The demons lie behind my tonsils

I do not enjoy my visits to the doctor, not simply because I fear there may be something so seriously wrong with my body that I will soon die, not because my body is a mystery to me and houses secrets I do not understand, but because I expect to be found guilty of criminal neglect.

The doctor will tell me that I eat too much of the wrong foods, that I drink too much wine, that I do not exercise enough. The doctor will tell me that although it is now over twenty-eight years since I last smoked a cigarette, it makes little difference. The damage is done.

The doctor will tell me when she pulls the Velcro tab off the blood pressure monitor that my blood pressure is up. She will frown knowingly and tut a while.
‘We’ll try taking it again later,’ she will say and my heart will race in unison with my thoughts. I have inside of me a heart that is out of order, a heart that will not behave, a heart I cannot trust.

The doctor will look into my eyes with her bright pencil light. The doctor will look into my ears. She will probe my tongue with a spatula half way down my throat and I will gag.

The demons lie behind my tonsils in my voice box and if I am not careful the doctor will hear things I do not want her to hear.

Tell me doctor, what I must do to enter into a state of goodness, to enter into a state of bodily perfection?

The priest wears black. The doctor wears white. I dress in red.

The passion of my faulty heart crisp under the stethoscope as the doctor listens for the rattle in my chest.
‘Are you sure you don’t smoke?’

Does she know? Does the stethoscope know?

I smoke cigarettes in my dreams. I drag onto one cigarette after another and draw in the taste and smell, the flavour, my grandfather’s Amphora tobacco, my father’s Craven A filter tipped, full strength – the poisons of the past course through my lungs and the doctor sees it all.

‘What have you been doing to yourself?’ she will ask, as if she does not already know.

Your body is a temple. Treat it with respect. Do not ask of your body that which it cannot give. Stay pure in thought and deed.

One and a half litres of water a day, three twenty minute walks a week. Jog. Do not walk. Get your heart rate going. Get your pulse up. But here in the doctor’s surgery you must slow it down.

How can I hide. The doctor must not know.

This body, this temple, this soul polluted in thought, word and deed. My body, my sanctuary for the devil.

69 thoughts on “The demons lie behind my tonsils”

  1. It may be odd, but sometimes, it is when i am sick (like i am right now) that i feel even more alive. Yes,,the symptoms,,the cough, the fever, the throath itching,,it is like waking up from a long nap. And suddenly,,everyboy is concerned and cares about you,,and suddenly all those everyday troubles and worries lose their meaning. No bills, no deadlines, no schedules are important enough towards that overwhelming feeling of your temple, your body, your ship for life, is crumbling down. would it be the last,,the definitive?? you think your self. But rather than be scared about the possibility of die, i tremble with fear of imaging a long agony,,lying on a bed, for months, or years,,watching how the world goes on without having noticed about your situation. You become like those giant stars in the universe,,shrinking,,losing the bright,,the energy, the warm. And shrinking more and more,,becoming darker and darker until finally disappearing in a black hole of "nothingness",,and the universe following its pace. Yes, i feel that way everytime i become ill,,and i imagine that it will be the last one,,for later the survivors to have to deal with a corpse, and find any consolation thinking on what one poet said once,,"a corpse is nothing but an empty jail. . ."

  2. My cholesterol level is 7.4 and yet I've not been offered medication for it. So what do I do? Keep eating chocolate by the truckload and hope that fresh fruit and regular runs will get me a 'get out of diet hell free' when the time comes 🙂

  3. I gave up smoking, after long hard battle taking years, not months. I quit so thoroughly, I am happy to never dream or even think of smoking after 22 years.
    I often ponder the 'secret life' of my body. Xrays reveal all sorts of unsuspected abnormalities!
    I am delighted to meet you, and your writing is … wonderful!!

  4. I’m much the same. I have a deep-rooted fear of being ‘shouted at’ not that you need to raise your voice to ‘shout’ at me. Half the time you don’t even need to open your mouth. A look will do. And silence speaks volumes. My wife and I share the same doctor. Whenever she goes to see him I invariably want to know if he’s asked after me. What I mean is: Is he checking up on me? Although I have been sick all my life – asthma was the big thing when I was a lad – I’ve always felt that most of my ails have been the cause of my own mistreatment of my body and/or my psyche.

