Worse than getting sick from an illness is getting sick from not having the illness, succumbing to the power of suggestion, dying because someone said it’s probably going to happen.
It’s only natural that people are obsessed with health. It is the condition that everything else hinges upon. Good health is the gateway to a good life. If you feel bad things are bad. Shivering under a blanket with a fever is no way to kick back and have fun. To my knowledge, though I’m no expert, there are no hip-hop videos that illustrate flashy living by succumbing to a bad case of food poisoning. The rap artist does not want to be filmed lying fetal on his couch, in his pajamas, amid the stench of illness, coughing and gagging and running for the bathroom every ten seconds. Sickness is very unfashionable these days. The highly contagious rarely enjoy rich social interactions. Sneezing and coughing in someone’s face has not been considered foreplay since the Middle Ages. Dance Fever, good. Dengue Fever, bad.
Yet there are some folks who take the pursuit of health a little too far. The modern hypochondriac fears the slightest cough, rash, or ache. To the extremist an uncomfortable pain somewhere in the gut can only mean one thing. Cancer. Not only cancer but the worst kind of cancer, which as everybody knows is the kind of cancer in which a serial killer’s malignant cells are spliced into the genetic code of a top athlete and then injected into the innocent citizen by a crazed pharmaceutical company. Then the telomeres go crazy, the chromosomes go postal, and before you know it all hell breaks loose. It’s a lethal combination of speed and ruthlessness. The unstoppable mass starts eating through valuable organs, slashing and burning like General Sherman on his march to the sea.
Everyone’s heard the stories. A man is as healthy as an ox. Jogs fifteen miles a day. Eats nothing but life-nurturing ingredients, then drops dead during his early morning power yoga. Open him up and find some glob of Jeffrey Dahmer-Lance Armstrong in a heart chamber. It doesn’t seem right that the super-healthy succumb while the obese tool around on their motorized carts, causing major gridlock on the weighty foods aisles of the grocery store. I asked a doctor friend about it one day, the fact that I had to avoid some sugary sections of the grocery store like I avoided rush hour. He just shrugged and suggested it might be a conceptual art movement, a life-size representation of a clogged artery.
Paranoid illness theories aside, even the healthiest of us will fall ill at one point or another, and the fragility of life will be felt in every pain, spasm and wheeze. Preventative steps must be taken when the risk of infection hits too close to home. So when I heard about the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) virus landing smack in the middle of the United States last week, I was concerned. If the MERS epidemic spreads here, they’d have to rename it something like Global Respiratory Syndrome, or GRS, which is too close to Global Positioning System, or GPS. People would be confused. They would end up paying large amounts of money for a respiratory infection while avoiding computer maps, causing them to get lost and succumb to the strange cruel world that doesn’t just sing out directions in a pleasant voice. I was relieved then to find out a few days later that the man from Illinois who had been diagnosed with MERS had been misdiagnosed. He had received a “false positive” from one of the tests, which is more alarming than a true negative, less harmful than a true positive, and a hell of a lot more vexing than a false negative. In short the virus hadn’t touched down in the western world. The country was safe. Or was it?
This brings me back to my original point. If somebody with any sensitivities to being told his life is in jeopardy (so, like, everybody alive) is told his life is in jeopardy, he may have a reaction that is less than reasonable. He may panic. He may seek out all therapies, normal and alternative, and depending on how obsessed he is with diseases both real and imaginary, he may go so far as to try and cure himself to death. In that respect not having the MERS virus could be one of the deadliest non-diseases there is. Like Joseph K from Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” who finds himself accused of a nameless crime and is assured he will eventually be “under arrest, but not now, but soon,” the person afflicted with non-MERS may become obsessed with his pseudo-illness. The brain is a powerful piece of spongy electricity. People can fall ill from the power of their own suggestion. Women can convince themselves they are pregnant, stop menstruating and blow up like a beach ball. Pseudocyesis, it is called. There are probably a few documented cases of men suffering from it, too. Imaginary illnesses are powerful, can be destructive, and are like heroin for hustlers, who are out to take advantage of the fearful and the desperate.
