The somatization of despair


When I was a small child, my family drove past an imposing brick building on our way home to Dayton , Ohio from Columbus.

This was called, when I was a child, The Ohio State Hospital. Earlier, it was called the Ohio Lunatic Asylum. The stigma lingered. Mother said as we drove by, “That’s where my cousin X is.” I don’t know if I ever met Cousin X. She was the daughter of my great uncle and great aunt whom I did know. Uncle L. spent most of his time staring at first generation television programs when we visited him in the 1950s. He was a rascal of a man who had traveled the world selling Marion Steam Shovels and taking liberties with women he met on these journeys. He had photographs to prove it and brought these out during family gatherings to show my little brother. Scandalous. I liked him when he was a bit younger and I was a toddler. He brought me a doll from Bolivia, a marble elephant from India, and a piece of rock salt from somewhere. He inculcated a desire to travel in me even as a two-year-old. Of Aunt B, his spouse, I remember only a large woman, gruffish and a bit intimidating. They had another daughter, one with dark, pompadoured 1940s hair. She wore a lot of red lipstick. Her husband was called “Mutt.”

Of Cousin X, no, I have no memories of meeting her.

I have only the scraps of what maybe I was told. Cousin X was in the hospital because she could not walk. She could not walk but there was nothing physically wrong with her. Somehow her mental state had caused her legs to atrophy. This may be entirely fiction. However, it made an impression on the child me. I thought about Cousin X often. Was it possible for the mind to deceive the body to such an extreme? Or was this Cousin X story another (like the tale told that my face would “stay that way” when I squinted or stuck my tongue out) another adult fib meant to keep me on the straight and narrow path.


The election was a colossal disappointment. The winner was a megalomaniac who kept Bonobos in his protected, multimillion-dollar retreat. These animals were outfitted with stylish coats and trousers and treated to the music of live string quartets. Fruit bowls for them were on every surface of the house and caretakers brushed their fur and teeth daily.

The new president was the size of a small elephant and wore leather jackets trimmed with fur collars. He hated women and would not have one near him or as employees even as cooks, housekeepers or clerks. Yet women voted for him. He was known to cheat and lie and launder money and steal from the poor. Yet the poor voted for him.

He was what is known as a populist. He told “the people” that only he understood them and that he and he alone could solve their many problems. And they had a multitude of problems.

The tyrant was elected to replace a hapless fellow who had driven the country into bankruptcy. Inflation rates were ridiculous. Nobody could afford food or gas (there was little to be had) or clothing (There was little to be had though there were a few remaining stores places where one might imagine one could buy them.) Hospitals were short of medicines and staff. The premature had no care, the recently born had better not be ill. Cancer was a death sentence, even those cancers curable in wealthy countries. Dissidents were in jails and because there was so little food, they starved.

Still, the new president would be even worse than the old one, so the reasonably sane and educated citizens feared and predicted. He lounged about, Bonobos at his side, IVs of mysterious infusions attached to various fleshy bits of himself, dripping life-giving somethings at all times. Each infusion was a different color thus the president resembled a kind of abominable Christmas tree as he blinked through the corridors of his mansion and appeared on television screens to deliver his unsavory assessments of the world and the country and self-serving assessments of his own prowess.

Priscilla blamed herself for all of this. She had not campaigned hard enough. She had not worked to persuade voters in small communities. She had not leafleted or doorbelled nearly as frequently as she should have. She had not put herself in harm’s way or strong-armed her friends to do more. She had failed.

Thus, the election of the great farce of a president, the old terror and his fleet of Bonobos, was her fault. His mission was to erase all but the most official history of the nation and to ensure that history told the story of a founding and greatness that was nonmalignable and supported only his own creation mythology…a creation fable that led inevitably to him. Imprisonment or death would follow any alternative telling. Teachers were packing up and leaving the country. Historians had gone underground. Memory sweeps were already happening, libraries stripped, and personal stashes of books found and burned on the streets. All Priscilla’s fault.

Priscilla didn’t know how to atone for her failing. She didn’t sleep well. Her assembly of supplements didn’t seem to help. Her electronic relaxation tapes didn’t help. She cried frequently. She lashed her back (in secret) with great thorny whips, inherited from her great aunt, a member of an order of flagellants. She threw her Scotch and chocolates into the garbage and vowed to buy no more.

And then one morning, she noticed that the second toe of her left foot was a bit bigger than the day before. That is to say, the second toe was now longer than the big toe and the third toe. Longer than both.

She thought she was imagining things. The next day, the toe looked a bit longer. Then the next, and so on. Watching it became a new obsession. As if she didn’t have enough to obsess over.

She needed to be sure that her eyes were not deceiving her. She put her bare foot flat upon a piece of graph paper and traced around it. There, she thought. I have a baseline.

And, sure enough, the next day when she placed her foot on the tracing, the second toe was incrementally longer.

And, each day, longer. And longer.

Eventually, she had trouble walking. The toe threw her off balance. It pinched. And the nail of it became bruised under the toe bed. There was nothing for it but to cut a hole in the tip of her walking shoe.

