In the fall of 1997, after I graduated from college, I began experiencing what I called “electric shocks”—tiny stabbing sensations that flickered over my legs and arms every morning. They were so extreme that as I walked to work from my East Village basement apartment, I often had to stop on Ninth Street and rub my legs against a parking meter, or else my muscles would begin twitching and spasming.
My doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong—dry skin, he proposed—and eventually the shocks went away. A year later, they returned for a few months, only to go away again just when I couldn’t bear it anymore.
Over the years, the shocks and other strange symptoms—vertigo, fatigue, joint pain, memory problems, tremors—came and went. In 2002, I began waking up every night drenched in sweat, with hives covering my legs. A doctor I consulted thought, based on a test result, that I might have lupus, but I had few other markers of the autoimmune disease. In 2008, when I was 32, doctors identified arthritis in my hips and neck, for which I had surgery and physical therapy. I was also bizarrely exhausted. Nothing was really wrong, the doctors I visited told me; my tests looked fine.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with a relatively mild autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Yet despite eating carefully and sleeping well, I was having difficulty functioning, which didn’t make sense to my doctor—or to me. Recalling basic words was often challenging. Teaching a poetry class at Princeton, I found myself talking to the students about “the season that comes after winter, when flowers grow.”
I was in near-constant pain, as I wrote in an essay for The New Yorker at the time about living with chronic illness. Yet some part of me thought that perhaps this was what everyone in her mid-30s felt. Pain, exhaustion, a leaden mind.
One chilly December night in 2012, I drove a few colleagues back to Brooklyn after our department holiday party in New Jersey. I looked over at the man sitting next to me—a novelist I’d known for years—and realized that I had no idea who he was. I pondered the problem. I knew I knew him, but who was he? It took an hour to recover the information that he was a friend. At home, I asked my partner, Jim, whether he had ever experienced anything like this. He shook his head. Something was wrong.
By the following fall, any outing—to teach my class, or to attend a friend’s birthday dinner—could mean days in bed afterward. I hid matters as best I could. Debt piled up as I sought out top-tier physicians (many of whom didn’t take insurance)—a neurologist who diagnosed neuropathy of unclear origin, a rheumatologist who diagnosed “unspecified connective-tissue disease” and gave me steroids and intravenous immunoglobulin infusions.
I visited acupuncturists and nutritionists. I saw expensive out-of-network “integrative” doctors (M.D.s who take a holistic approach to health) and was diagnosed with overexhaustion and given IV vitamin drips. Many doctors, I could tell, weren’t sure what to think. Is this all in her head? I felt them wondering. One suggested I see a therapist. “We’re all tired,” another chided me.