Abby Norman is the author of ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: My Quest To Make Doctors Believe In Women’s Pain, out from Nation Books in March 2018. Abby and I talked post-election, when we were miserable but still in shock. The interview is short, mainly because I’m a bad interviewer and spaced out our email correspondence over the course of several months. Abby discussed the X-Files, ballroom dancing, and surviving.
Abby Norman: It has been the STRANGEST of times. I might be a little FRANTIC AND MELANCHOLY. In general, but today specifically because of the Senate vote.
But like fuck me, right!?
p.e. garcia: Frantic and melancholic is the current state of the nation, I think. Things seem to get worse each day. What’s helping you survive?
Norman: Yeah, it’s a strange time. . .I’m not sure I feel like I am surviving. The last few weeks I’ve found it progressively harder to work in every sense. I should consider myself lucky, I have a manuscript due to the publisher in one month, and therefore there’s always at least a small chunk of my day that MUST be devoted to that and nothing else (i.e. news twitter). For me, there’s always the physical factor because I’m ill, and that I’m used to. I’m not used to being, like, spiritually exhausted. I’m used to wanting to work and finding it challenging because of illness. I’m not used to the feeling of just. . .not wanting to do it in the first place. I don’t know if it’s coming from a place of futility, or exhaustion, or both.
So, I find myself taking my dog for longer walks. Which is probably good for both of us. I live on the Maine coast so we can spend a lot of quiet time in nature which I’ve found particularly helpful. I’ve found myself harkening back to what made me happy as a kid, too: new books that aren’t work related, watching The X-Files before bed, dance lessons. I do ballroom and had gotten to the point over the last few months where I really couldn’t afford it anymore. After the New Year I finally said, you know, fuck it. I’ll find the money. Because I can’t give this up. It’s literally the only non-work related thing I have. It’s physically good for me. And it’s fun. And I’m good at it. It’s not something I show up at and fail at, which is probably a good confidence boost. It’s not like waking up and getting on the internet and having people call me a feminist slut and telling me to kill myself before 9 AM, you know?
garcia: Would you like to talk about your illness? I don’t want to push you to reveal anything you may be uncomfortable sharing.
I understand that feeling of futility and spiritual exhaustion quite well, I think. Lately, I think I’ve become more fatalistic. I think to myself: we will survive, because we must, or we will die, because we will. It’s made me feel like I have less to lose, and thus I feel more open about how I’m feeling and what changes I want in this dumb world. I’m not sure if that attitude is exactly survival, but it’s something.
I’m glad to hear, though, that you have small pockets of self-care. It’s strange what a radical act self-care has become. What books are you reading? What made you interested in ballroom? Where are you in the X-Files (like what season)?
I think there’s been such a strange attitude lately–mostly of people in positions of privilege–of being consolatory toward folks who would literally tell you to kill yourself. But fuck those people. Fuck anyone who would say such vile things to you. You’re better than them, infinitely, and you can take some satisfaction in knowing that their pathetic lives will be spent rotting neck-deep in the viscous garbage that is their own opinions. I would like to place those people on a bicycle, push the bicycle into a lake, and then hurl the lake into an active volcano. I don’t like them.
That’s probably little comfort, of course, but I do hope at the very least you know that you have a supporter in me, and that I will personally challenge anyone who is mean to you to a fist fight.
Norman: Well, I’ve practically built my career on being transparent about my myriad health problems, which were initially of repro nature. I was diagnosed (rather: fought to have the diagnosis I determined confirmed by doctors who thought I was hysteric) with endometriosis several years ago. That’s the subject of my book. Over the last year or so, after struggling with it for about six years, I’d finally started to feel as though I had a handle on it. Then I got shingles, which really fucked me up for a few months. After that, in the spring of this last year, I started having trouble thinking/speaking. My left side went numb. I was terrified I’d had a stroke, which can sometimes happen after you’ve had shingles. Long story short, 9 months worth of testing, and the doctors I’ve seen think its MS. I have some shit going on with my spine that looks freaky as hell, but of course no one has taken the time to explain it other than to call it demyelination. Naturally, being a writer with a proclivity for investigating things at 2 AM, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Annals of Radiology trying to disprove their theory, but also not liking the looks of the alternatives.