At first, just a bit of pink, bulbous flesh, peeked out from the rough cavity she carved into her expensive leather walking shoes. It hadn’t been easy. She used a pair of kitchen shears for the task. It took almost an hour to shape the leather. Her fingers were bloodied along the way.

When she tried a short trip around the block in her thus altered shoes, she was happy. The pain of the confinement of the toe was relieved.

The respite was short-lived. The toe pushed its way further forward every day. The hole was enlarged, and a bit of duct tape was wrapped around the exposed toe to help it avoid scrapes and bumps.

What can this be, she wondered? Something sent on her, she concluded. For her failures. The toe was relatively flexible. As it approached the four-inch mark, she found it could coil into itself and even grasp a pencil.

Her tango days were over.

At the five-inch mark, she decided to consult a doctor, though this was not something she felt she deserved to do. After all, she was responsible for wrecking so many lives that she thought any act that benefited her was selfish. But she could do nothing for anyone while this toe grew.

The doctor, at first, after ascertaining that she had not been bitten by a spider, announced that she had a variant of Morton’s Toe. This unusual and late-onset Morton’s Toe was rarely, if ever, seen. It was treatable, she said. Certainly, discomfort could be relieved with custom orthotics and ibuprofen. She could order special shoes that would enclose and accommodate the toe.

Priscilla was measured for new footwear. In order to contain the toe, she would wear a size 12 on her left foot and a size 7 ½ on the right. These custom shoes would set her back $456.97. It would take a while. Most shoe makers had left the country.

As she waited for the expensive shoes to arrive, the toe continued to grow. By the time package with the shoes appeared on her doorstep, they were useless. She would have required a size 15 for the left foot. No money back. All folly.

The first round of executions of the president’s political rivals was underway in the streets of the capital when she visited the doctor again.

This time, the doctor recommended a resection of the toe. It could be done in the office, thankfully: an outpatient procedure. Most hospitals were closed by this time. Most had been raided by the desperately ill and their relatives and stripped of anything of value or use. Medical personnel had fled the country on the heels of historians (no longer safe even underground) and college professors (who were regularly submitted to nasty interrogations by student dupes of the president).

Priscilla knew this was all her fault: the hospitals, the executions, the collapse of civil society, and her toe. She searched online for a less invasive cure. She managed to find lots of ideas through an illicit server that a deep-state fortune teller named Zarna had told her about. She looked and looked. Tried herbal packs and more supplements. The toe grew.

At last, she returned to the doctor for the procedure. The doctor was willing to operate, but now knew that this was not a case of Morton’s Toe. Morton’s Toe would not add growth every day. Morton’s Toe would never result in a toe as long as Priscilla’s. This toe was now a claw that stretched a full seven inches beyond Priscilla’s big toe. Wrapped in silver duct tape, it was an all too obvious anomaly and was noticed by everyone. The toe of shame.

She listened to the details of the proposed surgery, but decided to put it off for a bit. She could stay home, she thought, and have most everything she needed delivered. She had a bit of fun. She sharpened the nail of the long toe and trained the toe to stab olives and deliver them to her martini, for example. This actually gave her a laugh. The toe could scratch her back. The toe could punch out numbers on her phone.

But then….of course she had to go out sometimes. And….

The lengthy toe preceded her everywhere she went. It caused her footprints to be remarked upon long after she had passed. She had already discontinued her weekly yoga classes. The teacher and other students guffawed out loud and stared at her when she attempted lunges and downward dog. The toe got in the way. She could do most anything that required grabbing a foot because she could grab the toe. But the laughs! And Priscilla was not the kind of person who could laugh at herself. That, at least, would have helped. Furthermore, of course, Priscilla knew that the others blamed her for the election.

Her social circle was so small and the toe was so cold in rain and snow, sticking out of her shoe as it was, that she decided to have the surgery.

The doctor shortened the second metatarsal bone of the toe. It shortened so that it was slightly shorter than her big toe. Hardware held the ends of the bone together. It didn’t take long, this surgery. And Priscilla went home with a normal-seeming toe. The scars on it would always be a reminder of her neglect during the last election. She continued to self-flagellate and to deny herself the pleasure of chocolate and Scotch.

She wore closed-toe shoes again and found some small pleasure in walking without pain.

Then one day, not more than two months after the operation, she felt a pain in her right foot. The same day that the president called for the imprisonment of all journalists and the closure of all newspaper offices. Anyone who identified as something other than strictly normative, heterosexual, and traditionally gendered went into hiding or left the country. They could be shot on the street with no consequences.

She noticed that same pain each morning as she tread across the bedroom and into her kitchen for a morning coffee.

Then, the familiar feeling of pressure, the pressure of a toe pushing against the tip of her shoe. She drew an outline of the right foot on graph paper.

Day after day, she checked her flat right foot against the sketch. No particular toe was bigger than the others. No. The whole foot was on the move. Day by day, with imperial intentions, the foot grew. And on the left foot, a stub of a big toe appeared next to the fully grown one already in place.

About Llyn De Danaan

LLyn De Danaan is an anthropologist and author. She writes fiction and nonfiction. Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay was published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is currently a speaker for Humanities Washington.
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