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Antidote - Essays

A Sick, Sick Thing
September 1, 2000

Love isn't heaven, or unerring light—it is a sickness.

by Stephany Aulenback PrintEasy

The best metaphor for love is that it is a sickness. A sick person has an excuse for being distracted, for being dazed, and for paying too much attention to how he or she looks and feels. Email to a FriendA sick person, like the newly love-struck, is excused for being whiny and dramatic and for doing nothing but lounging around in pajamas.

Sure, there are lots of prettier clichés about love, like Sir Walter Scott's 'love is heaven' or Wordsworth's 'love is an unerring light,' but I'm with Shakespeare on this one: 'My love is as a fever.' This view of love as illness isn't a cynical one, it's romantic. The Romantics were always dying of consumption, which they blamed on their feelings of passion. (If you're looking for a cynical metaphor try Baudelaire, who claimed Text Bitethat love is 'an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.') But to compare love to a simple disease is to oversimplify. Love-sickness is not just Shakespeare's fever or the Romantics' consumption; it is not one illness, but many.

Sometimes love-sickness is a rash, perhaps like the chicken pox. A childish, almost foolish illness, it shows all over the victim's face and body. It makes her want to scratch where it itches. The rash lasts only a few weeks though, and if scratched, it will leave scars. My cousin had that kind of love-sickness once; he was driven mad by his rash of a love for his very first girlfriend, a blonde beauty whose image graced small-town billboards. They made love feverishly all over the campus of their boarding school. One day, while scratching their itch on the stage of the school's abandoned auditorium, they were discovered by a teacher's wife, expelled from the school, and sent back to distant and different hometowns. Ten years later, when he met her by accident in a restaurant, he told me their meeting felt like ripping the skin off a scab.

Love-sickness can be like a migraine headache—a painful sort of blinding by light, gone in a day or two. I felt that way about a boy I knew for two days when I was fourteen. We met on a weekend camping trip and passed the time doing little more than staring at each other. His gaze made my head ache; my hand felt huge and swollen when he held it the night before we parted. I can still conjure up his expression, all hazy and golden like the aura migraine sufferers sometimes see.

Love-sickness can also feel like a broken limb, a pain that keeps you up at night for months and hinders your progress. During college my formerly confident and assertive roommate was crippled for more than a year by a crush on someone she barely knew: a prim looking, reserved boy in her English class who charmed her when he said he thought the word 'thwart' Text Bitesounded like a 'knife thrust into wood.' She spent her sleepless nights planning ways to get his attention—dropping her books at his feet, writing poetry about him and reciting it in front of the class, inviting him to parties he didn't turn up for—and yet he never seemed to register her presence in any romantic way. As the weeks passed she grew withdrawn and quiet, spending her evenings alone at home, nursing her crippling love until, many months later, she healed.

There are more serious forms of love-sickness, of course. The love-sickness that leads to marriage is a terminal illness. It takes over your whole being and eats away at it until it ends in the death of your former life. If we stretch that metaphor and turn it on its head, then the love-sickness that leads to marriage is a proof of the afterlife. Some people go to heaven, others to hell, while most subsist in a kind of purgatory.

Perhaps that is too cynical a view.

Maybe it's more romantic to say that the love that leads to marriage is a chronic illness, like asthma or diabetes. Many people who have learned to live with a chronic illness rarely think of themselves as sick. And many people who have learned to live with marriage rarely think of themselves as in love. But every so often, in just the way an asthmatic gets breathless or a diabetic gets dizzy from her blood sugar levels, the symptoms recur.

We don't yet understand what causes love-sickness. Just as we have endless lists of the possible causes of cancer—faulty genes, perhaps, or radiation from our microwaves or hormones in the meat supply—we all have our own beliefs about what causes love-sickness. One is that it is caused by hormones in the meat supply. There are many others—almost as many as we see cases of love-sickness.

It's clear that a person who becomes love-sick is infected by another. A strange feature of the illness is that a person whose love-sickness is only as mild as a cold, can infect someone with an acute case as dire as pneumonia. And sometimes, even while the infectious person doesn't display any symptoms of his own, the afflicted one will point an insistent finger at him, waiting for evidence that he is love-sick too. Some may argue that love-sickness is a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis or herpes, but often a person's love-sickness is caused by not having sex with the person who infects them. Indeed, love-sickness is sometimes cured by sex.

So what should people do when they become love-sick? They should go to bed at once, of course, and luxuriate in their symptoms. After all, it is when you are sick that you are most conscious of your physical existence and of the impermanence of your mortal state. So it is with love. For when you are suffering from love-sickness, you become wonderfully aware of how alive you are—even if it is in an oasis of horror.

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