Possessed by MS
Always on the lookout for a new way to answer the question: What does MS feel like? I toyed with the idea of demonic possession. But is it an apt metaphor? Let’s walk through those terrifying moments that we learn later on to call the onset of the disease:
A sudden, dramatic difference
There you were, bopping through life, oblivious to the dangers that lurk around every corner, when suddenly WHAM, you lose vision in one eye. Or your legs can no longer hold you and you fold up like a concertina on the kitchen floor, unable even to sit up. Or in my case, one whole side of the body goes numb and weak, and you get short of breath just walking across a room. It’s that sudden, that disabling, that dramatic a difference, and very, very traumatic. What we do next will begin a journey of fear and confusion, few answers and lots of new questions. That is, if we seek medical testing and care for those symptoms.
In the classic horror film THE EXORCIST (1973), that’s exactly what Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) does when her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) retches green puke, curses in a rough, low voice not unlike that of Harvey Fierstein channeled by Mercedes McCambridge, tossed around like a rag doll in a bed that jumps up and down by itself in a bedroom so cold that you can see your breath even though it’s mid-July. Naturally, mama Chris’s first instinct is to call the pediatrician. Baby doctors handle this kind of thing all the time. But Regan’s demon is so hostile that a large animal veterinarian would have been a better choice. Poor Regan is then heavily sedated and examined, with no tests positive for any kind of physical disease.
Next, bring in the psychiatrists. Speaking in tongues, superhuman strength, and generally behaving very unlike the naïve, childlike Regan who normally wouldn’t know half the nasty words the demon is putting in her speech is obviously a form of hysteria (women, what are we going to do with them?). But they fail to diagnose her, too. Wait, says one, you might try an exorcism. Enter two Catholic priests.
Moved by this type of climax
I’m sure you know what happens during the rest of the film. The priests are successful in luring the demon out of the child’s body, but it costs them their lives as they take the demon into themselves. It is the ultimate form of empathy, a gesture that might even be rare among clerics. I’m very moved by this kind of climax. Making oneself the sacrificial lamb to save the life of a child is so resonant, it makes perfect sense. It’s something a parent would gladly do for their suffering child. Or a parish priest so racked with guilt over the death of his mother that dying will quiet his shame and save an innocent at the same time. Such a satisfying, horrific moment on so many levels. The kind of moment we would never witness or experience in a doctor’s office.
In real life
In real life, conventional medicine’s plots are rather thin by comparison. Though most medical professionals are good people, they probably wouldn’t cross a line when it comes to self-preservation. And who can blame them? Fathers Merrin and Karras overextended themselves at the cost of their health and then their lives. They both sported obsessive personalities, and while we judge a professional obsessed with work as being a deeply dedicated and caring person, they are sometimes also self-destructive. We love them for this all the more.
What’s the takeaway?
What’s the takeaway from this? I like to fantasize having gone to a priest instead of a neurologist back during those nightmare pre-diagnostic months, a plot now frozen in time. Seeing doctors lead me to a diagnosis and ongoing treatments. But, after twenty years, I feel strangely dissatisfied. Nobody died for me while driving out the demon(s). That’s okay, though. I would have settled for a shaman rattling pouched bones and chanting over me to quiet the nerve inflammation and cut the sickness from my spine. Rituals are meaningful, even to an atheist like me. Praying quiets the mind and fuses it with the spirit if only temporarily. At the end of a doctor’s appointment, I don’t even get a blessing on my head. Heck, I’d settle for a rendition of the Hippocratic oath sung in plainchant.
Give me something other than a bill
Doc, give me something other than a bill. Just a little piece of you so I know we both sacrificed. I’m grateful that you spent time listening to me, but did you feel me? Or feel for me? You don’t have to die to prove it. Maybe sacrifice is invisible, too. I’ll look at you more carefully next time.