Alternative Medicine

Advice and insight from a professional poet.



My right foot has gone numb. It happened all of a sudden so I thought I was having a stroke, even though I’m too young to have a stroke. I went to the emergency room. The doctors on staff couldn’t figure out what my problem is. I was not having a stroke, they said, but my right foot was still numb and they couldn’t explain it. Then I went to my regular doctor, and all tests came back normal. She couldn’t figure it out so she referred me to a podiatrist. He couldn’t figure out what my problem is either. I found your advice column online a couple of months ago, so I thought I’d ask you. I’m a 40-year-old male. I go to the gym five times a week and eat well. My foot is numb!  What do you think my problem is?

— Desperately Seeking Feeling in My Right Foot

Wow. Well, the first thing I would do is write a bunch of letters to medical advice columnists, in the event that my answer is not at all helpful.

Hmm… I’m hesitating a little here. Maybe you should change your workout routine? Too much of the elliptical machine can make your feet numb, for a little while (at least that happens to me, but I might be doing it wrong). Do you have a family history of foot numbness? Are you getting enough fluids? Where do you live? Is the weather hot or cold, humid or dry? You really didn’t provide me with enough information to give you a proper diagnosis, Mr. Desperately. Do you think poets can just make things up or something? That hardly ever happens!

Charles Bernstein’s “thinking I think I think” could help here:

The baby

cries because the baby likes crying.

The baby cries because a pin is

sticking into the baby. The baby

is not crying but it is called


Three options:  1. Your foot likes being numb. 2. An external agent is causing your foot to be numb (nobody can identify it yet, meaning you have to do some investigating or simply cross that bridge after your condition manifests itself in more serious symptoms). 3. Your foot is only numb because that is what language calls it (your imprecise language is why nobody can help you — I mean, “numb” is so vague. Can’t you use a metaphor?).

Let’s ignore the last two and focus on option 1. Your foot likes being numb. Hey, it’s a foot, and feet are pretty temperamental — at least mine are, sometimes uncontrollably hot or cold or stinky. If your foot’s numbness is not hurting you, as your doctors assert, why do you care? Not all feet are perfect—there are just some things you have to accept.

Here’s another bit from Bernstein’s “thinking I think I think”:

You will find a moist towelette

with your porridge. Then just say so.

Cratylus, Cratylus, wilt thou be

mine?  As I is the starch from

yesterday’s yawning. Cure me…

Isn’t that great? What does it mean? I don’t know. What does anything in this world really “mean”? Anyway, I quoted it because I thought the word “cure” might have some ameliorating effect. You are cured, Mr. Desperately!

A cure makes a nice ending, doesn’t it? I admit, I had a little trouble answering your query. I actually wrote another answer at first where I asserted that you picked up a slowly degenerating zombie virus at the gym (which could be true, right, because remember when you didn’t wipe the equipment before you used it and you touched someone else’s sweaty funk?), but I thought that’d inspire a panic. I also couldn’t transition into a nice ending (your brain would have turned to zombie mush and there isn’t much nice about that) and I think that the world is in need of more nice endings. Personally, I’d take the “cure” because nobody else can give you anything better. Emily Dickinson says, “A word is dead, when it is said/ Some say—/ I say it just begins to live/ That day.” • 11 June 2009


Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.