stigmata \stig-ˈmä-tə\ plural of stigma \stig-mə\
1. a scar left by a hot iron = brand (archaic)
2. a mark of shame or discredit
3. an identifying mark or characteristic
4. a specific diagnostic sign of a disease
In February I wrote a blog called Sabbiatura, about limestone statues protecting themselves from further damage by developing a hard, unsightly layer of calcite. I likened it to the way we humans try to protect ourselves from further suffering when we have been hurt, and – in hindsight – rather smugly professed my intention not to allow this to happen because of my bereavement.
But in the past few weeks I’ve developed a condition called psoriasis which literally covers the skin with a hard, unsightly layer. It’s particularly affected my hands and feet with various lesions. Yesterday, my feet blistered for no reason while I was walking in Paris. I hobbled the last mile from the Metro to the hotel and revived myself with a beer at the bar.
According to my homeopath who is also a trained medical doctor, psoriasis is an auto-immune condition. In other words, you don’t catch it from anyone, your body does it to itself. Her explanation was that my adrenal system has been working overtime ever since Chris had her fit in Portugal two and a half years ago.
She told me that adrenaline and cortisol override the underlying immune system of the body under certain conditions. In the short term, they boost energy, reduce our capacity to feel pain, and suppress the symptoms of minor illnesses; they enable extraordinary feats of strength and endurance for our immediate protection. But if we can’t switch them off when they’ve done their job, they damage us.
“It’s a bit like living on coffee and cake instead of a balanced diet,” she said. “They give you a quick boost but in the long run they don’t nourish you.”
Her explanation made perfect sense to me.
There is well-documented medical research [*] showing disproportionately high mortality among the recently widowed. People do actually die of grief it seems and I wondered if a prolonged stress reaction might be a contributory factor. The same statistics show that the mortality rates return to normal after 6-12 months.
Except, there is no normal anymore. Grief doesn’t seem to follow any rules, not even those stages popularised by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, which help us understand the general phenomenon but not to predict the course of an individual’s journey after bereavement. As Joan Didion says in The Year of Magical Thinking:
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it… Nor can we know ahead of the fact … the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
In the “unending absence” following Chris’s death, grief has chosen this moment to inscribe itself on my body like a brand or tattoo. These stigmata are signs of my suffering; they are uncomfortable and unsightly but they are neither punitive nor shameful. Other than that, it’s hard to know what if anything they signify.
Whatever else is going on, I think the psoriasis is a wake up call to look after myself properly: to allow grief to move through me; to change my diet and eat better; to exercise and get proper rest; and to focus my energy on what sparks joy and brings a glimmer of contentment.
[*] Parkes, C.M., Benjamin, B., Fitzgerald, R.G. ,1969, Broken Heart: A Statistical Study of Mortality Among Widowers, British Medical Journal, 1, 741-743