    Someone told me once that there are two kinds of fitters: breakdown fitters and maintenance fitters. I – and I suspect most people – have never been hot on preventative medicine, being proactive. I would always push myself until something broke, then take a rest and begin a course of action that would lead to a subsequent breakdown. That is why the one I have just recovered from was such a revelation for me. That was supposed to last three, maybe four, months and I’d be back on my feet – I considered that acceptable down time – and yet it took over three years to get me back to ‘normal’ or whatever comes close to normal around here.

    I have to go and see the nurse on Tuesday for my regular asthma and blood pressure checks which I expect to fine. But I’d rather not go. She’ll still find something to make me feel guilty, as if I could be doing more to look after myself. I know I could. I hardly exercise at all. I have become so used to multi-tasking that putting on my jacket and just going for a walk feels like a waste of time and so I put it off and end up not going. I couldn’t jog if you paid me. The asthma for one, the knees wouldn’t take it for two. At least I’m not heavily overweight, a few pounds which I can’t seem to shift. I hated when I was carrying all that extra weight but I have to be honest and say it was more a vanity thing than concern for my health that prompted me to diet; I couldn’t stand the tummy I had on me.

  5. This is a beautiful piece, culminating in The priest wears black. The doctor wears white. I dress in red. It's so interesting to think about the body, our care of it, and guilt. Well, I think we feel guilt about almost everything.

    I worry this way about my husband's throat, he worked at a factory for a year, and he would come home cough-gagging the paint soot. He still does, 33 years later.

  6. They used to say that the lungs recovered from all the tobacco and evidently this is not so. I gave up smoking 25 years ago and it was very liberating to become free of the desire to smoke. But nothing seems to cure my sugar addiction, and the subsequent weight increase.
    There is far more attention now to preventive medicine, which 20 years ago would have been called overservicing…
    Those Catholic reactions do hang on in there, don't they!

  7. Dear Elisabeth, it is good to be back and catching up with beautiful writers such as you.;)
    I too survived my first airline flight in years and was thinking about you when the plane hurdled against the lift off; but all that i will reveal next week.;)

    As for doctors; my parents were both MDs and I grew up in the safety of their hands. It was odd when suddenly it was not my mom or dad that would give me the diagnoses when I was ill.;) Today I suffer from elevated blood pressure and it is impossible to get my pressure measured at the doctors an
    s I work myself up too much.;) Eventually I think this; yes, we have to watch what we eat and we have to try to exercise and try to lead a healthy lifestyle (no smoking, drinking in moderation). However, I think too little focus is put on how we "feel". I just read recently that our mental health has a much more pronounce effect on our physical health than we think. If we are happy, we feel good and there is something to it, after all, how come that some people that eat fatty food, smoke and drink get to live long lives.;))
    Have a lovely weekend,

  8. This is such wonderful writing. I wanted it to go on.
    Being a guy, I avoided doctors until well into my fifties, and now its once a year. I answer the questions asked, but rarely volunteer more, hoping I’ll leave the doctors office without a new ailment to add to the ones already diagnosed. I keep the voice behind my tonsils gagged. Maybe it will put off the real bad stuff until I’m much older. Maybe I’ll be braver then and handle the bad stuff better then I’m willing to now.

  9. elisabeth this posting carries so many truths and then too i had to chuckle. you see i bike between five and seven thousand kilometres a year. i don't smoke. i have a beer a day. i guess i'd have to say i'm really healthy and care for my body. however. yesterday i received a letter in the mail from my insurance provider that i couldn't upgrade my life insurance because of my health history. yeah seriously!! you see i had high blood pressure twenty five years ago. with some lifestyle changes and some tough personal choices i sorted that out. but here we are and i guess i represent something of a risk to them. how 'bout that eh!!! i'm going to spend the money i saved on a better bike! steven

  10. I have related this story elsewhere, but anyway….

    I saw an interview with George Burns when he was 101 years old, it went like this:

    Interviewer: "So you still drink coctails at your age"?

    Burns: "I have two martinis every day."

    Interviewer: "And you still smoke your cigars?"

    Burns: "Yes, I smoke two cigars a day."

