Sunday, July 10, 2016

Biliousness and care. When I was a kid, there was a weird tin of powdered saline drink in the kitchen cupboard. I wish I could remember what the brand was. But I do remember that the side of the tin advertised that you could drink it to treat 'biliousness'.

I had never heard this word before. It sounded like some old-timey disease, and as a result I thought of this saline drink as an old-fashioned, superseded medicine, like Bex or Mercurochrome. (I am just old enough that Mercurochrome was still in use when I was in early primary school, and kids wore its reddish-purple badge of honour on their scraped knees after a trip to the sick bay.)

But I am feeling bilious right now. I caught either some kind of food-borne bacteria or a gastro virus from my housemate's little brother, who was staying with us last week and who was terribly ill on Monday night. In turn I woke up on Thursday feeling terribly ill myself. I managed to make it to (and through) my morning screening of Sing Street, but ended the day being wrung out at both ends. I'm still not feeling okay. My guts are churning and I'm feeling slow and queasy, and vaguely emotionally overwrought as well.

After calling up Nurse On Call (a godsend for hypochondriacs) to ask if the stabbing gut pains and tightness in my chest were normal gastro symptoms, I thought about going to the emergency department, as I'd been advised. But ultimately I went to my parents' house. In the car over there I was reminded of the doomed plague car at the start of Stephen King's The Stand – would I roll to a stop outside my parents' house, dead from Captain Trips?

What drove me there (apart from the Mazda 626) was the idea of care. I wanted someone to watch over me, to observe my symptoms and step in if I became too sick to care for myself. I also wanted to be physically vulnerable in a safe place; I was not relishing the idea of spewing in a hospital waiting room, or trying to rest in their hard plastic seats. I wonder if what drives some people to go to the ED when they're not life-threateningly ill is that they have nobody else to take care of them.

As it turned out, I was so ill that several times on Thursday I leaned over to throw up into a bucket and passed out, finding myself lying on the floor covered in vomit. My bed is quite high off the ground and is surrounded by various sharp-cornered objects, so I was pleased that this happened on a low couch in the TV room at my parents' house (which, appropriately, was once my childhood bedroom). But even as I felt comforted, it was also humiliating to regress to a childish relationship with my parents.

I often feel infantilised by my financial precarity and my perpetual singledom. Our society's narrative is that we progress through early adulthood to the point of forming our own families as adults and transferring the remembered care of our parents to our lovers and children. One of the many depressing aspects of being Forever Alone™ is seeing my peers rising to this kind of care, while I have only myself to care for, and only me to care for me. An unworthy subject. An unsatisfying object.

Laurie Penny has a great essay at The Baffler about 'self-care'. On the left we often scoff at this, and 'life hacks', and 'radical self-love', as neoliberal ideologies that place responsibility for health and happiness on individuals, sliding fatuously into the terrain of consumerist pampering and indulgence as well as ritualistic magical thinking.

"The harder, duller work of self-care," Penny writes, "is about the everyday, impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life in a world that would prefer you cowed and compliant."

At the height of my gastric turmoil on Thursday, I rebuffed a friend's offer to join a 'thrift' email thread about sharing the labour and cost of living between a group of underemployed friends. The reason I refused is because these friends are big on food, and I was worried I wouldn't be able to pull my weight in the group with bulk food purchases because I don't cook. Cooking makes me anxious. I see it as a space of judgment and failure; when I go on minibreaks I'm endlessly anxious about whether I brought enough food, or the right food. But now I feel ashamed that I refused what was essentially an offer of solidarity, a practice of communal resistance. I feel like a scab.

Penny points to the queer community as a salutary example of radical care. It seems to me that the reason the queer community is so good at caring is because so many queer people have first-hand experience of family rejection and disownment, and because queer people still face humiliating legal barriers in their care for their partners and children. Historically, 'gay liberation' included liberation from the nuclear family, and there's still debate about whether today's emphasis on same-sex marriage and 'rainbow families' represents political activism or quietude.

On the night of Chad and Zora's wedding, I felt worse than bilious. On the way back to the house where a bunch of us were staying, I'd made a poor decision to get a kebab from a roadside truck that, Brigadoon-like, had vanished completely when I walked past the next day. I lay in bed, sweating, guts churning, dozing restlessly.

At last I got up, hoping a drink and a toilet trip would help. In the hallway I smelled gas. It wasn't coming from me. I stumbled into the kitchen. The house had a huge commercial stove and oven; hours earlier we'd drunkenly fixed ourselves a snack of garlic bread. Since none of us were chefs, someone had left the stove on, quietly filling the house with gas. We could all have died in our sleep, starting with Alan the wedding photographer, who was curled up like a cat on the couch near the kitchen door.

I can't see a damn thing without my glasses, so I ran back to get them from beside my bed. That's when I encountered Jess's husband Mike in the hallway. He'd got up to get a glass of water and smelled the gas too. Mike took care of everything as I anxiously trailed behind. He opened all the windows to let the gas out, and figured out how to turn the stove off. He found a blanket and tucked it over Alan. Then he went back to bed.

In the nearly lethal kitchen, I found on the bench a tin of Salvital, a brand of powdered saline drink. Jess and Mike had brought it with them to the wedding. Remembering the anti-biliousness promise of the saline in my childhood cupboard, I fixed myself a glass.

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