A man is told he has MERS. He decides to cure it at all costs. He visits the local physicians. Doctor after doctor. As many as he can fit into his schedule. They tell him the same thing. He is not ill. The man isn’t satisfied. After exhausting all the doctors with medical degrees, he hits the alternative therapy crowd. Gets into all sorts of weird voodoo. He finds a doctor’s office that ends up being a rented garage in a storage facility. The “doctor” greets him in a dirty lab coat. He is wearing black rubber gloves, an eye patch and a speculum strapped to his misshapen head, and there is a pregnant dog howling on a blanket in the corner, about to give birth.
“Busy day,” says the doctor.
Next thing the man with non-MERS knows he’s hooked up to a tongue wench. The doctor is pouring bleach down his throat while pounding on his thoracic cavity. The doctor eventually releases him, tells him to have a nice day and warns against any lawsuits. Then the health officials call him. They tell him they made a mistake. The other more comprehensive tests have shown he does not have MERS. The man is unconvinced. He decides he has something just as bad as MERS, but as yet unidentifiable. An impostor virus that is just as crazy. He will still die, just not from MERS, and in the end, does it matter?
If a doctor says, “Good news, turns out you weren’t stabbed with a switchblade. It was a Bowie knife.”
“Will I still die?”
“Yes. Maybe. Probably. I’ll put it this way, I wouldn’t go buying any green bananas if I were you.”
The man with non-MERS can now go off the rails. He ends up infecting others with non-MERS. He explains that the symptoms are so vague and mysterious that the only way to really know you have it is to have no detectable indications of it whatsoever. His family and friends realize, to their horror, they have the same exact lack of symptoms. The epidemic spreads quickly. Whole neighborhoods are bedridden. One man decides to just end it all before the real pain sets in. Doctors are baffled by the strange and elusive coronavirus. It is invisible, undetectable, a shadowy figure. It’s almost like it is not even there. An enemy that can disappear and reappear at will, like death, or “The Slender Man.”
For those who haven’t heard of him, “The Slender Man” is a sinuous, eery phantom who lurks the internet, appearing in the background of grainy photos, usually ones with children involved. He stalks schoolhouses and playgrounds. Pale and creepy with no face and tentacles writhing out of his back, he would definitely be the guest at the party that makes everyone else suddenly remember they all have something else to do. He is much like the case of non-MERS. He is fictional yet able to wield a powerful influence on certain impressionable minds, specifically two Wisconsin twelve-year-olds who, in deference to their slender, ghostly hero, lured their friend to the woods and stabbed her twenty times, for real, for real, for real. It’s one thing to have internet memes that are slightly unsettling, it is quite another to have two very real, knife-wielding children running amok. Knives are sinister little weapons. They are bad for the skin, and usually anything else sitting right under it.
I don’t understand The Slender Man’s allure. Those deluded little girls might as well worship the coronavirus, filovirus, or Shitala Mata, the dreaded Hindu goddess of smallpox. They will clean your clock faster than any rickety apparition that is way to gaunt and gawky to be a real threat. In fact, I think The Slender Man is grossly misunderstood. He sits meekly in the background of those grainy photos because he is searching for medical assistance. He has been shunned by adults, so now he must appeal to children. He is weak, palsied, and his face has been chewed off by aggressive flesh-eating bacteria, so he justifiably has a hard time communicating. His joints are bad. His bones have been reduced to twigs by rickets. His spine is bent. Shigella, campylobacter, and other dangerous microorganisms course through his frail body. Not to mention the tentacles. It’s no secret that a man, slender or otherwise, has to bed some mangy hookers to end up with a bunch of tentacles growing out of his back. Not even on the west side of Manhattan in the early nineties would an encounter with a prostitute result in a case of the “waving tentacles.”
It doesn’t bode well when the real threat to the general welfare comes in the form of false illnesses from exotic lands and twelve-year-old girls armed with daggers. Be on the lookout for the germ-covered handshake and preteen girls armed with big knives. If somebody approaches with a smile and an extended hand, run. If you are stuck in an alley and The Slender Man is coming from one way, and two twelve-year-old girls with knives are approaching from the other, take your chances with The Slender Man. Odds are he is about to keel over from a blitz of tiny microbes, cachexia and terminal frailty and you will be able to just run right over him. The girls will do the rest, snuffing him out in the style of the old kings of Quito, who would offer as sacrifice that which had come to be revered in the hopes that the sun god would be pleased.
As for me I’ll be in the underground bunker until everything calms down.
More Alembics to come