    Interviewer: "Well what does your doctor say about this?"

    Burns: "My doctor is dead!"

  11. Come on now Elizabeth – you know it makes sense!!!
    I have just lost two stone in weight on Doctor's advice – it has hurt, oh yes, it has hurt, but now I am there I feel so much better for it.
    I love the idea that you smoke in your dreams. (Word verification is 'smokle') is that an omen?

  12. Wonderful writing today…
    Will the doctor tell you or do you just think so?
    Do you best every day.
    When and if you get some bad news it is there and you don't have to imagine it. We all imagine it worst sometimes than it is.

    Love the first comment !

    cheers, parsnip

  13. A recent tv public service announcement cautioned that children subjected to, as they called it, distress and trauma suffer from auto-immune illnesses and have shorter life spans. I have long known/believed the strength of connection between body and mind/emotions. At a ridiculously advanced age, I still feel somehow inadequate in the face of any authority, be it doctor, repairman, the rare someone to clean the house…all think, and may as well scream, why didn't you do it better? My intentions are good, but we know the worth of that. Elisabeth, you have given many of us much to consider; which side will we choose to follow?

  14. Elisabeth – I've been thinking about your August 14th post so long that it's hard to comment on the two subsequent posts. You really hit a nerve with me when you addressed your need to "help" and please. It's such heady stuff to be able to supply wants and needs of others, but in the past it has been a little pathological.

    Caring for my mother these past 3 months has brought back the approval-hungry child in me, and it's not even my Mom's approval I'm after. I don't know who that imaginary audience is I'm playing to, but I realize that though I thought I had grown up, I'm needing a reminder that I can't really please or help anyone but myself.

    As for this wonderful post, it reminds me of an article I saved from the New York Times. In it, Harriet Brown suggests that instead of wringing our hands over fat grams and calories, we should resolve to enjoy whatever food we eat. I have long maintained that if you hum in total enjoyment while you're chewing, whatever you're eating will be transformed into something nourishing. Turns out, I was not being totally ridiculous. Scientists have shown that when you eat something you like, your body makes more efficient use of its nutrients. In the 1970's, researchers fed two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, a spicy Thai meal. The Thai women – who presumable liked the meal more than the Swedish women did – absorbed almost 50 percent more iron from it than the Swedish women. When the meal was served as a mushy past, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before – from the same food. Of course, the food has to be nutritive in the first place.

    The French savor the taste and texture of food and their level of heart disease is lower than American's despite their richer diet. A heaping order of guilt is never good at a meal (or at the Dr.'s office).

    So nice to catch up with your posts.

  15. Hey you two, from Transcend designs, I'd like to think the doctors know 'something', it's just that sometimes their bedside manner could use a little oiling.

    I can't hold the doctors responsible for my guilt though, however much they might reinforce it. I'm sure more juicing helps, of only to make a body feel more virtuous, as well as tasting good. Thanks.

  16. Alberto, I'm sorry to hear you've been unwell.

    It is amazing to read that at the same time as bringing you down, your ill health can also be uplifting, if only for the realisation that other people actually care about you.

    It's a pity it takes getting sick to recognize this. It would be best if you realised it all the time.

    The images you describe here – the stars and the universe – are beautifully poetic and I'm honoured that you have gone to so much trouble to respond to me in depth.

    Thanks, Alberto.

  17. Choletersol levels always ascinate me, Kth. My brother in law a pharmacist reckons they can be overstated. the problem is when you have all three: hypertension, high cholesterol and are overweight. If you smoke on top of that he reckons you're asking for it.

    If you only have one of these attributes and are otherwise well, he reckons you need not panic.

    Panic of course is extremely unhealthy.

    Thanks, Kath.

  18. It's good to meet you here, Meggie. You're lucky to no longer smoke and even to no longer dream of it.

    I have no desire to smoke again, but I enjoy standing downwind of a smoker.

    I still enjoy the odd vicarious puff of smoke. My husband, also an ex smoker, can't stand it.

    People are funny, aren't they. We tend to have different takes on things.

    Thanks, Meggie.

  19. I hope it did not leave you too unsettled, Foam, the idea that I have written about you here.

    I don't think I paint a pretty portrait, but if you don't mind trying it on, be my guest.

