It warms the very sickness in my heart

From time to time, it occurs to me that I may have an untranslatable illness. Of course, since it defies translation, I cannot name it, and am left with unmanageable paraphrases which attempt to force it into clothes that do not fit. This is nothing new for me of course -I have never successfully followed fashion and when I finally think I am au courant, I find that I have not only missed the train, but am left alone on the platform with no idea where it was heading. So, bereft of direction, I wander off to catch another train to somewhere.

Untranslatable illnesses are like that, though -one is often left with medical curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny but dare not. And yet I cannot help but be affected by the equally untranslated foreigners I happen to meet. I am attracted as much by their customs as by their various afflictions whose names are as varied as their hosts.

Who would not be seduced by, say, reflechi twòp -A Haitian disease caused by thinking too much? Or, how about Hwa-byung  in South Korea -a ‘rage-virus’ cause by bottling up feelings of unfairness until it gives you actual physical symptoms? A special favourite of mine (which I’ve carefully avoided catching, by the way) is called Koro: fear of one’s penis shrivelling away for unknown -and obviously undeserved- reasons. It’s a relatively common affliction apparently, and is found in various areas in South-east  Asia and China. It’s etymology is understandably obscure, but may derive from a Javanese word for tortoise… And, lest one might be accused of misogyny by the condition’s apparently singular attribution to men, I hasten to add that women’s nipples are also the occasional recipients of the shrinkage.

But I suppose I might never have known if I had been the unwitting victim of other peculiarly-named afflictions had I not bumped into an article in an edition of the BBC Future.

It was eye-opening, to say the least. Written by the free-lance Science journalist, Zaria Gorvett (who has not disclosed any personal affiliation with any of the diseases in her article), many of the maladies seem culture-bound -or anyway, change their names if they sneak into Europe: neurasthenia would not work as well if its recipients had to memorize the original name, shenjing shuairuo for their sick days.

Still, as she writes, ‘Though to the uninitiated, these mental illnesses might sound eccentric or even made-up, in fact they are serious and legitimate mental health concerns, affecting vast numbers of people.’ Really? ‘Eccentric’ sounds suspiciously like superstition to me -or perhaps fashion might even describe it better.

Gorvett attempts to analyse it a little, however: ‘there’s the idea that the entirety of humankind is susceptible to the same limited range of mental sicknesses – we all feel anxious and depressed, for example, but the way we talk about these things varies depending on when and where you live.’ I suppose that explanation might work with some of the afflictions, but I’m not sure it meets the proper standards of evidence when it comes to Koro. Maybe I just don’t watch enough television talk shows, though.

But another way of saying the same thing (offered by the author and medical historian Edward Shorter) works just as well, I suppose: ‘each society has its own “symptom repertoire”, which is the array of symptoms from which we unconsciously draw when we start to feel mentally unwell. For example, a grieving Victorian woman might say she felt faint, where her modern counterpart in the UK might suggest she felt anxious or depressed, and someone in the same position in China might explain they had a stomach-ache. In this scenario, they would all have had identical experiences – perhaps they all felt faint, on edge, or suffered physical pains – but the symptoms they paid the most attention to were different, depending on what was considered normal in their society.’ These are the so-called ‘idioms of distress’.

But Gorvett suggests an additional intriguing possibility: that culture-bound illnesses are not just the result of differences in labelling. ‘Another tantalising possibility is that the society we live in can actually shape the way we get sick.  It turns out there is an invisible global divide in the way people experience distress. In the US, the UK, and Europe – at least in the 21st Century – it tends to occur in the mind, with symptoms like sadness, anger or anxiety prevailing… In many parts of the world, in countries as diverse as China, Ethiopia and Chile it manifests physically instead.’

‘“I would say that there are definitely instances where the meaning that is attributed to experiences actually changes biologically what that experience is,” says Bonnie Kaiser, an expert in psychological anthropology at the University of California, San Diego… The meaning that’s attributed to the feeling of dizziness [for example] changes everything. “Fundamentally the actual experience in the body becomes very different,” says Kaiser. “So, to me, this isn’t something that has a different name in different places – this illness just doesn’t exist in some places. The very biology of that experience is affected by the culture.”’

Indeed, ‘some psychologists have begun to question whether certain Western mental health conditions fit into this category too… Bulimia is half as common in Eastern cultures, while pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is virtually non-existent in China, Hong Kong and India. It’s even been argued, somewhat controversially, that  depression is an invention of the English-speaking world, stemming from the misguided notion that it’s normal to be happy all the time.’

Uhmm, as a member of that very same English-speaking world, with my own confirmation bubbles, these ideas are somewhat difficult to swallow, but all the same, incredibly thought-provoking. Still, ‘In the modern era, it would be naive to think that the mental illnesses we suffer from are independent of our way of life.’ Indeed, ‘the author Ethan Watters describes how we’ve spent the last few decades slowly, insidiously Americanising mental illness – shoehorning the colourful array of emotional and psychological experiences that exist into a few approved boxes, such as anxiety and depression – and “homogenising the way the world goes mad”’.

I like the thrust of that thought; it makes me realize that for years nobody has ever found a box for me that fit -well, one with an unpronounceable foreign name on it, anyway. But I’ve lived with whatever I have my whole life, so I’m not anticipating a sudden, unleashed string of alien syllables characterizing it anytime soon. But a common name -English or not- would probably spoil its uniqueness as well. I’d kind of like to remain an enigma, if I’m honest about it.

That’s untranslatable, I hope.


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