All told, I was sick for a quarter of a century. Just launching into adulthood when the illness first struck, I was 21 years old and bedridden—an old lady in a young woman’s body. The fatigue felled me. I couldn’t hold a book. Talking on the phone wiped me out. Walking a block to the corner store wrecked me. I took baths rather than stand in the shower. I stopped brushing my teeth at night.
I felt utterly alone until the day I stumbled upon Jean Strouse’s 1980 biography of Alice James—the chronically ill sister of the writer Henry James and the psychologist William James—and felt I had met my kindred spirit. Why was I sick? Why was she? A doctor told me I was “just depressed,” and researchers called Alice’s illness “fashionable.” But was it really so simple? Were these illnesses simply the psychosomatic expressions of conflicted psyches? Or was there something more to the story?