How this shakes out in my day to day life is that I’m very tired and in a lot of pain most days. While the numbness resolved over the course of a few months and is now intermittent rather than constant, I’ve still struggled with certain neurological quirks that’s really given me a crisis of self. I’ve always heavily identified with my intellect, particularly as it pertains to my ability to write and speak. Having that be so imminently threatened has depressed me beyond measure. Imagining that I will soon likely lose my insurance, and no longer be able to experiment with medications that have given my glimpses of normalcy and relief, is beyond depressing. It’s put some of that fatalism in me, too.
But, so too has it put a fearlessness in me. I haven’t got anything to lose except everything. My quality of life, first and foremost. The course of the disease is unpredictable and there’s no way to know, for sure, what particular iteration of it I’ll have or not have. I’ve been told by one specialist that I likely won’t know anything about its progression for at least ten years, because it’s all assessed retrospectively. So, I figure I can’t count on anything. But y’know, no one can really. I guess I just have a more deliberate framework of uncertainty in which to operate.
Self care has always been somewhat radical for me, I think, because it often is for women. I’ve always felt guilty about it. Now it’s just more en vogue to feel guilty about it. As sick as I am, I still feel guilty about even doing things that are arguably quite necessary to my well-being, to my ability to function day in and day out. I often think I’m making things worse by trying to “hold out” and “grin and bear it” as long as possible. I think prevention and proactivity has been cross-wired with indulgence somehow.
Which is sort of how I feel about ballroom. When I first got sick I was in NYC studying dance. I was never going to be spectacular, but I loved it. I would have enjoyed being a dance critic, I think. I love the art, and I enjoyed my theory and history courses as much as I did being in class. Anyway, when I got sick that part of my life was lost. I’ve tried to go back but my body can no longer tolerate the demands of ballet, contemporary, etc. But this last year I was introduced to a professional ballroom dancer where I live who has been giving lessons here for decades after he retired from the circuit. He won some high profile stuff, I guess. Cool guy. Anyway, he’s got a little competition team here and they all travel. I talked to him about my dance background and he pointed out that ballroom is relatively low impact by comparison, in part because it’s a partnered dance. I took a few lessons and with my dance background, fell into step (quite literally) very quickly. They’re grooming me to compete but unfortunately it’s unlikely I will — not for physical reasons, but financial ones. It’s a very expensive hobby! The ladies on the team are all fairly affluent, and this is something they do mostly for the social / glamour element. I do it strictly because I love dance and because it’s physical activity. But, I am competitive. . .so I don’t know, if I get a windfall of some kind, I might take a year and get in the northeast competition circuit. If anything, I could write about it.
Oh. X-Files. Heh. How do I say this without sounding like a pedantic teenager? I’ve been a venerable fangirl since the ’90s. The show was the passion of my young life. Dana Scully, even today, remains one of my most impressionable role models. I, like many, had a fairly traumatic childhood and was left to my own devices a lot, which was how I managed to watch the show at nine and ten years old. No parental supervision to speak of, heh. I loved that they didn’t always necessarily win. The bad guys were always still out there. A lot of bad shit happened to Mulder and Scully, and everyone that affiliated with them. But they always showed up — for the victims, for the FBI, for each other. Scully was the first experience I had identifying with . . .not even just fictional characters, but like, anyone. Watching her as I was growing up was a lot of “yeah, me too.” I’ve always been an avid fangirl, have the requisite geeky collection of memorabilia, comics, etc. But over the years I certainly wasn’t as involved in the fandom. . .but then they did the revival this year and it’s been so fascinating to see that so many of the original fandom members are still around. And they’re all interacting with the new kids. I mean, GOD, if TUMBLR had existed when I was in the fandom, when I was a teen. . .I wouldn’t have graduated high school haha. I’m actually working on a piece this year about how fanfic has a very important presence in my life as a writer. It was my first experience writing for an audience when I was young, and it taught me a lot about the infinite ways in which you can tell a story. There are an overwhelming number of permutations, the vast majority of which you’ll never think of — but isn’t it remarkable that someone, somewhere, will?
