Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns can be found here.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I went to a backyard barbecue thrown by my new boyfriend. We’ll call him Zach (because that was his name). Zach was a talented artist and musician, hip and good-looking and cool in every way I wasn’t. We’d been dating for just a few weeks, and this was my first opportunity to meet his friends. I really liked this boy, so my motivation to make a good impression was high. After Zach introduced me around, I did what I often do when I want people to like me: I tried to make myself helpful.
I set myself up next to an improvised court where some of Zach’s friends were playing a friendly volleyball game. When the ball bounced out of bounds and rolled my direction, I chased it down, planning to toss it back to the players. This was my chance, I thought, to make that all-important first impression. Look, Kelly’s nice! She’s helpful! I didn’t realize that a different lawn game was taking place right behind me, and I walked straight into the path of an oncoming horseshoe.
When a metal horseshoe travels with some speed and connects with a human skull, the noise it makes is surprisingly like that of a gong. I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened—only that something, some incredibly loud and resonant something, had felled me. I can’t say with certainty whether I blacked out or just lay there on the lawn, stunned, but when I opened my eyes, the faces of all the people I’d met for the first time just minutes before loomed into my field of vision. And then their hands were on me.
They spoke in tongues. They commanded me to be healed. They anointed me in Jesus’s name. This touching and muttering went on for some minutes. Then they helped me stand up and went about the rest of the barbecue. I have a vague recollection of someone handing me a veggie burger.
Today, I’d wonder what kind of person wouldn’t call for help or offer somebody a ride to the hospital if she’s just sustained a head injury, but at the time their reaction didn’t seem particularly strange to me. All of us were “charismatics” (read: Pentecostals) at the time. Any given week, we were more likely to watch an impromptu exorcism in youth group than we were to sing something out of a hymnal. If there wasn’t a great deal of hand-raising and weeping and commanding of spirits, it wasn’t a real church service. And if you weren’t healed of a sickness or an injury after being prayed over, you simply—in a convenient if theologically hazy loophole—didn’t have adequate faith.
You just had to try enough. Have faith enough.
I’m no longer part of the church, and I haven’t been for years. I’d like to tell you that it’s different out here in the rest of the world; I’d like to say that it’s better and that people are more likely to give you a hand than lay hands on you, but I haven’t found that to be the case. When you’re visibly sick or disabled, everyone, whether friend or stranger, has something for you to put your faith in.
A few years ago, everyone was peddling yoga. You’ve really got try Bikram, strange women wearing Keen sandals would tell me, then talk a great deal about their breathing. After yoga, it was essential oils. In fact, the first time I found myself in the neurology intensive care unit, unable to speak or move, someone helpfully contacted me to suggest that I apply some lavender oils to relax, as if I were spending the day at a spa. Today, it’s the paleo diet—if you’re not already gnawing on meat and raw silage, someone will be very happy to tell you the manifold ways in which doing so will not only cure all your medical problems but also bring about world peace at the same time. A natural-healing practitioner told me of her suggested course of edible treatment, “you have to believe it’ll work.”
If you would just try enough, just have faith enough, you’d be healed.
I recognize that all of these suggestions, from going vegan to taking up pre-dawn calisthenics, come from a well-intentioned place. Those who want to lay hands on people or apply essential oils to them are, I believe, generally good people who don’t want to see others suffer. But whatever the impulse, the message I hear is “if you’re still sick, it’s your own damn fault. You’re not trying hard enough.”
Yoga is good exercise for those who can do it, but it’s not going to cure a neuromuscular disease. Lavender smells lovely, but won’t reverse the course of a progressive illness. I have eaten from every diet imaginable, and not a single one does me any more good than the next. And that’s okay with me.
In the past few years, I’ve found incredible power in disbelief. I no longer waste emotional energy scouring my conscience, asking myself whether I’m trying hard enough. I no longer feel compelled to down whatever suspicious-looking supplement a distant family member foists on me simply to appear as though I’m exploring every option. When my doctor says a new treatment has a 40 percent shot at helping, I assume he means 40 percent, not 100.
Not believing that I’ll be miraculously healed isn’t the same thing as no longer wanting to get well. Instead, it’s the understanding that it’s okay if I don’t. Rather than berate myself over whether I’m doing enough, I’ve decided to live as though I am enough. I don’t know what my life would look like if I were well, but this life—the one I have now—is a pretty good one. It’s enough.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.