Suleika Jaouad documented her nearly-four-year endurance of chemotherapy in her New York Times column, “Life, Interrupted,” which she followed with a 15,000-mile road trip to meet 22 of the many strangers who had written to her with stories of their own. That journey became the basis of her new book, “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” (Random House).
Read an excerpt below, and don’t miss correspondent Jim Axelrod’s interview with Suleika Jaouad on “CBS Sunday Morning” February 14!
It began with an itch. Not a metaphorical itch to travel the world or some quarter-life crisis, but a literal, physical itch. A maddening, claw-at-your-skin, keep-you-up-at-night itch that surfaced during my senior year of college, first on the tops of my feet and then moving up my calves and thighs. I tried to resist scratching, but the itch was relentless, spreading across the surface of my skin like a thousand invisible mosquito bites. Without realizing what I was doing, my hand began meandering down my legs, my nails raking my jeans in search of relief, before burrowing under the hem to sink directly into flesh. I itched during my part-time job at the campus film lab. I itched under the big wooden desk of my library carrel. I itched while dancing with friends on the beer-slicked floors of basement taprooms. I itched while I slept. A scree of oozing nicks, thick scabs, and fresh scars soon marred my legs as if they had been beaten with rose thistles. Bloody harbingers of a mounting struggle taking place inside of me.
“It might be a parasite you picked up while studying abroad,” a Chinese herbalist told me before sending me off with foul-smelling supplements and bitter teas. A nurse at the college health center thought it might be eczema and recommended a cream. A general practitioner surmised that it was stress-related and gave me samples of an antianxiety medication. But no one seemed to know for sure, so I tried not to make a big deal out of it. I hoped it would clear up on its own.
Every morning, I would crack the door of my dorm room, scan the hall, and sprint in my towel to the communal bathroom before anyone could see my limbs. I washed my skin with a wet cloth, watching the crimson streaks swirl down the shower drain. I slathered myself in drugstore potions made of witch hazel tonic and I plugged my nose as I drank the bitter tea concoctions. Once the weather turned too warm to wear jeans every day, I invested in a collection of opaque black tights. I purchased dark-colored sheets to mask the rusty stains. And when I had sex, I had sex with the lights off.
Along with the itch came the naps. The naps that lasted two, then four, then six hours. No amount of sleep seemed to appease my body. I began dozing through orchestra rehearsals and job interviews, deadlines and dinner, only to wake up feeling even more depleted. “I’ve never felt so tired in my life,” I confessed to my friends one day, as we were walking to class. “Me too, me too,” they commiserated. Everyone was tired. We’d witnessed more sunrises in the last semester than we had in our entire lives, a combination of logging long hours at the library to finish our senior theses followed by boozy parties that raged until dawn. I lived at the heart of the Princeton campus, on the top floor of a Gothic-style dorm, crested with turrets and grimacing gargoyles. At the end of yet another late night, my friends would congregate in my room for one last nightcap. My room had big cathedral windows and we liked to sit on the sills with our legs dangling over the edge, watching as drunken revelers stumbled home and the first amber rays streaked the stone-paved courtyard. Graduation was on the horizon, and we were determined to savor these final weeks together before we all scattered, even if that meant pushing our bodies to their limits.
And yet, I worried my fatigue was different.
Alone in my bed, after everyone had gone, I sensed a feasting taking place under my skin, something wending its way through my arteries, gnawing at my sanity. As my energy evaporated and the itch intensified, I told myself it was because the parasite’s appetite was growing. But deep down, I doubted there ever was a parasite. I began to wonder if the real problem was me.
From “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” by Suleika Jaouad. Copyright © 2021 by Suleika Jaouad. Published by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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