SMU Department of English alumna Kari Nixon pens an op-ed for the British Medical Journal blog related to her research at SMU. Her work in the medical humanities covers disease and identity from the 1720s through today and has been published by Simon and Schuster, SUNY University Press, and in Disability Studies Quarterly, and the Journal for Medical Humanities.
By: Kari Nixon for the British Medical Journal blog
I was twenty-five when my father died, apparently of a rare form of encephalitic tuberculosis. Family members began dropping hints about his death that caused me to ask uncomfortable questions. I learned from them that multiple hospitalists had filed adult protective service claims against my mother in regard to his care and that my father had worried aloud he might be poisoned by my mother. This unsolicited information about him led me to suddenly ask far too many questions about myself, namely: had I really been sick my whole life?
The morphine always stands out in my memory: at fifteen years old and eighty pounds, I was prescribed eighty milligrams per day for two years. But there were many other opiates sprinkled in during that time: a dash here, a dash there, like fine seasonings on a narcotic steak. My mother regularly fed me hydrocodone on a spoon. She crushed it up into a fine, pink powder, and mixed it with rougher grains of white sugar. She’d hold it under my tongue gently, “to reach the bloodstream faster.” More questions arose. If the morphine wasn’t necessary in high school, what about the Ritalin when I was eight? The Prozac at seven? The nightly Dimetapp at six? As you might imagine, there weren’t answers capable of de-escalating this existential dilemma down to the “everyday puzzler” variety.
Ironically, although this was the first time in my life these questions about my past had ever occurred to me, I was working on a dissertation using literary analysis to investigate how disease impacts personal identity and interpersonal relationships. In fact, I had been finishing my chapter on tuberculosis when my dad purportedly died of the same condition. Nothing has ever made me reject Cartesian Dualism more than the awareness, in hindsight, that some part of me had always had questions about what disease does to a person’s identity, both individual and collective. My history bears witness to the unified “bodymind,” a concept I borrow from medical humanist Travis Lau to describe an anti-Cartesian perspective.
Long after my own discovery, I kept this revelation of my deeply personal reasons for my professional trajectory secret. After all, the definition of a professional is founded on another dualism: the separation of the professional from the personal. I would be less of a scholar, and more of a navel-gazer, if I came clean to my students about the real reasons I couldn’t stop writing about illness, embodiment, and identity…right? As I progressed in the field, becoming a tenure-track professor, and later a series editor of Lexington’s Health Communication Series, I saw a disciplinary shift in which feminist-driven autoethnographies gained greater traction as meaningful, necessary scholarship. I started speaking my history—into my teaching, into my daily, casual conversations, and into my writing. And when I did, a funny thing happened. I found others like me. READ MORE