Ross Douthat Talks About His Illness In The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery

The first few chapters of “The Deep Places” read like the beginning of a horror film. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and his wife, feeling the tug of home and tired of life on Capitol Hill, purchase a farmhouse built in the 1790s on three acres of Connecticut meadow.

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Feeling hopeful and perhaps even a bit pleased with himself, he feels optimistic at the moment. After the final home inspection, he went out into the backyard meadow to watch the deer and think about how the purchase “felt like confirmation that we were on the right path, that I had planned and worked and won the things I wanted and that I deserved them.”

Ross Douthat Talks About His Illness

There’s a sense of foreboding, though; the woods are hiding something. In Washington, Douthat’s lymph node is enlarged, his neck is stiff, and he feels weird vibrations in his brain and mouth. He initially visits an urgent care clinic, where he is given a harmless boil diagnosis. A few weeks later, at dawn, he goes to the emergency hospital after experiencing a terrifying shutdown of his entire body, “as if someone had twisted dials randomly in all my systems.”

The emergency room physician diagnoses stress as the root of the problem, and this diagnosis is echoed by successive specialists including an internist, neurologist, rheumatologist, and gastrointestinal. A psychiatrist disagrees with him; he’s seen 11 doctors in 10 weeks.

After relocating to Lyme, Connecticut, it becomes apparent to local doctors that Douthat has contracted a tick-borne illness. A co-infection with Bartonella and Lyme antibodies (albeit not enough for a conclusive diagnosis) is discovered.

ross douthat illness
ross douthat illness

Anyone familiar with the so-called Lyme Wars can guess that the treatment path will be less clear-cut. There are known hazards associated with using antibiotics for an extended period of time to treat chronic illnesses, but no demonstrated benefits. Therefore, the official recommendation is to just wait things out. Despite this recommendation, many patients and a vocal group of clinicians continue to ignore it, with different degrees of success.

Darkness falls over Douthat’s “haunted” house, which turns out to be a fixer-upper he has no energy to fix, while his health degrades in terrifying ways. He thinks about fables and has nightmares of being hunted by vampires while lost in a gothic manner. His expectant wife, who is also writing a novel, likens their predicament to “The Shining,” with the exception that they are also authors.

In doing so, he tells a story not only about his own illness but also about the stories we tell ourselves, both secular and religious, to make sense of illness. Because of this, we might consider him a narrator with a degree of self-awareness. He is well aware that he has access to resources that many of his fellow suffering patients do not, such as the benefit of the doubt that is often denied to the older women who report chronic Lyme symptoms.

That he is “the kind of careless experimenter that doctors despair over, and that pharmaceutical rules exist to protect and dissuade” is something else that Douthat is aware of. He constantly sees new doctors but never takes any of their advice. He blends the antibiotics he purchases from an internet pet retailer with a handful of herbs and enzymes he learned about in online discussion groups.

Douthat puts himself bare in ways that can be moving, whether it’s by writhing on the toilet floor in pain, choking up in the middle of a lecture, or stumbling into empty churches to pray for relief. Neither he nor the women who have written about their experiences with Lyme disease, such as Pamela Weintraub (“Cure Unknown”) and Porochista Khakpour (“Sick”), can be credited with any greater courage for doing so. Nevertheless, this book is a nearly radical act of humility in today’s hypermasculine conservative culture, where illness is seen as a sign of weakness. He argues that more attention should be paid to tick-borne diseases and that those who suffer from them should be given more dignity.

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