The Poison Cure

Dr. Anna looked down at my blood test results, looked up at me, and then looked back at the test results. “It’s impossible,” she said. “No one can look as good as you do or feel as good as you say you do with these numbers.”

I’d just come from boogie boarding at the beach and shrugged. “I feel great,” I told her.

“It’s impossible,” she said again.

Dr. Anna ordered a second round of standard blood tests because she thought my blood might have been mixed up with some poor sick person’s sample. The second round came back with the same abnormal results: I was the poor sick person. When further tests revealed that I had hepatitis C, she told me that the abnormalities in my liver function, white blood cells, and platelets indicated I’d probably had the disease for a long time, perhaps ten, twenty, or even thirty years. She questioned me insistently about any drug use in my past, about any intimate relations I might have had with intravenous drug users or with people who were HCV positive. “Addicts,” she said. “Have you had any relations with addicts? Did you ever experiment with injecting drugs?” In the end she couldn’t tell me exactly how long I’d had the virus, and I couldn’t tell her how I got it.

Interferon and ribavarin, two forms of chemotherapy, are the treatment of choice for HCV. Both are potent poisons intended to kill off this highly adaptable and tenacious virus. Researchers who develop chemotherapy drugs strive for a balance between destroying the deviant, outsider cells and sparing the host. In this dialectic, this seesaw between killing and healing, our modern medicine mimics the purification rituals of many older civilizations. The ancient Greeks codified those rituals in language that forms the roots of words we still use today like “pharmacy.” For the ancient Greeks, the pharmakon was the poison that when used properly became a cure, and its physical incarnation, pharmakos, was the scapegoat who was invested with the sins of the entire community, and whose ritual expulsion left that community purified. In ancient times the pharmakos was an actual goat, a living animal that was sacrificed for the benefit of the community, but this practice spread to include the sacrifice or exile of humans as well. Our present-day American society continues to enact this poison cure, this scapegoating, through the ritual expulsion and imprisonment of addicts.

The poison cure for my hepatitis came with typical side effects: fever, aches, anemia, hair loss, skin lesions, vision loss. I also lost my impulse toward metaphor, perhaps through simple fatigue, perhaps through some more mysterious working of the drugs. Months after the end of treatment, even as most of the side effects had faded away, I was still unable to make poetry, even very bad poetry. One December afternoon I accompanied my partner to Sarasota, Florida, where he attended a government meeting, and I wandered around the Ringling Art Museum, hoping it would help me open up to metaphors again.

The sculpture garden at the Ringling holds four colossi in the center section, larger-than-life stone variant reproductions of Renaissance works memorializing famous scenes of violence: the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Polyxena, the flaying of Marsyas, and the rape of Proserpina, who was called Persephone by the ancient Greeks. In each case, the sculptor has caught the moment before the violence, when both victim and perpetrator are still intact.

Proserpina was one of Western culture’s earliest scapegoat icons. A virgin, raped and abducted by Hades, she is expelled from her earthly paradise each autumn to live in hell, and then brought back each spring to make the sowing and the reaping possible again. I gazed up at her statue in the Ringling sculpture garden and found a surprise: a small paper wasps’ nest that had been built under the curve of stone cloth between her thighs blocked access to her vulva. I made a note of it.

At home that evening, I looked up “paper wasps” to find their Latin name: hymenoptera. I flipped back through my dictionary to find the etymology: from hymen, meaning membrane, and ptera, meaning wing. The wasps, named after a word that now signifies virginity, guard the virginity of that stone Persephone, who is frozen in the moment before her violation. But the wasps guard the rapist, too; they prevent Hades from committing his horrible act.

None of us undertake an action in the hope that it will bring us personal pain or shame. Proserpine wasn’t out collecting wildflowers the day of her abduction in the hope she would be hijacked by the god of the underworld, raped, and then made prisoner. Addicts, when they are still children, don’t go out looking to get high in the hope they will end up in thrall to the substances that make them feel good, and then be imprisoned by their addictions.

Hepatitis C was only discovered in the 1980s and a substantial number of people today who are infected with the virus got it through blood transfusions. Since the late ’80s, though, American citizens can be reasonably sure that if they need a transfusion, the blood they receive will be free from this communicable disease. Internationally, too, the blood supply continues to become more and more reliable. The primary mode of transmission for the hepatitis C virus has become the sharing of needles among intravenous drug users. In the not-too-distant future, the people who were infected prior to the cleaning up of the blood supply will have died. Then, virtually all HCV carriers will be IV drug users—past or present, one-time users or career junkies—or their loved ones, folks close enough for the intimate contact of a blood-to-blood meeting. Will communities marginalize, stigmatize, and scapegoat people with HCV as in the early days of so many other epidemics?

I fear that HCV presents this world with one more temptation to be judgmental out of fear, to cast blame and to divide. I fear that community members who define themselves as healthy will suffer side effects of smugness, cynicism, and hard-heartedness if they shun people with HCV as scapegoats or define them as “others.” How will our societies respond to the suffering, the medical needs, the humanity of people like Proserpine, and all of the tragic heroes and heroines of myth, people who could not foretell the future, who could not predict the consequences of a single decision, who find themselves cast out of the paradise of ordinary life? People who started out as children with silky skin and clear eyes and lots of questions, dreaming big dreams that did not include shame or degradation or disease?

In Sanskrit, the word ahimsa means non-injury, a fundamental philosophy of yoga practice, and the foundation of the non-violence advocated by Gandhi. It’s a goal more than a prescription or taboo, one that seems simple and admirable to me. To practice ahimsa means to avoid injury to any other form of life, no matter how insignificant or dangerous that form of life seems. As our understanding of our planet increases, our world grows smaller because everything in it seems to be connected—and it grows larger because the possibilities of those connections seem limitless. There is no room in this world for the outmoded strategies of stigma and division and expulsion. It’s time to ditch the metaphor of the scapegoat, to dismantle the paradigm, to embrace whatever or whomever we try to cast out in our fears from this paradise of the natural world.


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