    Thanks for your kind words, Foam.

  20. My husband and I share the same doctor, too, Jim but he visits her regularly and religiously whereas I avoid her and will only go to her when I have 'women's troubles'.

    Otherwise I'm just as happy to visit the local clinic and see a different doctor every time for flu shots and the like.

    I know this is not good medicine. It's best for a doctor to get a good overview. Instead I split myself into little bits, again to avoid too much scrutiny.

    My doctor's actual second name is 'Heal', by the way. Funny thing that. I am often amazed by the synchronicity of some peoples' names and their professions, the foot doctor Dr Corn, for instance and the architect, 'Bolt Upright'.

    I'm not sure if such a person exists but my husband tells me he once met a real architect whose name was Best Overend, so my husband quipped back when introduced to Best Overend, 'Hi, I'm Bolt Upright.'

    These thoughts are a bit off track, Jim, but I always love to chat to you.

    Thanks for your comment here, enlightening as ever. Sometimes in these posts, Jim, you make yourself out to be very different from the man I imagine who keeps your blog.

  21. Thanks, Ruth. Maybe our guilt over our bodies has something to with our failed omnipotence. How bad we feel that we cannot control things better, and that no mater what we do, we cannot stop ourselves from growing older and eventually from dying.

    It's a terrible shock for most of us.

  22. Thanks, Persiflage. All the prevention in the world can't stop our mortality.

    Sometimes I think these odd links I make between such things as my body, my health and my guilt are all rooted in childhood religion. as you say it hags on there, however hard we try to shake it off.

    Thanks, Persiflage.

  23. Thanks Zuzana. They have done reseach onto the effects for children who have doctors as parents, as they have done for children whose parents are therapists. It's interesting the degree to which these two professions in particular can effect children strongly. for instance children of doctors are often sicker than the average, as if they need to be ill in order to attract their parents' attention.

    I move from the universal through research into the idiosyncratic

    One of my daughter's boyfriend's mother is a doctor. And he tells us that she tended to be cavalier towards his health.

    She was never fussed when he felt ill. This might also be a side effect of having a parent as doctor. I don't suppose you experience the doctors as do I. You might feel you have a special conduit to them via your parents.

    Thanks, Zuzana. I agree, state of mind is fundamental to our overall health. I hope your blood pressure gets down.

  24. It's funny how we lie and obfuscate to doctors, Anthony, when in theory they only want to help.

    Unless, I'm very ill and desperate for relief from pain, like the few times I've had tonilitis and needed antibiotics, I live in fear of a dreadful diagnosis and so I try to get reassurance more than anything else from the doctor even as I visit on a knife edge of fear that the diagnosis will be a death sentence.

    Thanks, Anthony.

  25. Insurance brokers are the worst, Steven. They operate on the basis of statistics and not on facts.

    Your story is a wonderful example. I've heard stories of people who have sought help from therapists, counselors and the like, in responsible ways to help them out of a dark patch.

    They get past the difficulty over time with help and then get on with their lives, but the insurance companies view the fact that they have sought such help as confirmation that thy are unstable, mentally ill or suicidal when in fact they are far healthier than many others who do not, cannot, or will not seek help.

    To seek help, to my way of thinking, is a sign of strength, but the insurance companies view it otherwise.

    Thanks, Steven.

  26. Of course you are right, Weaver. The doctor is there to help and if he or she sets you on the right track, all the better.

    I suppose I am trying to get at underlying 'neurotic' trends, which I work against most of the time, but still they rise to the surface.

    As for 'smoke in dreams' I Googled it and found this: 'Dreaming that you are smoking indicates that you are trying to shield yourself and others against your emotions. You have trouble letting others in.'

    Elsewhere, it suggests that smoking in dreams indicates an addictive pattern.

    Oh dear. I prefer not to prescribe strict meanings to dreams. To me dreams mean different things to each dreamer depending on who and where they are.

    It's fascinating, nonetheless.

    Thanks, Weaver.

  27. Parsnip, essentially I am well. I do not have any terrible ailments.

    It's more the fear of dreadful imagined diagnoses that set me writing.

    One day I suspect the story will be different for me as for all of us, unless we die suddenly, in our sleep, or by accident.

