Porochista Khakpour spends much of her book, Sick: A Memoir, talking about relationships. Sometimes it’s her parents or girlfriends. But more often it’s the men in her life. I’ve seen reviewers bemoan this. But here’s what I think. 

A single young woman, battling chronic, mostly unexplained, illness has a natural need for caregivers. As much as Khakpour these are romantic relationships, her writing about them centers more often on how the men interacted with her illness. Did the famous writer meet her at the ER? Was the guy who nurtured her nutritionally able to maintain his momentum in the long haul?

Some men like to fix things. And Khakpour is the ultimate fixer-upper girlfriend. Please understand me. I mean that in the nicest way, from one woman living with chronic illness to another. I recognize why telling each relationship story is also exposing the stark reality of chronic illness. 

“Home for me was most likely in someone’s arms, no matter how short-lived in the end; my location was so often defined by a relationship.”

The various places she lives are perhaps more important than the men in her life. Everything in her story relates the importance of setting. In fact, her chapters are titled by location. For Porochista some places feel more like home than others. On the other hand, she never quite settles into her own body. No wonder—it never serves as a positive element of her existence.

Through it all, Khakpour struggles to be normal. To hold down teaching jobs and write her books. She walks the dog, commutes, and shops for groceries. Living with chronic illness means all of that is harder for her than for the average twenty-something. 

My conclusions

Sick is a memoir of many things, but it lives in a world of grays rather than vibrant color. There’s always an ax hanging somewhere above Khakpour’s head. I dreaded the next time it would fall and make her condition worse. This captures what it’s like to live with chronic illness!

Khakpour has a complicated relationship to prescription drugs. As both addict and patient, she’s unable to definitively categorize them as either healing or dangerous. Even for a non-addict, Lyme disease treatment can feel so harmful. The sheer quantity of medications can be physically damaging, even as they aim to suppress the bacteria. Although I haven’t battled addiction, I connected with her experiences.

If you’ve ever been sleepless, you will deeply appreciate her descriptions of that condition. 

“But I began keeping a diary of my sleep schedule and it started to show its patterns: instead of the old abrupt insomnia, now the hours whittled themselves away sleekly, my bedtime growing slimmer and slimmer.”

It’s not often that someone talks about how medical questions with no clear answers can cause PTSD. Khakpour does. She also acknowledges that treatment can cause PTSD as well. I think we need to make this issue part of more discussions. 

I’d like to give this book to my friends, family, and medical professionals, whether they understand Lyme disease or not. Khakpour combines skillful writing with intense descriptions of the disease’s effects. Sometimes she makes chronic illness seem poetic, and other times, pedantic. I suppose that’s accurate, although most of us wouldn’t be so poetic. In either case, Sick is a memoir definitely worth reading.