'Conservatively speaking, I'd estimate you have a 70-per-cent hearing loss in the left ear," said the doctor with the plummy vowels and a pink gingham shirt.
I've always been fond of the way certain British people deliver ghoulish information in a crisp, almost upbeat manner. ("Rather an unpleasant way to go," a historian recently said to me of what it must have been like to be hanged, drawn and quartered in the 17th century.) But in this case, I was not amused. My ear had not been working for about a week, following a particularly bad sinus cold contracted through the epidemiological experiment in human misery that is my toddler's playgroup.
The cold was gone but the ear was still plugged, the result of a fantastically sexy sounding and initially very painful condition called Eustachian tube dysfunction. Essentially, my inner ear had vacuumed itself shut. Not much to be done about it either. "Usually clears up in about two months, but who knows? Could be much longer," said the posh doctor – his airy tone beginning to grate in my good ear. Then he prescribed a course of antibiotics which I knew from Googling wouldn't work. I took them anyway. They didn't work.
Now, the pain is gone but I still feel off balance and social situations are like swimming through treacle. I keep having to say to people, "Wassa? Here, come sit on my good side." When it's wearing me down, I just fade out, something I've often seen my father do – he's been slowly going deaf for a couple of decades now. I now understand how frustrating it must have been for him to be cut off from the stories and jokes of friends and loved ones, and why he pretended, for so long, that it wasn't happening at all.
It's strangely unpleasant, this process of being forced into the ranks of the invisibly unwell. But it's made me more aware of people whose lives are constricted by ill health, whose struggles we generally ignore because they aren't bleeding or limping or anything. And most of them learned long ago to keep their suffering to themselves.
"Never, ever, speak publicly about illness," a very WASPy family friend once advised me. "No one's actually interested. Unless you're dying – but in that case, why bother?"
I always agreed with this advice, though being a healthy person, I've never had cause to heed it. In truth, I was a callous and unfeeling member of the healthy majority. Because I was so rarely ill, I found it hard to take people's unseen illnesses seriously. If a friend cancelled for the second time because she was "still feeling under the weather," I'd make sympathetic noises and think, "What a wuss." I took stories of what I considered to be "real" illness seriously – cancer, stroke, heart failure, MS, traumatic childbirth and car-crash-related spinal injuries – but mention the words "chemical sensitivity" or "chronic fatigue" and I'd inwardly roll my eyes.
Just as it sometimes serves the rich to believe the poor are really just lazy, it sometimes suits the healthy to believe the sick are actually weak.
If you'd accused me of this, I would have denied it, but looking back I think that's what I secretly believed: that invisibly ailing people should really just suck it up and get over themselves. And if they couldn't, the least they should do was shut up about it.
Curled on my office sofa for days, fuzzed on decongestants with a heating pad flung uselessly over my head, I realized how very wrong I had been. Too miserable to work, I picked up Mireille Silcoff's recently published collection of short stories, Chez l'arabe.
I know Mireille socially, and I'd heard that she'd been unwell a few years back, around the time she moved home to Montreal. That was back in my single, 20-something days in Toronto – a time when it seemed particularly weird for anyone, apart from the unfortunately old or addicted, to get sick. I remember thinking it was a bit eccentric of her to have a mystery illness. Possibly even melodramatic. It was, of course, the arrogant thinking of the healthy majority.
In fact Silcoff had been suffering from a rare condition that caused her spinal fluid to slowly leak, leaving her brain painfully uncushioned against her skull. I read her column in the Post, so I also knew she'd gotten better (if not entirely so) and now had a family and a successful writing career. I also knew some of the stories in her book – the ones about a fragile young woman trapped in a Montreal townhouse being driven quietly mad by her overbearing mother and unsympathetic husband – were at least in part autobiographical.
"The hardest thing about having an invisible illness is suffering in a way that no one can see," she told me on the phone this week. "But there are worse things that could happen to an A-type personality than being put through a bout of extreme unwellness in the prime of life. I was completely broken open. All my lifestyle anxiety and vanity issues just disappeared."
Holding the phone to my good ear, I told her how much I loved her book, how moving and not self-pitying I found the descriptions of illness, and most of all how sorry I was that I hadn't contacted her when she was ill, even though we weren't close and she wouldn't have expected me to.
Even as I said the words, I realized wasn't apologizing to her but to all the other invisibly sick people I'd ignored, avoided and been inwardly unsympathetic to over the years during my privileged life in the healthy majority.
"Oh god," she laughed, "it doesn't matter."
But of course it did. And it does.