All told, I was sick for more than a quarter of a century. Bedridden at 21, I couldn’t hold a book, took baths rather than stand in the shower, stopped brushing my teeth at night. I was an old lady in a young woman’s body.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (now known as ME/CFS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), two poorly researched and frequently co-occurring illnesses that primarily strike women and are often dismissed as psychogenic.
I felt utterly alone until the day I stumbled upon Jean Strouse’s 1980 biography of Alice James—the chronically ill sister of acclaimed American writer Henry James and the equally eminent psychologist-philosopher William James—and felt I had met my 19th-century kindred spirit. Why was I sick? Why was she? A doctor told me I was “just depressed,” and contemporary researchers called Alice’s illness “fashionable.” Were these illnesses simply the psychosomatic expressions of conflicted psyches? Or was there something more to the story?
In my quest for answers, I began searching for links between ME/CFS, MCS, and Alice’s illness, neurasthenia. Following the threads of connection, I delved into American history, 19th-century and contemporary toxicology, medical history, biology, chaos theory, environmental history, sociology, economics, and more. After several years of this I came to see that the effects of industrial capitalism began to manifest in people’s bodies over 150 years ago, and the harms continue to escalate.
The result is my book, American Breakdown: Notes from an Industrialized Body. In it, I explore the chemical contributors to illness while also examining and critiquing other detrimental elements of American culture, such as our profit-driven and mechanistic medical system and our stress-ridden lifestyles.
Unchecked industrial capitalism has infiltrated every part of our daily lives, from our environments (both outside and indoors) all the way down to our hormones, affecting our immune processes and all of the interconnecting systems of our bodies. We have reached a critical threshold, but it’s not too late to change our trajectory. Together we can make changes to recover balance and wellness—for ourselves, our nation, and our planet.
Forthcoming from Harper Wave, May 2023.