A couple of weeks ago, my friends at CripAntiquity posted a short feature I wrote, entitled "From Medical to Mythical Languages of Chronic Pain."
You can read the original post on their site here, or in the full-text pasted below.
From Medical to Mythical Languages of Chronic Pain
By Hannah Silverblank
Right now, my doctors call my disabilities fibromyalgia, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), hypermobility, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, carpal tunnel syndrome, and ADHD.
Diagnostic words like these possess a kind of power, particularly within institutional structures like American medicine, where I need all the power I can get. The language of my disabilities and the names of my diagnoses intrigue me, because they attempt to provide the “thing’s true name.” (Also, as a Hellenist, I’m fascinated by medical etymology.) Each diagnosis has given me a huge amount of communicative power within the American medical complex - a set of magic words for accessing care and expressing some aspects of embodiment.
Ursula K. Le Guin said:
“Magic exists in most societies in one way or another, and one of the forms it exists in a lot of places is, if you know a thing’s true name, you have power over the thing, or the person.” 
My list of diagnoses are magic passwords in the context of American medical care, yet meaningless and inadequate in other contexts. Whatever the “true name” of my disabilities may be, I operate with a deep awareness of the inadequacies of modern American diagnostic language to describe disability. The phrase “irritable bowel syndrome” hardly feels like magic or truth, but it also makes me smile in humorous recognition of my bitchy bowels. I enjoy surprising my doctors with unhelpful interpretations of medical language: when my psychiatrist recently described one of my medications as ‘teratogenic’, I excitedly burst out: ‘OHH! Did you say TERATOGENIC? Then it’s this one that will let me bring monsters into existence?’ She smiled back, confused. All of which is to say I’m fascinated by the problem of describing what I feel in my body, and disturbed by the assumption that diagnostic language has enough ‘magic’ to describe the disabling pain that lives with me. I sit with the possibility that the names of my diagnoses may change over my lifetime, and that they have been called by different names in the past, for better and worse.
Beyond these diagnostic words, I have many other and more personal ways of describing my disabilities. I don’t always feel comfortable or that I’m getting it quite right when it comes to the language I use casually or in conversation to describe my own disabilities and my disability identity.
Here’s a little story about how I consider my body and my disabilities both chronic and Chironic.
When my friend and astrologer Johanna Hedva read my astrological birth chart, they taught me about a solar system body called Chiron. When human astronomers began to notice and describe it in 1977, Chiron was named for the teacherly centaur from classical mythology. I use Chiron as a figure for thinking about my own body for a number of reasons:
In my doctoral research, I studied and wrote about monsters in Greek poetry. This means that I have an immediate intellectual attraction to monstrous creatures, including Chiron, specifically because he is the Monster Teacher par excellence. I have a deep affinity with Chiron, the centaur most famous for teaching his pupils how to fight, play the lyre, sing, and heal wounds.
I’ve since learned that Chiron’s classification has proven challenging for astronomers: is Chiron a planet? An asteroid? A comet? Apparently, he is a ‘centaur’, because only a mythic and divine monster could accommodate the difficult hybridities posed by the planetary body. I recently learned from Wikipedia that the ‘discovery’ of Chiron (a.k.a. ‘2060 Chiron’) led to the naming of various indeterminate planetary bodies as ‘centaurs.’ This means that recognizing Chiron forced astronomers to recognize centaurs.
In astrology, as I learned from Hedva, the place where Chiron falls in someone’s birth chart represents ‘the unhealable wound’ in that person’s life. Chiron represents our pain as well as the ‘place where one’s suffering cannot be eliminated but can be remediated through the act of teaching what one has learned from that suffering.’ I’m paraphrasing Hedva’s words here, but gosh, how *gorgeous* is that idea?
Chiron represents the ‘unhealable wound’ because of the story in which Chiron takes an arrow that wasn’t intended for him. This arrow, shot by Herakles, is no regular arrow: it is strengthened by the gall of the Hydra (one of Herakles’ monstrous opponents, whom he defeats and whose venom he uses to make his arrows particularly deadly). Although immortal, Chiron is hit by a magical weapon, and thus experiences a magically horrible, eternally festering wound that cannot heal.
There are innumerable other narrative angles and elements we could explore in this story. For now, suffice it to say that Chiron’s unending pain resonates with me, because of my unending pains in my head, neck, face, shoulders, chest, back, abdomen, arms, and hips. I sometimes have pain in other body parts too, but I am very literally always in pain, to the point where I have absorbed it as a part of my consciousness. Chiron gets it, and his name gets at it.
The pain is chronic; my disabilities are chronic, because they are of time, ongoing in time. The pain is also Chironic because it is ongoing and unbearable; but I do bear it, and my hope is that I get to share out some of my vulnerability to my students, as a means of remediating the burden and empowering them in their own disability identity. I believe in the power of collective vulnerability. In claiming Chiron, I dream and hope that I can help other centaurs self-recognize and gain the recognition they seek, whether in the Greek-laden languages of industrialized medicine or astrology.
 Ursula K. Le Guin, quoted in Arwen Curry’s 2018 film Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I first came across this quotation in a book called Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás and published by Ignota Books.
Hannah Silverblank (she/her) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Haverford College. Hannah is grateful to Clara Bosak-Schroeder for their thoughtful editing, mentorship, and community leadership. Hannah can be found at @HSilverblank on Twitter and www.professorsilverblank.com.
