For more than a hundred days I have been ill with a condition called Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a rare and unpleasant viral thing—dormant chicken pox that reactivates in a hapless few, years after being forgotten.
A strain of herpes, and a close relative of shingles, it attacks the nerves in the head and body. In my case, it rendered deaf my left ear, and visited me with facial palsy—left eye partially paralyzed, mouth misshapen, speech lumpy, frown lines obliterated on the left side of my forehead. The state of my eye made reading and writing impossible for more than short periods, hence my extended absence from First Things.
After my discharge from hospital at Easter, I ill-advisedly left for a long-planned trip to Andalusia, where I had a serious relapse. There, I experienced pure vertigo. Moving my head even slightly sent me into a tailspin of swirly-wooziness, as though I were reeling backward into space, with no hope of saving myself.
Ramsay Hunt—called after James Ramsay Hunt, an American neurologist of the late 19th and early 20th century—is a peculiar condition. It attacks the body through the instruments of cognition, bringing with it a form of dread that invades the imagination as much as the body. Following the relapse, an email exchange with my specialist back home threw up the possibility that the herpes zoster virus might have entered the lining of my brain and unleashed herpes encephalitis, which can cause brain damage or death. My doctor said I should immediately have my brain scanned at the local hospital.
This proved impossible to do over the weekend, and so I spent forty-eight hours alone with my fears, which grow’d like Topsy by day and by night. The English idiom—“I was afraid”—is inadequate. Better the Irish: “Bhí faitíos orm”—“There was fear on me.” Like the virus, the terror descended without warning and remained with me independent of my reason or will.
I had never been one for reflecting on my mortality. I assumed I had grasped the essentials of the human situation and come to live with them. In that forty-eight-hour window, however, the abstract nature of these beliefs became clear.
What I experienced was not a “fear of death”—at least, not a fear of what might follow my departure from this life. It was a fear of losing all that my life had given me: the loss of those I love, my work and the places I had come to call home, the hopes and expectations unfulfilled. It revealed itself most definitively as a terror of saying goodbye. I prayed by rote, repeating prayers collected at various points in my life, but with no clear sense of connection. Usually, the prayers were short: “This too shall pass.”
The crisis diminished somewhat after I had a CAT scan and was given the all-clear on the brain-damage front. But the vertigo persisted for several weeks. Something about the condition ate into my emotional life, disintegrating all stoicism and resilience. I became ridiculously sentimental—unable to hear or read anything of misfortune or tragedy without collapsing emotionally. I slowly re-read Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, pacing myself carefully to absorb its salutary implications. Other books, in which I came upon some tragic or calamitous event, I had to abandon immediately. If someone started to tell me something catastrophic, cruel, or unjust, I would have to ask that person to desist, and then banish what I had already gleaned to some remote section of my mind, lest it return to undo me again.
These symptoms seemed to be a physiological dimension of the condition itself. My body was rebelling against my being, and I was cast between the two, unable to stand, speak, hear, or see properly. The dizziness was a kind of disintegration of my self, and the result seemed to be that no previously existing principle, conviction, theory, value, or belief had stability within me.
I could not help feeling that these reactions bespoke a diminution of faith, which had seemed strong when I was strong, but now was dissolving with my strength. The substance of my beliefs remained but, with my reason shot to pieces, could no longer find traction. In this new and unfamiliar place, I felt spiritually alone; marooned, without an external source of support. I had lost my spiritual equilibrium. My illness made it clear that something had shifted in me, without my knowing, to render my steps on the spiritual path less sure-footed. Sometimes, doubt and unease can remain as undetected as a latent virus.
For a long time (to take an example in a different category), I had held that Catholics who claimed to have lost their faith because of clerical sex abuse were hiding behind an alibi with little basis in reason. Why should the sinfulness of others weaken one’s faith in God? But more recently, I have felt sympathy with such people, realizing that such a fundamental breach of trust by someone who has spent years studying the vital questions of faith is not an incidental matter, but affects the core of belief.
By the same token—and this may have been a factor in my own case—when we see the elders of Christ’s Church engaging in behavior that denigrates the Church’s most fundamental teachings, can we be surprised if we find ourselves doubting first of all their faith and, perhaps, the reliability of our own? This had not occurred to me before my Ramsay Hunt nightmare, but I have since come to believe there may be something in it.
Physically and mentally, I am growing stronger. My spiritual equilibrium may be slower to return, perhaps because it has been below par for longer than I was aware of. It took Ramsay Hunt to show me that things in that department were not as settled as I imagined. And for this, I have some distance to go in becoming sincerely grateful.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.