How did you first come to write about horses and horse racing?
For me, being a writer was never a choice. I was born one. All through my childhood I wrote short stories and stuffed them in drawers. I wrote on everything. I didn't do my homework so I could write.
In terms of writing about horses, I fell backwards into that. I was intent on getting a Ph.D., becoming a professor, and writing on history but I got sick 14 years ago when I was 19. Getting sick derailed that plan completely.
I spent the first year of my illness pretty much bed-bound and when I began to improve a little bit in 1988, I needed some way to justify my life. I had an idea watching the Kentucky Derby in 1988, something I could write about that hadn't been discussed much. So I wrote an essay and mailed it to Turf & Sport Digest.
|The theme that runs through this story is of extraordinary hardship and the will to overcome it.|
The magazine no longer exists but it had a huge circulation when the sport was at its height, back in the thirties and forties. It was on its last legs when I submitted the piece--they never did pay me--but they published me and said, "Do you want to keep writing?" I said sure because I was enjoying it. It was making me feel so much better about myself. I wasn't just a person lying in bed, now I was a writer.
You got sick in college with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Can you explain what CFS is and how your illness started?
It started in a very typical way--very suddenly. Prior to that, I was a straight A student, perfectly healthy. I was a very serious athlete. One evening I was driving back from spring break. I think I ate something that was bad earlier that day and I developed food poisoning.
For about two weeks, I was very sick. With CFS, it's typical to have a triggering problem. It could be food poisoning, a bad flu, pneumonia. I woke up two weeks after getting the food poisoning and I simply couldn't sit up in bed.
The biggest problem has been exhaustion. I've spent about 6 of the last 14 years completely bedridden. At times, I have been unable to bathe myself. I have gotten so bad I couldn't really feed myself and a couple of times I needed someone to spoon feed me. I have had trouble rolling over in bed.
I have vertigo. Vertigo makes it feel like the floor is pitching up and down. Things seem to be spinning. It's like standing on the deck of a ship in really high seas.
|No matter what happens with this illness, I think it is possible to carve out a dignified and productive life from it.|
Almost everybody gets night sweats and chills. I've had a fever for 14 years. Some people have very severe joint pain and muscle pain.
You've said that the first year you were sick was very tough, mainly because you couldn't get a diagnosis. Talk about that first year.
It was extremely frightening. I lost 22 pounds in the first month and I didn't have that weight to lose. I lost all my vitality. My hair started falling out. I got sores all over my mouth and my throat. I was running fevers all the time. I would go to doctors and they didn't know what it was, and their inclination was to assume that it was psychological or that it was an effort to get out of doing school work. It was really enraging and upsetting because when doctors don't support you, you lose the support of family and friends, just about everyone.
Because they begin to doubt you?
Right. I had unequivocal symptoms. You could put a thermometer in my mouth and see I was running a fever. Yet they were trying to find reasons for making this [illness] somehow my fault. I was told I was bulimic. I was not bulimic; I never threw up. My throat was beet red; I had huge lymph nodes. I was told I was depressed. I was told I had an attitude problem and needed to get my act together. One doctor wrote down that I was simply trying to get out of school, which was quite amazing. I had a 4.0 average at college. I was not having problems in school.
What finally turned the situation around?
I went to Baltimore to Johns Hopkins and saw the head of infectious diseases. He said, "Do not listen to these people. You have a very serious illness. It's called chronic fatigue syndrome." He couldn't do anything for me but to finally get a diagnosis, to finally have someone be compassionate and take me seriously was an enormous event.