By David Tuller, DrPH
Last April, I interviewed poet, journalist and editor Meghan O’Rourke about The Invisible Kingdom, her insightful and affecting memoir of living with chronic illness. The book, a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award, has just been issued in paperback. So I figured I’d re-post the interview.
As the book recounts, O’Rourke initially began experiencing perplexing physical signs and sensations not long after graduating from Yale in the late 1990s–“daily hives, dizziness, chronic pain, and drenching night sweats.” She struggled for years with a range of debilitating symptoms, and finally found some relief after being treated for chronic Lyme disease—itself a controversial diagnosis. In 2013, she wrote an extended piece on all this for The New Yorker.
The Invisible Kingdom was published at a timely moment, given our current global epidemic of post-viral illness, popularly known as long Covid but more formally called post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2. The book helped generate greater awareness of some of the complex chronic conditions that lack widely accepted diagnostic tests. It is also filled with gorgeous and haunting sentences, like this one: “In the dark room where I listened to life happen around me when I was sick, I yielded a part of myself forever.”
In our conversation, we talked about O’Rourke’s own journey through this “invisible kingdom,” the challenges of finding appropriate medical care, the loneliness of being sick, the ravages of brain fog, the emergence of long Covid, and the struggle to find words to describe experiences and states of being that defy easy description.