“My goal is no longer a perfect body or hair. My goal is to live to be an old woman,” says Iranian-American novelist Porochista Khakpour. On the surface, this may seem like a benign desire. But Khakpour has lived with chronic illness, which was only recently diagnosed as late-stage Lyme disease, for almost her entire life. In her first book-length work of nonfiction, she chronicles the years of misdiagnosis, overmedication, depression, and drug addiction in Sick: A Memoir (Harper Perennial, June).
Born in Tehran in 1978, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, Khakpour was five when her family settled in Los Angeles. She remembers being constantly ill while growing up, but no one knew why. As a young woman, she says, “[Doctors were] quick to assume it was psychological, and I went along with it. It was terrifying.
“[The] disease has defined my life,” continues Khakpour. “It’s unlikely I’ll ever find out when I contracted it. Perhaps in Iran as a child. And just as unlikely I’ll ever be entirely rid of it.”
The author of two acclaimed novels, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007) and The Last Illusion (2014), Khakpour says she had no intention of writing an illness and addiction memoir. “I’ve never been someone who imagined nonfiction as a calling.” she adds.
But after Khakpour began posting about her illness on Facebook, the response was overwhelming. “So I wrote the book I thought would have helped me,” she says, “something raw, intense, honest, but not humorless. The madness of illness and addiction and PTSD, all in a broken medical system, seemed rather urgent to capture—and of course, every day it feels only more and more so.”
Not surprisingly, Khakpour’s battle with Lyme disease has affected her life as a writer. “I go in and out of relapse and remission, and I’m almost always afraid of something: getting worse or staying the same. I’ve learned to not be too much of a perfectionist about it, but it is challenging,” she says. “At times I can’t read and write. At times I need so much rest. At times I’m in so much pain. But I remember being bedridden, at the most hopeless parts of my journey, and it motivates me to continue to do this thing that I love—this thing I’ve wanted to do my whole life, since we came to America.”