You may be wondering what “salt and iron” means or why health is listed alongside mythology and writing. What does salt have to do with writing? What does health have to do with mythology? Well, a great deal actually.
There have been a fair amount of works exploring how our myths and mythological creatures relate to mental health, combat trauma, addiction, etc. However, just as I see the face of PTSD in Achilles and Herakles and Cuchullain, so too do I see the face of invisible illness and unexplained illness in fairy tales, folk tales, and legends. For the larger part of history, many ailments went undiagnosed, unexplained, or misattributed to curses/spectral attack/divine gifts/divine punishment/etc.
And for much of that history, it was women’s ailments that always seem to have been swept under the rug (or blamed on the broomstick). Even today women are all too often dismissed as hysterical, trying to get attention, or overreacting by many in the medical field. On average, a woman in the ER complaining of pain is given medication 40 minutes later than a man. Despite the whole giving birth thing being a pretty good yardstick for whether something hurts, it seems women are still seen as irrational, psychosomatic crazy people whose complaints can’t be trusted when a man’s are taken at face value. I’m sure there are men out there who’ve gotten the “It’s all in your head” dismissal, but I promise you women get it more.
I know because I come from a family of women who have, for generations, had unusual, rare, or puzzling medical issues. I grew up around it. When I started having medical problems in college it took almost two years of tests, getting told it was all in my head, and being dismissed in increasingly condescending ways before I finally got a diagnosis (though it would take four more years to discover what was likely the underlying cause). When everyone dismisses you as crazy long enough, you do begin to question yourself. The doubt slips in like a winter chill and you hold on to the knowledge that something IS wrong, but that just makes you feel crazier.
So, while I did eventually find some doctors who didn’t think I was crazy and did figure out, for the most part at least, what was wrong, Western medicine has not given me the solace or validation I seek. And, though communities of those with similar conditions can be helpful for finding medical information, getting tips, or even just feeling a little less crazy (because someone else out there exists and, yes, this is a thing), they can also be negative, at times toxic environments.
And once I had a diagnosis, it didn’t necessarily help with people not understanding. See, I was diagnosed with an autonomic disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. Ever heard of it? Exactly. Cliff Notes version, the autonomic nervous system controls basic stuff you don’t think about, like standing, breathing, circulation, and other things necessary to homeostasis and mine sucks at doing its job. Thus, while often seemingly healthy and capable, I have random, unpredictable symptoms that make it hard to do basic things, like standing, breathing, circulating blood through my body, folding laundry, running, climbing stairs, and other things necessary to home stasis.
This is caused, at least in part, by a mast cell disorder, which runs in the family, though they still don’t know why things cause POTS, just what things seem to cause it and that it seems to largely affect women between the ages of 12 and 20. Sometimes it goes away, sometimes it never does. And you look fine (well, mostly). POTS, like Lyme, EDS, CFS, Orthostatic Hypotension, Fibromyalgia, and many other diseases/disorders/conditions, is not all that visible. So, while it can affect every facet of your life, it’s not apparent on the outside the way a wheelchair or hairloss from chemo is.
Thus, these conditions are called “Invisible Illnesses” and can be hard, in addition to the problem itself, because you do look fine, so may receive negative reactions because “you don’t look sick”. Family members may grow impatient, teachers might think you’re faking to get out of work, and you may get chewed out for using a handicapped parking spot even if you legitimately need one and have the handicapped plaque or hang-tag.
Add to this the fact that no one has heard of POTS and that your ability level can change drastically from day to day, and you have a recipe for a lot of misunderstandings, doubt, and hurt. Some people will think you’re making it up. Some will think if you just lost weight or tried kale smoothies or stopped eating so much salt or stopped dwelling on it you’d be better. Some just don’t realize it’s as big of a deal as it is, since they never see the bad days, and assume you’re fine. Some don’t know what to think, so avoid the subject.
So where to turn when you feel physically and emotionally isolated and even your friends don’t understand because they can’t possibly understand? They try and they are wonderful human beings who love and support me and cheer me up in the sweetest ways and I am eternally grateful and will feed them chocolate chip cookies every chance I get. But they don’t know what it’s like to experience this because they haven’t. They take things for granted that any normal human would, but that I can’t anymore, just as I’m sure I take things for granted that someone with autism or dyslexia or MS struggles with every day.
As I have since my mother first told me Greek myths and Encarta told me world folktales, I turned to more ancient modes of understanding. I turned to myths, to fairy tales, to stories of selkies and Fair Folk and Huldufolk. And it was there, for the first time, that I saw something of myself and my struggles.
