“Breathing Rock: An Alternate Illness Narrative” by Katharyn Sinelli


I don’t much care for the idiom “overcoming obstacles.”  There are a few things
that bother me about this image.  First, the saying assumes we all follow some
kind of path, a sort of straight path, and that as we march along this clearly
marked trail invariably we reach a section that has been blocked off; an obstacle
lay across the way preventing further forward movement.  The size of the
obstacle can differ.  A fallen tree, a pothole, a boulder, and there is always
some debate as to who placed the obstacle in your path.  Was it God, or
Karma, or the random calculations of chaos theory?  Whatever the reason, the
result is always the same.  You have to stop.  You have to break the rhythm
that carried you forward and you have to figure out what to do next.

There are not many acceptable courses of action in this situation, at least not
many you would tell people about.  You’re unlikely to admit that when you first
encountered the obstacle you did an about face and ran screaming back down
the path to wherever it was you were before.  Nor would you tell someone that
when faced with the obstacle you climbed under the kitchen table, cried, and
decided to stay there until someone came along to clear the road.  No, your
only real choice is to find a way over.  You cannot go around or under, and just
standing still is not an option.  If you really want people to respect you, if you
really want to, say, write a book about the experience, you have to overcome
your obstacle.

My deepest objection to this image lies in the depiction of our movement.  The
linear forward trajectory, and the vertical lift, still forward reaching, that propels
us over each barrier we encounter.  We have little contact with the obstacle and
once we land on the other side, the trouble is behind us.  It does not follow
and the only way to remember the ascent is to look back. But we don’t really
do that, not for long.

This description does not match my experience with life’s obstacles, and I ran
quite a little steeplechase in college.  Freshman year I had cancer, sophomore
year I was held up at gunpoint, junior year I had a nervous breakdown, and
senior year my cancer came back.  I know I’m supposed to talk about how I
conquered these issues to become a healthy, content, productive, member of
society.  And Lord knows, at 32, I should be able to leave the events in the
past.  Now that there’s been a ten year stretch of road between me and that
rough patch.  But I find I cannot tell this story.  I don’t think I overcame
anything.  To say that I did hides the truth of the situation as I experienced it.

I was not particularly brave or heroic.  I did not hurl myself over the wall like a
pole vaulter without a pole, catapulted instead by the stiff strength of my
character.  There was no beautiful jump that left me suspended in the air in a
pose of forceful grace—one fist pumping forward, one back, one leg
outstretched, mouth set in an expression of grim but gorgeous determination.
Nor did I scramble up the rock wall, muscles stretching and straining as I pulled
myself higher.

If I had to stick with the obstacle metaphor, I wouldn’t say I went over at all; it
was more like I went through.  I think about David Copperfield walking through
the Great Wall of China, one of the yearly televised stunts he did in the
eighties.  He stood backlit behind a sheet as we watched his shadow merge
with the wall.  Chinese women in white jump suits pointed large white disks at
the wall to monitor his heart rate as he moved through.  At one point he was
stuck and his heart rate stopped.  The Chinese women didn’t seem too
concerned.  They just set up the sheet and the back light on the other side and
a moment later we saw Copperfield’s shadow pull back away from the wall.   He
ripped the sheet down with a flourish, and there he stood in his tight black
pants and black shirt unbuttoned to his navel.  He didn’t even look out of

I like that idea—merging with the obstacle.  Then, in my progression through,
there would at least be one moment where I was not visible, being entirely
consumed by the mass, before I emerged out the other side.   I would be
caught for a while in the middle of the obstacle.  The real drama would come
from wondering if I’d ever make it out.  I like the idea of becoming the wall, of
fitting the solidness of my body into the solidness rock.

Even though David Copperfield looked fine after he emerged, he couldn’t have
been quite the same.  How can you merge with something and still be you when
you come out the other side?  I wasn’t.  I think I carry some of the obstacle’s
molecules inside of me, and that I left some of my own inside of it.  I don’t have
the same chemical composition.  I am elementally different.  This is an image I
like.  This is an image that accurately describes what I saw and what I felt.

I don’t always picture my movement as slow and deliberate.   I was carried
through the transition from adolescence to adulthood by the force of inertia.  I
built up a full head of steam in high school and sped towards a “good college”
and the “better job opportunities” that came with it.

When cancer got thrown at me the month before I started college, this
momentum drove me right through it with a smash and the splintering of
wood.  While this image smacks of liberation and the “breaking of barriers,”
that’s not quite how it felt.  When you hit a solid object at that speed –full
force—full body contact—blood vessels burst.  I spent years picking the
splinters out from underneath my skin.

I like the idea of velocity presented by this image.  At eighteen, I was launched
from the sling shot of expectation.  I was driven by an external force; I had no
internal combustion.  Each barrier in my path stole some of my borrowed
energy until eventually I ran out.  The forward motion ended. I toppled over on
one side.

These are the metaphors I would use to describe my experience of a diseased
body and a disordered mind.  They fit.  But I find I can’t use them in  ordinary
conversation about my illness.  Not with most people. Especially not now that I’
m well.  Even when I talk about writing against the grain of the common cancer
story.  Even when I say I think the power of positive thinking is a load of crap,
and I actually use those words, “load of crap,” people still only hear the
overcoming obstacle story.  They picture in their minds my great, graceful leap.
And really there is no recognizable trope for moving through an obstacle, or
being stuck in the middle.  I’m not sure how I would begin to explain it.  What
would I say?  “Remember those David Copperfield specials?” or “Imagine what it’
s like to breathe rock.”  Or maybe I could start with “Bodies in motion tend to
stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.”

It’s not that I’m pessimistic or unhappy. I’ve been cancer free for ten years and
while I still worry about a recurrence,I’ve managed to piece together a pretty
nice life.  I’m married and pursuing the career of my choice. I was even able to
get pregnant, and am now overwhelmed by the tremendous possibility of new

I would, however, like to be able to tell my story the way I saw it, the way I see
it now.  I am different and not only in nice ways.  People want to hear about the
strength and the inspiration, but they don’t want to hear about the hardness
that develops around the scars.  I would like to be able to tell a more complete
story.  But I’ve learned that people want to hear two things: how brave I was,
and how it’s over now.



Katharyn Sinelli was awarded a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Cal State Northridge. This piece is the epilogue from her thesis. Katharyn’s scholarly work is focused on Disability Studies, particularly the stories we tell about disease in literature and popular culture.

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