide attempts, crippling alcoholism, sexual violence, delusions in public and dancing in diapers. In doing so, she explores how society treats its ‘weak’, its abnormal, those who are too fat, too thin, or unstable.
As such, Hypochondriac is the deeply personal story of a writer and a young woman coming into her own while grappling with the pains of mental illness. It is also a damning indictment of the persistent stigmas that surround mental illness in our society today. With literary flare, this stirring personal statement argues for more visibility and empathy concerning mental illness, as well as every person’s right to a place in the world and their right to vulnerability.
I do not believe in catharsis. Set your house on fire or shave your head bald, but the past is inside you. No therapist will beat it out. This is not cynicism. This is the ordinary realisation that fiction will not save you. This book is not fiction, nor does it serve as consolation. I no longer want consolation because consolation has a time and a place, and I want to take a place that is unconditional.