For example, my mom always got what she called “storm headaches” when a storm was coming. As a child, I didn’t necessarily doubt that she could tell a storm was coming, but I’m not sure I believed her either. Then I started getting them. And my POTS symptoms were entirely at the mercy of barometric pressure. I could do everything right and then a storm system could come rolling in and throw me for a loop.
That’s when I discovered Barometric Pressure Migraines. That weird thing my mom had always had that I’d dismissed as some sort of mystic mom sorcery was, in fact, a recognized thing. And it’s not even all that rare of a thing. A lot of people get them and never put two and two together to realize what’s causing them. Then mine surpassed my mother’s. I started getting them about a day before her and several days before the storm hit. If there’s a storm system within a five state radius, I feel it. And in New England that’s kind of all the time.
I starting joking that I missed my calling as a shaman. I have red hair, I have seizures, I’m a storyteller, and I can predict the weather. What more could a nice stone or bronze age tribe ask for? A friend recently told me I’m not sick, I just have shaman powers. But what started as a joke turned into a fascination when I read Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Stories (I was on a real Icelandic kick this winter).
This book was full of folktales about the Huldufolk (Hidden Folk, very similar to Ireland’s Fair Folk) who were the go-to explanation for all of Iceland’s crazy weather and volcanic activity. I began to notice there seemed to be an usual amount of women randomly falling ill or lapsing into comas or suddenly becoming pale and low-energy. While I largely resist straight demythologizing as I think it misses the point, I wondered if there was something to this that early man couldn’t explain and blamed on elves instead of anxiety or bored hypochondriacs or allergies.
Then, one of the last stories in the book told of a girl who always knew to bring her hay in before anyone else knew a storm was coming, allegedly because she could see the Huldufolk bringing in their hay (and Huldufolk know what’s up). Suddenly, I saw myself in a medieval legend from a faraway island. This was the validation I had been lacking from modern medicine, support groups, and the well-meaning but misunderstanding faces of people who have never experienced a chronic or invisible illness.
This woman knew storms were coming. And I knew, I knew, it was because she was like me. I was so excited, I ran to tell my mom, who agreed that this Icelandic peasant lost to legend was totally one of us. I wasn’t crazy. These same bizarre health shenanigans happened to women millenia ago. They just blamed it on something else. And I’ll take elf magic over “it’s all in your head” any day.
About this time, I discovered the book Unexplained Fevers on Goodreads. The description hinted at the connection between fairy tales and medical problems. Then I saw a review saying that anyone with an auto-immune or autonomic disorder knows it wasn’t all just cursed spinning wheels and poison apples, even if everyone else sees these stories as just that: stories. I was surprised enough that someone on Goodreads knew what autonomic meant. And, once again, I found a glimpse of my experience in fairy tales, in myth, in things dismissed as superstitious nonsense or children’s stuff.
I began to think about this more and more. I knew werewolves are often linked to numerous medical or mental problems, including epilepsy, from my research in college. In fact, when writing a werewolf transformation scene in the novel I wrote for my senior thesis, I just wrote what it was like to have a seizure and threw in a few werewolfy flourishes. Admittedly, mine are non-epileptic, but I lost a friend to epilepsy and the spectre of seizures haunts me all the more now.
Similarly, the salt and iron aspect of fairy/demon/etc lore has never been too far from my mind. As a myth major and fantasy writer, I end up asking myself questions like “Can vampires use iPhones? I can’t when my blood pressure drops and my hands are cold, so they must be too cold for the touch screen to register.” or “Can fairies drink margaritas? I guess they could if they just poured it into their mouths without touching the salt circle on the rim.”
POTS is characterized by sudden drops in blood pressure (or other dramatic bp changes) and spikes in pulse upon standing. Thus, I have to eat a high sodium diet and get extra fluids to avoid fainting. So I end up spending a lot of non-writing time thinking about salt and then my mind wanders and I wonder how modern doctors would react to a changeling who seems like a normal child, only dangerously sodium and iron deficient so they give him an IV and iron pills and it hurts him because he’s a fairy and salt and iron are his Kryptonite and boom: story idea.
Throw in a dash of fairy lore and a generous handful of my own experiences with doctors and hospitals and you have yourself a compelling story. You also have a very sincere truth wrapped in fantasy. It’s just fiction and fairy tales and the imaginings of a fantasy writer to everyone else, but it’s my truth. And maybe, just maybe, a thousand years from now, it’ll be someone else’s too.