A couple of weeks ago, my friends at CripAntiquity posted a short feature I wrote, entitled "From Medical to Mythical Languages of Chronic Pain."
You can read the original post on their site here, or in the full-text pasted below.
From Medical to Mythical Languages of Chronic Pain
By Hannah Silverblank
Right now, my doctors call my disabilities fibromyalgia, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), hypermobility, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, carpal tunnel syndrome, and ADHD.
Diagnostic words like these possess a kind of power, particularly within institutional structures like American medicine, where I need all the power I can get. The language of my disabilities and the names of my diagnoses intrigue me, because they attempt to provide the “thing’s true name.” (Also, as a Hellenist, I’m fascinated by medical etymology.) Each diagnosis has given me a huge amount of communicative power within the American medical complex - a set of magic words for accessing care and expressing some aspects of embodiment.
Ursula K. Le Guin said:
“Magic exists in most societies in one way or another, and one of the forms it exists in a lot of places is, if you know a thing’s true name, you have power over the thing, or the person.” 
My list of diagnoses are magic passwords in the context of American medical care, yet meaningless and inadequate in other contexts. Whatever the “true name” of my disabilities may be, I operate with a deep awareness of the inadequacies of modern American diagnostic language to describe disability. The phrase “irritable bowel syndrome” hardly feels like magic or truth, but it also makes me smile in humorous recognition of my bitchy bowels. I enjoy surprising my doctors with unhelpful interpretations of medical language: when my psychiatrist recently described one of my medications as ‘teratogenic’, I excitedly burst out: ‘OHH! Did you say TERATOGENIC? Then it’s this one that will let me bring monsters into existence?’ She smiled back, confused. All of which is to say I’m fascinated by the problem of describing what I feel in my body, and disturbed by the assumption that diagnostic language has enough ‘magic’ to describe the disabling pain that lives with me. I sit with the possibility that the names of my diagnoses may change over my lifetime, and that they have been called by different names in the past, for better and worse.
Beyond these diagnostic words, I have many other and more personal ways of describing my disabilities. I don’t always feel comfortable or that I’m getting it quite right when it comes to the language I use casually or in conversation to describe my own disabilities and my disability identity.
Here’s a little story about how I consider my body and my disabilities both chronic and Chironic.
When my friend and astrologer Johanna Hedva read my astrological birth chart, they taught me about a solar system body called Chiron. When human astronomers began to notice and describe it in 1977, Chiron was named for the teacherly centaur from classical mythology. I use Chiron as a figure for thinking about my own body for a number of reasons:
In my doctoral research, I studied and wrote about monsters in Greek poetry. This means that I have an immediate intellectual attraction to monstrous creatures, including Chiron, specifically because he is the Monster Teacher par excellence. I have a deep affinity with Chiron, the centaur most famous for teaching his pupils how to fight, play the lyre, sing, and heal wounds.
I’ve since learned that Chiron’s classification has proven challenging for astronomers: is Chiron a planet? An asteroid? A comet? Apparently, he is a ‘centaur’, because only a mythic and divine monster could accommodate the difficult hybridities posed by the planetary body. I recently learned from Wikipedia that the ‘discovery’ of Chiron (a.k.a. ‘2060 Chiron’) led to the naming of various indeterminate planetary bodies as ‘centaurs.’ This means that recognizing Chiron forced astronomers to recognize centaurs.
In astrology, as I learned from Hedva, the place where Chiron falls in someone’s birth chart represents ‘the unhealable wound’ in that person’s life. Chiron represents our pain as well as the ‘place where one’s suffering cannot be eliminated but can be remediated through the act of teaching what one has learned from that suffering.’ I’m paraphrasing Hedva’s words here, but gosh, how *gorgeous* is that idea?
Chiron represents the ‘unhealable wound’ because of the story in which Chiron takes an arrow that wasn’t intended for him. This arrow, shot by Herakles, is no regular arrow: it is strengthened by the gall of the Hydra (one of Herakles’ monstrous opponents, whom he defeats and whose venom he uses to make his arrows particularly deadly). Although immortal, Chiron is hit by a magical weapon, and thus experiences a magically horrible, eternally festering wound that cannot heal.
There are innumerable other narrative angles and elements we could explore in this story. For now, suffice it to say that Chiron’s unending pain resonates with me, because of my unending pains in my head, neck, face, shoulders, chest, back, abdomen, arms, and hips. I sometimes have pain in other body parts too, but I am very literally always in pain, to the point where I have absorbed it as a part of my consciousness. Chiron gets it, and his name gets at it.
The pain is chronic; my disabilities are chronic, because they are of time, ongoing in time. The pain is also Chironic because it is ongoing and unbearable; but I do bear it, and my hope is that I get to share out some of my vulnerability to my students, as a means of remediating the burden and empowering them in their own disability identity. I believe in the power of collective vulnerability. In claiming Chiron, I dream and hope that I can help other centaurs self-recognize and gain the recognition they seek, whether in the Greek-laden languages of industrialized medicine or astrology.
 Ursula K. Le Guin, quoted in Arwen Curry’s 2018 film Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I first came across this quotation in a book called Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás and published by Ignota Books.
Hannah Silverblank (she/her) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Haverford College. Hannah is grateful to Clara Bosak-Schroeder for their thoughtful editing, mentorship, and community leadership. Hannah can be found at @HSilverblank on Twitter and www.professorsilverblank.com.
11/12/2022 08:56:03 pm
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