    Thanks, Parsnip

  28. That old mind body link, Marylinn, it's so true.

    Stress kills people faster than all the other evils that exist, I reckon. We may be resilient as human beings, but there's only so much trauma a person can take before they give up.

    You know that old adage: 'she died of a broken heart'. I suspect it happens more often than we want to acknowledge.

    Thanks, Marylinn.

  29. The dreaded tyranny of exercise, Elizabeth, that's another one of those guilt inducing regimes that sets my heart a thumping.

    It's as bad as the diet regimes.

    Balance in all things is probably best, but balance can be boring, so we have to do our best to strike what ever compromises we can tolerate in our lives.

    And each to their own. What's good for me, good enough for me, that is, may not suit you.

    And then there are all those other practical dimesions as you know so well, with your beloved Sophie. In the end we can only do our best.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  30. Kass, it strikes me that you come from a world of caring for others such that your situation at the moment, caring for your mother, is probably magnified one hundred fold.

    My older sister at the moment, just past sixty, is talking about trying to separate from her compulsion to look after our mother. She feels so burdened by it and yet she cannot leave her duty alone, even when others are prepared to help take some of the burden from her.

    This perhaps links with what you say about being able to enjoy your life, to enjoy whatever you eat, to feel free to get on with things as best you can and get beyond all these instructions about what you 'should' do.

    I can talk. I have a terrible time getting beyond my duty, but I'm a second born daughter with brothers in between. I don't feel my duty as badly as my first born daughter, older sister.

    I hope you manage to get some respite from your duties, Kass.


  31. Sanctuary for the devil is pretty hard core, as you say, Maggie. I wrote it in a poetic moment. I'm not big on the devil myself. I doubt his/her/its existence.

    But mortality as you imply can perhaps seem fairly diabolical.

    Thanks, Maggie May.

  32. The priest wears black. The doctor wears white. I dress in red.
    I love that sentence and as usual a very well written piece.
    the devil wears the dress of temptation and yes I know I get asthma when drinking milk and eating cheese but I still do it. I eat too much and drink my glas of wine. Luckily my doctor doesn't confront me. I know exactly what I do wrong anyway

  33. Hi Lis

    another interesting glimpse into the heart and soul of a survivor of authoritarian institutions! You secret dream vice is smoking. My (un)secret vice is drinking wine, which 90% of me embraces and 10% of me judges. The 90% just wishes I could afford good wine on more than the rare occasion, instead of the ubiquitous cask wine. but that doesn't stop me.

    People often ask those who reach 100 what the secret of a long life is.There are two answers I remember with laughter. One said a bottle of stout a day, and one said 'To know as little as possible!'. I'd like to live till 100 if I could still be independent, drink red wine, and keep learning new things about life.


  34. Keep eating your dairy products, Marja, in spite of their contribution to your asthma. Somehow your body and mind probably find a balance that keeps you alive. At least I hope it does.

    Thanks, Marja

  35. My second secret vice like yours is drinking wine, Christina, but I prefer white or sparkling burgundy.

    I'm no connoisseur when it comes to quality wine, but I commiserate with you as far a cask wine is concerned. I hope occasionally you can afford to treat yourself to a bottle.

    There's no one secret to a long lived life other than a complex collection of events, characteristics and experience, as far as I can see. And like you Christina, I'd be happy to live to 100 as long as I can still enjoy my wine – and reading and writing and people. As long as all my bones don't break. As long as I can keep my wits. And as long as the world does likewise.


  36. Since my cancer thing I have lost the respect of my family doc though I do go for the BP meds. have no choice. here a GP calls all the shots and she failed to get me to a surgeon when my tummy was acting up. Two years later it was the ER that took care of a massive colon tumour. I do not fear her one bit! Neither should anyone really.

  37. I haven't read Time's Arrow Red handed but I checked it out on Wikipedia.

    It sounds like a terrific book however grim.

    And as you suggest, things could be a lot worse – doctors in black aprons.


  38. Kleinstemotte, I'm sorry to hear about your experience of cancer and that your GP missed it.

    Everything pales to insignificance alongside such life changing events, but I trust/hope it's okay now, at least as far as these things can ever be.


