The Deep Places: A Preview
The preface to my new book.
My new book, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, comes out today. It’s a story about chronic illness, real estate disaster, scientific controversy, religious faith, fringe medical treatment, lab-leak conspiracy, and a few other things besides. Tyler Cowen very kindly suggested that the book “has echoes of Susan Sontag and also Robert Burton” — but I think that’s only true if you imagine either of them rewritten by Stephen King, complete with rogue bats, swarming insects, treacherous New England landscapes and Secret Service agents.
My Sunday essay in the Times this weekend was a condensed and adapted version of the first chapter, but I thought I would offer faithful Substack subscribers and curious online browsers the brief preface, as a different hook for the book in full.
For a long time I would always wake up early. Some mornings there would be a moment when I was conscious but not yet fully aware of my body, just a mind floating lightly in the dark. But then very quickly I would feel the weight of things, my legs and chest on the mattress, my head heavy on the pillow. And then quickly too, the pain would be with me once again.
The first sensation was always something different— a heavy ache in the shoulder I’d been sleeping on, a pan-fry sizzle on my hips, a throbbing at the very front of my skull, an intolerable vibration inside my ankles. Then it spread and varied as I pushed back the blanket and fumbled for my phone, shoving my mind into the glowing screen while my body shuttled through its symptoms.
Sometimes I would lie in a cramped position scrolling Twitter, picking up fragments of news, chasing threads of arguments from overnight, letting the pain work through my limbs and joints, watching the clock slowly creep toward 5 a.m. That was on a good morning. On the bad ones, I would be forced up quickly, staggering to the bathroom, leaving Abby to sleep— I hoped—in a snow fort of blankets on the far side of the bed.
The house was old, so very old, but the bathroom was new—an expanse of tile, a shower like a grotto, a his-and- hers sink with drawers for both of us below a sweep of mirror. The floor was even supposed to be heated in the winter, but the system had been on the fritz since we moved in, and the wall panel flickered in the half-light with a gibberish of broken digits.
I moved around the room like an acolyte tending to different altars—now planted on the toilet or hunched over it, now leaning heavily on the glass door of the shower, now standing at the sink staring at my haggard, puffy face. I opened the drawer beneath and fished out a bottle of pills— one bottle among many, filling compartments meant for combs and soap and razors—and swallowed one, two, a handful. After a while they would hit home, and I would shimmy my legs, flail my arms, stretch my face muscles into a silent Munchian scream. Except when the pain was deep, layers down inside my chest, and there was nothing to do but sit with it on the cold, unheated floor.
The light would come up gradually, the clock on my phone creeping on toward six. Eventually I would leave the bathroom, sometimes wrung out and exhausted enough to fade back into a twenty-minute sleep, but sometimes still aching and burning—in which case I would pad through the master bedroom, past my blanketed wife, out onto the land- ing at the junction of the house’s long T-shape.
Through one door our daughters lay asleep, in two identical white beds in a room whose floor sloped downward toward the corner where the foundation had settled, long New England years ago. Through another our infant son stirred in his crib. The hall stretched away down the length of the T, and I followed it, the floor creaking a little, to what had once been a servant’s bedroom, sealed away with its own bathroom near a back stairway to the kitchen.
The extra bedroom was supposed to be an office, a place to write away from the noise of kids and the babble of the social life we imagined hosting. I did do a lot of my writing there, on a drop-leaf desk with books stacked around it and a lamp propped up above. But the main thing inside the desk was a further supply of bottles, squat and round for pills and slim for tinctures, stamped with leaves and berries, mosaics and inscriptions, Chinese characters, a dragon chasing his own tail. And beneath the drop-leaf I now stored a box, a black console with buttons in red and green and white and blue, with a tangle of red and black cords running out from it, and metal tubes where the cords ended, just the right size to be gripped in an adult human hand.
On either side of the desk were windows, old colonial frames with slightly mottled glass, looking out and down, offering a view of the landscape in the soft gray morning light. Just below was a wide flagstone patio, with a little lawn pasted in between a white garage and stone steps leading leftward toward a pool. Then the lawn reached a picket fence, beyond which the ground fell away in levels—first a spill of boulders, then an overgrown path, then another drop to a field that went red and brown all winter but came back green with spring. I could see tall grass and cattails rising from a damp low-lying patch, before the pasture climbed to a granite knoll and a single ash tree, a sentinel of the woods that waited just beyond.
The light spread and the landscape brightened, putting on its taunting beauty once again.
I bent to the desk, gripped the metal tubes, and turned on the machine.
The story continues, read on …