(Harper Perennial, 2018)
“I have been sick my whole life,” writes Porochista Khakpour. Khakpour’s memoir, Sick, tells the story of her lifelong battle with illness and displacement. The Iranian American writer, who fled Iran with her parents as a toddler, describes the physical and mental struggles she’s undergone for years, lasting to this day.
Khakpour has late-stage Lyme disease. No one knows when she contracted the disease or where the tick that bit her came from, but she describes countless visits to hospitals and doctors over the years and the hopelessness she felt at never receiving a diagnosis, never knowing what was wrong. She moved from place to place and doctor to doctor, and many told her that nothing was wrong, really—that her physical symptoms were all caused by a combination of anxiety and depression, and in essence, it was all in her head.
Sick is an important memoir for a number of reasons. For one, Khakpour exposes the ways in which women are often treated by health professionals—many women’s symptoms not taken seriously. Even after her diagnosis, she describes a moment in which she refuses a CT scan to avoid the radiation and tells the internist she has Lyme, adding, “And there it came: his half smile.”
“As I walked out of the ICU,” Khakpour writes, “I felt that old state of mind consuming me, taking me back to my time in so many other hospitals, and the anger at being misunderstood boiled up in me again, that feeling of not being taken seriously by those who had your life in their hands.”
Khakpour describes these moments with such deep emotion that as a reader, you can’t help but feel both anger and sadness for her and countless others who have no doubt endured this treatment.
In many ways, the memoir progresses like a mystery. Though we know the final diagnosis is Lyme before we even begin, we are there with Khakpour as she tries to put together the pieces, and I found myself wondering when she’d finally have an answer, wishing at every stage that she’d find some reprieve in a diagnosis. We move through the stages of Khakpour’s life knowing, even in her healthier days, that something is wrong. She talks about college and her casual drug use, but even then, before the illness really takes hold, there are moments that felt off, and it is in these moments that the reader senses an air of mystery. Khakpour describes an incident in college of smoking weed with her friends one night and beginning to hallucinate. When she goes to the hospital, she discovers that she has “disturbingly low blood pressure, an erratic heartbeat, and a slight fever,” which prompts the doctor to ask, “Have you been sick for a while?”
In many ways, it’s frustrating to read about her suffering, about the doctors fumbling for an explanation, but Khakpour moves forward with her life until the symptoms became too much to bear: severe insomnia and depression, trouble walking, trouble swallowing, and so much more. She describes her subsequent addiction to different types of pills, all sanctioned and prescribed by doctors, the narrative once again critiquing the medical system in America.
Khakpour covers so much ground in this memoir, discussing everything from her illness, to her relationships, to her addiction, to her perpetual displacement, to the world events that serve as external stressors, and she does so with an amazing sense of clarity that we are able to follow along with ease. A few times, she pauses to include a short vignette or explanation, taking us into the process of telling her story. She writes, “This book is, it turns out, a miracle book, because it wrote its own ending. It didn’t believe in my bows, my full circles, my pretty arcs, my character development.” Khakpour’s life—and her illness—are complicated; there’s no neat ending because the story is one that continues even today, so in many ways, it’s impossible to create that perfect narrative. Khakpour shows readers that with chronic illness, there is no tidy conclusion, as this is a lifelong struggle. In her acknowledgments, Khakpour writes, “Part of the difficulty in writing Sick was that I was quite sick during the making of it, and continue to be … You are reading the middle of the story, I suspect, but I’m not sure where or when it will all end, so one might as well tell it now.”
DEENA ELGENAIDI is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Heavy Feather Review, and other publications.