It was always my safe space as a kid. The aesthetic of that show is immensely comforting to me, and I guess it’s no surprise I sort of reverted back to it. I also think there’s an element of good timing: the fandom has had a revival, too, as the show has come back into pop culture. There’s a lot of familiarity there. I mean, some of those Geocities pages still exist as cached troves, and my God have I enjoyed finding them again. It’s been fun to watch people discover it for the first time, and certainly my boundless trivia has made me quite popular in the fandom. I’m also pretty good at memes, which has made my x-files tumblr quite successful. It’s a nice diversion. I forget how much I enjoy laughing, and then I’ll see something and laugh so desperately at it that it’s almost kind of sad.
At first I thought it was obvious escapism, but then I realized that, at least for me, going back to X-Files specifically, was subconsciously intentional. I wanted to revert back to a time in my life where I was open to relatively simply achieved joy, but also, to go into a fictional universe that was rooted in very pertinent topics to our current sociopolitical situation. I always point out to people that, in the end (well, the first end, the end of the series barring movies and the latest incarnation) Mulder and Scully didn’t win. In fact, they’d lost practically everything in their quest for the elusive “truth.” In the end, the details of the greater truth were nothing they could change. It was far beyond the realm of what they could control. But it was the relentless pursuit of that truth that had given their lives meaning.
I’ve recently reflected on the path my own life has taken, and found that my intellectual quest for answers has often been futile, especially medically, when I’m confronted by immovable truths that force me to surrender my need for absolute control. What else can I do but try to ascribe, or derive, some greater meaning from the process?
garcia: I once again find myself in the terrible position of saying “I apologize for the delay of an entire month.” I’m finishing my coursework in my PhD program, so I find myself constantly flitting between academia and the real world. How is everything?
I think we might actually have enough here to constitute a feature, if that works for you? We can continue chatting of course, onward into eternity. But maybe for a first feature, do you have some closing words of wisdom to share with my eager readers?
Norman: In this bizarre time we are in my friend, no apology is necessary, for I completely understand. I mean, add the PhD stuff to the regular daily grind of just LIVING and I’m impressed you manage to email at all. I start out OK, but by Thursday I’m behind. I’m working about 7 days a week at the moment because I just took a weekend editing gig (which I’m PUMPED ABOUT), but it’s been a busy time. Good, I suppose. I like to be busy. I need to be, really. Shark’s dying if they don’t swim and all that cryptic shit.
I also just sent the first draft to my book to my publisher, which was not quite the relief I thought it’d be. Probably because I know it doesn’t mean the work is over, but also just run-of-the-mill fears of rejection and my own personal flavor of “control issues” running amok.
I’m pleased to hear that you got something of substance out of my ramblings, lol! I’ve appreciated the opportunity to ramble to ya, and I hope we stay in touch, in equitable enthusiasm for such musing.
Closing words of wisdom? I don’t know that the world is overly receptive to unsolicited wisdom at the moment, but I do think a lot of people could use encouragement, or dare I suggest — hope.
For me, it’s been that I wake up every day to an inbox full of science news alerts. Even on days when I’m not strictly covering the science beat, I look forward to waking up in the morning and realizing that someone, somewhere, is figuring shit out. It’s not always shit that I personally care about, or I’m sure, understand the importance of. But I have always found solace in acts of discovery, no matter how small. I enjoy being awed.
I think getting a few “awes” a day helps. Of course not everyone’s gonna nut over science the way I do, haha. But it’s worth finding out, seeking out, those things that give you an awareness — and appreciation — of the world beyond your small corner.
Photo of Abby Norman by Tim Sullivan. Other images by p.e. garcia. If you want to talk2me, hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org.