“Believe women,” that imperative of the #MeToo movement, could serve as subtitle for “Sick,” novelist Porochista Khakpour’s propulsive memoir about her intractable struggle with Lyme disease, and the rife sexism and failures of the American health care system.
Khakpour, she tells us, never felt at home in her body. Born in 1978 Tehran to well-off parents who supported the Western-engineered regime, she ingested trauma as mother’s milk while her family fled and Iran’s Islamic Revolution gave way to the Iran-Iraq War. The family settled in Los Angeles as refugees, prospects swept away in the riptide of anti-Iranian hatred then ascendant.
As a child, Khakpour thought herself “a ghost, an essence at best who’d entered some incorrect form.” She suffered insomnia, tremors, anxiety, troubles that attained a recursive quality over time, but she found comfort in stories and writing, determined to publish novels and live a glamorous life in New York. At college outside the city, she acquires “heroin chic,” drinks heavily, goes full-tilt for recreational drugs. Later she moves in with a wealthy boyfriend, works as a journalist, breaks up with the boyfriend, and moves to Baltimore to pursue a master’s degree, still using and drinking heavily. A binary is established — writing and addiction, interlaced with depression and a series of sometimes-abusive relationships — approximating the structure lacking in childhood as she crisscrosses the country for her career.
Ambition never falters, yet with every marker of success, her body’s fragility lurks a half-step behind, ready to instigate professional collapse. Back home in her mid-30s, she’s seized with exhaustion, fevers and hallucinations; finding no answers from doctors, she becomes addicted to benzodiazepines. At last, after years of botched, contemptuous medical care, a diagnosis of Lyme comes as a relief, but she can only afford treatment through crowdfunding — an impeachment of all that’s abominable in U.S. health care.
The campaign succeeds, largely thanks to Khakpour’s magnetism, as too the mysterious alchemy she achieves in the pages of “Sick.” Despite its catalog of horrors — car crashes and concussions, black moods and bad boyfriends, the coming apart at the seams — its prose entrances and shimmers like haze rising from the blacktop in triple-digit heat.
In the book’s occasional “interlude,” the tension lifts as Khakpour reflects on her experiences, and I wish she’d made more room for reflection overall. “Sick” would have been stronger with a more complex texture, but she skimps on emotional complication in favor of hurtling forward.
Even so, through the slowness imposed by her illness, and the writing of the tale, we see her approach detente with her physical self.
“To find a home in my body,” Khakpour considers, “is to tell a story that doesn’t exist.” But that’s what writers do, and now it does.
Marian Ryan has written for Granta, Catapult, the New York Times, Slate and other publications. She lives in Berlin.
By: Porochista Khakpour.
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 258 pages, $15.99.