Ross Douthat is well-known for his insight-rich commentary on politics, culture, and religion (and for being the last conservative at The New York Times). But in his new book “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery,” Douthat lets his readers into something achingly personal: the story of his journey through chronic illness.
In the summer of 2015, Douthat — healthy, 30-something, and on the cusp of moving his young family to the countryside — was suddenly beset by debilitating pain. It began as a mystery and was later identified as chronic Lyme disease, but not before several doctors had suggested his suffering was all in his head.
“The Deep Places” explores the medical controversy involved with chronic illness in general, and Lyme in particular. Douthat’s journey will be painfully familiar to any sufferer of mysterious ailments: he starts with a firm faith in modern, mainstream medicine and finds himself edging ever closer toward the fringe in search of help — and someone who believes him.
While his story may be familiar to many, Douthat tells it better than most. As someone with multiple chronic Lyme sufferers in my family and community, I’ve often heard them tell their stories, discuss their symptoms, and share their discoveries. But in these complicated conversations full of “biofilms,” “Herxheimer reactions,” and “Rife machines” (yes, I’d heard of those too), I often find myself unable to follow — and, I admit, a little mystified.
Douthat makes his battle with a complex illness understandable and riveting. I found the book hard to put down, finishing it at two o’clock in the morning. Those who, like me, love someone with chronic illness will find something invaluable in this book: an opportunity to enter into the mind, heart, and daily reality of the sufferer. The book will also resonate with anyone who grapples with the larger experience of human suffering — and the question of why God allows it.
Sharing his Vulnerability
One of the most refreshing things about this book, in our age of online fakery and bravado, is how fully Douthat lets his guard down. He invites the reader into his physical experiences at their most humbling and bizarre, and into his spiritual experiences at their most visceral and desperate. Anyone who has ever believed in God through deep suffering will be moved by Douthat’s stories of slowly ascending a church staircase on his knees, or begging God for a sign in the form of a sand dollar at the seashore.
It’s these transparent accounts of raw pain that give Douthat the credibility to speak on the larger questions. “What I learned from my illness,” he writes, “is that chronic suffering can make belief in a providential God, if you have such a thing going in, feel essential to your survival, no matter how much you may doubt God’s goodness when the pain is at its worst. To believe your suffering is for something, that you are being asked to bear up under it, that you are being in some sense supervised and tested and possibly chastised in a way that’s ultimately for your good, if you can only make it through the schooling — all this is tremendously helpful to maintaining simple sanity and basic hope.”
“Absolutely religion is a crutch,” he admits, “and it’s not only useful for the weak of mind but for anyone dealing with severe weakness.”
Limits of the Expert Class
If such a thing can be called a spoiler, I’ll alert you to one here: Douthat did eventually make it through the schooling. Through a long process of trial and error, in which he sought help from alternative practitioners, gained knowledge from online forums of fellow sufferers, and conducted medical experiments on his own body, he fought his way back toward wellness — if not complete health, something much nearer to it.
The ordeal forced Douthat, a member of the old-guard establishment media, to grapple with the limitations of the expert class — in this case, establishment medicine. It was only by journeying past the edges of accepted, certified knowledge that he found help, and this understandably shaped his view of the way we accept and certify knowledge. Of course, this is nearly the same question many are fiercely debating in the age of COVID-19 (which is discussed near the end of the book), as the whole world confronts a new and mysterious illness.
Douthat strikes a balance, not rejecting the medical establishment, but asking it to rethink its approach. “What chronic Lyme patients are asking of these skeptics is not a new certainty to replace the old one, not the endorsement of any single protocol or theory,” he writes in the final chapter. “What they are asking — what is entirely reasonable to ask in the face of so much suffering — is for doctors not to simply wash their hands of us, but to instead embrace the experimental spirit that chronic sickness seems to obviously require.”
“The Deep Places” is a moving personal memoir with a hint of true-crime mystery, featuring microscopic spirochetes as the villain. It’s told with the pathos, insight, and humility of someone chastened by suffering. In a culture filled with hidden sickness — of the body, mind, and soul — it’s a worthwhile read.