To Deepen Love, Consider Duty

Susan Sontag, in her 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor,” described “the Kingdom of the Ill” — a place to which all have dual citizenship, in addition to the kingdom of the well.

As a young adult, I have already made a number of trips between those two places. Here is the landscape of the former as I imagine it: a heaving, red-studded expanse, perhaps the microscopic surface of a muscle and an earthly wasteland rolled into one. When I visit, around me there are crumbling castles; I walk the path between them, a potholed road. In the distance: a light, an exit, but sometimes the clouds obscure it, and you don’t know you’re near until you reach it.

When I first read Ms. Sontag’s words, I envisioned visits to this kingdom as solitary ventures. After all, isn’t it ultimately you alone in the doctor’s office, or in the pharmacy line, or in your thoughts? Sometimes, perhaps. But recently I’ve realized that the two kingdoms are not entirely separate; when you’re stumbling on the dusty road, neighbors from the kingdom of the well can pull you forward.

Case in point: A couple of months ago, I had a flare-up. The medical name of this condition isn’t important here; it’s the feeling — pure panic, paired with a muscle-tightening, chest-constricting, rigid exoskeleton constructed of flames and concrete. I feared that both my mind and body were falling apart. An uncertainty about my career morphed into a misshapen terror that my life was worth little or nothing. A lapse — not even a lapse, a totally quotidian break — in my boyfriend’s texts while I headed to his house for a preplanned afternoon made me certain he was going to end things.

I fought tears on the bus, the subway. When he opened the door, I was sobbing, and waves of panic radiated through my body, fraying my nerves and tensing my muscles.

“Oh,” he said. “Oh, Val.”

He took my backpack off my shoulders, led me to his couch and embraced me while I shook. My mascara bled onto his white sweatshirt. I don’t remember much from that day, or much from the following days, only that I was lost in my own discomfort — and he was there with me.

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