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A Public Ailment

By William Luvaas

There are two types of ailments, personal and public. Some sicken individuals and some sicken societies. There is always an overlap: personal ailments have their private side—the suffering and anxiety known only to the ill, their families and doctors—and a public side, which the ill would prefer remain hidden. Public illnesses are the same, but inverted. They attack the body politic—their public face—and each of us individually—their personal face.  The toll public ailments take on individuals is often covert, often denied. But denial won’t make an illness go away.

My own chronic ailment, epilepsy, isn’t one we can easily deny to ourselves; but if our seizures are controlled by medications, we can conceal it from the public. I seem perfectly normal most of the time—unless, God forbid, I have an attack in public. Such public exposure is a personal horror. Epilepsy exemplifies the bipolar nature of disorders, their public and private sides.

Meeting me or checking out my bio you wouldn’t likely guess I’m epileptic. I’ve lived a full life, as many of us do. You wouldn’t know I sometimes have brief simple-partial seizures in public since I don’t lose consciousness, merely duck down inside myself for a moment, wrestling with an inner demon that I don’t want breaking loose. Now here I am voluntarily taking my ailment public, which I couldn’t have done a few years ago, but feel I’ve earned the right to do so after living for decades with the condition.

Those of us who suffer chronic ailments—whether heart disease, bipolar disorder, cancer, depression, or any other—mostly suffer privately, hiding our ailments away, not wanting to impose them on others or suffer public humiliation. Depression, for example, is an intensely personal disorder since the world has little tolerance for it. While blindness is nearly impossible to conceal from others who have little knowledge of the private life of the blind.

This brings me to those maladies I call “public,” cancers on the body politic. Here the formula is reversed: what is publicly obvious is often personally denied. We are in the midst of a public infection now.  I don’t mean the COVID-19 pandemic but the maladies that feed its intensity in America and take a toll on our individual lives. COVID-19 has exposed them.  With only 4% of the world’s population, we have 25% of its coronavirus cases. How is this possible in the richest and “greatest” nation on earth? The land of the free, home of the brave is showing itself to be a grubby, inept, dysfunctional pseudo-republic, a “s…hole country,” as our foul-mouth-in-chief would put it, with a failed health care system, millions out of work and facing eviction, even food insecure, especially in communities of color, supply chains strained or broken. Here in mighty America! Of course you know all this and are likely as enraged about it as I am. I believe the coronavirus also exposes a deeper collective ailment. Epilepsy offers an analogy here, too.

In an epileptic’s brain there is a “seizure focus”—a lesion caused by some ailment or injury or congenital defect, a few damaged neurons that fire erratically. At times, for reasons not fully understood, this misfiring spreads to nearby neurons, causing them to fire madly in turn. We experience auras, may hear voices or ethereal music or revisit memories or feel dizzy or watch ourselves from across the room as if we’ve stepped out of our body or see objects shrink or become giant as Lewis Carroll did. This may sound psychedelic; it isn’t. If the misfiring spreads through the cerebral cortex, we have a grand-mal seizure, all systems misfiring at once, sending us into convulsions.

I would suggest that our current body politic has its own seizure focus—“focuses,” really, because there are several—all causing chaotic and destructive convulsions in our public life which spread to our private lives and rage out of control. America has epilepsy.

There are multiple causes for these lesions in the public brain. Some will say corrupt, inept, and malignant leadership, but since it is elected leadership there must be malignancy in the public heart. Some will say greed, selfishness and disregard for others. Some will say the breakdown of our polity and sense of common purpose and the racism and tribalism that go with it. We are all in our separate tribes glaring at each other. Some will say gangster capitalism. Or a slick, hard epidemic of hate. Or our alienation from nature and our natural roots, the enduring frontier belief that nature is there for us to exploit. Whatever the causes, our body politic is riddled with cancer and the collective mind with seizure focuses.

I would suggest that the more fundamental causes are rooted deep in the American psyche. Call them “collective character flaws.” Our don’t-tread-on-me rugged individualism causes many to believe that orders to wear masks violate their rights. Add to this the me-first disdain of the public good and mistrust of government fed by years of right-wing attacks on public institutions. There’s a sense of entitlement and arrogance that says, “I can’t get sick.  It’s my right to be healthy.” There’s populist paranoia that says COVID-19 is a plot perpetrated by one’s enemies. And the know-nothing mistrust of science, even truth. These flaws have festered in our collective psyche for years. Whatever the causes, most of us feel our republic is gravely ill. We don’t know how much damage the illness will do to our society before it’s contained–if it can be contained.

What impact does this public ailment have on individuals? I would suggest the symptoms include fear, mistrust, loneliness, narcissism, and denial. I count myself—and all of us—among the infected. None of us can fully escape our social ailment.

Our loss of a sense of common purpose and mistrust of others has led to widespread alienation, breakdown of community, and an epidemic of loneliness. We are a tribal/communal animal; without community we feel isolated and insecure. The Coronavirus quarantine is showing us this. The current epidemic of mistrust—of governmental and social institutions, of “the other,” of friends, family, inevitably even ourselves—leads to despair. Where do we turn when we are in trouble? In the end, we are on our own. “If you’re in trouble, pal, that’s your problem” is the motto of the age of Trump. Anxiety, fear and anger are endemic. We are nervous without knowing why, always rushed, never at peace. We feel someone is standing behind us who means to do us harm. Epilepsy is a metaphor here, too. In auras preceding attacks, many epileptics sense an alien and malignant presence (once thought to be demonic or divine) trying to seize control. It’s why we call them “seizures.” We may be seized at any time by an entity that wishes us ill; it’s the worst part of our ailment.  We learn to live with it, but it takes a toll. Our omnipresent public angst is taking a toll on all of us.

Trump is narcissist-in-chief. Many admire him for this and wish to emulate him. Vanity and self-celebration corrupt our individual lives. We beat our chests on social media and feel a sense of entitlement. What we have is never good enough for us; we feel we deserve more. In the end, this hollows us out. We can never be satisfied. We are sick with wanting.

What of denial? Many Americans would vehemently deny that we are collectively ill with a malady that distorts our lives, turns us mean, makes us smug and indifferent, and one of the unhappiest peoples on earth. We are proof that money can’t buy you love.

I will end with a lesson that epilepsy teaches those of us with the “falling sickness.” You will fall, yes, but you can—and must—learn to get up again. I have to believe we can boost up collectively now, firm a hand on a knee, push upward, and stand tall and defiant again. Our current public ailment need not keep us down for good.

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