It was a bright clear day, a sunny afternoon overshadowed by dismal thoughts. I was standing in the Hotel Pharmacy, feeling beat. Beat as in defeated, not tired. The folks at the Hotel Pharmacy are competent, compassionate people. They were being especially compassionate with me, perhaps because they sensed my anxiety or had even detected the web of raw nerves breaking out just beneath the surface of my prickly thin skin.
My diabetes had finally caught up with me. Diet and exercise were no longer sufficient, so then it was pills, but my body had proved intolerant to the metformin, so now it was insulin.
I was feeling a profound sense of failure. I had failed to keep myself healthy. I never thought that I would be one of those Type 2 diabetics obliged to inject themselves like junkies every day. As with everything else, I would be the exception, right?
But this – this had to mean that I was really sick, that within a matter of months I would be a half-blind invalid who couldn’t feel her toes or an amputee on dialysis or dead. At the very least, it had to mean that I would die sooner than expected, sooner than I wanted – and I want to live one hundred years – because I have an extreme fear and severe loathing of death. (I will be the exception. Right?)
I had a chronic disease, a real disease. It has been determined that people with diabetes suffer from depression at a rate two to four times higher than others and that they suffer from anxiety three to five times higher.
I needed no help with anxiety. Already my mind had spun out a dozen nightmare scenarios involving the new flex pens, which in fact make injections mercifully easy. I envisioned myself getting a tainted pen with something quick and deadly in it or an empty pen poised to introduce a lethal air bubble into my veins or a mechanically faulty pen that would slip and go haywire while I was pushing the plunger and rush a fatally high dose of insulin into my body.
Whatever I pictured, it would end badly with one stark moment of recognition, another even briefer, starker moment of abject terror and then annihilation – forever.
On a more practical and less catastrophic level, I wondered how this business of testing my blood sugar and injecting myself twice every morning and once before each meal was going to fit into the rest of my life. What about dining out? To prevent an abrupt drop in blood sugar, it is necessary to eat ten minutes after taking the Novolog. (What if I didn’t eat ten minutes after? Would I die?) I imagined myself always being un-chic in restaurants, leaving the table for cramped, dimly lit bathroom stalls to stick a needle in my gut.
What about vacations? Was I to be burdened and blighted by the paraphernalia that goes with a glucose meter and injections, charged with the task of packing, storing and properly disposing of lancets, bloody test strips, needles, alcohol swabs and insulin delivery systems?
And what about work? True, I was unemployed, but that only managed to increase my distress: what if I suddenly got a job? My anxiety level rocketed at the prospect of trying to make a good impression on watchful new colleagues, trying to behave in a normal, competent and professional manner while sneaking off to inject myself and deal with the shame and fear and horror of it all.
My friend Michele pointed out that the job market remained feeble. Nor did I ever go on vacation. And by the way, I rarely ate out.
Fine. I still had to deal with the more important issue of treating this disease (and maybe, just maybe, getting off the insulin) with intensified efforts at diet and exercise. For me, the real question was this: how was I going to change my relationship with food and lose weight? But I didn’t want to think about that. It was easier coming up with highly implausible worst-case scenarios.
Then again, how in hell was I going to lose weight when one of the chief side effects of taking insulin is weight gain?
Was I doomed? Would I never be the radiantly healthy, vitally attractive, successful person I still intended to be? Was this it now? Getting older, getting fatter, feeling hopeless and damned, jabbing myself with needles to stave off the apparently inevitable complications of this “devastating” and “life-threatening” disease? Was this me?
So I felt pretty beat standing there in the Hotel Pharmacy because I was coming off three weeks of thoughts like these. To make matters worse, these were not the things I was thinking about at that particular moment, because there was yet another difficulty, this one real: the expense. Even with insurance, I was looking at having to pay out hundreds of dollars per month. Would I have to choose between sliding deeper into debt or into poor health? Was my fate sealed? Would I die prematurely for lack of funds? Was this me?
To hold down my costs for the month, my pharmacist offered to sell me two flex pens instead of the standard box of five, but he said it would take him awhile to process my co-payment. I nodded dumbly, very near tears, and wandered outside into the bright sun, where all my fears, rational and irrational, felt overexposed.
I ducked in to Brattleboro Books, a used bookstore on Elliot Street with a superabundant inventory. Inside two stories of cavernous rooms, rows and rows of tightly packed shelves stand from ceiling to floor to create a bewildering maze of cubbies, niches, alcoves and interior cul-de-sacs. The smell of secondhand books is overpowering, that musty, fusty smell that hits you when you climb up into the attic of an old house on a summer afternoon, that smell of sour, smutty wood and brittle paper, tintypes, disintegrating bookbinding and parched wool.
And there I found my bliss. This was me. Whatever it is inside of me that spontaneously answers to the smell, look and innate value of books surfaced and produced instant calm. I felt exactly as though I had found shelter from a storm.
I went straight for the classics section and cocooned myself in the rich, resonant, snug but sweeping world of literature. All my phobic, grieving thoughts stayed well away in the pharmacy next door while I browsed through the enchanted language of great writers and finally chose three crusty paperbacks: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Faulkner’s Light in August. Ten dollars’ worth of sanity. Ten dollars’ worth of meaning. Somehow, for some reason, in some way, ten dollars’ worth of victory over death.
Amazon.com had recently announced that it was selling more Kindle e-books than both hardcover and paperback books combined, that it had sold more than three times as many Kindle books this year than in the same period in 2010 and that it had more than 950,000 Kindle titles available for sale.
I am not anti-Kindle, (or Nook or iPad or whatever the craze will be by the time I can afford to buy it). There may even be a time when I stop amassing actual books – but I sure as hell won’t give up the ones I already have, as I’ve been advised to do by friends and a mother who have noticed that books are forming stacks in my apartment because I can’t fit another bookcase into the place.
For those who despair about the future of books, it is at least certain that storytelling will never end. We will not forsake the irresistible impulse that started when humans first adapted lungs, throat, mouth and nose to some purpose other than breathing, eating and drinking, when they learned to use these assets along with the larynx to become living repositories of genealogies, tribal chants and songs.
It has been suggested that the next narrative form will be transmedia storytelling, which will string out separate threads of a single story across multiple platforms, books, TV, movies and games (or podcasts, blogs and tweets) simultaneously.
Fascinating, right? But listen. E-readers, tablets and multiplex narratives have desirable uses. I doubt, however, that they can produce the aid and comfort that settled over my soul as I stood in Brattleboro Books and leafed through discolored, antique pages in search of gorgeous, deep-felt words. I don’t believe they can simulate the olfactory, tactile and in-the-moment experience that created a palpable intimacy between my hunger and the three amazing authors who walked out the door with me that day.
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