Lycanthropy, or the transformation of a human into a wolf, is probably not the first diagnosis that comes to mind when you think about chronic illness. However, as many people with unrecognized chronic illnesses find out on a daily basis, there are a lot of symptoms and conditions that medical science still cannot explain or treat. In Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses (available May 2021), Kristen O’Neal includes characters with many different conditions, from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome to celiac disease. However, she primarily focuses on two characters, Priya and Brigid, with two very different conditions that end up having more similarities than a reader might initially believe.
Priya has recently been diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, a very painful condition that has led to her withdrawal from her pre-med program. She has returned home to live with her family who are very supportive. Still, sometimes it helps to talk to someone else who has faced a similar challenge. She meets Brigid on the Internet and they click right away. Brigid has a condition that flares about once a month, causing her intense pain and fatigue. She never shares the name of her illness, but the symptoms are similar to those that Priya is experiencing all the time.
Brigid and Priya join a weekly chat session with other young adults who are dealing with chronic illnesses. Everyone else has shared their diagnoses, but not Brigid. When Brigid stops responding to all forms of communication, Priya goes to find her. Instead, she is met by a very large, hungry wolf. Calling animal control after shutting the wolf in the bathroom, leads to accusations of a prank after the officer finds a woman, not a wolf, behind the closed door. As Priya’s Lyme disease symptoms begin to decrease, Brigid’s episodes become more common and less predictable, causing tension in the friendship.
The story of how Priya and Brigid, along with the animal control officer, grow closer together while trying to find answers is entertaining, informative, and deeply honest. The feeling of being attacked by one’s own body is common among those living with chronic illness, as is a sense that life will never be quite what was expected. What is wonderful about this book is that none of these feelings are covered up by false optimism. Instead, O’Neal allows her characters to acknowledge how utterly unfair it is that they are sick and that they will probably never completely recover. She demonstrates that sometimes a “happy ending” means finding joy in the people we love and experiences we have while living in our malfunctioning bodies.