Holding Patterns: Adventures in chronic illness

One of the first manga series I read was Rumiko Takahashi’s Inuyasha, which is your average, bog-standard fairy tale about a teenage girl who travels back in time to have adventures with a stroppy half-human, half-dog-demon because she’s the reincarnation of his dead girlfriend. You know, that old story.

Inuyasha, the eponymous dog-boy, has a sword made out of his late demon father’s tooth. It’s probably not the weirdest family heirloom ever. I’m pretty sure the Victorians did worse. Inuyasha uses this sword to fight his enemy, Naraku, which is rather difficult, as Naraku’s main fighting technique involves showing up, doing some villainous gloating, and then running away, leaving his minions to do the dirty work.

There’s a lot I love about Rumiko Takahashi’s work – her art, her humour, her characterisation – but she does have a habit of letting her epic-length stories fall into holding patterns. For a long, long time, the storyline of Inuyasha went thusly:

1. Team Hero encounters an enemy they can’t defeat

2. Team Hero goes on a side quest to upgrade Inuyasha’s sword so he can defeat this particular enemy

3. Team Hero defeat the enemy

4. A different enemy turns up

5. Repeat forever

On top of this, the sword upgrades were…interesting. First the sword grew. Then it went red. Then very hard. Then, if I remember right, it started vibrating. I read these stories before I studied Gothic literature and started seeing phallic images everywhere (in Gothic Studies, everything is phallic, unless it’s vaginal), but even naïve teenage Alice couldn’t help giggling at this rather unorthodox method of defeating your enemies.

Anyway, the reason I raised the subject of penis-swords (sorry) is because this whole idea of ‘upgrade, defeat, upgrade, defeat’ fits pretty much perfectly with something that’s been on my mind a lot lately – living with chronic illness.

I’ve written before about living with mental illness, but I haven’t said much about its root cause, my grab-bag of gynaecological problems. (Not on my blog, anyway. If you follow me on Twitter or are unfortunate enough to be my friend on Facebook, you probably know more about my ovaries than you ever would have wanted). Essentially, since I was fourteen, my body has been playing an ambitious game of gynaecology bingo. PCOS, endometriosis, adenomyosis – ever the completist, I’ve apparently got to have them all. You know things are bad when the most accurate diagram of your reproductive system comes not from Wikipedia, but from Westeros:


Since I was fourteen, I’ve been in the Inuyasha holding pattern. I face an enemy – pain, anaemia, unsympathetic medical professionals who try to convince me that feeling like I’m being impaled with a rusty lance is perfectly normal (and will all go away once you pop out a baby, dear). I get an upgrade, generally in the form of new medication or a minor operation – sadly, I’ve not yet been offered a suggestive sword. For a while, things are better. And then my body adapts, and the symptoms come back, and I have to start the whole process again. Over the years, I have tried:

1. Three types of painkillers

2. Six different varieties of the contraceptive pill

3. Depo-Provera injections (which were horrible)

4. The contraceptive implant (which broke in my arm and turned me into some kind of hormonal Hulk)

5. The Mirena coil (which has actually been all right)

6. And a laparoscopy where surgeons lasered away my endometriosis (which was great, until it grew back)

All of these things were worth a try. Most of them worked, until they didn’t. None of them have won the battle, and I so badly want to win.

I know I’m lucky in many respects – I don’t have to deal with the stigma that comes with a visible disability, and while the pain can be hellish, I’ve only missed a minimal amount of school and work over the years as a result. But fifteen years of fighting the same fight, over and over again, takes its toll. I’m tired, and, frankly, bored. (This is the thing that no-one tells you about chronic illness. On top of everything else, it’s dull.)

As well as the boredom, there’s the guilt. The drip-drip-drip effect of symptoms recurring and progress being undone wears me down, and I (very) often end up venting to my family and friends – and then feeling bad, because I’ve dragged them through it with me so many times before. (They’re always lovely and supportive, but my conscience still prods me for doing it).

Then there’s the rare but real times when the illness does interfere with my day-to-day life, and I have to cancel plans because of fatigue or nausea or pain – and then spend my time second-guessing myself. Could I have gone? Am I just being lazy? Am I really sick, or am I using the illness as an excuse? Internalised prejudice is like dry rot. It creeps through you slowly and attacks your very structure.

Lately, my symptoms have been flaring up again. I’m gearing up for another battle, another side quest to find yet another upgrade. This has been going on for longer than a Rumiko Takahashi story, which is quite an achievement, and I don’t even get the opportunity to make dick jokes (uterus jokes just aren’t as funny. Seriously, the House Greyjoy thing and puns on ‘hysterical’, those are all I’ve got). And though I’ve framed it as a story in this post, chronic illness is no fairy tale or action adventure. It’s real life; boring, badly-plotted, and with no chance of a satisfying conclusion.

At the very least, I should’ve got some half-demon superpowers or a magical phallic sword.


Alice’s stories are available at Amazon and Smashwords. She also writes a webcomic, Footloose. Further ramblings can be found on Twitter and Facebook.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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One Response to Holding Patterns: Adventures in chronic illness

  1. Hang in there, woman. And, damn it, now I want a penis sword!

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