  39. Oh my, I guess the fear of doctors is widespread and when that fear mixes with guilt, it really runs amok. You described it beautifully. I do hope your next visit to the doctor, however, turns out to be a pleasant experience and you receive a clean bill of health.

  40. This is such a delicious post. You know, in some temples the celebrants drink wine, feast, burn incense (which they inhale deeply). In some temples people sing and dance around, roll around on the floor, roll around with snakes. Honestly what in the world is that doctor talking about?? Your body IS a temple. Live it up!! L'chaim!

  41. My health as far as is visible seems fine Jane touch wood.

    The thing I tried to address in this post is my fear of doctors and the neurotic fears generally that prevail when it comes to keeping on side with the doctors and a clean bill of health.

    Thanks for your good wishes.

  42. I will try to live it up, Reya.

    Our bodies are like temples, sacred fun filled places. I agree with you, we should be able to enjoy them and to live life to the full.

    But old lessons die hard – the worst of that dreaded Catholic upbringing again – guilt, guilt and more guilt.

    Thanks, Reya.

  43. I think of walking into stores and being very obvious with my hands, all I am not stealing, when of course, I am not stealing, because I do not steal. However, I feel I have to be all obvious with my hands because somehow I think it is written on me somewhere that inside of me is the rotten that just might.

    Is it like that? Does it have long black roots? Does it surprise you?


  44. Excellent. That was a really good read. I know exactly how you feel and not because I have been there (although I have been close) but because you did such a great job of putting it into words.
    Do it more!
    As for the doctor, I'm a nurse and one of my favorite instructors once reminded me that Drs put their pants on the same way as everyone else, one leg at a time.
    Good luck with the visit.

  45. Hello!

    I too used to smoke but ended it long ago. I never ever crave it, the smell is awful, my body recoils from it.
    But have struggled ever after not to eat too much, and had a body analysis done which proclaimed I was 20kg too big for my bones!! HUH!

    But I am the one who does all the right things, does all the exercise, eats the right things….and here I am told I am way too big. pfft.

    I do wonder if I will reap the beneifts of my neurotically healthy lifestyle, or whether the years using art materials wil get me in the end.

  46. Guilt has 'long black roots', as you suggest Erin. The internal fear is written all over your face and in the twitches of your fingers even as you are innocent of all crime.

    Perhaps it lies in the desire and not the deed. Thanks.

  47. The history of doctor superiority within the western world goes back a long way, Kat, but as you say, doctors are no different from others in many ways.

    We look up to them because we assume they know things about us that we do not know and therefore we tend to feel inferior. It's changing though, these views of the god like doctor, at least they are here in Australia.

    Thanks Kat.

  48. I don't go in for all that Body mass index type stuff, Fifi. I think it's pitched to an ideal. The reality is that healthy people come in all shapes and sizes.

    As for healthy living, I suspect you can try too hard.

    Did you ever see the film, Educating Rita.

    There's a character in the film, a health fanatic, a young woman obsessed with good eating and exercise who winds up committing suicide.

    The central character, Rita, is upset to lose her friend, not least because her fried had been so preoccupied with living well but in the end she killed herself. To Rita it made no sense at all.

    Perfectionism can be such a problem.

    Thanks, Fifi.

  49. Ah, those demons behind the tonsils, Elisabeth. They must have told the doctor about your dream cigarettes. I got a few good chuckles out of this. Very nicely written. I guess the alternative for avoiding this type of anguish is to do what many people here in Spain do: not go to the doctor until something is seriously wrong with you. My mother-in-law is 93 and she went to the doctor for the first time in her life around 8 years ago. And the only thing seriously wrong with her then was that her three daughters harassed her into going.

  50. I agree, Lorenzo. A ninety three year old visiting the doctor for the first time Lorenzo is probably a mistake. If your mother-in-law lasted that long, then why bother?

    Spain has a reputation as a laid back sort of place. I can't imagine any Australians lasting that long without a visit to the doctor or else a visit to the grave.

    Thanks, Lorenzo.

  51. Thanks, Dave. I didn't want to disparage doctors in general, only particular types – the arrogant ones.

    It's the idealisation of doctors that bothers me.

    Idealisation of another tends to make a person feel inadequate in relation to them and how that fits in with guilt is a long story.

    Thanks, Dave.

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