In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to reestablish my connection with a belief that underlies much of the way I live my life: the belief and the knowledge that stories and books have the power to infuse one’s experience of human relationships and difficulties with beauty, love, patience, and grace.
My father was admitted to the hospital ten days ago. The past ten days have been filled with the pain of a loved one, medical and mortal uncertainties, collective sleeplessness, and unexpected shifts and challenges. My father has been doing the difficult work of accepting painful and uncomfortable forms of healing that the body does not want to endure.
Watching a loved one experience pain and hospitalization can have a dissolutive effect on the boundaries of one’s life, one’s time, and one’s understanding of how human beings sit in relation to one another. This is a time when embodying a durable, exhausting but not exhaustible form of care is most pressing and most challenging for my father, and for all of us who love him.
As I reflect on the ways in which the past ten days have reconfigured my life, I feel an urgent need to express gratitude for the chance to read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I began this book two days before my father’s unexpected admission to the hospital, and I have been reading a paperback of it and re-reading it in audiobook format, read by the author. The experience of reading the words of an author and hearing her voice them herself is a particular aesthetic phenomenon that has had a highly fortifying effect on me of late. Morrison’s voice is so full of vibrant, satisfying, devastating texture, and the mythical arc and characters in the narrative brought a vitality to the clinical sterility of hospital rooms and hallways. Song of Solomon has been a crucial companion for me, and although its thematic bearings on my father’s situation are elliptical, the gift of Morrison’s prose has fed my mind and my heart in unexpected ways, during a time when nourishment is scarce.
I added this book to my summer reading list. Each week, I read a piece of literature that engages with classical antiquity, as part of my virtual Classical Reception Summer Book Club. The Book Club exists as a Twitter community, mostly populated by me, but it allows me to broadcast to the world some of the particularly resonant moments I experience in my reading life. The hashtag #crsbc was created for sharing these moments and the place that my summer reading has in my own, and hopefully others’, individual intellectual projects.
Song of Solomon has felt quite different from the rest of what I’ve read this summer, since the classical elements in the novel pulse in the background rather than the center of the story. The instances of engagement with classical myth provide further vocal and imaginative texture to a story that is fully its own, but builds on a wide variety of mythic traditions’ representations of flight.
I began reading with a curiosity about the role of the magical and inventive arts in the novel. I hadn’t read the book before, but I knew it contained a character named Circe and recurring references to human attempts at flight. I looked for Circe and Daedalus, and I found them.
I also found the winged, triple-bodied Geryon, who made his way into my experience the novel in no explicit terms but rather in reference to another author on this summer’s reading list. In Anne Carson’s mythically informed Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, instances of failed and achieved flight recur throughout the story in ways that reference but transcend the mythic narratives that serve as their formal referents. For Carson’s Geryon and for Morrison’s Milkman Dead, flight is accomplished when the hero can unlearn enough that he learns to see beyond his former mythic limitations and to fly away into something that looks like immortality.
I feel a special form of excitement at this kind of thread across texts. I expected to read a text that evoked classical myth and did something different with it, but in reality, what I experienced was one contemporary author’s (Carson’s) thematic project awakening a new way of reading and seeing in Morrison’s novel. Indeed, what informed my intellectual experience of Morrison’s various flyers was less Daedalus and more Carson’s Geryon. A sort of rhizome (am I using that correctly?) seemed to exist between Morrison’s novel and Carson’s work, both of which intersect with classical myth in deep but not structuring ways. The thematic connections are hard to map as anything other than a cluster of twining, pulsing blood vessels. My ancient authors have been dislocated from their usual status in my reading experience, as something bigger, broader, and more lush emerges in the way I can read Geryon’s immortality alongside Milkman’s.
I rarely find the time or opportunity to talk about how reading and thinking makes me feel, but in the last week and a half, I’ve been in an unusual headspace as a result of my father’s health. I’ve seen how reading poetic representations of flight in Carson and Morrison have given me an intellectual flight that is more of a form of delighted, luxurious transcendence than a form of escape. It’s something I feel very grateful for.
In the coming week, I plan to post selections of my favorite passages from Song of Solomon – both the passages which speak strongly to students of classical literature as well as the passages which have electrified my mind and my senses during a grey time. I’m telling everyone I know to read Song of Solomon, and I hope that at least one person reads a passage posted here that inspires them to pick up the book and follow Milkman Dead’s epic journey.
(PS: My brain is pretty fried at the moment, so please forgive typos, syntactical errors, and illegible flights of fancy.)
For the past few months, I've been eagerly anticipating the start of a freer schedule to enable more creative, curious, slow, and wide-ranging reading.
Even though my semester only ended two days ago, I've already been amazed at the way that free, patient reading can do amazing things to my sense of creativity, possibility, and imagination; it's a shame that this feeling isn't always accessible when reading by strict deadlines for professional performance, but I'm delighting in it right now.
I've decided to organize my personal summer reading into thematic clusters and a general timeline, and one cluster that I wanted to share is my Classical Reception Summer Reading list. If you're interested in reading any or all of these books this summer, I'd be delighted to exchange ideas and responses to the reading! Feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet your thoughts with the hashtag #CRSBC (Classical Reception Summer Book Club), or just enjoy the list on your own!