Kat Duff’s The Alchemy of Illness is one of the most thoughtful and incisive discussions, to date, on the subject of illness. Her collection of essays draws from the disciplines of psychology, religion, history, mythology and anthropology, all of which she eloquently incorporates into her own theories on illness. Further, she manages to discuss the role of illness in spiritual transformation, without either romanticizing illness or patronizing the reader with New Age clichés.
The author herself was diagnosed in 1988 with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS), and so writes with the insight that, generally speaking, only those who have been sick themselves possess.
I lie sprawled across my bed, as if thrown aimlessly aside. The trappings of illness surround me: a litter of twisted tissues and covers, half-empty glasses of water (one with a fly floating in it), and plastic pill bottles. . . . We do not dip our feet into the waters of illness; we are fully immersed in them, as if pulled under by a relentless undertow. As we become sick, sickness becomes us and redefines us, so we say we are not ourselves anymore. In a few short hours I was transformed from a hardworking counselor and avid swimmer into a “patient.”
Ms. Duff’s book is relevant to anyone who has been ill, as well as to those who have contact with the ill, either personally or professionally, and who want to gain a better understanding of that experience. The book also speaks to those who appreciate the delicate balance between health and illness, and who are interested in why our culture does not have an easy time with illness. According to Ms. Duff:
Illness is the shadow of Western civilization, the antithesis of the rampant extroversion and productivity it so values. As we attempt to exile disease from our world, it persists to haunt us with an ever-menacing guise, and we need it all the more to be whole, to save us from the curse of perfectionism.
Ms. Duff describes how many people with immune system problems “liken themselves to the canaries in the coal mines, whose sufferings provide evidence that we have made our world so toxic as to be unlivable.” In this context, she introduces the notion of collective karma, and writes, “In the end, there is only karma, the psychic inheritance and accumulation of humanity’s actions, some of which, I suspect, can only be expressed and experienced by the variations of health and illness.”
This is an exceptional book, combining academic research with personal wisdom and compassion by someone who has “been there.” In the last sentence of the book she reminds herself and other who have been ill: “I hope I do not forget when I get well.”