Ill feelings

Reading for me of late has been very all or nothing—I either binge voraciously or not at all, opting instead for the certitude of comfort watching a select cycle of TV shows. I began reading Ill Feelings on the train from Glasgow to Manchester on a brief respite from work. I was (and if I’m honest with myself, still am) exhausted, burnt-out, done. Held by the familiar fog of depression, my brain could only digest this book in little pieces at a time, recognition conjuring that familiar sting of both feeling understood and exposed. I get the feeling that the sensation of reading is an echo of the experience of writing—in waves rather than stages.

Ill Feelings is chronic. Written with, and through, ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the book’s structure holds the reader in the chronological space of medically unexplained illness. As Alice Hattrick writes; Crip time is straight time extended, stretched out, bent, warped. Through a series of vignettes-come-wormholes I lurch between past, present and future. Or perhaps more accurately, I find myself in a timeline where these temporal distinctions become completely irrelevant.

As I read, I try to keep track of the cast of characters that is rapidly accumulating, whose presenceflare-up and recede at different moments; sick women, testimonies, case studies, ‘experts’, medical nomenclature, data, diagnoses, symptoms, treatments. These characters, storylines and timelines become suspended in a fog of confluences and contradictions, a miasma punctuated by Alice’s voice—like those slippery moments of clarity that come to you as you fall asleep. As soon as you think it holds together pieces fall away.

The Crip time of Ill Feelings pulls into intimate proximity the experiences of sick women in the 19th century and sick women of the 21st century, their similarities more acute than their differences. A reminder that the forward trajectory of linear time does not necessarily guarantee progress.

Alice writes how the intertwined experiences held between them and their mother are understood as some strange contagion—described by a doctor as a shared hysterical language—another fold in time, a supposed relic of medical history held in suspended animation in the bodies of 21st century patients. A novel mutation on the concept of ‘communicable’ disease, this ‘shared language’ (their relationship) is diagnosed as the cause of their ill feelings. A corrupting influence, transmitted through intimacy and proximity.

The prognosis shifts from having a problem to becoming a problem—when being attentive to the problem becomes pathologised as exacerbating the problem.

That Alice is accused of ‘mimicking’ their mother’s symptoms by doctors and family members is also a regurgitation of hysteria diagnostic criteria, as noted by ‘the Napoleon of the neuroses’ Jean-Martin Charcot:

The hysteric’s talent for mimicry is so entirely persuasive that the difference between reality and theater, disease and its imitation, is difficult to determine.’

She’s not really sick, she just has a penchant for the dramatic. She is too much, too excessive, too gauche, too naive—her performance is somehow both completely transparent and entirely convincing. She can execute spectacular performances of delusion but also seemingly has no self-control. She is somehow completely volatile, compulsive and irrational yet also able to switch on this embarrassing display of emotion entirely at will.

It’s all in her head—as if the brain and body were some dysfunctional parent-child relationship; having been over-indulged, the insolent body now requires correction and discipline. A more authoritarian approach to parenting is required, mind over matter. The same ‘magical thinking’ (that your thoughts can materially impact your circumstances or environment) that is typically pathologised as a cognitive distortion associated with depression, anxiety, OCD and other mental health conditions is also perversely put forward as the solution to medically unexplained illness: ‘if you’re committed to it, and work hard at it, and believe it will work, it works’—mind over matter.

I’ve been working on an ongoing project for the past couple of years looking at the relationship between the gut and the brain. My GP recommends I get tested for Coeliac’s disease and I worry that I manifested it—that by researching it, and hearing other’s experiences of it, I had somehow summoned it, by some mysterious contagion.

I begin to doubt myself about my own ill feelings.

I feel that this pathologising of ‘imitation’ is a misdiagnosis—the generative and affirming feeling of recognition, of seeing yourself in another—bluntly diagnosed as mimicry. What is misconstrued as affectation, a regurgitating of received ideas and behaviours could perhaps instead be understood as a legitimate form of citation. To cite is to summon, to call upon officially.

Diagnosis is like a naming exercise. It groups you together with others “like you”, turning your singular experience into one of many.’

As I read Ill Feelings in waves, in fits and starts, the specificities, differences, and nuances of each character recede. This is not to suggest that they are somehow interchangeable, but that their experiences, held in common, calcify in solidarity around the first person pronoun. Virgina Woolf, Alice James, Elizabeth Barett Browning, Emily Dickinson, Louise Bourgeois, Florence Nightingale, Alice and their Mother are holding space together, simultaneously individual and collective. I spend some time researching the word ‘syndrome’ and learn that in addition to being used to describe a group of symptoms which consistently occur together, it was also used to refer to a concourse of people, a gathering, a space where people meet and pass through.

‘I’ is just a shared shortcut between writer and reader, a pronoun does not necessarily guarantee the coherence of an individual speaker, a specific identifiable person. ‘I’ can be a trojan horse, an infiltration, a means of transmission for those who were only ever offered a fragmented or partial sense of selfhood, who must trade on the false stability of ‘I’ in order to be heard.

If diagnosis is a naming game, then it is a name that is given, not self-determined, a name that is used only with, and by outsiders, a means of becoming readable. A text carried by the body. Ill Feelings ruminates on the intricacies, complexities and contradictions of howbodies are authored by other bodies, recursively engaged in processes of production and constitution. The body then is not just a site of passive inscription, but is capable of authoring new bodies of knowledge.

Kirsty Hendry is an artist and facilitator living in Glasgow who develops projects exploring labour, work, and the body.

Selected projects include: Navel Gazing, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh (2020); Reader’s Digest, as part of Reproductive Technologies, Market Gallery, Glasgow (2019); and Self-Service (in collaboration with Ilona Sagar), Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow International 2018.

Alice Hattrick, Ill Feelings, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 25 August, 2021